September 10-16, 1862: Higginson’s “The Life of Birds”

This week in 1862, Dickinson most likely read Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s essay, “The Life of Birds,” in the September edition of the Atlantic Monthly. To help us explore Higginson’s essay and its influence on Dickinson’s many poems about birds, we are so pleased to welcome Christine Gerhardt author of A Place for Humility: Whitman, Dickinson, and the Natural World (2014) as guest blogger this week.

This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Christine Gerhardt

This week in 1862, Dickinson most likely read Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s essay, “The Life of Birds,” in the September edition of the Atlantic Monthly. It is one of the many essays he published in the Atlantic later collected in a volume in called Out-door Papers (1863) and was inspired in part by his admiration for Thoreau.

According to Christine Gerhardt, author of A Place for Humility: Whitman, Dickinson, and the Natural World (2014):

Birds were a major preoccupation of Dickinson’s throughout her life, and they mattered to her both as potent metaphors and as actual, living creatures.

Birds Dickinson mentions by name are: bluebird, blue jay, bobolink, crow, hummingbird, lark, oriole, owl, phoebe, robin, sparrow, woodpecker and wren. To help us explore Higginson’s essay and its influence on Dickinson’s many poems about birds, we are fortunate this week to have Christine Gerhardt as a guest blogger !

Her book, A Place for Humility, is a revelation. Not just because it finds surprising and substantial links between the two major poets of the 19th century who are more often set in opposition, but on account of the exquisite and often surprising treatment of their nature poetry as poetry about real nature. We are so accustomed to reading Whitman and especially Dickinson as poets of self and consciousness using the world as metaphor that we sometimes forget they were also keen observers of the nature around them. Christine shows why this is important. She reads their work in the context of the emerging science of ecology and environmental sensibility of the second half of the 19th century, and the result is a model of eco-criticism that also highlights the growing, pressing concerns we face today in a world of headlong and devastating climate change.

“Birds are the Poor Man’s Music”

Springfield Republican, September 13, 1862

Progress of the War, page 1
“The rebel armies still march on. There is no longer any doubt of their intentions. They have adopted the offensive policy, and are marching straight for the free states, hoping to do such damage and create such a panic before our new levies are brought into the field as shall bring us to their feet to accept peace on their terms. They have left their coast defenseless and have massed all their available force in Virginia and Tennessee, where they are moving northward and westward.”

Wit and Wisdom, page 6
“Birds are the poor man’s music, flowers the poor man’s poetry; and the rich man has no better.”

A Mad Poetess, page 7
“In that part of the Washington asylum which is still devoted to its insane patients, Dr. Nicholas showed me a sight which was particularly touching to me. Cross-legged upon the round table in the centre of the room was seated a woman, perhaps thirty years of age, who had the remains of remarkable beauty. Her long, gray hair was disheveled, and of her dress and appearance she evidently had not a thought; but, open upon her lap was a volume from which she was pretending to read aloud, making an unintelligible and incoherent gabble. By her side lay a volume of a novel of her own writing, with her own likeness as a frontispiece, and she had gone crazy as an authoress. But what a pity is such an apparently unnecessary wreck of a lifetime of a beautiful girl, for I am told that her recovery is hopeless. Alas for the head that is to go wild with over-endowing!”

Poetry, page 6

Hampshire Gazette, September 16, 1862

"Sketch of Troops Marching" in Middleton, MD, c. Sept 14 1862. Alfred R. Waud (1828-1891). Library of Congress

Glorious Victory!!: The Enemy Fleeing in Panic, page 2
“A very severe engagement took place on Sunday last, between our forces under Gen. McClellan and the rebels under Gen. Lee. The rebels were overtaken by our troops 3 miles northwest of Middleton. Gen. Lee was wounded, and Gen. Garland was killed. Our troops pursued the enemy as fast as possible. Gen. Hooker captured a thousand prisoners, and Gen. Lee, it is said, places his own loss at 15,000, and is represented to have said that he was shockingly whipped.”

Atlantic Monthly, September 1862

The Life of Birdsby Thomas Higginson, page 368
“When one thinks of a bird, one fancies a soft, swift, aimless, joyous thing, full of nervous energy and arrowy motions—a song with wings. So remote from ours their mode of existence, they seem accidental exiles from an unknown globe, banished where none can understand their language; and men only stare at their darting, inexplicable ways, as at the gyrations of the circus. Watch their little traits for hours, and it only tantalizes curiosity. Every man’s secret is penetrable, if his neighbor be sharp-sighted. But this bird that hovers and alights beside me, peers up at me, takes its food, then looks again, attitudinizing, jerking, flirting its tail, with a thousand inquisitive and fantastic motions—although I have the power to grasp it in my hand and crush its life out, yet I cannot gain its secret thus, and the centre of its consciousness is really farther from mine than the remotest planetary orbit.”

“Small, like the Wren”

                                                                   by Christine Gerhardt

Birds were a major preoccupation of Dickinson’s throughout her life, and they mattered to her both as potent metaphors and as actual, living creatures. In many of her letters, she identified with birds intensely, engaging some of her culture’s more conventional views of birds while also reshaping these views in provocative ways.

Consider, for instance, her famous epistolary self-portrait, sent to Higginson in the summer of 1862, close to the cultural moment that this week’s blog focuses on:

I […] am small, like the Wren; and my hair is bold, like the Chestnut Bur; and my eyes, like the Sherry in the Glass, that the Guest leaves. (L268)

This snapshot echoes culturally condoned claims of female modesty, yet it also links being small to a transgressive sense of natural-cultural boldness. Just days later, she wrote to her friends the Hollands :

My business is to love. I found a bird, this morning down – down – on a little bush at the foot of the garden, and wherefore sing, I said, since nobody hears? One sob in the throat, one flutter of bosom—‘My business is to sing’ – and away she rose! (L269)

Here, the common association between birds and delicate, humble song begins to suggest a somewhat precarious relationship to Dickinson’s own audience, and a necessary, albeit melancholy sense of artistic independence. And when she wrote to her young cousins,

I think the bluebirds do their work exactly like me. They dart around just so, with little dodging feet, and look so agitated. I really feel for them, they seem to be so tired (L339),

she merged a Victorian woman’s practiced compassion for the small with a subdued sense of crisis regarding women’s work, and, maybe, even with concern over the fate of birds in the increasingly cultivated landscapes of New England, undercutting her time’s widespread notions of birds’ cuteness and childlike innocence.

Thus, the numerous birds in Dickinson’s letters and poems form a nodal point of her deep connection with the world around her, from which she drew inspiration and to which she responded so intensely. Orioles and phoebes, hummingbirds and jays were among the many non-human creatures she frequently encountered during her explorations of Amherst’s fields and forests as a girl and young adult, and even when her outward life became more and more secluded, she kept meeting birds in the extensive family gardens.

Birds were also part of Dickinson’s life through various environmental discourses that intensified in the mid-nineteenth century, also and especially in her native New England. For one, the newly specialized natural sciences not only included astronomy, botany, chemistry, and geology, which Dickinson studied at Amherst Academy and Mount Holyoke, but also the somewhat younger discipline of ornithology, which her textbooks discussed under the more general rubrics of Natural Philosophy and Natural History. (More indirectly, birds were also discussed in her immediate vicinity when renowned geologist and natural theologian Edward Hitchcock of Amherst College discovered thousands of fossil dinosaur footprints in the Connecticut valley, insisting they stem from flightless birds.)

"Red-tailed Hawk" from Birds of New England and Adjacent States by Edward Augustus Samuel, 1875

Second, Dickinson kept herself informed about the latest developments in natural history, including the emerging field of ornithology, through her avid readings of the Springfield Republican, Harper’s New Monthly, Scribner’s Monthly, and, especially, the Atlantic Monthly. These newspapers and periodicals carried not only reviews of Alexander von Humboldt’s Cosmos (1845-1862), with its massive notes on diverse bird populations of South America, and of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859), which was inspired by his discovery of the Galapagos finches, but also of Edward A. Samuels' Ornithology and Oölogy of New England (1867) and the popular field guide The Birds of New England (1869).

And third, Dickinson was deeply familiar with the time’s popular genre of natural history essays, dozens, if not hundreds of which focused on birds – from Wilson Flagg’s “Birds of the Night” (1859) to Olive Thorne Miller’s “A Tricksy Spirit” (1885). Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s “Life of Birds” (1862), which this week’s post focuses on, was among its most influential examples, and Dickinson probably read it in the September issue of the 1862 Atlantic Monthly and owned it in book form, as part of Higginson’s Out-Door Papers (1863).

These seemingly innocent, largely descriptive bird essays are noteworthy for their combination of detailed description, moral instruction, and spiritual reflections, and also for their early conservationist arguments – years before the American Ornithologists’ Union (founded in 1883) and the National Audubon Society (1886) emphasized the need to protect various bird species from the threat of extinction through hunters, farmers, and the millinery trade.                                                     

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum



Christine Gerhardt

New England Robin
New England Robin

It’s a fascinating exercise to go back and forth between Higginson’s essay and the bird poems Dickinson wrote around the same time. Dickinson knew the essay well, and critics have pointed out that she saw Higginson’s nature essays as a “firm bond between them” (Habegger 453). If her poems can be read as answers to his question about what literature could do “towards describing one summer day” (Habegger 453), these answers are much more unruly than they seem, especially regarding the earth’s smallest life forms.

More generally, the dialog between Higginson’s essays and Dickinson’s poems reveals noteworthy similarities in their proto-ecological attention to natural detail and the dynamic relationships between species and their environments, as well as a shared eco-ethical humility. It also highlights how boldly Dickinson’s poetic snapshots pushed beyond his learned, sentimental, moralistic prose, mediating between exultant gestures of identification and the recognition of nature’s difference without resolving the tension, and embracing scientific nomenclature and conventions without assuming interpretive control, even at moments of highest achievement.

Higginson’s bird essay accentuates a related but different quality of Dickinson’s ecopoetics, which has to do with their shared interest in birds’ large-scale, unsettling movement. I don’t mean their fluttering about, or their sheer ability to fly – of course birds are mobile – but movement of a different order. Higginson begins by stating that

so remote from ours their mode of existence, they seem accidental exiles from an unknown globe, banished where none can understand their language,

viewing birds’ global, even cosmic motions as key to their life and tantalizing elusiveness. Just as remarkably, he casts New England as a hub of such wide-ranging movements:

[Migration] is, of course, a universal instinct, since even tropical birds migrate for short distances from the equator, so essential to their existence do these wanderings seem. But in New England, among birds as among men, the roving habit seems unusually strong, and abodes are shifted very rapidly.

Yet in spite of his focus on birds’ migrations, and the recognition that one cannot “know” a single hummingbird (an “exiled pigmy prince, banished, but still regal”) or swallow (“the strange emigrant from the far West”), his text is driven by the impulse to grasp these “images of airy motion.”


Ultimately, he imaginatively contains all of his birds through detailed descriptions, “translations” of their song, and allusions to their good habits, monogamy, and parental instincts, claiming that “[a]mong all created things, the birds come nearest to man in their domesticity.”

Dickinson’s bird poems turn this tension between birds’ mobility and their apparent domesticity on its head, most memorably, perhaps, in “A Bird came down the Walk – .” Initially, this genteel robin leisurely strolls through a garden, yields the right of way, and drinks delicately. Yet its final flight undoes all of this scene’s assumptions. In the speaker’s New England garden, this robin is increasingly out of place: “frightened” and nervous from the third stanza on, its flight, for all its ephemeral softness, marks an escape into an unbounded realm where it is actually at “home.” As the speaker’s attempt to care for and feed the robin fails, so does the poem’s effort to symbolically domesticate it: here, tame birds are not to be had, and even sharing a place with them is fraught with tensions.

Less directly, this inter-species encounter gone wrong also renders the garden and its boundaries fluid. Commonly idealized as delimited space where cultivation recreates heaven on earth, this garden is crossed by birds and other animals who will forever re-wild it. As such, this bird’s final flight also undermines humankind’s larger efforts to domesticate all that seems “too wild” in this world. In this, we can imagine Dickinson talking back to her naturalist friend Higginson, who would later remember his meeting with her by posing as an ornithologist yielding (at least some of) his systems of control:

I could only sit still and watch, as one does in the woods; I must name my bird without a gun.

Habegger, Alfred. My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson. New York: Random House, 2001.

bio: Christine Gerhardt is Professor of American Studies at the University of Bamberg, Germany. She is the author of A Place for Humility: Whitman, Dickinson, and the Natural World (U of Iowa P, 2014) and Rituale des Scheiterns: Die Reconstruction-Periode im US-amerikanischen Roman (Winter Verlag, 2003). She is also the editor of The American Novel of the Nineteenth Century (2018) and one of the co-editors of Religion in the United States (2011). Her essays have appeared in Profession, ESQ, The Emily Dickinson Journal, The Mississippi Quarterly, and the Forum for Modern Language Studies.


Gerhardt, Christine. A Place for Humility: Whitman, Dickinson, and the Natural World. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2014.

Atlantic Monthly, September 1862

Hampshire Gazette, September 16, 1862

Springfield Republican, September 13, 1862

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September 3-9, 1862: Volcanoes

This week, the Springfield Republican printed a notice in Foreign Affairs about Giuseppe Garibaldi’s revolutionary bid to unify Italy as well as reports of wondrous finds from recent excavations of Pompeii, the city near Naples destroyed by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79AD. From these reports, we take our theme of volcanoes, a revelatory image in Dickinson’s poetry (and one of my favorites!).

This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Renée Bergland

This week, the Springfield Republican printed a notice in “Foreign Affairs” about Giuseppe Garibaldi’s revolutionary bid to unify Italy as well as reports of wondrous finds from recent excavations of Pompeii, the city near Naples destroyed by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD. From these reports, we take our theme of volcanoes, a revelatory image in Dickinson’s poetry (and one of our favorites!). She wrote several startling poems about volcanoes, Vesuvius in particular and its explosive, destructive AND creative power. Volcanoes were also a potent symbol for Emerson, who, as we will see, used them as a figure for the poet and for the “central fire … which animates all men.” Dickinson’s use of the image is much less romanticized, more violent, much more about what is under pressure and subterranean.

Mt Vesuvius eruption
Mt Vesuvius eruption [see a simulation here]

This focus also gives us the opportunity to reprise an exploration of Dickinson’s schooling in science and, in particular, her study of geology through the fascinating works of Edward Hitchcock, a Dickinson family friend and guiding light of the science curriculum at both Amherst Academy and Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, where Dickinson studied. Hitchcock has been described as

America’s leading advocate of catastrophe-based gap creationism,

in which his provocative theory of volcanoes played a role. To what extent was Dickinson responding, in her use of this potent symbol, to both of these powerful public men whose work she read and appropriated so subversively for her own purposes? Dickinson’s imaginative travel to places like Naples also expresses her fascination with geography, a subject that touches on issues of space and location we explored in last week’s post on “home” and “homelessness.”

“Matters are Now at the Worst”

Springfield Republican, September 6, 1862

Progress of the War, page 1
“We are again defending Washington behind its fortifications. The rebel armies hold their old line in Virginia, and the difference in the military situation between the present and the past is that larger armies have been massed on both sides, and that the rebels have assumed the offensive and put us on defense. We think matters are now at the worst; that they cannot cross the Potomac; and that our new levies hastening to the seat of war will soon turn the tide and drive back the insolent foe.”

Foreign Affairs, page 1
“The most interesting of the foreign news at present is the movement of Geribaldi in Italy, for the possession of Rome. The Turin government has expressed its disapproval of his course in the strongest terms, and there is danger of a collision between the partisans of the radical leader and the government of Victor Emanuel. Sicily is declared in a state of siege.”

Digital reconstruction of the triclinium of the Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii. Image copyright © 2011 and courtesy of James Stanton-Abbott
Digital reconstruction of the triclinium of the Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii. Image copyright © 2011 and courtesy of James Stanton-Abbott

Books, Authors and Arts, page 6
“Recent excavations in Pompeii have brought to light a beautiful tridinium [triclinium: formal dining room in private Roman homes of the time containing three couches], with three richly decorated walls and three fine pictures [from the House of Siricus].

Drunken Hercules, Roman, 1st century (fresco). Roman, (1st century AD) / House of Siricus
Drunken Hercules, Roman, 1st century (fresco). Roman, (1st century AD) / House of Siricus

The first of these represents the building of Troy by Neptune and Apollo; the second, a drunken Hercules with numerous cupids, who have disarmed him, and surrounded by several Fauns and Bacchanal; and in the third picture Vulcan shows Thetis the arms of Achilles, among them a shield on which are represented the zodiac, Apollo and the nine muses.”

Hampshire Gazette, September 9, 1862

page 1
“From the three upper classes of Amherst nearly forty have entered the army since the close of summer term. The freshman class in Amherst College numbers fifty-four.”

Marrying Cousins, page 1
“Combining these results [conducted by Dr. Brochard] with those previously presented to the Academy [of Sciences in Paris] by Dr. Bourdin it appears that in marriages within the limits of consanguinity the births of deaf and dumb are in the proportion of 25 to 30 percent. A frightful warning this is to young ladies and gentlemen who have any regard for their posterity not to fall in love with their cousins.”

Atlantic Monthly, August 1862

Rifle Clubs, page 303
“A sense of the importance of rifle-practice is becoming very generally prevalent. Rifle-clubs are organizing on our country-towns, and target-practice by individuals is increasing to a degree which proves incontestably the interest which is felt in the subject. The chief obstacle to the immediate and extensive practical operation of this interest lies in the difficulty of procuring serviceable guns. We trust that our legislators will perceive the necessity of adopting a strict military organization of all the able-bodied men in the state, and providing them with weapons, with whose use they should be encouraged to make themselves familiar by the institution of public shooting-matches for prizes.”

“Vesuvius – dont talk”

Dickinson’s own education in geology and geography began early with coursework at Amherst Academy, whose curriculum in science was heavily influenced by Edward Hitchcock, a prominent figure in Amherst and an important voice in scientific debates of the day. Hitchcock was a friend of the Dickinson family, a working geologist, a minister who gave up his congregation to become professor of Chemistry and Natural History, then Geology at Amherst College, and finally served as the College’s President from 1845-1854.

In her study of geology, Dickinson used Hitchcock’s book, The Religion of Geology and Its Connected Sciences, a series of lectures the author introduced as aiming to develop “the relations between geology and religion” in order to counteract the many current attacks that argued for their incompatibility. Hitchcock declares at the outset:

I place geology first and most conspicuous on the list, because I know of no other branch of physical science so prolific in its religious applications.

Frontispiece for Edward Hitchcock’s The Religion of Geology (1851). Hand-colored lithograph showing a “Section of the Earth’s Crust.” Amherst College Archives and Special Collections, QE22.H67 R25
Frontispiece for Edward Hitchcock’s The Religion of Geology (1851). Hand-colored lithograph showing a “Section of the Earth’s Crust.” Amherst College Archives and Special Collections, QE22.H67 R25

The book appeared in 1851 adorned with a frontispiece of a beautiful hand-colored illustration, probably by his wife Orra White Hitchcock, who was herself a distinguished scientific illustrator, showing a “Section of the Earth’s Crust” with a volcano erupting off to the side.

As the title of Lecture VI describes, Hitchcock argues that volcanoes are key to the “Geological Proofs of the Divine Benevolence.” Well aware of the “awful sublimity” of volcanic eruptions, he offers an impassioned description of the eruption of Kilauea, “the most remarkable volcano on the globe.” From this, he explains that volcanoes are “safety valves” allowing for the escape of the “vast accumulations of heated and melted matter beneath the earth’s crust” that modern geology has documented. Although outwardly destructive, volcanoes, unlike earthquakes that do far more damage, are, in reality, “essential to the preservation of the globe.” Thus, he reasons, they are a means by which God shows his benevolence because

the evil is permitted that thereby greater good may be secured to the universe. … The desolation of this fair world by volcanic agency, and especially the destruction of life, do, indeed, teach us that this present system of nature is adapted to a state of probation and death, instead of a state of rewards and immortal life. … we have strong reason to believe they are essential to the preservation of the globe … If we can only rise to these higher views, and not suffer our judgement to be warped by the immediate terrors of the earthquake and the volcano, we shall see the smile of infinite benevolence where most men see only the wrath of an offended Deity.

Volcanoes held an important but more metaphorical meaning for Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, who, in his famous lecture “The American Scholar,” declared:

The human mind … is one central fire, which flaming now out of the lips of Etna, lightens the capes of Sicily; and, now out of the throat of Vesuvius, illuminates the towers and vineyards of Naples. It is one light which beams out of a thousand stars. It is one soul which animates all men.

More pointedly, in his essay, “The Poet,” which we know Dickinson read, Emerson compared his Romantic vision of the poet as a “liberating god” standing out from  ordinary humankind to “Chimborazo,” a stratovolcano in present-day Ecuador that begins in the equatorial jungle and rises up through all the climatic zones to be crowned with snow and glaciers more than 6,000 feet above sea level.

Kamilla Denman calls Emerson’s volcano an “image of benevolent spiritual enlightenment,” a description that also covers Hitchcock’s more doctrinally Christian view. They have appropriated their volcanoes, though admittedly sublime and awful, as images of compassion and generosity. By contrast, Denman argues that Dickinson’s volcanoes are “a far more violent force, an image of devastating linguistic expression erupting out of silence,” and she quotes this astounding passage from the Third Master Letter, which is dated sometime in 1862:

Vesuvius dont talk — Etna — dont — one of them — said a syllable — a thousand years ago, and Pompeii heard it, and hid forever —  (L 233).

Plaster casts of PompeiiArguing from a psychological perspective, Chloe Marnin finds that “volcanoes illustrate the repression, eruption, and aftermath of human emotion” in Dickinson’s poems, and points out that her particular interest in Vesuvius might have been kindled by the recent reports of excavations, like the one in this week’s Republican. Although it was early in this process, by 1860 Giuseppe Fiorelli took over directing the excavations at Pompeii and instituted new and better systems of recovery. By this time, much of the western part of Pompeii had been excavated. Fiorelli also began the process of pumping plaster into the cavities left by victims’ bodies to produce the uncanny casts of their struggles.

Spooner's Protean Views c. 1840
Spooner's Protean Views c. 1840 "Mt. Vesuvius." Grosvenor Prints

Dickinson also may have been aware of another popular entertainment that features volcanoes. In the 1840s, Mr. Spooner, a London-based printer, began making what he called “Spooner's Protean Views,” hand-painted 9" x 11" cards that showed one view but when held up to strong light or used with the early “magic lantern” device called the Polyrama Panoptique, completely changed the view. The views of Mt. Vesuvius were among the most dramatic and most popular.

Spooner's Protean Views c. 1840
Spooner's Protean Views c. 1840 "Mt. Vesuvius Erupting." Grosvenor Prints

In her now-famous essay of 1976, poet Adrienne Rich performed an important re-vision of Dickinson, reimagining the “Belle of Amherst” not as a jilted lover but as “Vesuvius at Home,” that is, a woman of explosive, ungovernable powers, feeling herself possessed by a daemon or demon. In the 19th century, Rich argued, such a woman who felt this way “has need of a mask, at least, of innocuousness and of containment.” One of these masks was the “reticent volcano,” and it expressed in her mind Dickinson’s extreme “ambivalence toward power.”

Some readers are now re-assessing Rich’s essay in contemporary terms, as  Renee Bergland, our guest respondent for this week, describes in her reflection. Still, it gave many of us permission NOT to read Dickinson in the limiting context of romance and men but in terms of her own powerful creativity. In the poems for this week, we will explore just how Dickinson re-purposed the volcano image used by two very prominent male thinkers in her world.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum



Renée Bergland

In the trail of that genius my mind has been moving, and with its language and images my mind still has to reckon.


Adrienne Rich wrote these words about Emily Dickinson, but for me, they also describe Rich.

Adrienne Rich (1929-2012)
Adrienne Rich (1929-2012)

Rich’s essays are very moving to me. I love tracing out her emerging thinking across the decades—the change from her first steps away from an absolutist stance in “Poetry and Experience” (1964) to the feminist possibilities of “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Revision” (1971) and “Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson” (1976), and then, later, the more intersectional, anti-racist feminist awareness of “Notes toward a Politics of Location” (1984). Reading these essays as a Dickinson scholar, I see that Rich continued to reckon with Dickinson as her own poetics and politics changed and evolved.

I have been thinking about Adrienne Rich’s “Vesuvius at Home” quite a bit this year. I had the chance to talk it over with a group of Dickinsonians at the EDIS Summer gathering in Amherst in early August. Although the EDIS seminar discussion was the high point, I’d started gathering the materials in January, and I have continued to reflect on them since our meeting. One of the things that particularly interested me as I gathered the materials for the seminar was that there was surprisingly little crossover between Dickinson scholarship and Rich scholarship. Vivian Pollak’s wonderful book, Our Emily Dickinsons, published in 2016, describes “Vesuvius at Home” as “an essay which deeply influenced me and many of my friends” (13), but she only devotes a page or two to Rich, and she deftly rebuts Rich’s portrait of Dickinson as a proudly isolated volcano by citing “How happy is the little Stone” (F 1570), a poem that values “interdependency, complexity, and vulnerability” (14).

In our seminar discussion, we looked at a few recent essays about Rich, and tried to make connections to Dickinson’s poetry. We considered an essay by Miriam Marty Clark that traced Rich’s movement from identity to affiliation, another by Jeffrey Neilson that framed Rich in the context of postsecular feminism, and a third by Christian Haines that argued for an impersonal feminism, “gesturing toward a historical transformation that has rendered the borders between the personal/private and the impersonal/public extremely tenuous” (182). These scholars all describe Rich’s thinking in twenty-first century ways—as affiliative, postsecular, preindividual—that are hard to square with the way that “Vesuvius at Home” celebrates Dickinson as autonomous, secular, and individualist.

What I enjoy the most about Dickinson’s work is that it often brings together seemingly contradictory possibilities. I love thinking about the Dickinson whom Rich celebrates for being dangerous, aggressive, even destructive, alongside the affiliative, postsecular, preindividual version of Dickinson, who wrote about “Boundaries – forgot — ” in “The Spider holds a Silver Ball” (F 513), as well as volcanoes. When I read “On my volcano grows the grass” (F 1743), my reading is shaped by Rich’s description of the destructive power of the volcano, but it is also shaped by another idea—of the volcano as a place warm enough to melt the hardest little stones—a place more wondrous than destructive, more mysteriously, embracingly, passionately fluid than angry.

Dickinson’s volcano continues to “populate with awe my solitude” (as the last line of that poem would put it). A solitude populated with awe may not be solitary at all. To give Rich the last word, I’ll conclude with another line from “Vesuvius at Home:”

There are many more Emily Dickinsons than I have tried to call up here. Wherever you take hold of her, she proliferates.


Clark, Miriam Marty. “Human Rights and the Work of Lyric in Adrienne Rich.” The Cambridge Quarterly 38,  1 (2009) pp. 45-65.

Haines, Christian P. “The Impersonal is Political: Adrienne Rich's The Dream of a Common Language, Feminism, and the Art of Biopolitics.” Cultural Critique 96 (2017) pp. 178-215.

Neilson, Jeffrey. “‘No Poetry Will Serve’: The Cruel Optimism of Adrienne Rich’s Last Poems.” Genre  49,  3 (December 2016) pp. 331-357.

Bio: Renee Bergland is Hazel Dick Leonard Professor of English, Simmons College and Visiting Professor of English and Women's and Gender Studies, Dartmouth. Like every cultural critic worth her salt, I am curious about everything. My research and writing tend to focus on nineteenth-century America, but in every piece I push against national and historical boundaries, trying to find (or make) connections and to think outside of disciplinary boxes. My first three monographs may seem to be on wildly different subjects: Native Americans, Women in Science, and Emily Dickinson. But there is a methodology to my madness. All of my work tends to span broad expanses of time, to offer slightly startling juxtapositions, to rely on close readings of both literary and historical texts, and to explicitly advocate a dialogic ethics of analysis. I keep trying to connect the past to the present.


Moore, Randy, Mark Decker and Sehoya Cotner. Chronology of the Evolution-creationism Controversy. Greenwood Press, 2010, 99.

Atlantic Monthly, August 1862

Hampshire Gazette, September 9, 1862

Springfield Republican, September 6, 1862


Andrew. “Spooner's Protean Views.” Magic Lantern World: Projected images from the 1640s to the present day. 

Denman, Kamilla. “Emily Dickinson's Volcanic Punctuation.” The Emily Dickinson Journal 2, 1, Spring 1993: 22-46, 22.

Dobson, Joanne. Dickinson and the Strategies of Reticence: The Woman Writer in Nineteenth Century America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989, 107ff.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “The American Scholar.Complete Works.

Hitchcock, Edward. The Religion of Geology and Its Connected Sciences. Boston: Phillips, Sampson, and Company, 1854 1, 196-97, 204ff.

Marnin, Chloe. “The Imagery of Volcanoes in Emily Dickinson’s Poetry: The Psychology and Aftermath of Emotional Repression.Medium. May 10, 2016.

Rich, Adrienne. “Vesuvius at Home.” Parnassus: Poetry in Review. 5, 1, 1976.

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July 23-29, 1862: School

This week in 1862 marked the 25th anniversary of the founding of Mount Holyoke Female Seminary by the redoubtable Mary Lyon. Dickinson’s experience there was mixed; she flourished at the private Amherst Academy. This week we look at the courses of study at the two institutions of learning Dickinson attended, the figures associated with them, and the effects of this education on her life and poetry.

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This Week in Biography
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This Week's Reflection – Tom Luxon

“Emily Dickinson: a Mo Ho”

""This week in 1862 marked the 25th anniversary of the founding of Mount Holyoke Female Seminary by the redoubtable Mary Lyon. It would eventually become Mount Holyoke College, a prestigious women’s college in South Hadley, Massachusetts. The Hampshire Gazette noted the significance of this event:

At the time she instituted the seminary, there were in the country one hundred and twenty colleges for boys, but not one for girls, where they could get the highest form of education.

In fact, higher education and, thus, most professions in the United States, were closed to women until Oberlin College in Ohio began to admit women, as well as African Americans, in 1833. Although attitudes favoring women’s education and, thus, their full civil rights, were still in the minority at this time, Enlightenment thought and Republican ideology encouraged educating women who would then pass on Republican ideals to the next generation. Mount Holyoke was the first seminary established exclusively for women, but it awarded only a certificate not a baccalaureate.


Emily Dickinson attended Mount Holyoke Female Seminary for two terms in 1847-48 but it was a mixed experience for her. For one thing, the curriculum repeated many of the texts and subjects Dickinson had studied at Amherst Academy, which she attended from 1840-47 and was a more progressive institution that nurtured and even shaped her growing literary gifts. Dickinson was also extremely homesick and uncomfortable with the religious revival occurring at the time at Mount Holyoke, in which she was classified with several other girls as “a No-Hoper.”

In her second letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Dickinson answered what we can infer as his question about her education with this remark:

I went to school – but in your manner of the phrase – had no education (L261).

We have seen that Dickinson often minimized her situation to Higginson, in order to create the illusion of him as “Preceptor” and her as “scholar.” In fact, she had quite a good education at Amherst Academy, which Dickinson’s father Edward, her brother Austin, and Susan Gilbert attended, and whose curriculum, as well as the curriculum at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, was shaped by Edward Hitchcock, the noted Professor of Geology and Theology and President of Amherst College (1845-54). This educational influence helps to explain the remarkable range of scientific knowledge, especially in botany, astronomy, and geology, in Dickinson’s writing. This week, we will look at the courses of study at the two institutions of learning Dickinson attended, the figures associated with them, and the effects of this education on her life and poetry.

“The Christian World is Indebted … Most of All to Mary Lyon”

Springfield Republican, July 26, 1862

Progress of the War, page 1
“The prospect brightens, and popular confidence has been greatly reinforced by the appointment of general-in-chief [Halleck], virtually vacant since Gen. McClelland went into Virginia. He has command of all the land forces of the United States and will direct the general movements of the war.”

Foreign Affairs, page 1
“The new tariff, with its increased duties upon [British] goods, and the impediments placed in the way of trade, seems to have filled the cup of English bitterness to the brim.”

The Want of the Hour, page 2
“White men, we say, are the want of the hour, and white men must be our reliance. Is it to be so supposed that a negro will fight for his liberty more readily than a white man? Is it to be supposed that the poor African, after generating in bondage for centuries, will find in the prospect of liberty a greater incentive to fight for the suppression of the rebellion than the white man finds in the considerations that are thrust upon him? We have nationality at stake; we have our own political freedom at stake; we have personal and national honor at stake; we have the interests of republican liberty throughout the world at stake. The negroes of the South—‘our natural allies’—are unorganized, unarmed, ignorant and inaccessible.”

Poetry, Page 6

Books, Authors, and Art, page 7
“The time has gone by when cheap novels in paper covers could be safely thrown aside as the merest literary trash. We have now in this form the most unexceptionable fictions, correct, sensible and entertaining.”

Hampshire Gazette, July 29, 1862

Pleasant Neighbors, page 1
“One’s pleasure, after all, is much affected by the quality of one’s neighbors, even though one may not be on speaking terms with them. A pleasant, bright face at the window is surely better than a discontented, cross one; and a house that has the air of being inhabited is preferable to closed shutters and unsocial blinds, excluding every ray of sunlight and sympathy.”

Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, page 1


“For the foundation of institutions to give thorough intellectual training to women combined with the best religious influence, the Christian world is indebted to a very few persons, and most of all to Mary Lyon. At the time she instituted the seminary, there were in the country one hundred and twenty colleges for boys, but not one for girls, where they could get the highest form of education.”

“You are to Watch, and Water, and Nourish Plants”

At age 5 Emily Dickinson attended the local “primary school.” From ages 9-16, she studied at the private Amherst Academy, a school her grandfather Samuel Fowler Dickinson helped found in 1814 to improve the level of education available in the area. The Academy was closely associated with Amherst College, employed many of its graduates as teachers and preceptors, and had a curriculum shaped by Edward Hitchcock, the inspirational man of science and religion who dominated the educational scene in Amherst and attracted many eminent scholars to the faculty of this small town in Western Massachusetts.


When Dickinson and Lavinia entered in Fall 1840, they joined a group of about 100 girls, supervised by a “preceptress,” who oversaw their academic as well as moral and religious development. Over her seven years’ attendance, Dickinson studied Latin, History, Ecclesiastical History, Botany, Mental Philosophy, Geology, Arithmetic, Algebra and Geometry, English, Rhetoric, Composition and Declamation.

Although most nineteenth-century education was based on rote learning, repetition, and an enforced distance between teacher and student, Amherst Academy was, by comparison (not current standards) a model of progressive thought. First, there was the influence of Edward Hitchcock, the eminent Professor of Geology and Theology at Amherst College, who emphasized the importance of the sciences, even for young students. Then, as Erika Scheurer argues,

the influence of Swiss education reformer Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746-1827) and his disciples became more widespread, setting the stage for John Dewey’s more radical and celebrated reforms in the early twentieth century.

Pestalozzi, and his New England followers Samuel Read Hall and Richard Green Parker, stressed what Scheurer identifies as a “student-centered approach” that resembles the “liberation pedagogy” of Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire. In this approach, students and teachers are encouraged to develop relationships of affection, not authority, learning is individualized and based on student autonomy and active agency.

Dickinson flourished in this environment in which Hall counseled young, well-educated teachers: “You are to watch, and water, and nourish plants.” Biographer Richard Sewall and Jack Capps, who has written an important study of “Emily Dickinson’s Reading,” discuss the beneficial effects of Amherst Academy’s progressive curriculum, especially in terms of Composition, on Dickinson’s development as a writer.

Schuerer explores this influence in detail, noting that Pestalozzi recommended “object teaching,” where “students learn to observe concrete objects from their lives, and then write about them in descriptive and analytical ways.” Hall encouraged ungraded informal personal writing and private letter writing, both of which Dickinson honed to a fine art. Parker took a “loose approach to questions of genre and form,” defining poetry by content (imagination and feelings) rather than form, embracing half-rhymes, the use of the dash as an expressive form of punctuation, and the use of capitalization to emphasize “[a]ny words when remarkably emphatical, or when they are the principal subject of the composition.” Dickinson clearly took these lessons to heart.


Although Mount Holyoke Female Seminary was a ground-breaking institution, it was a mixed experience for Dickinson academically and socially. She attended from September 30, 1847 to August 3, 1848, with several weeks at home in March and April with a bad cough. At the time of her enrollment, the Seminary had 235 students and 12 teachers. Mary Lyon encouraged a home-like atmosphere of cordiality between teachers and students, who all roomed together and did the household chores in a large brick house that combined living and academic spaces.

Still, the Seminary was bound by 70 rules for living, learning, and visiting, including an injunction to turn in rule-breakers. The day began at 6 am and was divided into half hour segments closely scheduled with times for academic studies, private meditation, prayer, calisthenics, chores and meetings. Dickinson chafed against the lack of privacy, lack of connection to the outside world and current affairs (she wrote a letter to her brother Austin jokingly asking: Who are the presidential candidates and is the Mexican War over?), the repetition of textbooks and subjects she studied at Amherst Academy, and the limited opportunities to visit her family just nine miles away.

And then there was the religious revival that started in December 1847 and lasted until May 1848. Biographer Alfred Habegger narrates the details of the “well-coordinated campaign” for Dickinson’s soul, and though Dickinson seems to have resisted in a particularly noteworthy way, at the end of the year, 30 of the 235 students  at the Seminary were also “No-Hopers.” This failure left Mary Lyon sick and depressed, and she died seven months later at age 52, at the height of her career.

From a poor background, Lyon used the meager schooling and connections available to her to become an expert in women’s education and the founder of Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, where she taught Chemistry and often cooked for the school. A student of Edward Hitchcock’s, she shared his passionate commitment to evangelical Christianity. Although she told young women they could do anything and opened her Seminary to the young working women from the Lowell Mills, the mission of her school was to produce women who would become devout wives and mothers and spread the word of Christ. Habegger notes with some irony that during Dickinson’s summer term at Mount Holyoke, on July 19-20, 1848, a small convention took place in Seneca Falls, New York, kicking off the “first wave” of women’s rights. But that seemed worlds away from South Hadley.

Tom Luxon

""I am intrigued by Erika Scheurer’s description of the educational philosophy that underpinned the curriculum at the Amherst Academy Emily Dickinson attended from 1840 to 1847. Scheurer describes it as a “student-centered approach” to education that anticipated Dewey and even Paulo Freire’s liberation pedagogy. “Teachers and students,” she writes, “are encouraged to develop relationships of affection, not authority, learning is individualized and based on student autonomy and active agency.” Based on my more than thirty years in higher education, including nine years as the founding director of a teaching and learning center, I consider the Academy’s practice progressive even by today’s standards. Today, lectures, quizzes, and exams still dominate the practice of teaching in higher education. Students no longer copy notes with slate and pencil, but power-point presentations are just as teacher-centered and content-centered as the typical 19th-century classroom. Learner-centered education has long been recommended by education experts and researchers, but largely ignored in US colleges and universities.

I can just imagine Pestalozzi, Hall, and Parker running exciting workshops at the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning, championing “object teaching” and ungraded analytical essays. The dozen or so participants would listen with fascination; half of them would try to adopt such methods; half of those would stick with it. But the teaching awards and major institutional recognition would continue to reward the clever lecturer and his power-point slides.

bio: In teaching and scholarship, I have focused on literature of the English Renaissance and Reformation, with a particular interest in John Milton, John Bunyan, John Dryden, and 17th-century English religion and politics. I am keenly interested in technological innovations for teaching and learning. I served from 2004 to 2013 as the inaugural Cheheyl Professor and director of the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning. For more, see my website.

See my most recent articles: from Milton Studies, volume 59: “Heroic Restorations: Dryden and Milton,”

and in Queer Milton, edited by David L. Orvis:



Hampshire Gazette, June 17, 1862.

Springfield Republican, July 29, 1862

Capps, Jack L. Emily Dickinson’s Reading: 1836-1886. Cambridge: Harvard University, 1966, 15-26. See Appendix B for a list of Dickinson’s Mount Holyoke textbooks.

Habegger, Alfred. My Wars are Laid away in Books. New York: Random House, 2001, 139-66, 191-212.

Porter, Amanda. Mary Lyon and the Mount Holyoke Missionaries. Religion in America Series. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Scheurer, Erika. “‘[S]o of course there was Speaking and Composition –’: Dickinson’s Early Schooling as a Writer.” The Emily Dickinson Journal 18, 1 (2009): 1-21, 3-4, 6-7, 11-18.

Sewall, Richard. The Life of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980, 337-57.

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February 5-11, 1862: Meter

This week we focus on Dickinson’s metrical forms to determine the rhythm of her poetry. Despite some popular notions that all of Dickinson’s poetry can be sung to the tune of “Mary had a Little Lamb,” readers find her forms varied and the effects she achieves transgressive. We also explore the relationship between the meters of Dickinson and the poets she read.

This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Susan Castillo Street

Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf
Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf

Dickinson's “Microscopic Meter”

It’s easy to get caught up in the entrancing language, images, themes in Dickinson’s work, and gloss over the forms in which they are embodied and the sheer music of her poetry. This week we get down to the nitty-gritty of Dickinson’s metrical forms, considering prosody (poetry’s patterns of rhythm and sound) and scansion (marking the stresses or beats in a line of poetry to determine its rhythm). For further explanation, see “scansion made easy." Often, the forms of the poems are crucial in making their meanings. English poet Ted Hughes refers to Dickinson’s “microscopic meter,” suggesting that it achieves its effects by tiny, subtle shifts, but shifts that magnify the development of meaning. We will look closely at these weighty details.

Despite some popular notions that all of Dickinson’s poetry can be sung to the tune of “Mary had a Little Lamb,” readers find her forms varied and the effects she achieves transgressive—more so, for some, than the more obvious formal innovations of Whitman. Cristanne Miller has studied Dickinson’s forms intensively and in the context of the metrical practices of her contemporaries. She finds that Dickinson composed in terms of the stanza, and that studying her use of stanzas in the Fascicles reveals patterns that

suggest that Dickinson thinks of her poems in terms of formal patterns in addition to or rather than in thematic clusters.

Miller treats the fascicles as Dickinson’s “fair copies,” but Dickinson revised continuously and there are often different formal versions of poems. For a competing view of Dickinson's forms, see Susan Howe, Jerome McGann and others who read Dickinson’s texts as “visually intentional” with important “graphemic” elements such as word spacing, length of dashes and handwriting.

Given Dickinson’s wide reading, her familiarity with the metaphysical poets, John Donne and George Herbert, her adored Shakespeare, Keats, Wordsworth and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, she had the Western metrical tradition at her fingertips. Still, she avoided the meter that predominated among these poets and dominates English verse—iambic pentameter (a ten syllable line made up of five “feet,” a 2 syllable unit with a rising rhythm of unstressed/stressed syllables). Unrhymed iambic pentameter (called “blank verse”) is the meter of Shakespeare’s plays, of Milton’s Paradise Lost, Wordsworth’s The Prelude and Barrett Browning’s long poem, Aurora Leigh, which was a favorite of Dickinson's. Dickinson used this meter sparingly and adapted it strategically, as in the first line of “After great pain, a formal feeling comes,” to render the “formality” of numbness and then show its disintegration.

Rather, Dickinson wrote the majority of her poems in the hymn’s form of common meter, also known in secular terms as “the ballad measure.” This shorter form served her desire to work in a communal idiom and her need for concision and compression. Some feminist scholars argue that this was a conscious decision on her part to reject the poetic norms of a patriarchal culture. Others counter that such decisions are not always fully conscious.

Isaac Watts, 1674-1748

Growing up in a Congregational household in a predominantly Puritan community and attending church every week until she stopped when she was around thirty, Dickinson was steeped in the Protestant hymn tradition, epitomized by the English hymnist, Isaac Watts.

Dickinson’s mother owned a copy of Watts’ Hymns and the household had his Church Psalmody and Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs.

In several poems Dickinson quotes or echoes Watts and rewrites him, often in playful or ironic ways, using his familiar devotional rhythms as counterpoint for some of her more radical and skeptical notions about God, faith and salvation.

But she was also deeply influenced by the ballad tradition, an older, looser and more imaginative narrative form that had been revived in the 18th century and deeply influenced the British Romantic poets. Because hymns were written to be sung communally to a handful of familiar tunes, they needed to be more regular, while ballads were more metrically inventive and meant for popular consumption.

The first bestseller in Puritan New England drew from this tradition: The Day of Doom by the Reverend Michael Wigglesworth, published in 1662, consisted of two hundred and twenty four stanzas narrating the Last Judgment when Christ will return and pass judgement on those saved and going to heaven and those damned and going to hell.  The bouncing rhythm of its meter (called “fourteeners,” or long lines of 8 and 6 syllables) made it easy to memorize. Into the nineteenth-century, many elderly folks could be found in New England still reciting it from memory.

Dickinson used several versions of hymn form, as we will see, but she especially relished the looser form of the ballad measure. She also sometimes abandoned regular or recognizable form altogether, writing a kind of free verse, which might have been influenced by Whitman and seeing parts of the King James Bible lineated as verse.

We will get into the details of her verse form in the discussion of the poems for this week. In our section on history, we highlight the kinds of poems Dickinson would have come across in her newspaper and journal reading for the week.

“Badinage and the Ball Room, Bonnets and Bouquets.”


Springfield Republican, February 8, Review of the Week: “The status quo continues. The story of the week is soon told. Inaction and suspense everywhere … an embargo of mud and water all along the line, which only days – it may be weeks – of sunshine and wind can raise. … The news from the South is still of the same tenor. The disaffection and reaction increase … The tone of the English press is becoming more pacific. …

Jesse D. Bright, 1812-1875

The best thing that has been done in Congress during the week is the expulsion of Jesse D. Bright of Indiana, from the Senate, for treasonable correspondence with the enemy.”

From Washington: “The gay dance which is to come off to-night at the White House produces much talk and considerable indignation among the members of Congress,” especially at this time of military inaction.

A column titled “Opportunities:”

…life has nobler opportunities than those of making money, or even spending it in gorgeous display. The present times give opportunity for self-sacrifice, for sorrow relieved and loss endured and temptation spurned. There sits a lady in our land to whom the fates have granted a possibility not open to one woman in a century, the privilege to lead the feminine loyalty of America, to bless with the charm of her sex and station the camp of the volunteer and the ward of the hospital, to pledge her fair hand, more honored than honoring, to all these womanly benignities that soften the horrors of war, to frown with severely truthful eye upon the shameless panderers to treachery and greed, and putting aside the ensnaring ties of a misguided kindred, to say truly to the hero of her choice,—“thy people shall be mine!” Such is the peerless opportunity, granted and lost. Such is the high privilege of winning a beautiful and enduring fame, a memory cherished in a nation’s heart of hearts,—all overlooked and wasted, all bartered for badinage and the ball room, bonnets and bouquets.

On the Emancipation Question:

The experience of all these islands [the West Indies] teaches that to emancipate the negro is to advance him at one stride further on the road of civilization than a century of slavery could do.


A column titled “Reading the Bible in Schools” discusses the Massachusetts State legislature’s consideration of this thorny question and finds that the Puritan majority feels

that the Catholic citizens of the state are not citizens in the full sense of the word, but interlopers, resident here by the sufferance of the Puritan majority, and having no claims to any larger share in the civil and social privileges of this community than the anti-Catholic majority may choose to concede to them.

The writer proposes a compromise and urges the passage of the act,

excusing all who have scruples on the subject … and let them institute measures for the preparation of a book of selections from the Scriptures which will be generally acceptable.

Original Poetry in Springfield Republican: “Buried Memories” written in quatrains of 8686 syllables rhyming abab with some variations in the third line of 9 syllables, but fairly regular. Also, “The Soldier’s Wife,” written in quatrains of iambic tetrameter (8 syllable lines of 4 feet and beats, each with a rhythm of unstressed/stressed) rhyming abab, also very regular.

Hampshire Gazette: “From The Atlantic Monthly for February: ‘Song of the Negro Boatmen’” by J. G. W. [John Greenleaf Whittier, an outspoken abolitionist], set in Port Royal, Jamaica, and written in black dialect, 12 line stanzas of three quatrains of 8686 syllables rhyming abab cdcd, with a refrain in the third quatrain rhyming efgf, very regular. Also, notice the reference to the “day of doom” (here, the concept and probably not Wigglesworth’s poem)!!

Oh, praise an’ tanks! De Lord he come
To set the people free;
An’ massa tink it day ob doom,
An’ we ob jubilee.
De Lord dat heap de Red Sea waves
He jus’ as ‘trong as den;
He say the word: we las’ night slaves;
To day, de Lord’s freemen.
De yam will grow, de cotton blow,
We’ll hab de rice an’ corn:
Oh, nebber you fear, if nebber you hear
De driver blow his horn!

“Glimpses of Other Worlds”

Hampshire Gazette, February 10, 1862, Amherst College:

The first in our series of “home-made” lectures was delivered by Rev. Dr. Hitchcock, last Thursday evening… the lecturer’s subject was, “Glimpses of the Geology and Habitability of other Worlds.” Many astounding facts with reference to the Universe in which we dwell were developed, and some exceedingly ingenious and plausible theories touching the condition of the worlds around us were put forth.

Edward Hitchcock (1793-1864) was a geologist, professor and later president of Amherst College, and friend of the Dickinson family. His many books on geology tried to reconcile science and Scriptures, and he was a strong influence on Dickinson. In a letter to Higginson from early 1877, Dickinson wrote,

When flowers annually died and I was a child, I used to read Dr Hitchcock’s Book on the Flowers of North America. This comforted their Absence – assuring me they lived (L488).

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum



Susan Castillo Street

As a poet myself, I have learned that Emily Dickinson’s poems should be approached with the greatest caution. We are blown away by their power, and captivated by what looks like their elegant simplicity. Elegant they absolutely are: simple they most certainly are not. We soon find this out when we attempt to write “in the style of…” My own attempts in this direction are something with which I could be blackmailed for very large sums. The delicacy and subtlety of her rhyme schemes and her metrics are extraordinarily complex, and imitations of Dickinson’s style in less able hands have an alarming tendency to turn into unfortunate Tiddly-Pum verse.

That said: there is something about her use of ballad meter that I find powerfully seductive. Somehow it reminds me of the powerful ebb and flow of the hymns of my Southern childhood. The following poem isn’t written in ballad meter, but I’ve tried to capture a similar effect here:

Grand Isle

My cousin Martha and I go crabbing.
She holds the string, I dip the net.
We don’t talk much. Two solemn pigtailed girls
intent upon our task. Heat beats down.

In the distance, Uncle John floats
out on the waves, spreads out X-shaped,
buoyed up by tractor tire. The waves go
hush hush hush against the shore.

The beach house is made of timber.
No running water. Aunt Mary boils and scrubs and cleans,
raises an eyebrow when my flighty mama
says to cousin Stevie let’s go fish.

Mama’s voice is low and sweet,
thick Mississippi honey. She and Stevie,
pirates both, conspirators.
They go out to the jetty, bait their hooks,

sit down to wait, legs dangling low.
Stevie, silent, straightens, motions to my Mama,
points to his bending pole.
We strain to hear their voices

but the words are indistinct.
She puts her arm around his shoulders,
helps him reel in a silver squirming fish.
His grin could light the sky.

I don’t know if I believe
in a Heaven full of wings and harps,
But if the Hereafter does exist,
I imagine it will be

Grand Isle with Uncle Johnny floating,
Aunt Mary bustling,
Martha and me crabbing
Mama and Steve, two pirates fishing.

Bio: Susan Castillo Street is an international woman of mystery. She has published two collections of poems, The Candlewoman's Trade (2003), Abiding Chemistry, (2015), and a pamphlet, Constellations (Three Drops Press, 2016). A third collection, The Gun-Runner’s Daughter, was published by Aldrich in 2018. Her poetry has appeared in Southern Quarterly, Prole, The High Window, Ink Sweat & Tears, Messages in a Bottle, The Missing Slate, Clear Poetry, Three Drops from a Cauldron, Foliate Oak, The Yellow Chair Review, Poetry Shed, The Lake, Smeuse, Algebra of Owls, Picaroon, Riggwelter, and other journals and anthologies. She is owned by three cats and lives in a restored oast in Sussex.

Her blog is The Salamander and the Raven.


Finch, A. R. C. “Dickinson and Patriarchal Meter: A Theory of Metrical Codes.” PMLA, 102 (2 March 1987): 166-76.

Howe, Susan. My Emily Dickinson. New York: New Directions, 1985.

Ladin, Joy. “ ‘Where the Meanings, are’: Emily Dickinson, Prosody, and Postmodernist Poetics.” Versification, 5 (2010): 1-8.

McGann, Jerome. “Emily Dickinson’s Visible Language.” The Emily Dickinson Journal II, 2 (1993):

Miller, Cristanne. Reading in Time: Emily Dickinson in the Nineteenth Century. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012, 49-81.

Pugh, Christina. “Ghosts of Meter: Dickinson, After Long Silence.” The Emily Dickinson Journal xvi, 2 (2007): 1-26.

Ross, Christine. “Uncommon Measures: Emily Dickinson’s Subversive Prosody.” The Emily Dickinson Journal, 10 (1, 2001): 70-98.

Hampshire Gazette, 
February 4, 1862
Springfield Republican, February 8, 1862

Hampshire Gazette,  February 10, 1862