December 3-9, 1862: Language, Wonder, Freedom

For the past few weeks, we have been collaborating with the 7th grade class at the Crossroads Academy in Lyme, NH, on an amazing month-long unit on Emily Dickinson developed by Steve Glazer. This week we showcase the marvelous projects by his students in the Poems section and also explore Dickinson’s relation to children and how her poetry was originally marketed to a young audience in a watered-down form.

Overview
This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Steve Glazer
Sources

Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf
Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf

First Week of the Crossroads Academy Collaboration

 

Overview: For the past few weeks, we have been collaborating with the 7th grade class at the Crossroads Academy in Lyme, NH, a few miles down the road from Dartmouth College, taught by our friend Steven Glazer. Steve has developed an amazing month-long unit on Emily Dickinson that culminates with a trip to Amherst, MA on December 10th, Dickinson’s birthday! The class visits the archives at Amherst College to view Dickinson’s manuscripts and takes a tour of the Homestead at the Emily Dickinson Museum, where students recite the poems by Dickinson they have memorized—in the parlor! It concludes with the requisite visit to Dickinson’s grave in the cemetery down the street from her house.

Class at Crossroads Academy
Class at Crossroads Academy

At the beginning of the unit, I journeyed to Steve’s class twice to introduce the many digital tools and websites on Dickinson, including White Heat, and especially the Emily Dickinson Archive that makes the manuscripts of Dickinson’s poems accessible to everyone. Steve’s challenging unit on Dickinson has several related themes: the power of language, the power of wonder and the question, what is freedom? Steve will explain his project-approach to Dickinson in more detail, and for this week and the week of December 17th we will showcase the marvelous and varied projects by his students in the Poems section, so you can see what they achieved and what about Dickinson captivated and absorbed them.

 

We will also use the occasion of this collaboration to explore Dickinson’s relation to children and how her poetry was originally marketed to a young audience in a watered-down form. These 7th graders are reading an undiluted Dickinson. It is a thrill watch them rise to this challenge and share their unabashed enthusiasm for Dickinson and poetry.

 

 

“Rise in your Might then, Women of the North!”

Springfield Republican, December 6, 1862

Progress of the War, page 1
“Reports of warlike movements during the week have been few and unimportant, leaving public attention free to occupy itself with the assembling of Congress, the president’s annual message, and the reports of the various departments, now more than ever important and interesting to the people from the vast war on our hands and its immense draft upon our resources.”

Official and General, page 1
“The president’s annual message has been generally read this week. The only important feature is a proposition for amendments to the constitution, authorizing payment from the national treasury for slaves emancipated by any state previous to the year 1900. This measure the president puts forward as the best means of procuring permanent peace. He does not propose to compel emancipation by it anywhere, but only offer government aid as an inducement to it.”

Original Poetry: from "The Women of ’62," page 6

Poor seem these tasks and lame, but we shall find
Enough in them to till the noblest mind,
Warring with right ‘gainst wrong;
Rise in your might then, women of the North!
Rise in your might, and send your dearest forth,
And bid your men be strong.

Hampshire Gazette, December 9, 1862

Amherst, page 2
“The benevolent citizens of Amherst sent a good dinner to many a poor family in that town on Thanksgiving Day. S.F. Cutler and B.W. Allen were first in the good work and Whipple & Ward also gave liberally from their markets.”

The Atlantic Monthly, December 1862

"Life in the Open Air" by Theodore Winthrop (1828-1861), page 691

Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful is dawn in the woods. Sweet the first opalescent stir, as if the vanguard sunbeams shivered as they dashed along the chilly reaches of night. And the growth of day, through violet and rose and all its golden glow of promise, is tender and tenderly strong, as the deepening passions of dawning love. Presently up comes the sun very peremptory, and says to people, "Go about your business! Laggards not allowed in Maine! Nothing here to repent of, while you lie in bed and curse today because it cannot shake off the burden of yesterday; all clear the past here; all serene the future: into it at once!”

Harper’s Monthly, December 1862

Random Recollections of a Life: Charles Dickens by J.H. (Joachim Hayward) Stocqueler (1801-1886), page 79

Angela Georgina Burdett-Coutts, 1st Baroness Burdett-Coutts (1814–1906)
Angela Georgina Burdett-Coutts, 1st Baroness Burdett-Coutts (1814–1906)

“Of Charles Dickens whose family I had known in his boyhood, I saw but little excepting when he was in public. His incessant literary occupations, his amateur theatricals, his operations as chief agent for the execution of Miss Burdett Coutts’s charitable actions, his visits abroad, and the necessity he was under of being much at the service of strange visitors gave him but little time for tête-à-têtes with old friends. We were all surprised at the announcement which he published in Household Words regarding his domestic déménage, but the ultimate separation from Mrs. Dickens occasioned no astonishment.

Catherine Thomson
Catherine Thomson "Kate" Dickens (1815-1879)

Never were two people less suited to each other. He, ardent, sanguine, energetic, full of imagination and animated by powerful human sympathies; she, supine, frivolous, commonplace passing her time between the nursery and the drawing-room.”

“Laughing Goddess of Plenty?”

BasketWhat was Dickinson’s attitude towards and relationship with children? According to Burleigh Mutén, children’s author and tour guide at the Dickinson Museum, the neighborhood children, including Ned and Mattie, Dickinson’s nephew and niece living next door in the Evergreens, cheered when they realized it was “Baking Day” at the Homestead. Because if they played pirates or gypsies in the orchards behind the big house, “Miss Emily” would load up a basket with cookies or slices of cake, often gingerbread, go to the window at the rear of the house (“so their mothers wouldn’t see,” explains Mutén) and lower the basket down to them with a rope.

The source of this story is MacGregor Jenkins, the son of a pastor who lived across the street from the Dickinsons and was a regular recipient of Dickinson’s largesse. In a reminiscence first published in the Christian Union in October 1891, and later collected in his book, Emily Dickinson, Friend and Neighbor (1930), Jenkins described his neighbor as the children’s “laughing goddess of plenty” who offered the children "dainties dear to our hearts" and included notes that begged, "'Please never grow up." Jenkins reported that even as Dickinson became reclusive and narrowed her circle of intimates, children were always welcomed if they knocked at the back door. Mutén concludes:

They did not see their loyal friend as eccentric, but as one whose humor, generosity and loyalty was ever-present.

In an essay about the short-lived attempt to recast Dickinson as an author for children, Ingrid Satelmajer tells a different, less charming story. Dickinson’s first editors both knew the value of periodicals in spreading the reputation of writers. In his “Preface” to the first edition of Dickinson’s Poems (1890), Thomas Higginson captured the public’s imagination by casting Dickinson as a “recluse by temperament and habit,” comparing her to someone who "dwelt in a nunnery." To counter this daunting impression, Mabel Loomis Todd began to give lectures as early as April 1891 in which she told audiences, "to children … she was always accessible." To bolster this version of Dickinson, Todd began to send Dickinson poems, heavily edited and regularized, to children’s magazines in what Satelmajer calls “a marketing ploy gone awry.”

Two poems, “Morning” (Will there really be a “morning?” F148, J101) and “The Sleeping Flowers” (Whose are the little beds F85, J142 ) appeared in St. Nicholas, a popular and widely circulating magazine for children, which published work by such prestigious authors as William Jennings Bryant, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, Louisa May Alcott, Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, and Frances Hodgson Burnett.

The setting of “Morning” as the lead poem on a page opposite an illustration of "Spring Blossoms" by George Wharton Edwards, a “marquee name” at the time according to Satelmajer, “gives the speaker the decided lisp of a precocious child.” This version of Dickinson served to counter the scandal that ensued when the Christian Register published Dickinson’s somewhat blasphemous "God is a distant – stately Lover -", which compares God’s use of Christ to “woo” humans to Miles Standish’s use of John Alden to woo Priscilla Mullins, a subject taken up in the famous poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It was also good publicity for the next volume of posthumous poems, which would appear in 1891. Todd continued to claim Dickinson’s child friendliness, citing the publication of the two poems as proof that "[m]any of Emily Dickinson’s daintiest verses are for children,” without disclosing the radical surgery they underwent at her hands.

Still, Satelmajer concludes, there is no evidence that this campaign produced a children’s market for Dickinson. The same is not true today. There is a busy market for collections of Dickinson’s verse curated, though not edited, for children. For example, in 2016 Susan Snively edited Emily Dickinson, the premier title in the Poetry for Kids series. The publisher’s description reads:

Each poem is beautifully illustrated by Christine Davenier and thoroughly explained by an expert. The gentle introduction, which is divided into sections by season of the year, includes commentary, definitions of important words, and a foreword.

There are also a raft of YA novels and books that promote Dickinson to the young set, especially to eager smart girls and boys like the Crossroads 7th graders, who bristled at the notion that Higginson and Todd changed so much as a dash in a Dickinson poem.

One point of attraction for them may be the many poems in which Dickinson adopts the child’s voice. Several scholars write extensively about this strategy, including biographer Cynthia Wolff, and see it as a proto-feminist critique of women’s infantilization in 19th century American culture. In 2003, Claire Raymond studied Dickinson’s child personas who speak posthumously and concluded that this strategy

is a mode of reclaiming the spent self, and perhaps also a critique of domination refracted through the prism of the voice deemed too small to be heard. There is a poignancy granted many of Dickinson’s more powerful child-spoken poems
which belies the notion that she took up the child’s voice mainly as an ironic commentary on woman’s place in culture. Rather, the poems engage a palpable erasure of the self, both as name and as body.

In Schoolroom Poets: Childhood, Performance, and the Place of American Poetry, 1865-1917, Angela Sorby examines Dickinson’s child-voice poems and links the history of her reception in the 1890s to the

discourse of infantilization and pedagogy that dominated American popular poetry of the period and, to a great extent, continues to do so today.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum

 

Reflection
Steve Glazer

“What is freedom?” This is a powerful question for many adults; it is also a question that begins to percolate through the minds of adolescents during the middle school years. This question is also the essential question for my seventh-grade students at Crossroads Academy.

During the summer before seventh grade, the students read The Call of the Wild. As they fall in love with Buck, they gain insight into what freedom means for Jack London. As the school year begins, they contrast London’s fantasy with Frederick Douglass’s reality. They read the full text of the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, by Frederick Douglass along with excerpts from Caleb Bingham’s Columbian Orator, the text that taught Douglass the rhetoric of freedom.  

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Columbian_Orator
A copy of The Columbian Orator at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, TN

Later in the fall, we analyze the table of contents of Realms of Gold, our English 7 anthology. The students learn to see what is largely missing from this text: works by women. This allows us to ask an important question: “Why are women under-represented?” After a heated discussion, we begin a new unit, “Raising our Voices.” We read across seventy-five years and five genres: a political document, “The Declaration of Sentiments” by Elizabeth Cady Stanton; a work of nonfiction, “A Red Record”by Ida B. Wells; a short story, “The Yellow Wall-paper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman; a poem, “Are Women People?” by Alice Duer MIller; and an essay, the “Shakespeare’s Sister” section of Virginia Woolf's A Room of One’s Own. Time and time and again, we return to our essential question. What is freedom for the women gathered in Seneca Falls?  What is freedom for Gilman’s nameless protagonist? What does Woolf mean when she says that for so many years, “anonymous was a woman”? 

The unit concludes with a four-week unit focusing on the life and work of Emily Dickinson. How did Emily Dickinson’s work come to appear in Realms of Gold? What are the individual and social circumstances that led to her being able to “raise her voice”? How was her unique and powerful voice edited and corrupted by three generations of editors?  How does Dickinson’s room differ from Gilman’s room? Can we come to recognize that our rich understanding of Emily Dickinson’s life and work is, in fact, a fulfillment of Virginia Woolf’s dream? Contemporary scholarship, the Emily Dickinson Museum, and www.edickinson.org enable my middle school students to work directly with Dickinson’s letters, manuscripts, envelope poems, fascicles, and herbarium. We can almost—but not quite—=touch the hands that “cannot see,” the hands that seek to “gather paradise.”

Over four weeks, the students learn about Dickinson, poetry, scholarship, and literary criticism as they construct a “Letter to the World” portfolio. The portfolio includes a wide array of reading, writing, research, and record-keeping challenges. In just a few weeks, the students develop a level of intimacy and mastery that very few students (or adults) have. And after freedom, mastery is something that so many adolescents crave. The project culminates with a visit to Dickinson’s hometown on her birthday, December 10. We visit the Dickinson archive at Amherst College, we tour the Homestead and the Evergreens, we recite poems in Emily Dickinson’s parlor, and we sing “This is my letter to the World” at her gravestone.

Bio: In 1985, I graduated from Union College in Schenectady, New York, with a BA in English Language & Literature. I continued my studies at the University of Chicago, where I earned a master’s degree in English & American Literature. I am the author or editor of five books, including The Heart of LearningBest of Valley Quest, and Questing: A Guide to Creating Community Treasure Hunts. In 2015, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History recognized me as the “New Hampshire History Teacher of the Year.” Before joining the Crossroads Academy faculty in 2013, I directed the Valley Quest program for a decade. I have also served as an adjunct faculty member at Antioch New England Graduate School (Heritage Studies), Plymouth State University (Education), and the Center for Whole Communities (Community Facilitation). It is my pleasure and privilege to help students grapple with classic texts, learn to express their ideas with precision and eloquence, and struggle with the essential questions of English 7 and 8: “What is freedom?” and “What is justice?”

Sources

History

Atlantic Monthly, December 1862
Harper's Monthly, December 1862
Hampshire Gazette, 
December 9, 1862
Springfield Republican, December 6, 1862

Biography

Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. "Preface," Poems by Emily Dickinson. Eds. Mabel Loomis Todd and T. W. Higginson. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1890; reprint Gainesville, Fla.: Scholars' Facsimiles and Reprints, 1967), iii, v.

Jenkins, MacGregor. "Reminiscences of Emily Dickinson," in Emily Dickinson's Reception in the 189os. Ed. Buckingham, 141-42, 141; first published in The Boston Evening Transcript, 2 May I891, 9.

Mutén, Burleigh. “Cook’s Cook: Emily Dickinson, Poet and Baker.” 10-2017

Raymond, Claire. “Emily Dickinson as the Un-named, Buried Child.”
Emily Dickinson Journal 12. 1, 2003: 107-122, 108.

Satelmajer, Ingrid. “Dickinson as Child's Fare: The Author Served up in "St. Nicholas." Book History 5 (2002): 105-142, 107, 113, 124, 127.

Sorby, Angela. Schoolroom Poets: Childhood, Performance, and the Place of American Poetry, 1865-1917. Hanover: University of New England Press, 2005.

 

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March 12-18, 1862: Death of Frazar Stearns

This week we focus on the death in battle of Frazar Stearns, which occurred on March 14, 1862 at the Battle of New Bern, in North Carolina. Stearns was member of the Amherst College Class of 1863 and a close friend of Austin Dickinson, Dickinson’s brother. Dickinson was deeply touched by his death, as we see in the poems for this week, and this may have propelled her to consider publication.

Overview
This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Samantha Bryant
Sources

“A Christian Martyr”

This week we focus on the death in battle of Frazar Stearns, which occurred on March 14, 1862 at the Battle of New Bern in North Carolina.

Frazar Stearns. Amherst College Collections

Stearns was a member of the Amherst College Class of 1863 and the son of Reverend William Stearns, the fourth and current president of Amherst College.

Reverend William Stearns.

 

He was one of a group of Amherst students who was encouraged to sign up for service by their popular chemistry professor, William Smith Clark of the Class of 1848. Clark became an officer in the 21st Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, and appointed Stearns as his adjutant.

William Smith Clark.

According to historian Polly Longsworth, Stearns was not the only person from Amherst to perish at New Bern. But his youth, idealism, and prominent family helped to cast Stearns as a symbol of the terrible toll of the war. Following the Union Army’s victory at New Bern, General Burnside, the commanding officer, ordered that the first Confederate cannon taken during the battle be sent to Amherst as a memorial to young Stearns. The College’s Trustees ordered this cannon preserved with a plaque honoring Stearns and other casualties of the battle

as a monument of the heroism of those who have gone before them, and of the precious blood that has been spilled in suppressing this mad rebellion.

Stearns was eulogized, praised in state proclamations, and honored with a funeral that had an attendance rivaling the popular annual Amherst College Commencement.

Important for this project is that Stearns was a close friend of Austin Dickinson, Dickinson’s brother. His death hit very close to home in the Dickinson household. Dickinson wrote four letters that mention Frazar Stearns, which we will discuss below. She might have attended the ceremony, in which the 21st Regiment gave the Confederate cannon to Amherst College, at which her father presided. Scholars also speculate that this particular death might have propelled Dickinson into contacting Thomas Wentworth Higginson about her poetry and possible publication, which happened in in mid-April, the following month.

“The meeting of ‘Marine Monsters’”

INTERNATIONAL NEWS

Springfield Republican, March 15, 1862– Foreign Affairs: "The news from over the water has ceased to have a particular interest in this country, with the exception of the designs of the allies on Mexico."

NATIONAL NEWS

Although we focus on the Battle of New Bern this week, the news of it had not yet appeared in the papers. Rather, the Republican was full of news of the "extraordinary naval battle of Norfolk," Virginia, later known as the Battle of Hampton Roads, which occurred on March 9. For the first time, two iron-clad ships clashed: the CSS Virginia (originally named the Merrimack), secretly re-commissioned by the Confederacy,  and the smaller, though more maneuverable Monitor, retaliating for the Union.

Battle of Hampton Roads

There is only a short notice of "The Burnside Expedition … starting on a secret expedition to the mainland, the object of which is not revealed."

Here is a summary of what happened at New Bern, with more details related to Stearns' role in the Biography section: Troops under the command of Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside moved into the North Carolina mainland, targeting New Bern, which had served as the capital of the North Carolina colonial government and then briefly as the state capital. On March 14, the 21st Massachusetts Regiment assaulted a brickyard and makeshift Confederate battery, allowing Union forces to take New Bern, which remained in Union control until the end of the war. New Bern proved to be an important victory for the Union because of the large amount of arms and equipment captured, and because it compromised the enemy’s supply lines. But it was costly: the 21st lost 19 men during the battle.

"Plan of the Battle of Newberne.” Map by Robert Knox Sneden, 1832-1918. The original is at the Virginia Historical Society.

 

“Let us love better”

Frazar Stearns was born on 21 June 1840 and died on 14 March 1862; he was 21 years old.

Frazar Stearns. Image: Amherst College

His family was descended from some of the earliest settlers in New England: Thomas Dudley, governor of the Mass Bay Colony and father of the poet Anne Bradstreet, and Captain Edward Johnson, who both came over from England with John Winthrop in 1630.

On March 9, 1862, Stearns wrote to his mother,

We are going to-morrow morning at daylight somewhere, — where, exactly, I don't know… God only knows what a day may bring forth. He only can tell what may happen to me on the morrow; always remember that any hour or any moment may bring you news that I am killed or dangerously wounded. If either, then God’s will be done; and I hope I may always be prepared for any issue.
These are horrible times, when every man’s hand is against his neighbor. But I have hope. Let the North pray more; let them give the glory to God and not to man, and these days which are rolling by shall be full of glorious victories, which are soon, very soon, to bring on peace.

This letter only reached the family on March 18th carried by a wounded private in Stearns' regiment.

On the eve of the battle, Stearns was still recovering from a wound he took at the battle of Roanoke on February 7, 1862. When the Union and Confederate forces engaged at New Bern, it became clear that the Confederates had left an unguarded gap in a wall that led to a strategic brickyard. Lieutenant Colonel William Clark volunteered his regiment to surge through the gap with bayonets and with muskets that were unreliable because many had gotten wet in the previous night’s rain. Furthermore, they were charging into superior fire. In the first surge on the brickyard, Stearns was hit just as the men began to head for the gap.

Lieutenant Colonel Clark wrote of the battle:

[T]he noblest of us all, my brave, efficient, faithful adjutant, First Lieutenant F. A. Stearns, of Company I, fell mortally wounded… As he was cheering on the men to charge upon the enemy across the railroad, he was struck by a ball from an English rifle… He lived about two hours and a half, though nearly unconscious from the loss of blood, and died without a struggle a little before noon.

When the telegram with this news arrived in Amherst on March 19th, the town was shocked and deeply affected. The funeral occurred on March 22. In one of her letters, discussed below, Dickinson gives a detailed description of it. Barton Levi St. Armand believes that “I felt a funeral in my brain”(F340A, J280)  may be Dickinson’s psychological response to Stearns’ funeral. Quickly thereafter, Stearns’ father published a book titled Adjutant Stearns based on his son’s letters from the front, William Clark’s accounts, and including the eulogies from the funeral and praises from people who did not even know Stearns. From this point onward, he became a symbol, almost the image of a Christian martyr.

The response in the Dickinson family was profound grief. Austin Dickinson was a close friend of Stearns.

William Austin Dickinson (1829-1895). Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library

He would be drafted in May 1864 and, along with four other Dickinson men who were also drafted, would hire a substitute at the price of $500 to take his place. This was customary in the upper classes, but the death of his close friend probably influenced his decision. The death was also deeply personal for Emily Dickinson, who would have known Stearns and his family.

Dickinson mentions Stearns first in a letter dated December 31, 1861  addressed to her cousin Louise Norcross. In it, she refers to the death of another local boy, Sylvester Adams, communicated through a telegram signed “by Frazer Stearns” to a mother who has lost both her boys to the war. “Mrs. Adams herself has not risen from bed since then,” Dickinson reports and adds,

Frazer Stearns is just leaving Annapolis. His father has gone to see him to-day. I hope that ruddy face won’t be brought home frozen. (L245).

But he is "brought home frozen." In a letter to both Norcross cousins, Dickinson writes of Frazar’s death, and  the minute details she recounts indicate just how  intensely she felt this particular death:

You have done more for me– ‘tis the least that I can do, to tell you of brave Frazer –“killed at Newbern,” darlings. His big heart shot away by a “minie ball.”
I had read of those – I didn’t think that Frazer would carry one to Eden with him. Just as he fell, in his soldier’s cap, with his sword at his side, Frazer rode through Amherst. Classmates to the right of him, and classmates to the left of him, to guard his narrow face! He fell by the side of Professor Clark, his superior officer – lived ten minutes in a soldier’s arms, asked twice for water – murmured just, “My God!” and passed! Sanderson, his classmate, made a box of boards in the night, put the brave boy in, covered with a blanket, rowed six miles to reach the boat,– so poor Frazer came. They tell that Colonel Clark cried like a little child when he missed his pet, and could hardly resume his post. They loved each other very much. Nobody here could look on Frazer – not even his father. The doctors would not allow it.
The bed on which he came was enclosed in a large casket shut entirely, and covered from head to foot with the sweetest flowers. He went to sleep from the village church. Crowds came to tell him good night, choirs sang to him, pastors told how brave he was – early-soldier heart. And the family bowed their heads, as the reeds the wind shakes.
So our part in Frazer is done, but you must come next summer, and we will mind ourselves of this young crusader – too brave that he could fear to die. We will play his tunes – maybe he can hear them; we will try to comfort his broken-hearted Ella, who, as the clergyman said, “gave him peculiar confidence.” …. Austin is stunned completely. Let us love better, children, it’s the most that’s left to do. (L255)

Is there an echo of Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (1854) in Dickinson’s description of Stearns riding through Amherst with his classmates on either side? Tennyson wrote,

Cannon to the right of them,
Cannon to the left of them,
Cannon in front of them (ll. 18-20).

And does this echo give us a glimpse of Dickinson’s attitude towards this death, famously expressed by Tennyson:

Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die (ll. 14-15).

In another letter at this time to Samuel Bowles, Dickinson writes again of this disturbing death. Her comments are often quoted as referring to her brother’s grief, but editor Thomas Johnson notes that,

This letter, which apparently enclosed another letter for Bowles to forward to somebody, uses Austin’s name throughout as a cover (399).

Although Dickinson refers to herself in the third person in the paragraph just before the one that mentions Stearns, the passage about Austin’s reaction can also be read as her own, especially as the imagery she uses makes it into her poetry about this event:

Austin is chilled – by Frazer’s murder– he says ­– his brain keeps saying over “Frazer is killed” – “Frazer is killed,” ­ just as Father told it – to Him. Two or three words of lead – that dropped so deep, they keep weighing –
Tell Austin – how to get over them! (L256)

In another letter to Bowles, Dickinson includes the poem “Victory comes late” (F195, J690), discussed in this week’s poems, which some see as her elegy for Frazar Stearns. Bowles wrote to Austin and Sue

 … and then the news from Newbern took away all the remaining life. I did not care for victory, for anything now. (Letters, 400)

Finally, in mid-July, 1871, Dickinson wrote to Louise Norcross:

“Oh! Cruel Paradise! We have a chime of bells given for brave Frazer. You’ll stop and hear them, won’t you?
“We conquered, but Bozzaris fell.” That sentence always chokes me (L362).

The town hung the bells memorializing Frazar Stearns on July 4, 1871. The reference, according to Johnson, is to a widely popular ballad, “Marco Bozzaris” by Fitz-Greene Halleck, about a general and hero of the Greek War of Independence, first published in 1825. The line Dickinson paraphrases reads:

They conquered ­ – but Bozzaris fell.

The rich digital source, “‘A Nosegay to Take to Battle’: The Civil War Wounding of Emily Dickinson,” edited by Marta Werner, also makes a provocative connection between the effect of Stearns’ death and Dickinson’s attitude towards her writing and her decision to contact Thomas Wentworth Higginson after she read his essay, "A Letter to a Young Contributor," in the April 15th Atlantic Monthly. Werner speculates:

Indeed, it is very likely that the death of Frazar Stearns is also an impetus for her introductory letter to this prominent literary and war figure, particularly as Higginson's claim that nothing will make one immortal — not politics, not distinction in war — must have struck a chord following the poignant gun ceremony of April 14 [at which the Confederate cannon from New Bern was delivered to Amherst College].

 

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum

 

Reflection

Samantha Bryant

I came to Emily Dickinson in elementary school. My teacher had assigned us, as a handwriting project, the neat copying of classic poems, which we were then allowed to illustrate and gather in a folder made out of wallpaper scraps. Most of us probably didn’t really absorb the poetry—the old-fashioned diction and difficult vocabulary made understanding the verses challenging for young readers—but I remember the loving care I took in copying the poems I chose, my feeling that, even if I didn’t really understand exactly what was being said, they were speaking some dark and secret place in my heart. These poems felt magic to me, like spells or maybe curses.

One of my selections was “Because I could not stop for Death” (F479), which might seem a bleak selection for such a young poetry reader. Despite my youth and inexperience with death, I was a serious minded little girl, with a religious bent, trying hard to reconcile my feelings of right and wrong with the conflicting messages I was hearing about God and the afterlife. I was drawn in by the image of a small, serious girl (much like myself) sitting in a carriage with Death himself, which in my mind looked like a traditional grim reaper, calmly riding off into the sunset.

As I grew up and grew older, Emily’s poetry (I feel I’ve known her all my life, so I think of her by her first name) always remained a touchstone in my life. It is still so today, especially when I am going through rough times full of turbulent and conflicting emotions. Her work speaks my heart especially well when she writes of grief.

In the selections for this post, I taste personal grief drizzled over a bitter cake of wider suffering. It is hard enough to lose someone beloved, but the experience is all the more devastating when the loss comes of violence or in war that seems senseless, especially to those watching from afar. Reading these poems opens an ache deep within, an echo of the complicated tangle of emotions surrounding loss.

There is such daring challenge and visceral hurt in a line like “Was God so economical?” Economy seems a petty thing, a concern for householders, not for all-powerful God, but the God in “Victory comes late” has set the table so high that we can’t reach it, though He has promised to care for us. In grief, so many of us experience anger and a feeling of having been betrayed or cheated, like sparrows left to starve.

As my students say, “I know these feels.” I know too, the feeling of tragedy redoubled, when grief comes to someone who has already been struck by loss too many times and the desire for answers. I, too, have wanted to know whether someone suffered, or what they thought about at the end, or if they were afraid.

All the stages and phases of grief, all the terrible maelstrom of mixed emotions, all the pain and hope and fear that surround death come through in these poems and remind me once more why there’s no one like Emily to grieve with when loss knocks on your door.

Bio: Samantha Bryant is a middle school Spanish teacher by day, and escapes into superhero fiction by night. She is the author of the Menopausal Superheroes series (Going Through the Change, Change of Life, and Face the Change) and other feminist-leaning speculative fiction. She’s also a lifelong poetry enthusiast, old movie buff, and connoisseur of home baked cookies. You can learn more about Samantha and her work at her website and blog or by following her on Twitter.

Sources
  • Amherst College,” Amherst Historic, accessed March 12, 2018.
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  • Dickinson, Emily. The Letters of Emily Dickinson. Eds. Thomas Johnson and Theodora Ward. 3 vols. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958.
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  • Stearns, William.  Adjutant Stearns. Massachusetts Sabbath School Society, 1862. Ebook 100 ff.
  • Longsworth, Polly. “Brave Among the Bravest,” Passages of Time: Narratives in the History of Amherst College, ed. Douglas C. Wilson. Amherst: Amherst College Press. 2007.
  • Sweet, William. A Cannon for the Confederacy: The Legacy of Frazar Stearns
  • https://www.amherst.edu/news/news_releases/2012/03/node/384752
  • Werner, Marta, ed. A Nosegay to Take to Battle’: The Civil War Wounding of Emily Dickinson.

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