War, Death, and Influence
Previous generations regarded Dickinson either as sui generis—that is, unique and, thus, untouched by the literary trends of her time, or so ahead of her moment as to be uninfluenced by it. Current scholars, such as Cristianne Miller, have laid these views to rest, in studies like her Reading in Time: Emily Dickinson in the Nineteenth Century (2012). To explore Dickinson's literary debts, we focus this week on the “Azarian School,” a term coined by the writer Henry James to describe the work of Harriet E. Prescott Spofford and Rose Terry Cooke, two writers from New England contemporary with Dickinson. The school's name derives from the title of Spofford’s novel Azarian: An Episode published in 1864. It is important at the outset to show how Dickinson read, absorbed and adapted the literary techniques of other writers, in this case, the prose works of New England women. We also want to frame this year, 1862, with an exploration of a literary style that influenced some of Dickinson's most incendiary poetry.
We follow the lead of David Cody’s 2010 essay, “‘When one’s soul’s at a white heat’: Dickinson and the ‘Azarian School.’” Cody argues that several well-known poems Dickinson wrote in 1862 were directly influenced by the prose works of Spofford and Cooke.
As he tells it, James’s review of the “school” was “scathing,” accusing Spofford
of a long list of literary crimes, including a tendency to indulge in “fine writing,” and “almost morbid love of the picturesque,” an emphasis “clever conceits” and the “superficial picturesque” at the expense of “true dramatic exposition,” a “habitual intensity” of style, and an “unbridled fancy.”
Many readers at the time felt Spofford walked “a fine line between
permissible daring and a reckless disregard of conventional morality.” In short, this style was the antithesis of the realist school, soon to come into popularity with the ascendancy of William Dean Howells to the editorship of the Atlantic Monthly.
According to Cody, the Azarian style was characterized by intoxication and ravishment
by perfumes; sunsets; gems; diseases physical, psychological, and spiritual; fugues and symphonies; hurricanes; and panthers.
Barton Levi St. Armand argues that Spofford’s story, “The Amber Gods,” inspired Dickinson
to dare the technique of describing the moment of death from the dying person’s point of view.
The protagonists in Azarian works are almost always heroines, and matters of the soul and ecstasy are important topics. Thomas Wentworth Higginson was a big fan, being a friend and mentor of Spofford and Cooke as well as Dickinson, writing a supportive review of Spofford’s novel Azarian, and mentioning her to Dickinson in at least one letter. We don't have this letter, but we do have Dickinson's response. She said:
I read Miss Prescott’s ‘Circumstance,’ but it followed me, in the Dark – so I avoided her – ( L261).
We leave it to you to decide whether Dickinson was, in fact, a secret disciple of the Azarian School.
“War As An Educator”
This week was rather uneventful, as the Civil War heated toward its boiling point, and President Abraham Lincoln began sending orders to General McClellan to take offensive action against the Confederacy. There were small victories for the Union, on January 8th at the battle of Roan’s Tan Yard under Major W.M.G. Torrence and on January 10th at the battle of Middle Creek under Col. James Garfield.
The January edition of The Atlantic Monthly included an essay on “Methods of Study in Natural History.” It prominently featured Carolus Linnaeus, the Swedish scientist credited with founding the practice of botany. Dickinson was a passionate botanist, as evidenced by the herbarium, a collection of pressed and identified local flowers and plants, she created in 1844 as a teenager.
The January edition of Harper’s magazine opened with a lengthy travel narrative titled “The Franconian Switzerland,” which discusses European geography and offers illustrations of the Castle of Goessweinstein. The second article, “History of the United States Navy,” looked back to 1775 for a historical context that would have appealed to readers during the Civil War. Excerpted and mostly anonymous poems—one simply titled “Frost”—and part of a serial novel, Orley Farm, by Anthony Trollope, were also included. A biographical essay on Mehetabel Wesley illustrates a common attitude towards women poets. The essay focused on her beauty and morals: “Nature, which seldom grants the double favor, richly endowed her both in body and mind,” and added that her poetry is full of “silly conceits.” The month’s edition ended with a two-page spread titled “Fashions for January” with illustrations of two women, one in an evening dress in the other in a walking robe.
The January 11th edition of the Springfield Republican included a column titled “War as an Educator” that observed: “the present war is doing, and is to do, a great work in the education of the American people,” and criticized the inefficacy of party antagonism and the dangers of men attracted to power. It called into question the idea that the United States is the “greatest nation on the face of the earth,” and warned of waiting to take action about incipient rebellion. On the other hand, the writer insisted that the war will make that generation of Americans “superior to any generation that America has raised since the revolution” due to rigorous training, discipline, and courage. Another column brought good news, the release of two hundred forty Union prisoners from Richmond.
In a time marked with violence and death, the Springfield Republican included a brief paragraph condemning the death penalty, a debate that might have influenced Dickinson poems like “The Doomed – regard the Sunrise” (F298, J294), featured last week.
What was the darkness that Dickinson refers to in her letter to Bowles? Richard Sewall, in his biography, The Life of Emily Dickinson, comments about her letters that
at times one wonders whether the recipients themselves may not at some points have been almost as puzzled as we are.
Though this is true of many of Dickinson’s letters, as we will see with the “the Third Master Letter” next week, it is especially true of her correspondence with Bowles. As Sewall points out, this correspondence was important because it punctuated a time of “extraordinary stress and inner turmoil.”
Bowles’s correspondence and editorship of the Springfield Republican likely provided Dickinson with a way to look outward at the world while she was turning inward during this period. What’s more, Bowles often published women writers in the pages of the Republican, including, according to Sewall, women of “spirit and brains” such as
Colette Loomis [“a pretty little aunt of mine” according to what Dickinson wrote in a letter], Lizzie Lincoln of Hinsdale, N.H., Luella Clarke, Ellen P. Champion, and Fannie Fern (Sarah Willis Parton).
As for his sickness, Bowles had traveled to Amherst in the winter of 1861 and became afflicted with “a chill and severe sciatica that sent him to Dr. Denniston’s in Northampton that fall.” As he grew ill, Dickinson became increasingly aware that her worldly, literary, and affectionate friend might not be around forever.
I started my Dickinson studies as many do: in a high school classroom, with an old, generic anthology sprawled open to “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers -,” pressed to question how a person who never left her own room could produce such striking imagery of the outside world. My teacher fed me the mythological Dickinson, the woman in white, and I remember imagining the poet as a shy, stunted personality concerned with nature and childish dreams who talked to herself in her poetry. Years later, I regard her as one of the most advanced writers I’ve ever read.
The disconnect between what many of us read in traditional published collections and what Dickinson actually wrote intrigues me. This week’s poems deliver some of the most famous lines in her body of work that I’m sure many high school students have memorized, but memorization takes something away from the character of the lines that can only be revealed through the visual picture of the manuscript.
For example, Dickinson’s big swooping handwriting forces line breaks and enjambments that publishers ignore when printing poetry. Pick any poem from this week and notice that the words spill over to a second line. It’s especially noticeable in “After great pain, a formal / feeling comes -,” which stood out to me the most in this set, partly because I love the ending line: “First – Chill – then Stupor – then / the letting go -”
The emotion pulses through this poem; the horrible metric “Feet” that “mechanically” “go round” sound like a “formal” march to death when you read it in orderly printed lines. It sounds unstoppable, but the first time I saw the manuscript of this poem, the breaks made me hold my breath. You feel the Chill and Stupor as the dash pauses force you to slow down your reading, like slowly freezing. Then, on a completely different line that physically separates–
the letting go.
It’s funny, enjambment is supposed to keep poetry flowing, but in this case, the reader trips over the breaks and truly sees them as breaks, because of the disjointed subject matter and because of the striking spaces left over after the concluding words. The words sit with you, mimicking the formal feeling and ponderous tone of the poem. The breaks intensify everything.
Not to mention that Dickinson’s handwriting lends its character to each of her poems. The shape of her words colors the mood of her poems, generating beauty or solemnity or finality with all her different letter forms. For example, the word “impatient” looks absolutely beautiful in “Dare you see a Soul / at the White Heat?”—no impatient reader would rush past individual words here!
It’s a completely different experience reading the manuscripts, one that I am glad to have discovered so early in my studies. It took a few months of practice to decipher Dickinson’s handwriting, but the payoff is worth thousands of (printed) words.
Bio: Victoria Corwin is a Dartmouth class of '19 (a junior, to the uninitiated), a student of English and Classical Archaeology, a member of "The New Dickinson: After the Digital Turn" course in Fall 2017, and a member of the "White Heat" team.
Cody, David. “”When one’s soul’s at a white heat”: Dickinson and the “Azarian School”.” The Emily Dickinson Journal, vol. 19 no. 1, 2010, pp. 30-59. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/edj.0.0217
Springfield Republican, Volume 89, Issue 2. January 11, 1862.
Sewall, Richard B. The Life of Emily Dickinson, 1974, 281.