November 26-December 2, 1862: Time

Several scholars have noted Dickinson’s obsession with time. As we near the end of our year with Dickinson and the shortest day of the year, we explore this significant theme in Dickinson’s work, its origins in the Protestant tradition, in Romanticism and Transcendentalism, and the challenging and often contradictory forms it takes in Dickinson’s work. We also consider Dickinson’s relationship to time understood in terms of her own time, her historical context, and her deep engagement with time as meter and rhythm in her innovative poetry.

Overview
This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Zoë Pollak
Sources

Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf
Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf

Thinking about grand themes like death and aftermath in Dickinson’s poetry, as we have done for the past couple of weeks, has inspired this week’s focus on a related and encompassing subject – time, temporality, and eternity. Several scholars have noted Dickinson’s obsession with time. For Sharon Cameron,

Dickinson's lyrics are especially caught up in the oblique dialectic of time and immortality.

In a moving essay on the subject, Peggy O’Brien considers Dickinson in relation to other poets, early and late, and finds:

Viewing Dickinson through the lens of her fixation on time reveals her absolute uniqueness. … Dickinson’s specificity about time, the way she makes it palpable and pressing, allows her to inhabit this metaphysical plane and bring her readers in their stubborn corporeality along with her in hers to it.

As we near the end of our year with Dickinson and the shortest day of the year, we tackle this significant theme, which is unmistakable in her writing, to see what she does with it around 1862.

Many readers chalk up Dickinson’s obsession with time to her Romanticism. But from the Calvinist Protestant tradition, Dickinson inherited a strong concept of time shaped by God and by ideas of salvation and immortality. In many of her poems, however, she questions this tradition and its notion of eschatology, the theory of the “end times.” The ideas about time Dickinson evolves in place of traditional Christian ones are challenging, sometimes contradictory, and often surprising for the way she adopts current philosophical and scientific thinking about time and space and anticipates modern philosophers of time. We will explore these challenges and also consider Dickinson’s relationship to time understood in terms of her own time, her historical context, and her deep engagement with time as meter and rhythm in her innovative poetry.

“Let But a Brilliant Genius Arise”

Springfield Republican, November 29, 1862

Progress of the War, page 1
“The expectations raised by the military movements of last week are disappointed. Gen. Burnside did not make the anticipated attempt to cut off the retreat of the rebel army to Richmond, and still remains on the north bank of the Rappahannock opposite Fredericksburg. The severe storm, spoiling the roads and producing great discomfort and not a little positive suffering in our half-sheltered army, is one cause of the delay; and another is found in the slow coach movements of the departments of supply at Washington.”

The Greek Revolution, page 2
“The late rebellion in Greece was universal. Never before, perhaps, has a whole people so unanimously elected a ruler, or set a reigning sovereign adrift. The citizens, the clergy, the army and the navy were all against King Otto, and he left the country he had lived in and governed for 80 years, without a voice raised in his favor, or hardly a friend to mourn his departure.”

Poetry, page 6
“The Trundle Bed.” [First copyrighted in 1860, “My Trundle Bed” was written by John C. Baker to be sung by Miss Lizzie Hutchinson of the Hutchinson family. For the full poem, see  American Radio History, July 3, 1937.]

Books, Authors, and Arts, page 7
“We have a class of ambitious writers who imitate nobody but Harriet Prescott  and Elizabeth Sheppard. These women possess real genius, but of a peculiar kind, and which often clothes itself in grotesque and extravagant forms. They are, therefore, the very last persons whose cast-off clothing can be supposed to be a general fit, and the unfortunate wights who gather up and adopt as a costume their fallen finery are seldom at ease in it and have all the disadvantages of caricatures of an exceptional original. Let but a brilliant genius arise whose rare gifts redeem his striking faults, who even takes advantage of them as foils, and hundreds of petty persons who have no remarkable gifts whatever will at once proceed to imitate what to them alone is  inimitable and present a disgusted public with an abundance of life-size copies of their favorite’s defects.”

Hampshire Gazette, December 2, 1862

Mosquito Experience (from Henry Ward Beecher’s Eyes and Ears), page 1
“Much of the anxiety of business is mere mosquito-hunting. When I see a man pale and anxious, not for what has happened, but for what may happen, I say, ‘Strike your own face, do it again, and keep doing it for there is nothing else to hit.’ Everybody has his own mosquitos, that fly by night or bite by day. There are few men of nerves firm enough to calmly let them bite. Most men insist upon flagellating themselves for the sake of not hitting their troubles.”

Amherst, page 3
“Rev. C. L. Woodworth, chaplain to the 27th regiment, arrived at his home in Amherst on Friday evening week. He preached to his old congregation on the following Sunday, and will speak, to the citizens of Amherst, at the congregational church, this evening, giving a history of his experience in camp.”

Harper’s Monthly, November 1862

The Army of the Potomac — Our Outlying Picket in the Woods, a wood engraving sketched by Winslow Homer and published in Harper's Weekly, June 7, 1862.
The Army of the Potomac — Our Outlying Picket in the Woods, a wood engraving sketched by Winslow Homer and published in Harper's Weekly, June 7, 1862.

Editor’s Table, page 845
“We are now in the second year of the war, and this autumn, which is likely to bring with it signal events, cannot but urge upon us most significant thoughts. We are now in the third stage of our national crisis. Fort Sumter taught us that we are a people, and mean to stand by our national life; Bull Run convinced us that we must have an army, and gave us the most magnificent army on earth; the Army of the Potomac has shown us that we must have a government equal to the issue, and it is upon this imperative want that both the people and the army are now dwelling with intense emphasis. Why more efficiency in the Government is demanded, what are the chief causes of its recent inefficiency, and what is called for by the voice of the nation and is sure to have the nation’s favor and support, our readers may not need many words of ours to suggest.”

“I Never Knew how to Tell Time by the Clock”

For a poet and thinker obsessed with time, Dickinson had an awkward beginning with the practice of it. In a letter Thomas Higginson sent to his wife about his visit with Dickinson on August 16, 1870, he included this anecdote. Among the stories Dickinson shared, she told him:

I never knew how to tell the time by the clock until I was 15. My father thought he had taught me but I did not understand & I was afraid to say I did not & afraid to ask anyone else lest he should know. (L 342b).

Clearly, telling time by the clock was an important aspect of Dickinson's father’s tutelage, as, no doubt, was the virtue of punctuality. (Did lawyers think in terms of billable hours back then?) But it didn’t stick. It is interesting to speculate just how the teenaged Dickinson learned to read clocks.

We know Dickinson absorbed religious concepts of time and eternity from her Protestant upbringing but she did not seem to take comfort in them. In 1848, she wrote to her good friend Abiah Root:

Does not Eternity appear dreadful to you? … it seems so dark to me that I almost wish there was no Eternity.(L 23).

According to scholars, aspects of the religious notion of time and eternity shaped what Georges Poulet, in an essay form 1956, diagnoses as Dickinson's dilemma:

All her spiritual life and all her poetry are comprehended only in the determination given them by two initial moments, one of which is contradicted by the other, a moment in which one possesses eternity and a moment when one loses it.

Expanding on the ideas of Rebecca Patterson, who explored Dickinson’s spatial imagery of the four cardinal points of the compass, Barton Levi St. Armand contends that Dickinson solved this dilemma by imagining time not as a clock but as a “sundial” and by organizing “very personal and much more elaborate correspondences” in relation to the four major corners of the dial into a schema he calls Dickinson’s “mystic day,” which we discussed earlier in our post on Spring:

Dickinson's
Dickinson's “Mystic Day.”
from Barton Levi St. Armand, “Emily Dickinson and her Culture,” p. 317

About the dilemma posed by time and eternity, St. Armand argued,

The mystic day was a means of solving this dilemma by merging these two moments and collapsing time into eternity, though such a method of necessity brought with it infinite agony or infinite ecstasy, depending on one’s placement in the houses of her transcendence.

As this handy chart illustrates,  the four directions correspond to the two solstices (noon, midnight) and two equinoxes (sunrise, sunset), as well as the human cycle of growth, the Christian cycle of Christ’s life, the spiritual and religious cycles of faith, the four seasons, colors, psychology, flowers, geography and illumination. The effects of the sun, its light and its position in the sky, play a major role in this “mystic day.” The sun itself comes to represent a lover-deity-Master-Christ-figure St. Armand calls “Phoebus,” another name for the Greek god Apollo, charged with managing the sun's movement in the sky. With this chart, St. Armand extracts what he dubs Dickinson’s “solar myth” or “The Romance of Daisy and Phoebus” from the Master letters and poetry, which he calls

the most powerful inner fact in the evolution of Dickinson’s sensibility.

But perhaps this myth and chart are a bit too “handy” and link correspondences too neatly, preventing us from seeing and hearing the complications not bound by this heterosexual metanarrative. The important point this theory makes is to link Dickinson’s notion of time with notions of space, geography, psychology and experiences of love and passion (object undisclosed).

In her innovative approach from the perspective of cognitive linguistics, Margaret Freeman takes this even further. She argues, first, that metaphor-making is not unique to poets but is how we all understand the world. Second, that Dickinson rejected the dominant metaphor of her religious background, that “LIFE IS A JOURNEY THROUGH TIME,” replacing it with a metaphor garnered from the latest scientific discoveries of her day, that “LIFE IS A VOYAGE IN SPACE.” Image clusters related to “path” and “cycle” and “Air as Sea” reflect

a physically embodied world and create Dickinson’s conceptual universe.

It is, perhaps, this embodied intensity that leads Peggy O’Brien to declare:

There is no poet … who lives more on the edge of every single second than Emily Dickinson: “Each Second is the last” (F927). She seems determined in poem after poem to ground the soaring statement “Forever – is composed of Nows –” (F690) in a single, solid now.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum

 

Reflection

Zoë Pollak

As Professor Schweitzer notes, the first posthumously-published volumes of Dickinson divide the poetry into four themes: “Life,” “Love,” “Nature,” and “Time and Eternity.” It’s easy to understand why editors Thomas Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd took it upon themselves to offer Dickinson’s first readers a framework with which to approach such a vast archive. What’s curious is the logic that led the pair to come up with divisions like “Life” and “Nature” given the extent to which such broad categories overlap. How did they determine whether a poem with a first line like, say, “My life closed twice before it’s close –” (F1773A) would fall under “Life” or get tucked into “Time and Eternity”?

We’d be hard-pressed to find a speaker in Dickinson who isn’t on some level struggling with how to conceive of time, of how to position him or herself both within and outside of its passage. Given that Dickinson’s thought experiments often contradict each other metaphysically both within and across poems (“Eternity” can be simultaneously “ample” and “quick enough” [F352B], and the same mechanism that “expands” time in one stanza “contracts” it in the next [F833A]), Higginson and Todd’s impulse to yoke time with eternity and restrict them to a single category might seem presumptuous. By cordoning off this category to the end of the volume, the editors supply us with an architecture that’s implicitly exegetical—they physically structure our encounter with “Time” in Dickinson, and curate the way we approach it.

And yet their headings, as capacious as they are reductive, actually manage to preserve and recreate the paradoxes that inhere in many of the poet’s compositions. On one hand, if “Life” leads to “Eternity,” we are faced with the traditional Protestant telos that several of this week’s critics argue Dickinson resists (that is, the Calvinist notion that “‘life is a journey through time,’ which ends at death, a gate to Heaven and immortality or Hell and an eternity of pain”). Yet at the same time (so to speak), Higginson and Todd’s design formally—if not ideologically—pushes against this very framework: how can life be a journey through time if the two literally stand at opposite ends of Poems? Ironically, what allows the editors to sustain this dialectic is their having assimilated “Time and Eternity” into one heading, a merging which would have most likely alarmed John Calvin and Dickinson alike.

I’d imagine that many of us probably find specious the intimation that only some of Dickinson’s poetry is steeped in time. To take this immeasurable medium and compress it into a single region within the span of the poet’s oeuvre demands the bravado of a Marvellian lover. For that matter, it would be a mistake to try and disentangle Dickinson’s treatment of time from her engagement with equally sprawling and diffuse concepts like “space, geography, psychology,” as Professor Schweitzer reminds us. Margaret Freeman suggests that Dickinson

replaced the standard religious teaching about time and eternity with the metaphor of “life is a voyage through space,” non-linear imagery [Dickinson] gleaned from her readings in the new sciences that “saw space as a vast sea, with the planets as boats, circling in sweeps around the sun.”

Despite this renegade move, Dickinson is clearly in conversation with the writers and thinkers around her when she confirms time and space as inseparable. We don’t require the parlance of contemporary physics to recognize that these dimensions exist on a continuum; we need only refer to a sonnet of Shakespeare or song of Donne to realize that it’s impossible to fathom—let alone portray—one medium without enlisting the aid of the other. (How, for instance, can we picture an object moving in space other than through a period of time, and how can we imagine time’s trajectory without conjuring a path in space?)

As Peggy O’Brien puts it, Dickinson “makes [time] palpable and pressing” to allow herself and her readers “to inhabit this metaphysical plane”:

Time feels so vast that were it not
For an Eternity –
I fear me this Circumference
Engross my Finity – (F858A)

So marvels one of Dickinson’s speakers, transmuting what would otherwise be abstract geometrical proportions into ripples, so that even as circle swallows circle, none of the water disappears. The concept of time as a stream is easily as old as Heraclitus, and made memorable by contemporaries of Dickinson’s like Thoreau. What Dickinson does differently is to thicken time into a substance not in order to crystalize it into something hard like a bead of amber or her hermetically palindromic “noon,” but rather to seize upon time as motion, to vivify time’s presence by emphasizing its evanescence. Summer may lapse away “As imperceptibly as Grief” (F935B), but that lapse leaves “A Quietness distilled.” And while in one poem “too happy Time dissolves / itself / And leaves no remnant by – ” (F1182A), in another we get closer to grasping “Forever” when we let “months dissolve in further / Months” (F690A).

Dissolves and distillations: there’s something about conceiving of time as a substance changing states that makes it feel tangible. I doubt we’d be half as receptive to sunsets if we could count on the sky’s amethysts and golds not to metamorphose into some other color each time we looked away; alterations are what sharpen our senses enough to detect them in the first place. After all, alchemists, those other masters of dissolving and distilling, gave their days to meting and measuring out transformations precisely to secure the eternal.

bio: Zoë Pollak is a Ph.D. candidate at Columbia University working in 19th-century American literature and is particularly interested in writers who alternate between poetic and essayistic forms. She graduated with a B.A. in English from the University of California, Berkeley in 2014, and received an M.St. in English from the University of Oxford in 2016, where she focused on early 20th-century American poetry.

Sources

Overview
Cameron, Sharon. Lyric Time: Dickinson and the Limits of Genre. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979, 23.

O’Brien, Peggy. “Telling the Time with Emily Dickinson.” Massachusetts Review 55. 3 September 2014:468-79, 470.

History
Harper's Monthly, November 1862
Hampshire Gazette, 
December 2, 1862
Springfield Republican, November 29, 1862

Biography

Freeman, Margaret. “Metaphor Making Meaning: Dickinson’s Conceptual Universe.” Journal of Pragmatics 24 (1995): 643-666, 643.

O’Brien, Peggy. “Telling the Time with Emily Dickinson.” Massachusetts Review 55. 3 September 2014:468-79, 469.

Poulet, Georges. Studies in Human Time. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1970, 346.

St. Armand, Barton Levi. Emily Dickinson and Her Culture: The Soul’s Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984, 81-82, 277-78, 317.

Back to Blog Post Menu

March 19-25, 1862: Spring!

Dickinson had an affinity for the natural world, and nature comprises a critical part of Dickinson’s poetic language. This week, we delve into Dickinson’s relationship with spring. Its burgeoning scenery and release from winter inspired powerful language and symbols, but we may be surprised to learn how Dickinson used spring during 1862, a year of extremes for her.

Overview
This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Sharon Barnes
Sources

“The Mystic Day”

This week brings the Spring Equinox, and with it, the burgeoning scenery and release from winter that inspired Dickinson to write some of her most celebrated nature poems.

Spring light at the Homestead
Spring light at the Homestead. credit: Emily Dickinson Museum

Even as a child filling in herbarium books and studying natural sciences, Dickinson had an affinity for the natural world, and nature comprises a critical part of Dickinson’s poetic language. She uses flowers as powerful symbols for herself and her poetry, butterflies and bees as recurring characters under intoxication, birds as divine and philosophical beings, and the sun as an eternal clock that marks the changing of the human world.

To glimpse what spring, in particular, meant to Dickinson, we might delve into what Barton Levi St. Armand called Dickinson’s “mystic day,” an elaborate symbolic system that synthesizes what he determined are Dickinson’s mythological associations among the seasons, four directions, times of day, flowers, colors, geography, psychological states and emotions. He is working from Rebecca Patterson’s outlines of Dickinson’s “private mythology” in which she claims that

by means of these interconnected symbol clusters [Dickinson] has effectually organized her emotions and experience and unified the poetry of her major period, making of it a more respectable body of work than the faulty and too often trivial fragments in which it is customarily presented.

William Blake,
William Blake, "The Jealousy of Los" from "The Four Zoas," [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

St. Armand notes that such symbolism was not unique to Dickinson and resembles “the fourfold universe of William Blake’s prophetic books, especially The Four Zoas” (begun 1797), while fellow New Englander Ralph Waldo Emerson also provides “a stimulus for the development of such an elaborate map of consciousness” in Nature (1836) when he remarks:

the dawn is my Assyria; the sunset and moonrise my Paphos and unimaginable realms of faerie; broad noon shall be my England of the senses and the understanding; the night shall be my Germany of mystic philosophy and dreams.

St. Armand speculates that drawing on the associations in the mystic day  was a way for Dickinson to solve the dilemma of temporality—how to access the eternal world while trapped in human time—by collapsing human time into eternity and representing one mode of time through the other. This personal system of correspondences was quite elaborate, as St. Armand’s chart indicates.

Dickinson's
Dickinson's "Mystic Day."
from Barton Levi St. Armand, "Emily Dickinson and her Culture," p. 317

In this system, Spring is associated with the cardinal point of the East, the human cyclical event of birth, the Christian cyclical event of the Resurrection or Easter, the spiritual cycle of hope, the psychological cycle of expectation, the colors of amethyst and yellow (for the dawn), the flowers of jonquil and crocus, the geographical places of Switzerland and the Alps, the illumination of morning light, and the religious cycle of conviction and awakening.

The Homestead on March 19, 2018, two days before the spring equinox!
The Homestead on March 19, 2018, two days before the spring equinox! credit: Dickinson Museum

But we may be surprised by what Spring means to Dickinson and how she uses it in her poetry during the year of 1862, a year of extremes: in the aftermath of her “terror” in the Fall of 1861, the death of Frazar Stearns in the war in March, and her decision in April of 1862 to reach out as a poet to Thomas Higginson.

“Your general loves you”

INTERNATIONAL NEWS

“A serious misunderstanding has occurred among the allied powers in Mexico,” as the British and Spanish return home, while the French increase their forces in Mexico. The American papers speculate that France and Spain had a falling out on how to properly handle the legislation in Mexico, and they abandoned their previous plan to install a foreign Archduke there.

The news of the capture of Fort Donelson reached England, resulting in a “considerable rise in American stocks” and general congratulations.

The Italian ministry reshuffles, due to the “Roman question”—the dispute over the temporal power of popes ruling a civil entity in Italy during the “Risorgimento,” the unification of Italy. For now, the question remains unresolved because the new Premier would like to keep Napoleonic France as an ally, and pushing the issue would likely upset the country and conflict with France’s future policy on the matter.

A series of small rebellions trouble the Ottoman Empire both in Greece and Turkey. Restless with prolonged foreign rule, decline of the empire, religious reform, and general dislike of the oppressive government, parts of Greece rebel. In Turkey, the same sentiments run wild and parallel rebellions occur all over the country and its Asiatic territories. The Springfield Republican says “with troubles abroad and brawls at home, Turkey is in hot water all the time, and the numerous insurrections throughout the territory seem to threaten her with immediate dissolution.” Not too far off the mark: the nearly six-hundred-year-old empire was experiencing a hard decline due to modernization, and would fall in around eighty years.

NATIONAL NEWS

Springfield Republican, Review of the Week: Progress of the War. “The progress of the Union arms is still onward, and the record of the week is as brilliant as any that has preceded it.” The Confederate forces continue to retreat, fleeing northern Virginia. News of General Burnside’s capture of New Bern, North Carolina, reaches the papers, which tell how “our men bore themselves like veterans” in the “severe fight” leading up to the capture. This capture proves crucial, as it allows the Union to reach North Carolina’s capital and occupy the coastal railroad running through the South. The Union also has “all eastern Florida,” and multiple coastal points along the East Coast.

General McClellan’s “grand army” advances towards Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy, and the Springfield Republican speculates that, “the capture of Richmond cannot be many days distant.” In reality, Richmond would not fall until April 5, 1865, and this attempt to capture the city would result in a five-month long campaign leading up to the Seven Days Battles in July of this year, where the Confederacy would successfully protect Richmond.

From Washington. This article reports on the controversy around General McClellan stirring up the country.

George B. McClellan. 1861 photograph by Mathew Brady.

McClellan’s fall and winter campaigns ended in mistakes and failures, and one instance where the South successfully deceived the general and managed to escape from his grasp. The country is divided over the competence of McClellan, most saying that the general cannot continue to lead a regiment and needs to be replaced. However, the Republican’s author argues McClellan “is to have one more opportunity at any rate,” but nothing more.

General McClellan “is at home among his troops, and to a great extent is popular among them,” but it remains a question whether or not the general is competent, or if his appointment was purely political.

In other news, emancipation continues to be a controversy in the Senate. The paper assures the reader that the bill would pass, “if it can ever come to a vote.”

picture of Wendell Phillips (1811–1884)
Wendell Phillips (1811–1884)

The paper also reports on abolitionist orator Wendell Phillips’ tour through Washington, and his lectures. The capital received him well, the column reports, and says, “this is in itself almost a miracle, and will be set down as an ‘event’ when the history of these times comes to be written.” Later this week, on March 24 in Cincinnati, Ohio, the orator would be booed off stage and pelted with rocks and eggs at his suggestion of fighting a war to free the slaves.

A Bit of Secret History. An 1861 letter from former Florida Senator Yulee to a correspondent from Tallahassee named Joseph Finegan was recently found.

David Levy Yulee

It reveals a secret meeting of the Southern Senators, and a part of the letter is quoted in the paper:

The idea of the meeting was that the states should go out at once, and provide for the early organization of a confederate government not later than the 15th of February. This time is allowed to enable Louisiana and Texas to participate. It seemed to be the opinion that if we left here, force, loan and volunteer bills might be passed, which would put Mr. Lincoln in immediate condition for hostilities; whereas, if by remaining in our places until the 4th of March, it is thought we can keep the hands of Mr. Buchanan tied, and disable the republicans from affecting any legislation which will strengthen the hands of the incoming administration.

The senators and states did in fact go through with this plan, and Northern newspapers now have no problem calling treason on these former senators.

Letter from the Owner of “Old Glory.” William Driver, a sea captain and Union sympathizer living in Nashville, owns the original “Old Glory” flag that became famous after his merchant ship traveled the world and saved five other American crews from ruin. Many armed and unarmed attempts to seize the flag during the Civil War led Driver to hide it safely away until Nashville fell in February, when Driver took it to the Union generals and requested it to be flown over the city in triumph. The Springfield Republican publishes a letter from him to his daughter, chronicling his feelings after seeing the flag flown over the city.

Letter from Old Glory
Letter from Old Glory, Springfield Republican, March 22, 1862

From the Potomac: Proclamation by Gen McClellan. General McClellan issues a proclamation to the armies of the Potomac, addressing his decision to not take on the Potomac Blockade in the winter, which earned him criticism and contributed to the controversy around him and his competency as a general:

you were to be disciplined, armed and instructed. The formidable artillery you now have, had to be created, other armies were to move and accomplish certain results. I have held you back that you might give the death blow to the rebellion that has distracted our once happy country.

The general announces the end to the waiting period, and pleads

in whatever direction you may move, however strange my actions may appear to you, ever bear in mind that my fate is linked with yours, and that all I do is to bring you where I know you wish to be, on the decisive battle field… you know that your general loves you from the depths of his heart.

“Early Soldier-heart”

This week, Dickinson, her family, and all of Amherst dealt with the aftermath of Frazar Stearns’ death, marked by his funeral on March 22.

Frazar Stearns (1841-1862)
Frazar Stearns (1841-1862). credit: Amherst College

Amherst, March 21: In the Express: A telegram was received at 2 P.M. on Tuesday, announcing that Lieut. Fred Sanderson was returning with [Frazar Stearns’] body … His body arrived here on Wednesday in charge of Lieut. Sanderson, and the funeral will take place on Saturday [tomorrow], at 1 ½ o’clock, in the village Church.

March 22: Dickinson writes to Louise and Frances Norcross:

He went to sleep from the village church. Crowds came to tell him good-night, choirs sang to him, pastors told him how brave he was—early soldier-heart. And the family bowed their heads, as the reeds the wind shakes.

See the full letter and account in last week’s post.

We don't know exactly when Dickinson composed the following poem, which she included in Fascicle 19, but it was likely prompted by Stearns’ death and uses phrases from the letters she wrote to her Norcross cousins and Samuel Bowles about it, quoted in full last week. It is significant that in those letters and here again, Dickinson refers to the death as “murder.”

It dont sound so terrible -
quite – as it did -
I run it over – "Dead", Brain -
"Dead".
Put it in Latin – left of my school -
Seems it dont shriek so – under rule.

Turn it, a little – full in the face
A Trouble looks bitterest -
Shift it – just -
Say "When Tomorrow comes this
way -
I shall have waded down one Day".

I suppose it will interrupt me
some
Till I get accustomed – but
then the Tomb
Like other new Things – shows
largest – then -
And smaller, by Habit -

It's shrewder then
Put the Thought in
advance – a Year -
How like "a fit" – then -

Murder – wear!

(F384A, J426)

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum

 

Reflection
Sharon Barnes

Spring Equinox, 2018: The aconites are in bloom in Toledo, Ohio.

yellow flowersWhen I was in 8th grade, my one year of Catholic grade school, Mr. Sarasin, my homeroom teacher, made us memorize a poem by Emily Dickinson, right down to the punctuation. Not surprisingly, it was a poem about how sure she was that heaven existed! (“I never saw a Moor” [F800A, J1052]). I was uninterested, and nobody was asking about the variety of heavens present in her work.

When I matriculated to a small Catholic liberal arts college in Michigan in the 1980s, the nun who I now feel sure was a lesbian, who taught us grammar using what we imagined was a holster of colored pens attached to her hip, performed a cloying Dickinson for campus poetry events, acting uncharacteristically shy in a white tatted lace collar. I remained uninterested, and a little creeped out.

Imagine my surprise a handful of years later in graduate school when I rediscovered Dickinson and found her wild paganism ranging across the pages. I was interested indeed. In a pleasurable side by side morning reading of Whitman and Dickinson with my partner, we paired days of poetry with selections from Open Me Carefully, and frequently howled “Sue!” at each erotic gesture we encountered thereafter. We abandoned Whitman in time, preferring Dickinson’s challenging, rewarding, sometimes impenetrable lines.

Blue aconitesThe analysis of Barton Levi St. Armand and Rebecca Patterson presented in this week’s blog confirm my young pagan heart’s response to Dickinson’s work; nature is symbolic, mystical, mythical, and catholic in that other sense: universal, wide-ranging, and all-embracing. Presented here for us to see, to notice, to breathe in and embrace, nature in Dickinson’s hand is a supreme teacher of humanity’s place in the natural order.

For me, the Morning in F246A, J232, that “Happy thing” who believes herself “supremer,” “Raised,” and “Ethereal,” but who flutters and staggers as her dews give way to the sun’s hot rays, is an affirmation of nature’s endless cycle and of humanity’s hubris in thinking we are here to use the earth “for meat,” as some versions of the Christian Bible say. “So dawn goes down to day,” (Robert Frost, “Nothing Gold Can Stay”) like a spring flower that wilts in the heat of the sun, so Spring will yield to Summer, and the crown of dewdrops will give way to the one bloom, her unanointed flower. So, too, humanity’s hubris about our place in nature will always be challenged in the cycle of death and birth presented in this poem and in this time of year. We too will eventually flutter and stagger.

Professor Schweitzer reminds us again this week that Dickinson was not removed from the social and cultural contexts surrounding her, the Civil War. In the midst of a March surely as full of aconites, snowdrops, and crocuses as ours are, Dickinson and the members of her community were grieving the life of Frazar Stearns, a young soldier returned home from the war for burial. And we, too, grieve the loss of young lives, in school shootings, in preventable deprivation, in what can feel like endless wars, as we note Professor Schweitzer’s convincing discussion of Dickinson’s use of the word “Murder.”

Here at the Spring Equinox, where light and dark are in perfect balance, we begin to head into the lengthening of days, the Happy Morning where all Life would be Spring. All too soon, though, the solstice will be here, and the shadows will begin to overtake the Sun King’s haughty presence in the orchard as he makes his retreat.

But for now, let us enjoy the light and the Sun’s gentle touch. Happy Spring!

Sharon Barnes

Bio: Sharon Barnes is an Associate Professor and Interim Chair of the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Toledo in Toledo, Ohio, who recently completed committing Adrienne Rich’s “Diving Into the Wreck” to memory, a highly recommended exercise.

Sources

Overview
  • Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. vol. 1:17.
  • Patterson, Rebecca. Emily Dickinson’s Imagery. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1979, 181.
  • St. Armand, Barton Levi. Emily Dickinson and Her Culture: The Soul’s Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984, 277-8, 317.
History
Biography
  • Leyda, Jay. The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson. vol. 2. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960, 49.

 

 

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 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 of the 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. There is much to explore about it.

“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 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 knew 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.
  • Dakin, M. R. “Your Classmate and Friend.The Consecrated Eminence: The Archives & Special Collections at Amherst College.
  • Dickinson, Emily. The Letters of Emily Dickinson. Eds. Thomas Johnson and Theodora Ward. 3 vols. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958.
  • Emily Dickinson and the Civil War.” Emily Dickinson Museum.
  • Murray, Aife. Maid as Muse: How Servants Changed Emily Dickinson’s Life and Language. Hanover: University Press of New England, 2009, 165-66.
  • Sewall, Richard. The Life of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980.
  • St. Armand, Barton Levi. Emily Dickinson and Her Culture: The Soul’s Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984, 104-115.
  • 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.

Websites related to the Battle of New Bern (1862):