October 1-7, 1862: Sixth Letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Antietam

This week our post takes as its point of departure Dickinson’s 6th and final letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson written in 1862, as he is preparing to lead men into battle. It is also the week when the media started extensive coverage of the Battle of Antietam, also called the Battle of Sharpsburg, which occurred on September 17, 1862. It was a decisive and deadly day that would achieve the dubious distinction of being the bloodiest battle in US history, and also the first to be photographed. This new technology brought the consequences of war into the homes of noncombatants and would change war journalism forever.

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This Week in Biography
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This Week's Reflection – Sarah Khatry

This week our point of departure is Dickinson’s 6th and final letter (L274) to Thomas Wentworth Higginson written in 1862; they continued to correspond until the very end of Dickinson’s life. At this time, Higginson was busy recruiting and training troops from Massachusetts for the War, but in November would accept an extraordinary commission: command of the First South Carolina regiment composed of freed slaves. Even though Dickinson’s letter indicates a lull in their correspondence, which began in April 1862, her exchanges with Higginson will prove to be crucial in Dickinson’s life.

This week in 1862 saw the first extensive coverage of the Battle of Antietam, also called the Battle of Sharpsburg, which occurred on September 17, 1862. It was a decisive and deadly battle that would achieve the dubious distinction of being the bloodiest battle in US history. It also had the distinction of being one of the first battles to be extensively recorded by an emerging technology that would change the face of war journalism forever: photography. Matthew Brady sent two photographers to the battlefield who captured the battle’s horrifying aftermath. These images, as photographs and illustrations, circulated widely and contributed to a new, appalling recognition – reflected in the poetry of Emily Dickinson – of just how costly this fratricidal war was. For this post, we draw on work by Sarah Khatry, Dartmouth ’17, from an assignment she did for Ivy’s Dickinson seminar in Winter 2017.

“The Dead of Antietam”

Springfield Republican, October 4, 1862

Progress of the War, page 1
“Another week of rest and preparation. There have been only preliminary reconnaissances towards the enemy either in Virginia or in Kentucky. But it is now evident that the enemy is checkmated and has reached the limit of his aggressive movements, and that is a great deal, when we look back a single month and see where we were then and what were our fears and forebodings.”

Books, Authors and Art, page 3

Frederick II, King of Prussia (1712-1786)
Frederick II, King of Prussia (1712-1786)

“A great rarity in the shape of coins has lately been sold at Paris—namely, a silver one struck off at Breslau in 1751. Among the persons employed at the time in the mint was an Austrian, who, out of hatred to Frederick II of Prussia, conceived the idea of revenging himself on that monarch in the following manner:—The motto on the coin, ‘Ein reichs thaler’ (a crown of the kingdom), he divided in such a manner as to make it read, ‘Ein reich stahler’ (he stole a kingdom). The king ordered those insulting coins to be melted down, but some few of them still exist.”

English Beauty, page 6
“I have heard a good deal of the tenacity with which English ladies retain their personal beauty to a late period of life; but (not to suggest that an American eye needs use and cultivation before it can quite appreciate the charm of an English beauty at any age) it strikes me that an English lady of fifty is apt to become a creature less refined and delicate, so far as her physique goes, than anything that we western people class under the name of woman. Yet, somewhere in this bulk must be hidden the modest, slender, violet-nature of a girl, whom an alien mass of earthliness has unkindly overgrown.”

Hampshire Gazette, October 7, 1862

Position of McClellan’s Army, page 1
“Gen. McClellan still had his headquarters near Sharpsburg yesterday, when Gen. Sumner occupied Boliver Heights. It is evident to us that there will be a movement on Gen. McClellan’s part as soon as his army is properly supplied by the quartermaster’s department. Our troops are in the best possible spirits, and eager again to get at the rebels, who must be suffering dreadful torments.”

Getting Rich, page 1
“Men are never richer on their millions than on their thousands or hundreds—they are never satisfied, whatever they have; they are never blessed, but always to be blessed. We start out in the world without a cent, and think, while we toil for a mere pittance, that if we had a house over our heads we could call our own, we should be independent and contented; then we want five or ten thousand dollars; and by the time that has accumulated, the expenses of living have pressed upward so fast that we must double it to keep clear of absolute want.”

Harper’s Monthly Illustrated Magazine, October 4, 1862

[from a full description of each stage of the battle of Antietam/Sharpsburg, with illustrations.]"The battle began with the dawn. Morning found both armies just as they had slept, almost close enough to look into each other’s eyes… A battery was almost immediately pushed forward beyond the central woods, over a plowed field, near the top of the slope where the corn-field began. On this open field, in the corn beyond, and in the woods, which stretched forward into the broad fields like a promontory into the ocean, were the hardest and deadliest struggles of the day… But out of those gloomy woods came suddenly and heavily terrible volleys—volleys which smote, and bent, and broke in a moment that eager front, and hurled them swiftly back for half the distance they had won. Not swiftly, nor in panic, any further. Closing up their shattered lines, they came slowly away—a regiment where a brigade had been, hardly a brigade where a whole division had been, victorious. They had met from the woods the first volleys of musketry from fresh troops—had met them and returned them till their line had yielded and gone down before the weight of fire, and till their ammunition was exhausted…The field and its ghastly harvest which the reaper had gathered in those fatal hours remained finally with us. Four times it had been lost and won. The dead are strewn so thickly that as you ride over it you can not guide your horse’s steps too carefully. Pale and bloody faces are every where upturned. They are sad and terrible, but there is nothing which makes one’s heart beat so quickly as the imploring look of sorely wounded men who beckon wearily for help which you can not stay to give."

“You Saved my Life”

Dickinson’s plaintive letter to Higginson this week (L274) indicates her increasing dependence on their epistolary relationship and her ostensible desire to “please” him. In fact, Dickinson usually argued with and ultimately ignored Higginson's advice on her writing. But as a figure in and of the world of letters and actions, he provided an important and invaluable contact. In a letter from June 1869, she confessed to him:

Of our greatest acts we are ignorant –
You were not aware that you saved my Life. (L330)

Still, it is no wonder that Higginson did not have time to write to Dickinson in the Fall of 1862. She last wrote to him in response to his letter sometime in August. By October 6th, she had not gotten a response from him and penned her plaintive inquiry. According to historian Ethan Kytle, during the fall, Higginson

was recruiting and then training boys from his adopted hometown of Worcester, Mass., to serve in the [Massachusetts] 51st. . . After declining an officer’s commission in the early months of the Civil War, the 38-year-old Transcendentalist minister had decided that if “antislavery men” expected to influence the conduct and settlement of the conflict, then they “must take part in it.”

He thus accepted a commission as a captain and wrote in a letter about this company that he “already loved [them] like my own children.”

In a month, though, Higginson would be offered the command of the 1st Regiment of South Carolina Volunteers, which was comprised of freed slaves. According to Sage Stossel,

The preliminary Emancipation Proclamation announced by President Lincoln in September 1862 allowed the Union army to recruit blacks. … [Higginson] kept a diary of the experience, which was later excerpted in The Atlantic as “Leaves From an Officer’s Journal” (1864) and subsequently released as a book, Army Life in a Black Regiment.

Meanwhile, newspapers and journals began their detailed coverage of the horrific battle of Antietam. Because of the rather long news cycle (certainly longer than ours), this coverage would continue well into December. As Sarah Khatry notes: “The farther from the event itself, the closer and more detailed the coverage became.” In her exploration of this event in Dickinson’s life, Sarah focused

not so much on the immediate events of the Civil War during that week, but on their transmission and how Emily Dickinson would have encountered them … Through image–photograph and illustration–through prose–news, letters, narratives–and through personal connection.

From the coverage in Harper’s, we can infer that illustrations, often based on the new technology of photography, played a large role.

In fact, two days after the battle, Matthew Brady sent Alexander Gardner and James Gibson to Maryland to photograph the aftermath of the bloodiest battle in US history. A month later, Brady set up an exhibit of almost 100 pictures in his gallery on Broadway in New York City called, simply, “The Dead of Antietam.” The photographs were so sharp, viewers could make out faces, and so unfiltered as to bring the effects of the war, before remote and abstract, into unmistakable focus for the first time. Some of the illustrations Dickinson might have seen in Harper’s were based on Brady’s gut-wrenching photographs.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum


Reflection: “Trauma and the Image”

Sarah Khatry

Sarah KhatryThe real-time scholarly project of White Heat invites not only engagement with the week-by-week experience of Emily Dickinson’s life in 1862, but juxtaposition with our own. This past week seems an appropriate one to reflect upon the real and traumatic individual impact of nationwide events, even those transmitted to us only through image.

The modes and means of transmission have changed. As this week’s poems demonstrate, Dickinson experienced the Civil War and particularly Antietam through personal impact on her family and community, the vivid magazine and newspaper reporting of the day, and also the then-developing technology of photography.

It was not Death, for I stood up,
And all the Dead, lie down -
It was not Night, for all the Bells
Put out their Tongues, for Noon.

It was not Frost, for on my Flesh
I felt Siroccos – crawl -
Nor Fire – for just my marble feet
Could keep a Chancel, cool -

And yet, it tasted, like them all,
The Figures I have seen
Set orderly, for Burial
Reminded me, of mine -

As if my life were shaven,
And fitted to a frame,
And could not breathe without a key,
And ’twas like Midnight, some -

When everything that ticked – has stopped -
And space stares – all around -
Or Grisly frosts – first Autumn morns,
Repeal the Beating Ground -

But most, like Chaos – Stopless – cool -
Without a Chance, or spar -
Or even a Report of Land -
To justify – Despair.
(F 355)

In “Death’s Surprise, Stamped Visible,” Eliza Richards draws upon the poem above, finding in the third stanza a rather direct description of a famous photograph by Andrew Gardner and James Gibson of the bodies after the Battle of Antietam: “The Figures I have seen / Set orderly, for Burial”.

I will attempt to take this reading further, and argue an even stronger correlation. In the first two stanzas, Dickinson establishes a multi-fold disconnect between the experience the poem describes and the speaker’s subjectivity. “It was not Death” because the speaker is on her feet, not dead, and whatever it is she contemplates is not death itself, but something like it. That object or experience is also at a remove in time for her, for she hears the bells tolling noon, but she must remind herself it is not night. The sensory experience being conveyed, as described in the second stanza, is similarly disassociated from the speaker—

And yet, it tasted, like them all” (l. 5)

These first two stanzas could describe the experience of standing before a photograph, one of such power and visceral empathy that the speaker has to repeatedly emphasize to herself that she is not there. She is not one of “The Figures … Set orderly, for Burial.” It is not her life “shaven, / and fitted to a frame” but the lives she considers, quite possibly those belonging to the dead of Antietam.

In the word “Autumn” (l. 19), Richards argues phonetic similarity with Antietam, driven home by Dickinson’s poem below, evocative of the massacre and excess of a battlefield:

The name — of it — is “Autumn” —
The hue — of it — is Blood —
An Artery — upon the Hill —
A Vein — along the Road —

Great Globules — in the Alleys —
And Oh, the Shower of Stain —
When Winds — upset the Basin —
And spill the Scarlet Rain —

It sprinkles Bonnets — far below —
It gathers ruddy Pools —
Then — eddies like a Rose — away —
Upon Vermilion Wheels —
(F 465)

No New England fall, I believe, clamors for such blood-filled celebration. But Antietam occurred in mid-September, the advent of autumn, and its traumatic bloodshed, spilling as if from an “Artery — upon the Hill,” traveled up the Veins, the roads, of the nation, spilled into alleyways and sprinkled Bonnets far from the battlefield.

The speaker in “It was not Death” feels, by the final line, despair. The figures set for burial are frozen equally by death and by the photographic medium. They are “Without a Chance, or spar – / or even a Report” (ll. 22-23), paralyzed and mute, unable to give voice or justification to the despair of the speaker.

It can feel almost without justification to despair over the trauma of a distant stranger. But in moments of national crisis and discord, the trauma comes home to the individual, if not in the form of a direct parallel experience, but in the mirror of empathy. We have seen that in recent events. During the day of testimony by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford last week, the RAINN sexual assault hotline saw a 147% increase in calls, according to Abigail Abrams.

Far different events, more immediate modes of transmission, new lines of division … but still we and Emily Dickinson’s speaker must remind ourselves it was not me, and reconcile the reality of what did transpire, and to whom, and what it means.

Abrams, Abigail. “National Sexual Assault Hotline Spiked 147% During Ford Hearing.” Time, 27 Sept. 2018.

Richards, Eliza. ""Death's Surprise, Stamped Visible": Emily Dickinson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Civil War Photography." Amerikastudien 54.1 (2009): 13-33, 27.


Bio: Sarah Khatry received a BA in physics and English from Dartmouth College in 2017. Her novella Ritual won the Sidney Cox Memorial Prize in 2015. Her nonfiction appears in 40 Towns, the Dartmouth, and elsewhere.


Hampshire Gazette, October 7, 1862

Harper's Monthly, October, 1862

Springfield Republican, October 4, 1862


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

Kytle, Ethan J. “Captain Higginson Takes Command.The Opinionator: A Gathering of Opinion from Around the Web. November 16, 2012

Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. “Leaves from an Officer’s Journal.” Introduced by Sage Stossel. Atlantic Monthly 1864.

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September 24-30, 1862: Religion

This week we dip into the vast topic of Dickinson and religion, an exploration that is long overdue in an immersion into her life in 1862. Dickinson is notable for her refusal to convert but her poetry remains saturated with religious ideas, questions and images, some of which we will examine.

This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Anna Morrison

This week we dip into the vast topic of Dickinson and religion, an exploration that is long overdue in an immersion into her life in 1862. In an earlier post in March exploring Fascicle 18, we focused on the theme of Resurrection in that gathering of poems and linked it to the Dickinson family mourning the death of Frazar Stearns, the young son of the President of Amherst College and friend of Austin Dickinson, who died at the battle of New Bern.

Likewise, this week’s exploration of religion is framed by news on September 17, 1862, of the horrific battle of Antietam, which the Springfield Republican reported as “the largest and most destructive battle of the whole war”– to date. Even after two more years of fighting, historians call this battle the “bloodiest day” in American history: 23,100 casualties. It also changed the course of the war and our history: on September 22, President Lincoln capitalized on the South’s retreat across the Potomac and issued “The Emancipation Proclamation.”

  Between two farm fields in Sharpsburg, Md., there was a sunken road, which Confederates used as a rifle pit until they were overrun by federal troops. The road has since been known as

Between two farm fields in Sharpsburg, Md., there was a sunken road, which Confederates used as a rifle pit until they were overrun by federal troops. The road has since been known as "Bloody Lane."
Library of Congress

The deadliness of the Civil War is an important context for thinking about Dickinson and the consolations (or not) of religion, but there is so much more to explore in Dickinson’s complex attitudes towards and use of religious imagery. Most accounts of her early life report that she grew up in a

Calvinist household [and] attended religious services with her family at the village meetinghouse, Amherst’s First Congregational Church, [ and that ] Congregationalism was the predominant denomination of early New England.

But what doctrines did she hear preached and what did her family, who had all “converted” by 1850 during the frequent religious revivals that swept through Amherst, actually believe? Dickinson is notable for her refusal to convert but her poetry remains saturated with religious ideas, questions and images, many of which we will examine.

“Pray for the Outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Entire Nation”

Springfield Republican, September 27, 1862

Progress of the War, page 1
“The largest and most destructive battle of the whole war occurred at Antietam Creek, Maryland, on Wednesday last. Not less than a hundred thousand men were engaged on each side; the contest was kept up throughout the day, and at night no less than twenty thousand men had fallen on the field, killed and wounded. The advantage was on our side; we had driven back both wings of the rebel army and held position of the field, and their losses were obviously much greater than our own.”

Christian Women Called to Prayer, page 1
“At a meeting of several hundred women of various denominations, a circular was adopted to the women of the United States, suggesting to them to form circles of prayer throughout the land, and to pray for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the entire nation; for the president and his councilors; for the officers of the army and navy; for our soldiers and seamen; for their families; for ministers of the Gospel, and for the oppressed of our land; and agreeing to observe Monday of every week as a day of especial prayer, assembling at 10 a.m. and at 8 p.m.; each service to occupy two hours.”

Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865)
Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865)

A Fair Estimate of President Lincoln, page 6
“Now that some of those who aided in electing President Lincoln are making a strenuous effort to destroy confidence in him, an occasional word in his favor is only fair. The Washington correspondent of the New York Commercial Advertiser makes the following estimate of the present, and we believe that impartial history will decide that it is not overdrawn:—

His shoulders are fully square and strong enough to bear all the cares of state that may fall to his lot; and he can therefore stand cheerfully erect under the assaults of open enemies and pretended friends. His program is prepared to the end, and he will carry it out, to the very letter.

The Hampshire Gazette, September 30, 1862

Another Proclamation, page 2
“President Lincoln has issued another proclamation of no small importance, and that is eliciting considerable discussion. It is the proclamation suspending the right of habeas corpus. It is contended on one hand that the government is about to restrict free speech and erect a tyranny by which to govern the loyal states. Freedom of political action is to be prohibited and summary arrests and imprisonments are to be the order henceforth. On the other hand, it is said that the new proclamation is not intended to inaugurate any new system of espionage and arrest, but to restrain and refine the operation of a system already in use.”

Atlantic Monthly, September 1862

A Complaint of Friends, p. 359 by M. A. Dodge [Mary Abigail Dodge (1833-1896) wrote under the name Gail Hamilton; she was one of the first female political correspondents in Washington, DC known for writing essays that were particularly harsh on men.]

“Doubtless friendship has its advantages and its pleasures; doubtless hostility has its isolations and its revenges: still, if called upon to choose once for all between friends and foes, I think, on the whole, I should cast my vote for foes. Twenty enemies will not do you the mischief of one friend. Enemies you always know where to find. They are in fair and square perpetual hostility, and you keep your armor on and your sentinels posted; but with friends you are inveigled into a false security, and, before you know it, your honor, your modesty, your delicacy are scudding before the gales.”

Harper’s Monthly, September 1862

The Christ Child Bearing the Cross – Cornelis Galle II“My whole life is covered with thorns.”
The Christ Child Bearing the Cross – Cornelis Galle II: “My whole life is covered with thorns.”

Saint Luke’s Hospital, page 504
“The walls of this beautiful [hospital] were hung with charming pictures, such as a child would care to look at again and again. And chief among these was a copy of the well-known picture, more significant to me than any rosy Cherub of Raphael or Dead Christ of Rubens. It represents the Holy Child bearing on his baby shoulder the cross, held fast with dimpled hands; at his feet the crown of thorns and the blood-stained nails; and in his great, pathetic eyes awful shadows of Gethsemane and Cavalry. The Holy Child seemed to lift up a standard in the midst of these little cross-bearers, and to be leading and sustaining them upward and onward to victory.”

“I do not Feel that I could Give up all for Christ”

Dickinson’s religious upbringing is well documented, though scholars differ on how this upbringing influenced her thinking and writing. The Dickinsons traced their ancestry to Nathaniel and Anna Dickinson, who came over with John Winthrop on the Arbella in 1630 in order to establish a Puritan commonwealth in North America. They were Protestants, who rejected the Catholic Church and the authority of the Pope, and Congregationalists, who believed each congregation should govern itself independently. They were called “Puritans,” somewhat derisively, because they wanted to further purify the Church of England, which had undergone Protestant reformation under Elizabeth I. But they soon moved to the colony of Connecticut under the more liberal leadership of Thomas Hooker, and then to Hadley in the Connecticut River Valley, an area that bred some very famous Puritan leaders: Solomon Stoddard (a reformer) and his grandson, the famous philosopher and “last of the Puritans,” Jonathan Edwards.

The early Puritans held to the principles formulated at the Synod of Dort in 1618, a meeting of Protestant theologians to settle the controversy over Arminianism, the belief that humans could prepare for divine grace. In what is quaintly known as the TULIP theology, the Synod rejected Arminianism and affirmed the following doctrines:

Total Depravity: since the Fall, humanity is depraved and lacks the means to salvation
Unconditional election (predestination): Despite total depravity, God has elected some people for eternal glory; the rest are condemned to eternal damnation
Limited Atonement: Christ’s sacrifice on the cross made possible the divine election of specific people predestined to salvation by God’s unknowable plan
Irresistible Grace: For the elect, God’s grace is inevitable and irreversible even for the sinner
Perseverance of the Saints: The elect, or “Saints,” persevere as individuals or groups.

Fairly tough stuff and seemingly obscure, but we will see elements of these doctrines in Dickinson's work. The one key innovation of the New England Puritans, an extreme attempt at “purity” which earned them their mocking epithet, was their desire to restrict church members to those they deemed were “elected” (or predestined to Heaven), who then became what they called “visible saints”– people who made a creditable public confession of faith.

Although Edwards tried to hold the line against reform, by the 1830s, this austere belief system had softened into something more genteel, though its basic outlines and dispositions remained, especially in rural areas like Amherst, MA. Edwards’ grandson, Timothy Dwight, a Congregational minister and president of Yale, stressed Christianity’s social usefulness and moral improvement of the self. Similarly, in his speech on the dedication of Amherst College in 1820, Noah Webster echoed the millennial and imperial imagery of his Puritan forebears, casting the College's purpose as similar to the work of

the apostles themselves, in extending and establishing the Redeemer’s empire—the empire of truth. … to aid in the important work of raising the human race from ignorance and debasement; to enlighten their minds; to exalt their character; and to teach them the way to happiness and glory.

As Roger Lundin observes, Protestant evangelicalism adopted the secular idea of progress to create the republican ideal we now identify as “Whig”:

a means of securing the social order for divinely appointed ends … the ideal faith for men of the rising professional class in the early nineteenth-century New England village.

First Congregational Church in Amherst
First Congregational Church in Amherst

Dickinson's father Edward  epitomized this ideal, subscribing to the conservative social and gender ideologies of rationalism, responsibility and order that went along with it, and imposed his beliefs on his family. Not only did they attend services at the First Congregational Church in Amherst, hearing sermons on faith and salvation (which Dickinson commented on profusely in her letters) and singing hymns (which influenced her poetic form), but he led them in daily family prayers and Bible readings (the Bible being a crucial source of imagery for Dickinson).

Emily Dickinson's bible, presented by her father Edward in 1844.  (Emily Dickinson Museum)
Emily Dickinson's bible, presented by her father Edward in 1844. (Emily Dickinson Museum)

Though a Puritan and Yankee spirit (see Richard Sewall for the distinction) pervaded rural Amherst society, in 1833 Massachusetts disestablished Congregationalism as the state church, which made it dependent on revivals to populate its pews. This prompted a series of revivals that swept through the Pioneer Valley. Dickinson’s mother converted in one of these revivals in 1830 and in 1846, Dickinson corresponded with her friend Abiah Root about her struggles over “becoming a Christian.” She eventually told Abiah:

I feel that the world holds a predominant place in my affections. I do not feel that I could give up all for Christ, were I called to die (L13).

She also resisted the revival at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in 1847-48. The rest of her family converted in 1850 and by the late 1850s Dickinson’s attendance at church and at the associated women’s benevolent society circles began to drop off.

Dickinson’s refusal to convert and participate in collective worship did not prevent her from absorbing and recasting many of the ideas and predispositions of early Puritanism. She thoroughly embraced the central Protestant doctrines of the importance of self-examination in solitude through writing, of requiring personal evidence of spiritual beliefs, and of having a direct, experiential relationship with God. In pursuit of these activities, she created a poetic discourse that makes ample use of technical terms such as grace, faith, election, ordinance, sacrament (baptism and the Lord’s Supper), seal, glory, spirit, crown, throne, savior, Calvary, crucifixion, resurrection, and immortality, but often layers these concepts with secular and highly personal meanings.

Some of the more extreme Puritan doctrines she thoroughly rejected: for example, the notions of original sin, fallen nature, predestination, and damnation. Richard Sewall concludes:

Confronting that tradition squarely, she appropriated its components selectively and shrewdly, revered it, but never capitulated to it.

Dickinson has also been linked to other religious traditions, like Daoism, Buddhism and Catholicism. She was also profoundly influenced by Emerson’s and Thoreau’s Transcendentalism (a reaction against Puritanism), which moved the site of religious or spiritual communion out of the church and into nature. While Protestantism has a strong tradition of what it calls “Imitatio Christi,” the believer’s identification with Christ’s life, struggles and sacrifice, Dickinson’s focus on imagery of crucifixion, especially in the 1860s, seems downright Catholic. We know that she owned a copy and read the fifteenth-century devotional book, The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis. Furthermore, her emphasis on the sacraments evokes a Catholic view of the physical world as profoundly enchanted and miraculous. The Protestant church reduced the sacraments to two: baptism and the Lord’s Supper and rejected the Catholic doctrine of the “Real Presence” of God for the notion of a “Spiritual Presence” apprehended through symbols.

As Emily Seelbinder notes in her short essay on Dickinson and Religion,

She has been claimed as both Catholic and Protestant, Calvinist and anti-Calvinist, firm believer and lifelong skeptic. She has been identified as a mystic, an antinomian, and an existentialist. Some critics argue that she rejected the religious practices of her day or at least seriously questioned them. Other counter that she was always a deeply religious person or that she gradually become one as her life progressed. Still others assert that her “religion” was poetry. … While Dickinson’s belief system may be impossible to codify, her exploration of religious subjects is rich and diverse.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum


Anna Morrison

I remember my father bringing home a volume of Emily Dickinson’s poems from a library book sale—or maybe it was a yard sale? He went to these regularly and returned home with books on religion and history for himself and poetry for me. He was not familiar with Dickinson, but he explained to me that he chose this book because she wrote poems like mine, by which he meant poems written predominantly in hymnal stanzas. I grew up steeped in Protestant hymns and poems, and that was naturally the first poetic form to which I was drawn, writing my own hymns before I realized that I was writing poetry and not music. It was shortly after this introduction to Dickinson that I stopped writing in hymnal stanzas (probably not a coincidence), but this poetic and spiritual upbringing is still a presence in my writing decades later.

Reading Dickinson as a young girl was a shock. I felt so attuned to the hymn that her gestures within and against that form jolted me—her emphatic dashes, her slant rhymes, her heady wielding of meter and contrary play against it. I felt her turning toward and against possibilities at every syllable (or, more accurately, at every moment—the dashes and silences marking dynamic opportunities, even without syllables). I also responded to Dickinson’s careful self-inquiry and her respect for the authenticity of doubt. Even before reading her biography, I sensed that she would consider it hypocrisy to espouse beliefs with which her soul was not wholly in accord. A few years later, this would resonate strongly with my teenage sense that heretical thought demonstrated a more attentive engagement with the divine than obedience. I argued to my father that a gentle flock follows without question, but she who shapes her own relationship to God must remain attentive to that relationship at every moment (I perhaps perceived this vigilance in Dickinson’s form before seeing it in her poems’ themes).

Some leap of time later, I approached related questions concerning autonomy, whether belief allows the self its own domain, and the pulsing connection between refuge and peril. These themes are taken up in “Hymnal Essay,” a poem/personal-essay hybrid about my own experience of that form. Dickinson is not the subject, and I want to stress that I make no claims to knowledge of her religious beliefs. However, her poetry is a touchstone, and I hope readers will feel its presence in this work.

Have a read—and a listen:

To read “Hymnal Essay,” download a PDF document.

To listen to “Hymnal Essay,” visit our Video and Media page.

Bio: Anna Morrison's poetry has appeared in journals such as BOMB, Interim, Puerto del Sol, Shampoo, and Adrienne: A Poetry Journal of Queer Women. Her poems won the LUMINA and Prism Review poetry prizes and have been finalists for prizes from Omnidawn, The Iowa Review, and Ahsahta Press. Passionate about small-press publishing, she’s helped make some beautiful books as an editor for Kelsey Street Press, and currently works as an Editorial Consultant and Marketing Associate for Omnidawn Publishing. She is an MFA candidate at Saint Mary’s College of CA and lives with her partner in the Santa Cruz Mountains.


Antietam/Sharpsburg.American Battlefield Trust.

Emily Dickinson and The Church.The Emily Dickinson Museum.

Atlantic Monthly, September 1862

Hampshire Gazette, September 30, 1862

Harper's Monthly, September 1862

Springfield Republican, September 27, 1862


Gilpin, W. Clark. Religion Around Emily Dickinson. Penn State University Press, 2014.

Eberwein, Jane Donahue. “New England Puritan Heritage.” Emily Dickinson in Context. Ed. Eliza Richards. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013, 46-55.

Lundin, Roger. Emily Dickinson and the Art of Belief. Second ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004, 10-12, 49-59.

Seelbinder, Emily. “Religion and Religious Criticism.” An Emily Dickinson Encyclopedia. Ed. Jane Donahue Eberwein. Westport, CT.: Greenwood Press, 1998, 245-46.

Sewall, Richard. The Life of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980, 19-27.

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