October 1-7, 1862: Poems from Fascicle 24

On Choosing the Letter and Poems

Dickinson's Writing Desk
Dickinson’s Writing Desk

This week we include the sixth and last letter Dickinson wrote to Higginson in 1862. The next one she wrote in February 1863, reacting to the news of Higginson’s wounding in battle leading the first regiment of freed slaves. In summing up their correspondence, which lasted until the end of her life, biographer Richard Sewall observes that Dickinson’s

letters to Thomas Wentworth Higginson … contributed much, in their degree of pose and coyness, to the figure of the legend. But they are also among the most thoughtful (as they are certainly the most literary) of her correspondences, and tell us much of what we know about the spiritual and artistic problems with which the “real” woman was struggling throughout her middle and later years.

In choosing the poems for this week, I followed the lead of my former student Sarah Khatry, who created a post on the Battle of Antietam as an assignment designed to be a prototype for the White Heat project in my seminar “The New Emily Dickinson: After the Digital Turn” in Winter 2017. After assessing the “immersive coverage” that print publications like Harper’s Magazine were providing, “bringing readers to feel almost a part of things,” Sarah concludes:

is it any surprise that an emotionally and psychologically embedded consciousness of the Civil War might have permeated Emily Dickinson herself? This would be reflected in her writing in a way deeper than a poem to memorialize a single battle or an idealized soldier. It would be present in surprising places and ways. Doubt and moral ambiguity ran deep in this conflict between sides and within them … Whatever unknown emotional trauma haunted Emily Dickinson in 1862, she was simultaneously surrounded by the trauma of a nation split in two.

As biographer Alfred Habegger writes, “The Civil War offered Dickinson a stark symbolic theater, a place of ultimate terror and exultation in which mundane life was forgotten and there was both everything and nothing to lose. War gave her a powerful vehicle with which to parse her own extremity.”

Sarah explains her choice of poems: “In her website, The Civil War, Class & the Dickinsons, Martha Nell Smith proposes–and leaves up to the user to investigate–that all of Fascicle 24 might be thematically related to the Civil War.” According to Franklin’s dating, Dickinson put Fascicle 24 together around Spring of 1863, sometime after the battle and the peak of its coverage, which starts in October and peaks in early December 1862. Many of the poems in the Fascicle treat death, the aftermath of crisis, and questions of living with trauma. We chose six of the twenty poems in the Fascicle several overlapping with Sarah’s choies. We draw on her framing of the poems in our commentaries, with profound appreciation.

6 October 1862

Did I displease you, Mr Higginson?

But wont you tell me how?

Your friend,

E. Dickinson -

Link to DEA manuscript. Originally in Boston Public Library (Higg 53). Ink. Envelope addressed: T. W. Higginson./Worcester./Mass. Postmarked: Amherst Mass Oct 6 1862. First published in Atlantic Monthly LXVIII (Oct. 1891) 450; L (1931) 290.

Thomas Johnson’s note on the letter reads:

In Atlantic Monthly Higginson introduces the letter with the comment: "Sometimes there would be a long pause, on my part, after which would come a plaintive letter, always terse, like this."

Higginson did not, perhap, realize when he published this comment in 1891 what a life-line his letters represented to Dickinson, even after she told him in a letter of 1869 that he had “saved” her life. In this short letter, Dickinson worries about losing their exchange on account of her behavior, taking on the role of a miscreant pupil. But she does, significantly, sign the letter as an equal: “Your friend.”

It sifts from Leaden Sieves –
It powders all the Field –
It fills with Alabaster Wool
The Wrinkles of the Road –

It makes an even face
Of Mountain – and of Plain –
Unbroken Forehead from the East
Unto the East – again –

It reaches to the Fence –
It wraps it, Rail by Rail,
Till it is lost in Fleeces –
It flings a Crystal Vail

On Stump – and Stack – and Stem –
The Summer's empty Room –
Acres of Joints – where Harvests were –
Recordless – but for them –

It Ruffles Wrists of Posts –
As Ancles of a Queen –
Then stills it's Artisans – like Swans –
Denying they have been –

Link to EDA manuscript.  Originally in Poems: Packet XXIX, Fascicle 24 (part), Houghton Library – (155a). Includes 8 complete poems with a portion of another, written in ink, dated ca. 1862. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. First published in Poems (1891), 174-75, from the fascicle copy (B), with the alternatives for lines 15 and 19 ("Ghosts") adopted and with "Wood" (line 2) incorporated from the retained copy (C).

Dickinson placed this poem in the first position in Fascicle 24, which sometimes means that it announces a pervasive theme or themes for the gathering. This is one of Dickinson’s finest riddle poems, a poem about the snow that never uses the word “snow.” Franklin notes five versions of the poem, some with many variants, dating to 1862, 1863, 1865, 1871 and 1883. The last version is significantly different,  more playful, and shorter, reducing twenty lines to twelve. She sent the first version to Susan Dickinson in late 1862 and another version to Higginson in a letter of July 1862. We print the Fascicle version, transcribed sometime in spring 1863.

This version, as Helen Vendler and others note, owes some of its impetus and diction to an unsigned essay, “Snow,” in the Atlantic Monthly for February 1862 that is ascribed to Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Both the essay and poem allude to Psalm 147:16: “He spreads the snow like wool.” The essay praises several poems about snow, including Emerson’s “The Snow Storm” and James Russell Lowell’s “The First Snowfall." Emerson’s poem was a favorite of Dickinson’s, according to Jack Capps. Mario D’Avanzo notes Dickinson’s use of snow imagery in “Publication–is the Auction” (F788, J709) and compares it there and in this poem to Emerson’s use of snow to represent “essential inspiration, or divinely sponsored creativity, and an esthetic statement on the Romantic concept of organic form.”

Sharon Leiter notes how “In this virtuoso display of metaphor-making, the snow becomes increasingly disembodied” and connects the opening image of snow sifted from “Leaden Sieves” to the domestic activity of baking, the chore Dickinson performed to much acclaim for her household. But we cannot ignore the implication of “Leaden,” which refers both to the darkened skies of a storm as well as “the Hour of Lead” remembered by “Freezing persons” in “After great pain, a formal feeling comes –” (F372, J341).

A more concrete connection to the Civil War dead comes in “They dropped like flakes” (F545, J409), also written around this time and discussed previously, in which the fallen dead drift down like snowflakes. In that poem, the dead are featureless and disappear into the “seamless Grass,” their faces known only by God “On his Repealless – List.” This poem echoes that disappearance and denial of individuality in the long description of the snow’s blanketing and smoothing out the dead landscape, “Summer’s empty Room,” making it and those fallen on it “Recordless” and “Denying they have been.” Could this be a comment on the nation’s relative denial of the piles of bodies on battlefields like Antietam?

Leiter cites the work of poet Anthony Hecht, who sees Dickinson’s pervasive use of the riddle “as almost a technique,” and identifies her models as coming from the Bible and children’s fairy tales. She concludes, “the fundamental notion of a riddle went deep into her nature, to her sense of existence as the greatest riddle of all.”

Sources

Capps, Jack L. Emily Dickinson’s Reading: 1836-1886. Cambridge: Harvard University, 1966, 118.

D’Avanzo, Mario. “‘Unto the White Creator’: The Snow of Dickinson and Emerson.” The New England Quarterly 45, 2 (June 1972): 278-280, 278.

Hecht, Anthony. “The Riddles of Emily Dickinson.” A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Judith Farr. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1996: 149-62, 153.

Leiter, Sharon. Critical Companion to Emily Dickinson: A Literary Reference to her Life and Work. New York: Facts on File, 2007, 128-29.

Vendler, Helen. Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2010, 107-09.

A Pit – but Heaven over
it –
And Heaven beside, and
Heaven abroad;
And yet a Pit –
With Heaven over it.

To stir would be to slip –
To look would be to drop –
To dream – to sap the Prop
That holds my chances up.
Ah! Pit! With Heaven
over it!

The depth is all my
thought –
I dare not ask my
feet –
'Twould start us where
we sit
So straight you'd scarce
suspect
It was a Pit – with
fathoms under it
Its() Circuit just the same
Whose Doom to whom
'Twould start them –
We – could tremble –
But since we got a
Bomb –
And held it in our Bosom –
Nay – Hold it – it is calm –

Link to EDA manuscript.  Originally in Poems: Packet XXIX, Fascicle 24 (part), Houghton Library – (155a,b). Includes 8 complete poems with a portion of another, written in ink, dated ca. 1862. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. First published in Bolts of Melody (1945), 270-71, without the final five lines, from Harriet Graves's transcript of A.

Dickinson placed this poem third in Fascicle 24. The second leaf containing most of the poem was torn off and lost. Because Dickinson finished copying the poem on a leaf also containing “I tie my Hat – I crease my Shawl – ” (F522A, J443), Thomas Johnson incorporated those five lines into the version of “I tie my Hat” he printed in Poems (1955), and printed “A Pit – but Heaven over it” without the last five lines, ending with the line: “Whose Doom to whom.” Franklin reconstructed the version that Dickinson included in Fascicle 24, printed above, which ends with the terrifying image of a bomb cradled to “our Bosom” in an attempt to “calm” it, though we can hardly believe that.

Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758)
Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758)

As one might expect, scholars situate the poem’s imagery of a pit over which Heaven looms as a version of the Puritans’ fiery pit of Hell famously portrayed by the 18th century revivalist minister Jonathan Edwards in his sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” But as Joan Feit Diehl argues, the pit in Dickinson’s poem is internal:

in her abyss the flames are self-generated created by the power of her own imagination. Furthermore, hers is an abyss that she tells us she can enter, and so it must be an internal, deeper part of the mind to which she descends and from which she emerges through the act of writing poems.

Sharon Leiter argues more broadly that “Dickinson situates herself existentially between two extremes, two immensities,” and that “this is a central place in the poet’s psychic and spiritual life” indicating “a lifelong struggle to find her balance between faith and doubt, hope and despair, sanity and madness, and of a worldview in which the soul is continually balanced between two spiritual poles.” Other poems that develop this metaphor are “I stepped from plank to plank –” (F926, J875) and “Behind me dips Eternity –” (F743, J721), also written around this time.

Scholars point to the paralysis of the speaker, expressed through images of numbness and the lack of action verbs, her inability to “stir,” “look” or even “dream” a different reality for herself. Leiter finds the final image a bit more hopeful:

Instead of teetering between the pit and heaven, she defines her “now” as embracing what is potentially explosive, holding it to her bosom. The lines imply an acceptance of inner turmoil and its comforting integration into a larger, more loving self, at least in part through the transformative power of making poems.

But this ignores the shift from the first person singular to the first person plural.

In her reading, Sarah Khatry connect this poem’s agony to trauma caused by the Civil War and offers as evidence a photograph from Matthew Brady’s exhibit in New York City, “The Dead of Antietam.”

In his account of Civil War battle, Higginson described a pit like this one, a sunken road near Sharpsburg called “Bloody Lane.” Sarah observes:

The final image of the bomb held to a bosom, and the failure of the exhortation, “Nay – Hold it – it is calm -” to in fact calm, establishes the turbulence, violence and terror of whatever it is that resides within this pit. 

 

 

Sources

Diehl, Joan Feit. “Emerson, Dickinson and the Abyss.” Modern Critical Views: Emily Dickinson. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1985: 157-158.

Khatry, Sarah. “December 7-14: A Nation Infused by Trauma.” Assignment for Eng 62. Dartmouth College. Winter 2017.

Leiter, Sharon. Critical Companion to Emily Dickinson: A Literary Reference to her Life and Work. New York: Facts on File, 2007 40-42.

He found my Being – set
it up –
Adjusted it to place –
Then carved his name – opon it –
+And bade it to the East

Be faithful – in his absence –
And he would come again –
With Equipage of Amber –
That time – to take it Home -

   +then

Link to EDA manuscript.  Originally in Poems: Loose sheets, Houghton Library – (383a) – Of Brussels – it was not. Various poems. MS Am 1118.

19th century Posing Stand
19th century Posing Stand

3 (383). Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. First published in Bolts of Melody (1945), 152, from a transcript of A (a tr317), with the alternatives not adopted.

Dickinson copied this poem into the 6th place in Fascicle 24. Scholars puzzle over the identity of “He” in this poem, speculating that it could be Jesus or Samuel Bowles, a friend of Dickinson’s who was, at the time, a focus of her affection and attention and also “absent,” as is the He of this poem, being off in Europe on a health-restoring trip.

We find a hint in the poem that precedes this one in the Fascicle,  “Of Brussels – it was not,” a riddle poem that describes a sun-dappled wooded area “Of Sunshine – and of Sere – Composed – / But, principally – of Sun.” Barton Levi St. Armand suggests that the subject of "He found my Being – set it up"  is “Phoebus,” a composite figure associated with Lord, Sun and Master images, all in use by Dickinson at this time to describe an unattainable beloved who, nevertheless, exerts a powerful influence on the speaker’s life. Several passages from the Book of Revelation have been used to frame a religious reading of the poem, such as Revelation 3:13:

Him that overcometh I will make a pillar in the temple of my God … and I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, which is new Jerusalem. … and I will write upon him my new name.

We should note the extreme passivity of the speaker, whose very “being” has to be found by a powerful other, “set up” or put upright, adjusted (as if it were somehow balky), then identified by having this other’s named “carved” onto it, and “bade” or commanded to look to the “East” and resurrection/rebirth. This powerful force then leaves with a promise to come again “with Equipage of Amber.” Dickinson often associated death with a carriage ride, as in “Because I could not stop for Death,” (F479, J712). The word "amber" picks up the sun imagery and “splendor of resurrected things,” according to the Lexicon, as well as the action of carving into a tree, which sometimes produces resins that harden into amber, as well as fossils preserved in amber, which suggest eternity.

19th century Posing Stand
19th century Posing Stand

Building on the work of Adam Frank and Eliza Richards, Sarah Khatry argues for a very different reading of the poem, seeing in the first two lines “both the image of a body arranged for photography and of a dead soul awaiting the return of a regenerating God,” and continues:

If I see photography in this poem–and trauma as well, in the powerlessness other readers would assign to the presence of God or a lover–then it’s of historical relevance to note the popularity of post-mortem photography. In part, this is why we have pictures of the battle-fields but not the battles themselves. Photographic technology was not yet capable of handling dynamic motion, according to Richards. At the same time, in the antebellum period, images of dead and embalmed children were popular. Adam Frank writes: “if such artefacts today strike us as only macabre and chilling, it is because we have come to distinguish generically the gothic and sensational from the sentimental and consoling in a more rigid manner than Dickinson and her contemporaries did… [we do not access] the (Calvinist) function of terror as a kind of consolation.”

Sources
Frank, Adam. “Emily Dickinson and Photography.” The Emily Dickinson Journal 10.2 (2001): 1-21, 8.

Khatry, Sarah. “December 7-14: A Nation Infused by Trauma.” Assignment for Eng 62. Dartmouth College. Winter 2017.

Richards, Eliza. “ 'Death’s Surprise, Stamped Visible': Emily Dickinson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Civil War Photography.” Amerikastudien 54.1 (2009): 13-33, 13-14.

St. Armand, Barton Levi. “Paradise Deferred: The Image of Heaven in the Work of Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps.” American Quarterly 29, 1 (Spring, 1977): 55-78, 65-68.

There is a pain – so utter –
It swallows +substance up –
Then covers the Abyss with Trance –
So Memory can step
Around – across – opon it –
As One within a Swoon –
Goes +safely – where an open eye –
Would +drop Him – Bone by Bone –

     +Being    +steady    +spill Him –

Link to EDA manuscript.  Originally in Poems: Packet XXIX, Fascicle 24 (part). Includes 8 complete poems with a portion of another, written in ink, dated ca. 1862, Houghton Library – (156a,b). Courtesy of Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. First published in Nation, 128 (13 March 1929), 315, and Further Poems (1929), 177, with the alternatives for lines 2 and 7 adopted.

Dickinson copied this poem into Fascicle 24 in the 10th place. Several readers consider this poetic attempt to describe the limits of pain in relation to the abyss in “A Pit – but Heaven over it,” the third poem in the Fascicle, and the numbness that covers over the abyss described in “I tie my Hat – I crease my Shawl,” the 18th poem in the Fascicle considered next. The poem is also linked to the previous poem, “He found my Being – set it up –,” through the variant for “substance” in the second line, which is “Being.” Instead of finding and setting up Being, in this poem pain  “swallows” it up, as if a crack in the earth suddenly yawned open (and here is perhaps a link to “A Still Volcano life,” the 12th poem in Fascicle 24).

About the form, Helen Vendler notes that while the poem is made up of two quatrains of hymn meter, Dickinson runs the quatrains together and then

does something even more rare: she enjambs her quatrains, bridging what would normally be the white space separating two stanzas. She literally steps “across” her Abyss, making the end-word of line 4 “step” and the first word of line 5 “Around,” acting out that “Swoon” of which she writes.

There is much discussion of the cause of the “pain so utter,” which Sarah Khatry thinks is

an account of trauma, and, more likely, repression than the moment of it. I find it powerful and strange. But like [Michael] Ryan, I’m hung up on the “Him.” Dickinson does engage with gender-swapping herself, it seems, and so it’s entirely possible that she remains speaking of a personal trauma–or that the “Him” is Memory, personified, and not whomever the memories once belonged. In either case, I think the gender of the pronoun is an indication, a very slight hint if we want it, of the traumatized soldiers of the war, the traumatized families, the traumatized nation. In 1862, the Civil War is not yet a thing of repression. They live too deep within it. This then could also be the dissociation required to get through a period of intense violence and turmoil, with eyes shut.

Sources
Khatry, Sarah. “December 7-14: A Nation Infused by Trauma.” Assignment for Eng 62. Dartmouth College. Winter 2017.

Ryan, Michael. “Dickinson’s Stories.” The American Poetry Review 38.2 (2009): 5-6.

Vendler, Helen. Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2010, 231-33.

I tie my Hat – I crease
my Shawl –
Life's little duties do – pre – ()
cisely –
As the very least
Were infinite – to me –

I put new Blossoms in the
Glass –
And throw the Old – away –
I push a petal from my
Gown
That anchored there – I
weigh
The time 'twill be till six
o'clock –
So much I have to do –
And yet – existence – some way
back –
Stopped – struck – my
ticking – through –

We cannot put Ourself away
As a completed Man
Or Woman – When the er – ()
rand's done
We came to Flesh – opon –
There may be – Miles on Miles
of Nought –
Of Action – sicker far –
To simulate – is stinging work –
To cover what we are
From Science – and from Surgery –
Too Telescopic eyes
To bear on us unshaded –
For their – sake – Not for
Our's –

Therefore – we do life's
labor –
Though life's Reward – be done –
With scrupulous exactness –
To hold our Senses – on –

Link to EDA manuscript.  Originally in Poems: Packet V, Mixed Fascicles. Includes 15 poems, written in ink, dated ca. 1862,
 Houghton Library – (19a). Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. First published in Further Poems (1929), 180, as six quatrains, without the final four lines (on h 157) and without the transposition.

Dickinson copied this poem into Fascicle 24 in the 18th place, 3rd from the end. Its early criticism analyzed the version in Thomas Johnson’s Poems (1955), which inserted the last five lines of “A Pit – but Heaven over it –” about clutching the bomb to "our bosoms" before the last quatrain of the present version. Even without these explosive lines, the poem is a bleak account of what David Porter calls “living in the aftermath,” one of Dickinson’s most crucial poetic concerns. How do we survive an overwhelming loss or pain, a despair that kills the spirit but not the body.

In the first half of the poem, the speaker sleepwalks through her domestic day with its small, humble details. Does “creasing her shawl” mean that she irons a crease into it so that she appears to care about her appearance? Or, as Sharon Leiter comments, we have trouble imagining the “flower-adoring Dickinson … discarding even old flowers indifferently.” But her emotional “existence” has stopped and time becomes a burden the speaker “weighs” like an “anchor” to keep her from floating off.

The second half of the poem switches to the first person plural, implying that such emotional death is not only personal but more general, which suggests that Dickinson may be commenting on a current national trauma––families who have lost men in the war. Indeed, the 13th poem in Fascicle 24 is “When I was small, a Woman died” (F518, J569), about a distant cousin, whose son was the first soldier from Amherst to die in the war.  Suicide (“put Ourself away”) is not acceptable, even in the face of “Miles on Miles of Nought,” a chilling description of the empty future. Still, one must pretend (“cover what we are”) to avoid the scrutiny and interference of “Science” and “Surgery,” though the speaker implies that others must be protected from seeing too directly (“unshaded”) the condition of despair, as if it’s catching. The last quatrain suggests that the routinized details of life provide a means to avoid insanity (“hold our Senses – on –”), but that is cold comfort to the traumatized.

Sources

Leiter, Sharon. Critical Companion to Emily Dickinson: A Literary Reference to her Life and Work. New York: Facts on File, 2007, 122-24.

Porter, David. “The Crucial Experience in Emily Dickinson’s Poetry.” Emerson Society Quarterly: A Journal of the American Renaissance 20 (1974): 280-90, 280.

 


But, lest the Soul – like
fair "Priscilla"
Choose the Envoy – and spurn
the 'Groom –
Vouches, with hyperbolic
archness –
"Miles", and "John Alden" +are Synonyme –

   + were

Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet XXVIII, Fascicle 29-6. Includes 20 poems, written in ink, dated ca. 1862. Houghton Library – (150b,c) 'Twas warm – at first – like Us -, J519, Fr614; God is distant – stately Lover -, J357, Fr615. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. First published in the Christian Register, 70 (2 April 1891), 212, with the revision adopted. The indignant response to this publication, an advance release for Poems (1891), led Mabel Todd to leave the poem out of the volume. Correspondence relating to this appearance is in Bingham, Ancestors' Brocades (1945), 124-25. Unaware that the poem had been published in the Christian Register, Martha Bianchi included it in Further Poems (1929), 198, as a nine-line stanza, with a note stating, "First four lines only before published in a paper by her niece" (unidentified). Because the appearance in FP (1929) also elicited criticism, Bianchi omitted the poem from the collections she issued thereafter. It was next published in Bingham, Ancestors' Brocades (1945), 124, from a transcript of A (a tr134, 134a).

Dickinson copied this poem into Fascicle 29 in the 6th position around the second half of 1863. It is written in lines of 9 and 8 syllables rhyming loosely abcb. Helen Vendler describes its “waltz-rhythm” as part of Dickinson’s “playfully blasphemous … joke on the Incarnation, which she crosses with the courtship of Miles Standish.” Perhaps Dickinson conceived the parallel when she read the 1858 poem by Longfellow titled "The Courtship of Miles Standish." Vendler also repeats the history of the poem's publication that when it appeared first “rather incredibly” in the Unitarian weekly, the Christian Register in April 1891, its irreverence elicited protests from readers so that Mabel Todd dropped from the 1891 Poems and it didn’t appear again until 1945 in Ancestors’ Brocades.

In his popular poem, Longfellow dramatized an incident from early New England history, in which Miles Standish (1584-1656), an English officer hired by the English Pilgrims, who had taken refuge in Leiden, Netherlands, from religious persecution against Dissenters mounted by the Church of England. Standish became the military adviser for the Pilgrims' new settlement in Plymouth Plantation on the North American coast. As Longfellow’s poem depicts it, Standish deputed his clerk John Alden to woo Priscilla Mullins for him, not realizing that Alden harbored a secret love for her. She famously replied to the vicarious suit with the words: “Why don’t you speak for yourself, John?” The poem then parallels God the Father as Standish, sending his son Christ as Alden to “woo” the souls of humanity.

As Vendler notes, there are many comic effects in this poem: the extra syllable tacked on to the odd-numbered lines through the use of “feminine” rhymes: Lover, Courtship, archness, Synonyme; the “gloomy remoteness of God” who is described as “stately” and stand-offish and also “states” when talking to humanity; depicting divine salvation as ordinary “wooing” and “Courtship; the “rash familiarity” of the use of the men's first names for God and Christ; the use of “Verily” through which “the poet ascribes to herself a (fanciful) scriptural authority;" and finally God’s “hyperbolic archness” in having it both ways, since, he declares that “ ‘Miles’, and ‘John Alden’ were Synonyme.” The use of this last word, Vendler argues, translates the comedy into a third realm, “the linguistic plane of the word.”

Priscilla ended up choosing John Alden—the man of writing, not the man of military action – just as Dickinson often finds Christ a more sympathetic figure than God the Father. But Christ is also her model for human suffering and her own sacrifices , a victim like herself of a cagey God who covers all the options.

Sources

Leiter, Sharon. Critical Companion to Emily Dickinson: A Literary Reference to her Life and Work. New York: Facts on File, 2007, 82-83.

Vendler, Helen. Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2010, 269-71.

It feels a shame to be
Alive –
When Men so brave – are dead –
One envies the Distinguished
Dust –
Permitted – such a Head –

The Stone – that tells defending
Whom
This Spartan put away
What little of Him we -
possessed
In Pawn for Liberty –

The price is great – Sublimely
paid –
Do we deserve – a Thing –
That lives – like Dollars -
must be piled
Before we may obtain?

Are we that wait – sufficient
worth –
That such Enormous Pearl
As life – dissolved be – for
Us –
In Battle's – horrid Bowl?

It may be – a Renown
to live –
I think the Men who die –
Those unsustained – Saviors –
Present Divinity –

Link to EDA manuscript.  Originally in Poems: Packet XXIX, Fascicle 24 (part). Includes 8 complete poems with a portion of another, written in ink, dated ca. 1862, Houghton Library – (158b). Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. First published in Further Poems (1929), 94, as five stanzas of 6, 6, 6, 6, and 5 lines; in later collections, as quatrains.

Dickinson copied this poem, unmistakably about the horrific loss of lives during the Civil War, into Fascicle 24 in the last place. As a summing up of the nineteen poems before it, it casts them all in the haunting light shed by the War.

Scholars note that while the poem commemorates the war dead, it is not an elegy. Rather, according to Helen Vendler, “it is, rather, a meditation on justice. Do the citizens at home deserve the sacrifice made by the dead?” The answer she hears in the poem is “no.” She notes the combination of classical and Biblical imagery. Dickinson calls a fallen soldier “This Spartan,” referring to the Spartans who died at Thermopylae defending Greece against the Persians, and refers to a legend about Cleopatra, who dissolved a pearl in a cup of wine to show her disdain for wealth. At the end of the poem the speaker calls the dead soldiers “Saviors,” comparing them to Jesus, who died to redeem humanity’s sins. Vendler notes that the comparison “would not be original” except that Dickinson adds the word “unsustainèd,” which compares them to the Jesus on the cross, unsustained by faith: “She was not prepared to acknowledge any Divinity, any Savior, incapable of suffering.”

Faith Barrett situates the poem historically, arguing that “Dickinson faces head-on the moral complexity of the noncombatant’s position.” It’s hard to miss the word “shame” in the first line, a powerful cringing emotion that ultimately produces “a biting condemnation of the hypocrisy of those who stay behind in wartime.” She points out that Dickinson wrote this poem a year after Frazar Stearns’ death and had “a far more nuanced understanding of the war’s consequences.” The poem suggests “that Dickinson was well-informed about recent financial and legislative developments,” such as the Legal Tender Act of February 1862, creating the first paper money system, and the first conscription act in the North in March 1863, which touched the Dickinsons directly when Austin was drafted in 1864 and opted to pay a substitute $300.

Sarah Khatry concludes:

Most striking to me is the cost. The word “dissolved” in line 15 is, in its way, strikingly violent. The speaker is questioning and doubting up until that final stanza, which seems to present a resolution in the comparison to Divinity. But it all hinges on the words “may” (l. 17) and “think” (l. 18). In spending lives like dollars, in pawning off these brave men, maybe everyone involved is forsaking their chance at the kingdom of heaven.

Sources

Barrett, Faith. “Slavery and the Civil War.” Emily Dickinson in Context. Ed. Eliza Richards. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013, 206-15, 210-12.

Khatry, Sarah. “December 7-14: A Nation Infused by Trauma.” Assignment for Eng 62. Dartmouth College. Winter 2017.

Sources
Habegger, Alfred. My Wars are Laid away in Books.  New York: Random House, 2001, 40.

Khatry, Sarah. “December 7-14: A Nation Infused by Trauma.” Assignment for Eng 62. Dartmouth College. Winter 2017.

Sewall, Richard. The Life of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980,
533.