March 12-18: Poems, Death of Frazar Stearns

On Choosing the Poems

As discussed in the post for this week, the death of Frazar Stearns made the war and its ghastly toll extremely personal for Emily Dickinson, and the effect on her poetry is palpable. Dickinson wrote several poems, included here, that scholars attribute directly to the effects of this death, Dickinson’s probable attendance at his emotional funeral in Amherst and the ceremony in April at which her father presided, where Amherst College received the Confederate cannon to memorialize Stearns and the other casualties of the battle of New Bern.

These poems give us a good sense of Dickinson’s reactions to the war and to the pervasive rhetoric in the North of Christian justification (think, for example of Julia Ward Howe’s popular “Battle Hymn of the Republic”), of her reactions to a heightened sense of tragedy and death, and to her involvement in what scholars call “the Victorian culture of death,” which was also heightened by the war.

While Dickinson wrote directly about the war only rarely, many of her poems from this period are infused with a sharp awareness of the conflict, its toll, and the moral conflicts it presented. Poems like “It was not death, for I stood up,” have been read as almost solipsistic meditations on her personal experience of (often) romantic loss, or religious despair, or as evidence of her madness and psychosis. But if we read this poem in the context of the war and Dickinson’s haunting by the death of young heroes like Frazar Stearns, the poem opens up into new, more dramatic and insightful renderings of a soldier’s blunted reactions to battle.

This week’s poems: