August 6-12, 1862: Fifth Letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Sometime in early August, 1862, Dickinson wrote her fifth letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson and enclosed two poems, “I cannot dance upon my toes” (F381A, J326) and “Before I got my Eye put out” (F336A, J327). This week, we will examine this letter, the two poems included in it and other poems that speak to the themes both letter and poems suggest as pertinent to this crucial developing friendship.

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This Week's Reflection – Jason Hoppe

Sometime in early August of 1862, Dickinson wrote her fifth letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson and enclosed two poems, “I cannot dance upon my toes” (F381A, J326) and “Before I got my Eye put out” (F336A, J327). It is a long letter covering themes such as self-governance, waywardness, “Orthography,” seclusion, her dog Carlo, fraud and literary imitation, and ends with an offer to share with Higginson one of the three portraits of Elizabeth Barrett Browning friends have sent Dickinson. Apparently, every self-respecting friend of Emily must have a portrait of this extraordinary writer, who died in June 1861 — or is this offer meant as a substitute for the portrait of Dickinson that Higginson requested in his last letter, which she said she did not have?

T.Higginson with his daughter. Emily Dickinson Museum
T.Higginson with his daughter. Emily Dickinson Museum

In her letter, Dickinson repeats many of Higginson’s questions and comments, giving us a fuller sense of his interests in her and their correspondence. She replies with alluring but enigmatic answers. This week, we will examine this letter, the two poems included in it, and other poems that speak to the themes both letter and poems suggest as pertinent to this crucial, developing friendship.

“Pure Christianity Never Was, and Never Can Be, the National Religion of Any Country upon Earth”

Springfield Republican, August 9, 1862

Progress of the War, page 1
“The great event of the week is the call by the president for 300,000 militia from the states for nine months’ service. We have recovered from the failure of the second ‘forward-to-Richmond’ movement much quicker than the first, and the third movement is now in progress. The president has announced that Gen. Hallock has undivided control of the operations of the war.”

Do We Want Canada?, page 4
“Our British cousins evidently think we do. The revelations made in the latest debates in the British parliament as to the defense of Canada are curious and instructive. The idea that the United States’ desire to absorb the Canadas and other British American provinces, and will ultimately do so, manifestly accounts for much of the hostile feeling towards this country, and especially for the strong wish to see the Union broken under and our power thus crippled for generations to come.”

Stand by the Cause, page 4
“The day for petulant complainings and critical doubts is long gone by, and the hour come when every man should throw himself with complete sympathy and new enthusiasm into the spirit of every onward movement. Let us talk victory—think victory—dream victory—and it shall come.”

Poetry, page 6 [by Horatius Bonar]

Raeburn's portrait of Sir Walter Scott in 1822
Raeburn's portrait of Sir Walter Scott in 1822

Books, Authors and Art, page 7
“The seventh and eighth volumes of Lockhart’s Life of Walter Scott are books of personal history and charming literary gossip, being largely composed of extracts from the novelist’s diary and letters to eminent friends. Persons who have long had a satisfactory edition of the novels would find their value much enhanced by the comment furnished in these inviting volumes of the author’s life.”

Hampshire Gazette, August 12, 1862

Christianity, page 1
“Pure Christianity never was, and never can be, the national religion of any country upon earth. It is a gold too refined to be worked up with any human institution, without a large portion of alloy; for no sooner is this small grain of mustard seed watered with the fertile showers of civil emoluments, then it grows up a large spreading tree, under the shelter of whose branches and leaves the birds of prey and plunder will not fail to make themselves comfortable habitations, and thereby deface its beauty and spoil its fruits.”

page 2
The New York Times has got to be the sensation paper of the day.”

Amherst, page 3
“The Amherst recruits, with others from neighboring towns, left for camp at Pittsfield on Monday, in charge of Lieut. M. W. Tyler of Amherst.”

“Syllables of Velvet / Sentences of Plush”

Grave of Eudocia Flynt
Grave of Eudocia Flynt

August 1862 was a time of waiting for Dickinson. The excitement of the Amherst Commencement on July 10, and all the events, visitors and entertaining that entailed for the Dickinsons, was over. Dickinson gives evidence of enjoying the hoopla, writing to her cousin Eudocia Flynt from Monson sometime before July 21,

Dear Mrs Flint

You and I, did’nt finish talking. Have you room for the sequel, in your Vase?

All the letters I could
Were not fair as this –
Syllables of Velvet –
Sentences of Plush –
Depths of Ruby, undrained –
Hid, Lip, for Thee,
Play it were a
Humming Bird
And sipped just
Me –

Emily. (L270)

She enclosed a flower with this lush letter-poem about her preference for talking face to face, which emerges as a theme in this week’s selections.

Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson
Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Then, in August, Dickinson wrote her long fifth letter to Higginson, who was busy at the time training raw recruits from his adopted hometown of Worcester, Massachusetts to serve in the 51st regiment. “My company is admitted to be the best drilled & disciplined in the regiment,” he announced with pride in a letter of November 9 from a camp outside the town, as he waited for instructions about the regiment’s deployment. Five days later, he received a letter from Brig. General Rufus Saxton, another Massachusetts man with ties to the Transcendentalist circles of which Higginson was a member, who was enlisting freed slaves as troops for the Union army and offered Higginson command of this new regiment. Higginson left for South Carolina within days to take up this mission.

Another letter Dickinson wrote at about the same time to Samuel Bowles, still traveling in Europe, expresses her longing to have her friend back:

Summer a’nt so long as it was, when we stood looking at it, before you went away, and when I finish August, we’ll hop the Autumn, very soon – and ’twill be Yourself. … I tell you, Mr Bowles, it is a Suffering, to have a sea – no care how Blue – between your Soul, and you. … It is easier to look behind at a pain, than to see it coming. A Soldier called – a Morning ago, and asked for a Nosegay, to take to Battle. I suppose he thought we kept an Aquarium. (L272)

The last remark about the soldier has been cited as evidence of Dickinson’s aloofness, elitism, and distance from the Civil War and its ongoing death toll, and her remark about the aquarium, though opaque, does seem snarky. But in the context of a comment about the pain of separation, this comment can be read as a recognition of and sympathy with the Soldier’s approaching rupture from family and friends. Dickinson offers the Soldier as an example of someone who “see[s] the pain coming” by contrast with herself, who has already faced the pain of separation from Bowles, which is almost over, and is looking back at it as aftermath with some relief.

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Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum


Jason Hoppe


Jason HoppeSeveral observations and themes in this post resonate with me, though I’m not yet sure how or whether to connect them. The post puts together such a provocative tapestry, for instance, of Dickinson’s varied interests in “faces”—in her preference for face-to-face meetings over correspondence, in the faces she makes of mountains in the poem about waywardness mentioned (F745), and even in how she insists in her fifth letter to Higginson on taking him at the very “face value,” as the post puts it, that she makes it quite difficult for him to reciprocate (in part by declining to send him any self-portrait other than a metaphorical one, or one of Elizabeth Barrett Browning).

Maybe the first item that stood out to me in the post, though, has something to do with this too, albeit in a roundabout way: it was the brief newspaper poem, “Be True,” by Horatius Bonar.

I read it a couple times, increasingly bemused. Of course Bonar is writing in the same hymn meter that Dickinson drew from—and actually innovated. But how sententious and banal do Bonar’s lines read next to hers! I couldn’t help but wonder over how differently, how much more complexly, being “true” plays out in her early correspondence to Higginson. Bonar seems to take being “true” to be readily self-evident; thinking and living “truly” is rather a simple affair and, ultimately, the solution to global hunger. It’s a sentimental vision for which I think Dickinson would have little regard, though she might have delighted in parodying it.

When she first writes to Higginson, of course, Dickinson asks him to “tell me what is true” (L260). She counts herself among the “True” in her third letter to him (L265), and in her fourth verifies that he does “truly consent” to the relationship she establishes between them while also congratulating him for being “true” about an earlier judgment (L268). And she opens the fifth letter by thanking him, in advance, for the “Truth” of his judgment about her poems (L271). However, given their context, nothing about these moments of indexing what is “true” and “truthful”—which, for Dickinson, raise hard, intersecting questions about loyalty, accuracy, insight, and honesty—is simple or straightforward. But while there is coyness and uncertainty in these letters to Higginson, they also do not lack for sincerity. Dickinson is nothing if not ingenuous when playing with the truth. But she also evinces a more realistic understanding of the difficulty of getting at what is true, performing the same, and the consequences of such performances.

Take “I cannot dance upon my toes”(F381A). As the post notes, the deeply performative nature of this poem only further complicates the ostensibly tutorial relationship that Dickinson establishes with Higginson. How is he to “tell [her] what is true,” when she (or her surrogate speaker) needs no man’s instruction to access the “Ballet Knowledge” within the mind? In this poem, though, Dickinson also relentlessly distinguishes what is true, and “full as Opera,” in the self and what is outside of it, at least so far as the “placards” of publics go. The majority of the poem renounces the latter—that’s quite different than the lockstep relationship of true self and world imagined, say, in Bonar’s hymn. This is not to declare, as critics of old, that Dickinson abandons the world, but it is to make clear that, following fascinating interpretations like Runzo’s, she realizes that facing it requires more deftness and nuance for some than others.

bio: Jason Hoppe is an Associate Dean and Associate Professor at the United States Military Academy (West Point). He is working to complete a book on how a number of major nineteenth-century New England authors brought together their lives and literary achievements. Articles from the project on Emily Dickinson and Margaret Fuller have been published in Texas Studies in Literature and Language and ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance, respectively.


Hampshire Gazette, August 12, 1862

Springfield Republican, August 9, 1862


Dickinson, Emily. The Letters of Emily Dickinson. Eds. Thomas Johnson and Theodora Ward. 3 vols. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958, 414.

Kytle, Ethan J. “Captain Higginson Takes Command.The Opinion Pages, November 16, 2012.

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May 28-June 3, 1862: Illness and Health

This week’s post situates Dickinson’s health and illness, especially her eye troubles, in the work of two of her contemporaries and influences, Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s editorial on “The Health of Our Girls,” and Henry David Thoreau’s essay, “Walking,” both published in the June 1862 issue of the Atlantic Monthly.

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This Week's Reflection – Giavanna Munafo

This week’s post takes its inspiration from the June 1862 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, which printed two articles related to health and illness: Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s editorial on “The Health of Our Girls,” and Henry David Thoreau’s essay, “Walking.” In April, Dickinson began a correspondence with Higginson in which she invoked illness both explicitly—“I was ill – and write today” (L261) and “I felt a palsy” (L265)—and implicitly in her language about her writing, with medicalized terms like “Balm” and “spasmodic” (L265).

Thoreau, Pointing out that editor Thomas Johnson dated 366 poems to 1862, biographer Richard Sewall considers Dickinson’s remarkable poetic inspiration and production during a time when she was in “such a deplorable emotional condition as is often hypothesized.” He observes, it

is hard to see how she could have had the strength to put mind to matter or pen to paper, let alone write poems of much coherence and power.

In fact, many scholars have attempted to figure out just what was going on in Dickinson’s life, and “the difficulty with her eyes is still a mystery.” Explanations range from John Cody’s psychosomatic Freudian prognoses to investigations by Sewall and an ophthalmologist, who noticed in “the famous daguerreotype of Dickinson taken at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary” that her right cornea “deviated as much as fifteen degrees from true.” James Guthrie notes that Dickinson traveled twice to Boston two years later to see Dr. Henry Williams, an ophthalmologist. Though a diagnosis is now impossible, Guthrie speculates that

in this struggle, poetry functioned as an extension of herself, an alternative mode of perception that took place of her injured eyes and which was equally capable of revealing the truth to her.

A Quiet PassionInterest in Dickinson’s health persists in contemporary circles. Director Terence Davis gave it ample screen time in his 2016 biopic A Quiet Passion. This week’s post situates Dickinson’s health in the commentaries of two contemporary writers, Higginson and Thoreau, and in her own poems from around 1862 about illness and health.


“The Health of Our Girls”


Springfield Republican, May 31, 1862, page 1
Progress of the War.
This has been the most extraordinary week of the whole war—a week of needless defeat and retreat, and of sudden panic and quick reassurance. Under the misapprehension that the capital was again in danger there has been another outburst of popular patriotism scarcely less vehement than that of April of last year, and the two hundred thousand volunteers needed to fill up the ranks of our decimated armies will come forward at once, and the government be obliged to say, “Hold, enough!” almost before its new summons to arms has been proclaimed through the country.

Springfield Republican, May 31, 1862, page 1
Cotton and Consumption.
Dr. Alfred Booth of Lowell, formerly of this city, has published an article broaching the novel theory that the wearing of cotton next the skin is a cause of consumption. If this should be confirmed the destruction of King Cotton may prove a great blessing instead of an evil. Dr. Booth’s theory is at least ingenious.

Springfield Republican, May 31, 1862, page 2
Books, Authors and Art.

Max Muller (1823-1900), a German philologist
Max Muller (1823-1900), a German philologist

Dogs and horses receive a great many ideas, both detached and associated, but they are incapable of generalizing; so that Max Muller is substantially right when he says: “No animal thinks and no animal speaks, except man. Language and thought are inseparable. Words without thought are dead sounds; thoughts without words are nothing. To think is to speak low; to speak is to think aloud. The word is the thought incarnate.”

Springfield Republican, May 31, 1862, page 3
Emancipation at War.
A letter from Gen. Fremont’s camp in Western Virginia relates the following significant incident:

The presence and passage of our army in the country is having the effect of settling the slavery question here, for emancipation follows its path. I have talked with many of these poor negroes, and find them singularly intelligent… They are of great value to us in many ways, especially as guides, and the scouts tell me that there has never been an instance of false or even incorrect information derived from them.

Springfield Republican, June 7, 1862, page 3

The poetry of the June Atlantic is all good with one exception; very good, with two. Of its prose, the first essay, on Walking, does more to unfold the characters and habits of its author, the late gifted eccentric Henry D. Thoreau, than any ordinary biography would have done;—Thoreau, who was emphatically a man of today, a student of “that newer testament, the Gospel according to the present moment;” and who after sauntering through a brief but happy life, has passed a la Sainte Terre, and will return no more.  … Mr. Higginson’s article upon feminine health provokes a feeling of antagonism. He seems to ignore the fact that the brute vigor of the peasant woman is absolutely incompatible with culture and refinement, and that the scimitar of Saladin must keep to its graceful feats, and not attempt to deal the sledge-hammer blows of the heavy battle-ax of Richard. Moreover, physiologists are wont to confine themselves to material agencies, and yet there is an immaterial hygiene that affects, more vitally than we are fond of admission, “the health of our girls.”

Hampshire Gazette, June 3, 1862, page 2
The Emancipation and Confiscation Acts.
These two most important measures of the government came up in the House of Representatives last week, and the confiscation bill was passed by a majority of twenty, while the emancipation bill was lost by four votes. Both bills are published in another column. The people of Massachusetts are anxious that measures should be adopted by which some sort of punishment shall be meted out to the rebels, and they regret exceedingly that the bill for the emancipation of the slaves of rebels has failed.

Hampshire Gazette, June 3, 1862, page 2
The Selectmen have appointed Daniel Converse for the South part, and Marquis F. Dickinson for the North part, Special Police, to enforce the dog law. Mr. Converse canvassed the South Parish Wednesday and had 10 dogs licensed on his route, and all but four in that parish are now registered, and those were allowed three days grace, on account of the absence of the owners… [Marquis F. Dickinson (1840-1915) was born in Amherst, graduated from Amherst College and Harvard Law School, and was a prominent Boston attorney, but does not seem to be related to the Dickinson's of the Homestead.]

Thomas M. Brown has been lecturing on temperance in Amherst, North Amherst, and other places adjoining—Dodge had a large audience at his concert in Amherst.

“Thoreau and Higginson on Health”

“I wish to speak a word for Nature …” -Henry David Thoreau, Atlantic Monthly, June of 1862

The June 7th printing of the Springfield Republican directs its readers’ attention to the Atlantic Monthly, reviewing columns by Henry David Thoreau and Thomas Wentworth Higginson (page 3). “Walking,” by the “late gifted eccentric” Thoreau, is said to “unfold the characters and habits of its author.” “The Health of Our Girls,” Higginson’s piece, on the other hand, “provokes a sense of antagonism.” The contemporary reader might also take issue with Higginson’s anachronistic arguments about women’s health, though writing about the topic at all was considered progressive for his time. Whatever the Springfield Republican has to say in review of this month’s Atlantic, it was certainly an issue to pique Dickinson’s interest, both for her focus on nature and her newfound relationship with Higginson.

In “Walking,” Thoreau makes a case for

Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil,—to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society.

He feels there are “enough champions of civilization” and too few of Nature. He notices the “subtle magnetism of Nature,” a force that Dickinson has well-documented. He does not, however, share her love for gardens, but instead, for walking: 

 yes, though you may think me perverse, if it were proposed to dwell in the neighborhood of the most beautiful garden that every human art contrived, or else of a dismal swamp, I should certainly decide for the swamp.

Thoreau, perhaps unlike Dickinson, places the garden on the order of “civilization,” the management and pruning of “Nature,” and is therefore surpassed by the wild, untouched swamp.

Around the same time that Higginson was in correspondence with Dickinson, he published his editorial, “The Health of Our Girls,” in the Springfield Republican, addressing what he saw as a decline in the vigor of New England women. Notably, Dickinson’s first three letters to Higginson (on April 15th, 25th, and June 7th) make use of the metaphors and metonyms of health.

Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?

she writes in the first, as if to put her poetry on the hospital bed (L260). In the second, she thanks him for his “surgery,” writing from her pillow because she is “ill” (L261). In the third, she claims that his “Balm, seemed better” because he “bled her first” (L265). That her rhetoric affords him the role of a poetic doctor becomes all the more relevant when he publishes his piece on the health of women. His all-knowing assertion of what’s best for women’s health is reflected in his correspondence with Dickinson and his editorial comments on her poetry. At the same time that he performed surgery on her poetry, she was “ill” and found some relief in writing.

Higginson frames his argument within an American context, asserting that “Nature is aiming at a keener and subtler temperament in framing the American” due to a “drier atmosphere” which might produce a “higher type of humanity.” Female health, however, is determined largely by changing social conventions. He then cites the obstacles:

 What use to found colleges for girls whom even the high-school breaks down, or to induct them into new industrial pursuits when they have not strength to stand behind a counter? How appeal to any woman to enlarge her thoughts beyond the mere drudgery of the household, when she “dies daily” beneath the exhaustion of even that?

The “disease” of American women, as he calls it, is deeply embedded in the social, the “elevation of the mass of women to the social zone of music-lessons and silk gowns” such that they forgo the “rustic health” of field-labor and agriculture. Like Thoreau, he privileges “walking” which he sees as a “rare habit among our young women.” He offers a panorama of possible solutions—forms of exercise that he finds well-suited to women—such as swimming, rowing, and riding horses. Of the condition of women’s health in American, he concludes with a dire prognosis and hints and emerging panacea:

 Morbid anatomy has long enough served as a type of feminine loveliness; our polite society has long enough been a series of soirées of incurables. Health is coming into fashion.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum



Giavanna Munafo

Giavanna MunafoThis week’s post and poems invite us to consider the complex ways that Dickinson’s health, especially her “chronic optical illness," influenced her poetry, is made visible or evident there, and/or might inform our understanding of her work from this period.

In response, I was called back to a poem very much of our current time and concerned with one of the greatest health crises of modern life, the AIDS epidemic. In “Heartbeats,” the poet and novelist Melvin Dixon asserts through poetic utterance his own stuttering process of coming face to face with illness and suffering. Dixon died at 42 of complications from AIDS. Every step of the way “Heartbeats” insists, in recurring imperative commands, on the tending of the body and its fitness while simultaneously cataloguing the determined, ever-escalating throws of its failure in the face of a persistent, fatal disease.

Melvin Dixon (1950-1992)
Melvin Dixon (1950-1992)

The battery of the poem’s repetitive two-syllable sentences in relentless couplets, along with the poem’s guttural rhythmic music, hammer home its story of ever-persistent symptoms and the speaker’s equally stubborn drive to fend them off. The final couplet, starting with a reprieve from the poem’s headstrong anti-sentimentality — “Sweet heart.” — introduces a tension similar to the one Guthrie notes in Dickinson’s work, giving possibility with one hand while taking it away with the other.

Lastly, another connection across the years worth noting, and one that remains a pressing matter today, is concern about public health in the specific context of subjugated populations put under medical scrutiny, populations to be managed or controlled. In Dickinson’s day (and, of course, sadly too often still), women were to be diagnosed and managed, and in our time those most devastated, and for far too long abandoned, by private and public neglect of the AIDS epidemic — gay men, intravenous drug users, and the poor — were and remain under the microscope, literally in medical terms and metaphorically in terms of their rights as citizens and fully human members of our communities.

by Melvin Dixon

Work out. Ten laps.
Chin ups. Look good.

Steam room. Dress warm.
Call home. Fresh air.

Eat right. Rest well.
Sweetheart. Safe sex.

Sore throat. Long flu.
Hard nodes. Beware.

Test blood. Count cells.
Reds thin. Whites low.

Dress warm. Eat well.
Short breath. Fatigue.

Night sweats. Dry cough.
Loose stools. Weight loss.

Get mad. Fight back.
Call home. Rest well.

Don’t cry. Take charge.
No sex. Eat right.

Call home. Talk slow.
Chin up. No air.

Arms wide. Nodes hard.
Cough dry. Hold on.

Mouth wide. Drink this.
Breathe in. Breathe out.

No air. Breathe in.
Breathe in. No air.

Black out. White rooms.
Head hot. Feet cold.

No work. Eat right.
CAT scan. Chin up.

Breathe in. Breathe out.
No air. No air.

Thin blood. Sore lungs.
Mouth dry. Mind gone.

Six months? Three weeks?
Can’t eat. No air.

Today? Tonight?
It waits. For me.

Sweet heart. Don’t stop.
Breathe in. Breathe out.


Bio: Giavanna Munafo teaches in Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Dartmouth College. She is also a volunteer crisis counselor and advocate and does consulting work focused on diversity and equity. Giavanna’s poems have appeared in E.Ratio, Redheaded Stepchild, Slab, Talking Writing, The New Virginia Review, Bloodroot Literary Magazine, and The Nearest Poem Anthology (Ed. Sofia Starnes). She holds a BA and PhD from the University of Virginia and an MFA from the University of Iowa. Giavanna lives in Norwich, Vermont.


Sewall, Richard. The Life of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980, 606.

Guthrie, James R. Emily Dickinson's Vision: Illness and Identity in Her Poetry. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1998, 8-9.

Hampshire Gazette, June 3, 1862

Springfield Republican, May 31,  June 7, 1862

Guthrie, James R. Emily Dickinson's Vision: Illness and Identity in Her Poetry. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1998, 8-9.

Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. “The Health of Our Girls,”  Atlantic Monthly, June 1862.

Thoreau, Henry David. “Walking,”  Atlantic Monthly, June 1862.