December 24-31, 1862: Winter

This week’s focus is Winter, inspired by this season of endings, of dormancy and darkness. It is part of her extensive seasonal imagery, which we will explore through her attitudes in letters and the symbolism in her poetry. This is also the last post in this year-long project of immersing ourselves in Dickinson’s world for the eventful year of 1862/2018. We will reflect on the year’s process and also look forward to new beginnings in the buried roots of wonder.

Overview
This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Ivy Schweitzer
Sources

Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf
Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf

This week’s focus is Winter, inspired by this season of endings, of dormancy and darkness, and also of Christmas, with its lights and evergreens and messages of peace despite its contemporary contamination by consumerism. It was heartening to hear several stories in the media calling for “giftless” holidays or giving the gift of presence and intimacy or homemade gifts. It’s a good time to think of renewing our commitments to making and nourishing connections and building bridges not walls.

Dickinson calls winter the “Finland of the Year” (J1696), and it is part of her extensive seasonal imagery. As we will see in our explorations of her attitudes in letters and the symbolism in her poetry, winter signals cold, deprivation, isolation and death. But it also suggests purity through the important image of whiteness, clarity, strength, independence and perseverance. As critic L. Edwin Folsom commented, “Winter, for Emily Dickinson, was a primary source of her realism.”

Winter is also the time in which we lay up the seeds and sources for next year’s resurgence. For those of us in the north, it signals the end of the year and also the return of the light after the Winter Solstice. Thus, it is fitting that this is the last post in this year-long project of immersing ourselves in Dickinson’s world for the eventful year of 1862/2018. We will reflect on the year’s process and also look forward to new beginnings in the buried roots of wonder.

“Strong and Healthy as a Northern Breeze”

Springfield Republican, December 27, 1862

Progress of the War, page 1

Union engineers built the pontoon bridges at Franklin Crossing where Gen. Franklin spent two days crossing with the left wing of the Union army for the Battle of Fredericksburg.
Union engineers built the pontoon bridges at Franklin Crossing where Gen. Franklin spent two days crossing with the left wing of the Union army for the Battle of Fredericksburg.

“Public attention has been turned from the auxiliary situation for some days by an attempt of the majority of the Senate to force a reconstruction of the cabinet for the sake of dropping out Mr. Seward, which was temporarily successful, but terminated in the return of the secretaries to their previous positions. The first shock of the Fredericksburg disaster [the battle fought Dec 11-15] has been overcome, and since it is seen that the losses were less than at first supposed, that the army is not demoralized by the failure, and since Gen. Burnside assumes the whole responsibility of the experiment, hope begins to be entertained that the winter campaign in Virginia has not been terminated by it, and that some means of reaching Richmond may be discovered more hopeful than dashing our gallant army in places against impregnable fortifications.

Success of Physical Culture at Amherst College, page 2
“We are glad to receive from time to time favorable accounts of the working of the gymnastic system which has been adopted by the trustees of Amherst College. During the term, and indeed during the year, the health of the students has been remarkably uniform. Not a single case of fever has occurred in college during the year. Of 178 students who were present during the fall term, only five were at any time on the sick list for more than two days.”

Late from China and Japan: Russia sending troops to China—The Revolution in Japan, page 5
“It was rumored that a large body of Russian troops were coming from the Amoor to aid the Chinese government in the recapture of Ningpoo, and to put down the rebellion. James’ Herald of November says the revolution in Japan is complete. The tycoon [“taikun” or great commander] has been stripped of nearly all his special privileges.”

Books, Authors and Arts, page 7
“Of the remaining poems of [Bayard Taylor’s new volume], “Passing the Sirens” is the best. It is as strong and healthy as a northern breeze, and too full of life and power to be anything less than an offspring, most classically disguised, of personal experience. We trust the volume may find many appreciative readers, and that abundant room may be made for the author in the high place which belongs to him as an American poet.”

Original Poetry: Dying for Love, [by William Walsh (1662-1708) English poet and friend of Alexander Pope] page 7

William Walsh, Atlantic Monthly, December 1862

The Fossil Man, page 670 [by C. L. Brace (1826-1890), an American social reformer]
“What a mysterious and subtile pleasure there is in groping back through the early twilight of human history! The mind thirsts and longs so to know the Beginning: who and what manner of men those were who laid the first foundations of all that is now upon the earth: of what intellectual power, of what degree of civilization, of what race and country. We wonder how the fathers of mankind lived, what habitations they dwelt in, what instruments or tools they employed, what crops they tilled, what garments they wore. We catch eagerly at any traces that may remain of their faiths and beliefs and superstitions; and we fancy, as we gain a clearer insight into them, that we are approaching more nearly to the mysterious Source of all life in the soul.”

Harper’s Monthly, December 1862

Editor’s Easy Chair, page 134

"Titania and Bottom," 1790, artist Henry Fuseli (1741-1825)

“The letter of Garibaldi to the British nation contrasts strangely in the purity of its appeal to the loftiest principle with the apparent character and conduct of the people to whom it is addressed. Yet the contrast is between the heroic faith of Garibaldi and the hesitating, treacherous timidity of the British Government, and not between the instinct of the Italian fils du people and that of the people of England. When you hear the high appeal, breathed in passionate music, it is impossible not to think of Titania and Bottom [from Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act IV.1. An angry King Oberon casts a spell on Queen Titania, so that she falls madly in love with Bottom, a weaver who has been given the head of an ass.] When you turn from English history, or the London newspaper of today, to listen to that clear Southern voice intoning the principles and ideas which it is the glory of men to have uttered centuries ago, it is almost if you have heard that voice itself out of history, vague, remote, illusive.”

"Better than a Summer"

“The Puritan Governor interrupting the Christmas Sports,” by Howard Pyle c. 1883
“The Puritan Governor interrupting the Christmas Sports,” by Howard Pyle c. 1883

The last week in December was likely a cold and perhaps dreary time in the Dickinson household. The earliest New England Puritans were not keen on Christmas, which they claimed had no scriptural foundation and was celebrated in Old England by carnival-like activities they found reprehensible. They outlawed Christmas, but by the mid-eighteenth century, it had become a popular holiday in the US embraced by Congregational Churches as a time for formal observance. The December 27, 1862 issue of the Republican reported:

Here at home we see the usual demonstrations on the part of the whole people for a spirited and bona fide celebration of the holiday rites,

but we have no idea how the family of the Homestead spent the holiday, if at all.

Dickinson’s letters from this time indicate that she was preoccupied with Samuel Bowles’s return from Europe in mid-November, and her imagery sheds light on her broader attitude towards winter. After his return, Bowles visited the Homestead, but Dickinson refused to come down and see him, and sent this note instead:

Dear friend
I cannot see you. You will not less believe me. That you return to us alive, is better than a Summer. And more to hear your voice below, than News of any Bird.
      Emily. (L276)

In a longer letter sent at the same time, Dickinson explained that,

Because I did not see you, Vinnie and Austin, upbraided me – They did not know I gave my part that they might have the more.

The rest of the letter is elliptical and ends on a note of shared suffering and renunciation with these two lines:

Let others – show this Surry's Grace -

Myself – assist his Cross. (L277)

Dickinson’s description of Bowles’s safe return as “better than a Summer” places it within her seasonal symbolism where she measures it against her favorite season of the fullest sun, light, warmth, life, even eternity. Evoking related symbolism in other letters, Dickinson associates winter with death, as in this (melo)dramatic outburst to the Hollands in November 1858:

I can't stay any longer in a world of death. Austin is ill of fever. I buried my garden last week – our man, Dick, lost a little girl through the scarlet fever. I thought perhaps that you were dead, and not knowing the sexton's address, interrogate the daisies. Ah! dainty – dainty Death! Ah! democratic Death! Grasping the proudest zinnia from my purple garden, – then deep to his bosom calling the serf's child!

Say, is he everywhere? Where shall I hide my things? Who is alive? The woods are dead. Is Mrs. H. alive? Annie and Katie – are they below, or received to nowhere? (L195)

Later in her life, Dickinson will reverse this symbolism, suggesting that it is death that brings winter no matter what season it is, as in this description of her mother’s death from 1882:

She slipped from our fingers like a flake, and is now part of the drift called “the infinite.” (L785)

In her classic study of Dickinson’s imagery, Rebecca Patterson saved the last chapter for an explication of the symbolism of “The Cardinal Points,” which Barton Levi St. Armand expanded into what he calls “Dickinson’s mystic day.” Patterson argues that Dickinson learned the power of symbolism from Emerson, who asked in his great essay Nature (1836)

is there no intent of an analogy between man’s life and the seasons? And do the seasons gain no grandeur or pathos from that analogy?

Patterson finds that Dickinson “was in fact a naïve symbolist who … used this symbolism like a second language, or a species of shorthand” but often diverged from Emerson’s ideas. For her, “North” and “northern” and its equivalents like “Arctic” and “Polar” are associated with night, specifically midnight, winter and elements like sleet, snow, frost, glaciers, freezing, icicles, darkness, blindness, death, and the color white “as an arbitrary (cultural) identification of chastity or virginity.” As we discussed in our earlier post on White, these cultural associations are hardly “arbitrary” at all.

In many symbol systems, including Dickinson’s, the north and winter have some positive attributes and are associated with masculinity, maturation, power, hardihood, independence, female virtue, and faithfulness. Patterson suspects Dickinson absorbed these ideas from the writings of John Ruskin, a prominent English art critic, which, in a letter from April of this year, she told Higginson she was reading.

Amherst in Winter (no date)
Amherst in Winter (no date)

In several of his works, Ruskin praises northern superiority, which flourishes in the cold and, like the hemlock trees surrounding the Homestead, is strengthened by the deprivations of winter. Not surprisingly, given her skepticism, the north is where Dickinson locates her God, but it is also the regions associated with Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost. In several poems, she refers to winter and “snow” as a “Prank,” a joke God or Nature plays on humans (see "The tint I cannot take" (F696, J627) and "These are the days that Reindeer Love" (F 1705, J1696).

Finally, to bring this back to Dickinson’s relationship to Bowles, Patterson traces a set of poems and letters she wrote to him in 1861-63 beginning with “Title divine in mine” (F194 , J1027) in which Patterson surmises that “snow” refers to sexual purity and the martyrdom of renunciation. We might contest this biographical reading with its symbolic “shorthand” as reductive, though Patterson concedes:

These poems of northern cold and darkness always imply their opposites.

We have only to think of the “White Heat” of creativity that also characterizes this period in Dickinson’s life.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum

 

(the last!) Reflection
Ivy Schweitzer

It has been a year of unmitigated creative fun and revelations for me as I blogged every week of Dickinson’s life and writing in 1862!

I recognize how lucky I am to have had the luxury of spending a year with one poet who so richly deserves and repays our closest attention. To be able to read extensively and deeply in the biographical materials has been essential. And to dip into the newspapers and periodicals Dickinson most likely read on a daily basis has sharpened my sense of the issues surrounding her, in the air and on people’s lips and minds. And not only the substance of the news, but its form: the large, packed pages of print, sometimes broken by a tiny square of poetry; reports of grisly war next to fluff pieces reinforcing Victorian sex-gender conventions about “the perfect girl,” “How husbands should act,” “How wives should act,” and so on. Serious news next to the latest in fashion, and in periodicals, now-famous writers published without by-lines.

Another absolute revelation was engaging people to reflect on the weekly posts and the range and depth of passion for Dickinson this unearthed. From the amazing 7th graders at the Crossroads Academy in Lyme, New Hampshire, to a poet and translator living and working under life-threatening conditions in Iraq, a translator of Dickinson in Germany wresting with diction choices, scholars and poets, friends and those who volunteered to respond whom I had not even met–Dickinson continues to be a comfort and confidante to so many readers around the world and across time.

While the project didn’t manage to include every poem Franklin dated to 1862, it included a good many from “around” that year and some that don’t often get anthologized or discussed. But then, this project reinforced for me the folly of getting too hung up on dates and dating. Dickinson’s canon is a floating, morphing, wonderfully organic landscape that benefits from less strictures and determinations rather than more.

If we can let go of our need to “know,” to figure out the riddles or fill in the omitted center, or “understand” and, thus, pin-down and lock in, then the poems have the leeway to work their magic on us more thoroughly. If I had to choose one major take-away from my year with Dickinson’s poetry, it would be:

ask questions rather than assert. Open up meanings rather than close them down. Bring a humility to our reading of the poetry–

–a recommendation academics have a hard time embracing. But as the Crossroaders titled their thank you note to me:

Crossroads Thank you, front cover
Crossroads Thank you, front cover

“In Poetry is Possibility.”

Though fun, it was not always an easy year and I was sometimes daunted by how the research and writing on a weekly basis expanded to fit the time. In November, I presented the project to Martha Nell Smith’s class on Dickinson and Whitman at University of Maryland, and one of her students asked me: what gives you the energy to go on every week? Without thinking, I replied: Every week there is a surprise, sometimes many surprises, which sometimes, for me ––a Dickinson dilettante––rose to the level of a discovery.

Crossroads Thank you, inside
Crossroads Thank you, inside

A few other take-aways I would pass on:

The letters. There is some wonderful scholarship on Dickinson’s letters but they are not read frequently enough as aesthetic texts in their own right alongside the poetry. And perhaps they require a different, and new methodology of textual reading. But read them we should be doing on a par with the poetry.

Speaker and Gender. I tried to honor Dickinson’s assertion in her letter to Higginson that her poetic speakers are “representative persons” rather than autobiographical, but then struggled with the presumption that her speakers are necessarily female or feminine or gendered at all! I loved the group of poems we found where Dickinson speaks not just in a masculine voice, but as a boy–a very particularly gendered and located voice. I found myself often reaching for a non-gendered pronoun with which to refer to Dickinson’s speakers. This is an area that needs so much more work and innovative thought.

The World. Finally, the extent and richness of the world Dickinson occupied and evoked. Reading in the Springfield Republican for July about the discovery of the Swift-Tuttle comet, I wondered if I could find poems that might touch on that event and was amazed to find a whole cluster of poems on Astronomy. Or the cluster of bloody poems on what fellow poet John Greenleaf Whittier called “the battle autumn of 1862.” We are still discovering the many ways that Dickinson engaged with her world and turned it into poetry.

Crossroads Thank you, back cover
Crossroads Thank you, back cover

But this is not the end. Or rather, as Peter Schumann, founder of Bread and Puppet Theater and a big fan of Dickinson, implies in his calendar for December: in ending are beginnings. We will probably run the blog again this coming year, so if you have missed any posts, you will be able to catch up. And look for White Heat 1862 in another guise in the coming year.

 

It has been an honor to share this project with you. Profoundest thanks to my students who worked to make this dream a reality, to my web designer and other tech wizards who lent their expertise, to my family who put up with my incessant monologues on things Dickinsonian, and to all the users, participants and fans who dared to "see a soul at the White Heat."

Bread and Puppet Calendar, December 2018
Bread and Puppet Calendar, December 2018

Bio: Ivy Schweitzer is the creator and editor of White Heat.

Sources
Overview
Folsom, L. Edwin. " ‘The Souls That Snow’: Winter in the Poetry of Emily Dickinson.” American Literature 47. 3 (Nov., 1975): 361-376, 376.

History
Atlantic Monthly, December 1862
Harper's Monthly, December 1862
Springfield Republican, December 27, 1862

Biography
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature. Complete Works. RWE.org.

Patterson, Rebecca. Emily Dickinson’s Imagery. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1979, 182-83, 185.

Back to Blog Post Menu

October 15-21, 1862: Autumn

Last week in 1862 the Springfield Republican published an enthusiastic notice about the forthcoming October issue of the Atlantic Monthly, which begins with Henry David Thoreau’s posthumously published essay, “Autumnal Tints” and ends with John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem, “The Battle Autumn of 1862.” This week’s post focuses on the theme of “Autumn” and explores these two works as important social and rhetorical contexts for Dickinson’s poetry of autumn written during this period.

Overview
This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Ivy Schweitzer
Sources

Last week in 1862, the Springfield Republican published an enthusiastic notice about the forthcoming October issue of the Atlantic Monthly, which begins with Henry David Thoreau’s posthumously published essay, “Autumnal Tints” and ends with John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem, “The Battle Autumn of 1862.” These two works were part of a cultural moment of unrivaled natural beauty and unforeseen national horror at the growing deadly toll of the Civil War. This week’s post focuses on the theme of “Autumn” and explores these two works as important social and rhetorical contexts for Dickinson’s poetry of autumn written during this period.

Walden Pond. cr. John-Manuel Andriote, Atlantic Monthly, Nov 1, 2012
Walden Pond. cr. John-Manuel Andriote, Atlantic Monthly, Nov 1, 2012

Dickinson would have read both the essay and the poem in the Atlantic. They help to frame or, perhaps, echo her use of the seasonal and symbolic imagery of autumn to express her shocked awareness of war-time losses and death. During her life, Dickinson wrote many poems about autumn, but as Michelle Kohler argues, the poems she wrote in the autumn of 1862

are distinct not only for their quantity compared to other years but also for their haunting, sometimes violent imagery and their self-conscious, ironic tones. … no doubt provoked by the war’s violent transformation of the national landscape.

“Battle Autumn of 1862”

Springfield Republican, October 18, 1862

Progress of the War, page 1
“The rebels have taken advantage of our prolonged inaction on the Potomac, and Stuart’s cavalry [J. E. B. “Jeb” Stuart (1833-1864), Virginia-born US Army officer who became a gallant and masterful Confederate general during the Civil War] has made a bold raid into Pennsylvania, making the complete circuit of our army and getting back safely into Virginia. This exploit was more daring and, under the circumstances, more successful than the similar exploit of the same dashing cavaliers on the Chickahominy, and it is impossible not to admire their gallantry, disgraceful as the facts are to our own side.”

The Word for the Hour, page 2
“If ever there was an hour in the history of our country when the emergency demanded new hope and courage and cheerfulness, and the grasping of new strength for the sinews of toil, that hour is the present. Not that there is any lack of determination or resolution, for every set and every expression bears the seal of both. As a people we had learned to be buoyant and jovial and hopeful. Now is the time to be on our guard against the discouragements, the suspicions, the doubts, the fears, the sadness which will seek to overpower and make us imbecile.”

Books, Authors and Art, page 7
“Musical matters in this country are very naturally quiescent, while war and battle’s sound predominate. The government evidently has no ‘ear,’ and is forgetful of the inspiring effect music has on soldiers, for it has dismissed most of its regimental bands.”

Hampshire Gazette, October 21, 1862

Amherst, page 2
Hon. Horace Maynard of Tennessee spoke in Agricultural Hall on Monday evening week on the state of the country. He denounced slavery as the cause of the war and deprecated the raising of party issues at the present time.”

Harper’s Monthly, October 1862

Romola, page 669 [historical novel of 1862-63 by George Eliot]
“Death had met him at his journey’s end. She had seen it all now. Loss, suffering—weary hearts, brave, hopeful hearts—and here the drama’s close! She felt as if she could never smile again as they glided silently away from the sloping green shore. So much voiceless, uncomplaining misery in those glistering, white tents, and in the homes, they were wearying to see! So much courage and self-sacrifice! So much devotion to a country that scarcely heeded these numberless patient offerings to its need!”

Atlantic Monthly, October 1862


Autumn leaves, Walden Pond. cr. John-Manuel Andriote, Atlantic Monthly, Nov 1, 2012
Autumn leaves, Walden Pond. cr. John-Manuel Andriote, Atlantic Monthly, Nov 1, 2012

[from the Springfield Republican, October 11, 1862, Nature, Newspapers, Etc., page 7
“The Atlantic for October would be a capital number if it contained nothing but the opening ‘Autumnal Tints’ by Thoreau and the ending ‘Battle Autumn’ by Whittier. What a sweet, sanctifying influence nature has upon her truest children. The simplicity born of her very self, the calm and the dignity, the purity and tenderness, the soft shadows, the wonderful fragrance, all her most delicate attributes steal into the works of these two men, and through their works we love them both.”

from “Autumnal Tints” by Henry David Thoreau

It is pleasant to walk over the beds of these fresh, crisp, and rustling leaves. How beautifully they go to their graves! how gently lay themselves down and turn to mould!—painted of a thousand hues, and fit to make the beds of us living. So they troop to their last resting place, light and frisky. They put on no weeds, but merrily they go scampering over the earth, selecting the spot, choosing a lot, ordering no iron fence, whispering all through the woods about it,—some choosing the spot where the bodies of men are mouldering beneath, and meeting them half-way. How many flutterings before they rest quietly in their graves! They that soared so loftily, how contentedly they return to dust again, and are laid low, resigned to lie and decay at the foot of the tree, and afford nourishment to new generations of their kind, as well as to flutter on high! They teach us how to die. One wonders if the time will ever come when men, with their boasted faith in immortality, will lie down as gracefully and as ripe,—with such an Indian-summer serenity will shed their bodies, as they do their hair and nails.

“The Battle Autumn of 1862” by John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892)
Whittier,

“Red is the Color of Colors”

Fall 1862 was a particularly bloody and traumatic time for the nation and must have deeply affected Dickinson and her circle of dedicated newspaper and journal readers. Papers and magazines printed detailed reports of bloody battles and battlefields, often accompanied by illustrations, and carried reports of Matthew Brady’s exhibit in New York of photographs of the horrible aftermath of the Battle of Antietam. As the reports intensified, attitudes became more agitated and extreme. In several letters Dickinson wrote during this period, she wrestles with the realities of the war.

For many of Dickinson’s contemporaries, the war represented a divine punishment of national sins, especially the sin of slavery. In an examination of writing about the war during this period, David Cody finds many writers expressing the widespread belief that only a bloody purgation of the national soul, identified as

a national crucifixion … will make possible a triumphant national resurrection.

As Julia Ward Howe famously wrote in her “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” published in the Springfield Republican in February 1862, God himself was “trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored” to produce a new sacramental wine we all must drink. In Howe’s ringing lyrics, the “burnished rows of steel” contain “a fiery Gospel” and war becomes a “righteous sentence” passed on all of us, who must sacrifice ourselves as Christ sacrificed himself.

By contrast, readers welcomed the two texts in the Atlantic this month for their calming and healing tone. Both texts, especially Whittier’s poem, acknowledge the devastating effects of war but focus on the autumnal beauty of “Nature,” which implies recuperative cycles and a “higher” form of apprehension.

Whittier’s is the more traditional vision, depicting Nature as keeping


Her ancient promise well,
Though o’re her bloom and greenness sweeps
The battle’s breath of hell.

In his vision, war is not the glorious sacrifice depicted by Howe in her “Battle Hymn,” but associated with Hell and chaos, hate, bitterness and suffering. The speaker asks “in times like these” for the ability to see with Nature’s eyes and hear with her ears in order to meet the palpable grief and pain around us.

She mocks with tint of flower and leaf
The war-field’s crimson stain.

Mocks because her sanguinary colors do not signify tragic death but the necessary harvest of ripeness and the rest and renewal of the earth.

Thoreau worked on his essay as he lay dying of tuberculosis in early 1862; he never knew of the atrocities of Antietam, yet his words address a nation in turmoil. The essay turns the “notes” he took on the autumnal changes of a range of local plants, grasses and trees into a kind of word-fugue adorned with philosophical reflections. Dickinson responds to and echoes many passages from this beautiful essay in her autumn poetry.

For Thoreau, as for Dickinson, the seasons and, in fact, all of the physical world are emblematic. “October is [the world’s] sunset sky,” the season of flaming beauty, ripeness and harvest. It brings an inestimable wealth of beauty the world bestows on us all as our common inheritance, free for the taking, if we can but “see” it:

No annual training or muster of soldiery, no celebration with its scarfs and banners, could import into the town a hundredth part of the annual splendor of our October.

Red leaves at Walden Pond, cr. John-Manuel Andriote, Atlantic Monthly Nov 1, 2012

Red leaves at Walden Pond, cr. John-Manuel Andriote, Atlantic Monthly Nov 1, 2012


And if we only “elevate our view a little,” we can see that red “is the color of colors [that] speaks to our blood” but not in terms of warfare and killing:

It is the emblem of a successful life concluded by a death not premature, which is an ornament to Nature. What if we were to mature as perfectly, root and branch, glowing in the midst of our decay …

For Thoreau, we cannot rightly appreciate living without embracing the end of life, a lesson we can learn from the autumnal tints of the New England woods. But there are larger lessons to learn from the trees:

Maple trees, New England Fall
Maple trees, fall in New England

A village needs these innocent stimulants of bright and cheering prospects to keep off melancholy and superstition. Show me two villages, one embowered in trees and blazing with all the glories of October, the other a merely trivial and treeless waste, or with only a single tree or two for suicides, and I shall be sure that in the latter will be found the most starved and bigoted religionists and the most desperate drinkers. Every wash-tub and milk-can and gravestone will be exposed. The inhabitants will disappear abruptly behind their hams and houses, like desert Arabs amid their rocks, and I shall look to see spears in their hands. They will be ready to accept the most barren and forlorn doctrine,—as that the world is speedily coming to an end, or has already got to it, or that they themselves are turned wrong side outward.

Dickinson must have appreciated Thoreau’s mocking account of their Puritan forebears:

One wonders that the tithing-men and fathers of the town are not out to see what the trees mean by their high colors and exuberance of spirits, fearing that some mischief is brewing. I do not see what the Puritans did at this season, when the Maples blaze out in scarlet. They certainly could not have worshipped in groves then. Perhaps that is what they built meeting-houses and fenced them round with horse-sheds for.

Finally, with her disdain of society and love of hay and grass and sense of the agency of nature, Dickinson must have resonated with this passage in Thoreau's essay:


Andropogan scoparius
Andropogan scoparius [common name: purple wood-grass]

Think what refuge there is for one, before August is over, from college commencements and society that isolates! I can skulk amid the tufts of Purple Wood-Grass on the borders of the “Great Fields.” … I had brushed against them and trodden on them, for sooth; and now, at last, they, as it were, rose up and blessed me. Beauty and true wealth are always thus cheap and despised. Heaven might be defined as the place which men avoid. Who can doubt that these grasses, which the farmer says are of no account to him, find some compensation in your appreciation of them?

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum

 

Reflection
Ivy Schweitzer

As I write, a surprisingly warm breeze (for mid-October in Vermont) ruffles the leaves of the old lilac tree outside my study window, while rich afternoon sun glints off the leaves fallen to the ground. The sky is absolutely clear, a light blue. And while there is no scarlet rain in the forecast, this also feels like a bloody autumn season, given the political situation, the recent confirmation travesty, and the upcoming mid-term elections.

I have to confess to taking refuge in the nineteenth century more times than I care to say this year; perhaps work we love is a healthy solace. And so I take this opportunity to reflect on the process of White Heat at this time of harvest and gathering in. Every week brings a surprise like a crisp apple, sometimes many surprises. Here are the surprises for this week.

First, reading Thoreau is always a revelation, but especially in light of Dickinson. I think much more work could be done on his influence on her thinking and writing. In reading his essay, “Autumnal Tints,” I am struck by their common discourse of natural things as “friends” and how the autumn colors “excite” Thoreau in an almost erotic way. Talking about the late red Maples, he exclaims, and I can almost hear Dickinson approving his sentiment:

A queen might be proud to walk where these gallant trees have spread their bright cloaks in the mud.

I am struck by Thoreau's casual assertion of the contemporary presence of ancient mythology. In describing the “great fleet of scattered leaf-boats which we paddle amid” on an afternoon trip up the Assabet, he adds as an aside:

—like boats of hide, and of all patterns, Charon's boat probably among the rest, and some with lofty prows and poops, like the stately vessels of the ancients, scarcely moving in the sluggish current,—

With the merest of ripples in the emotional tenor of his description, death in its ancient form of a water crossing slips into the tranquil Concord landscape.

There are so many more passages to highlight, but my favorite is this: Thoreau is describing “a small Red Maple” that has

added to it stature … by a steady growth for so many months, never having gone gadding abroad, and is nearer heaven than it was in the spring.

This reminds me of our discussion of the word “gad” in a notable poem in last week’s post, “It would have starved a gnat” (F444, J612), in which the speaker complains she is so diminished that, unlike the tiny gnat, she does not even have

the Art
Opon the Window Pane
to gad my little Being out –.

Maybe gadding abroad is not all it’s cracked up to be.

And talk about gnats, did Dickinson borrow the idea of hers from Keats’s “Ode to Autumn,” a poem critical to the poems of autumn we looked at this week? Here's what Keats has to say about this arthropod: 

While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
   And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
   Among the river sallows, borne aloft
      Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;

For rather insignificant things, they get a lot of airplay from Keats as the wailing choir mourning the end of autumn, and they certainly “gad” about but in a mournful way.

One last surprise this week was reading “Whole Gulfs – of Red, and Fleets – of Red –” (F468, J658) into this group of autumnal-themed/war poems and glimpsing there the “horrid crews” of Satan’s fallen armies from Paradise Lost.

Finally, I offer two of my poems written as an American sojourner in London.

Mason Arms, London. cr. Tom Luxon
Mason Arms, London. cr. Tom Luxon

To Autumn

Dust skirts the Broad Walk of Regent’s Park
acorns underfoot burst from barbed husks
stumbling walkers ear-budded and
huddled into down vests
by noon folding macs across arms in the damp sun.


Is it really you?
Plenty of late flowers for the bees—
anemones and cyclamen
but Asian hornets arriving from France
threaten decimation.
We stand amazed at the Masons Arms,
five flights of blooms
tumbling from boxes on red brick,
but September brought scorching heat
we feared would never end.

Back home you don’t seem quite so battered.
New England’s blaze of trees
shames the sad brown things bundled into sacks
by London street sweepers.
Apples brew cider burnished like champagne
and on the West Coast
trimming season is in full swing
where you have been sighted
drowsing among the weed
high and heavy with resinous buds
awaiting legalization.

How can we sing this season
homesick and appalled by the US election?
Keats’s redolent words mock us.
Deer still browse in Sussex fields

but Brexit looms like winter’s chilblains.

Out of Place
             after Adrienne Rich

I wanted everything to bloody stop
Badly I wanted the walkers to work the runners and tourists
gash of giant red busses barreling down the road
to stop
abruptly as I had stopped in mid-stride
dropped to my knees slipping the mask
of urban indifference–
dead fox in Marylebone Road.

Splayed on its side at the edge of the curb.
Was it a vixen I couldn’t tell but suddenly wanted
the fierceness of vixens protecting their kits
wanted to stroke its pelt the light russet of ferrous earth
breathe the tang of rankness
browning bracken of moors and briars it had torn through
wanted a wildness to tear through
the sharp bramble of lies and lacerations.

But some frayed blue fabric around its neck
stopped my hand
makeshift collar fashioned by a child perhaps
who thought to domesticate a city fox
or bit of construction-site tarp
poked through in search of food
then torn away in feral panic
not bearing to be caught or tethered
collared like sea fowl strangled
by loops of six-pack holders.

Mysterious blue ruff
stiff against your auburn fur
royal against dirty streets and masked eyes.
             Corona.
I could hardly bear to look
your sly elongated muzzle
hear your bloody screech
as if you were the last free thing on earth.

bio: Ivy Schweitzer is the editor of White Heat.

Sources:

Overview

Kohler, Michelle. “The Ode Unfamiliar: Dickinson, Keats, and the (Battle)fields of Autumn. Emily Dickinson Journal 22, 1, 2013: 30-54, 30.

History
Atlantic Monthly, October 1862

Hampshire Gazette, October 21, 1862

Harper's Monthly, October, 1862

Springfield Republican, October 18, 186

Biography
Cody, David. “Blood in the Basin: The Civil War in Emily Dickinson’s ‘The name of it is Autumn.’ " The Emily Dickinson Journal 12 1, 2003: 25-52, 39-40.

Thoreau, Henry David. “Autumnal Tints.” Atlantic Monthly, October 1862.

Back to Blog Post Menu

July 9-15, 1862: Astronomy

This week, we take our cue from the Springfield Republican for July 13, 1862, which reported the sighting in New England of what would eventually be called the Comet Swift–Tuttle, to explore why Dickinson turned often to astronomy and found it so hospitable to her metaphorical imagination.

Overview
This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Ivy Schweitzer
Sources

“Comet Swift-Tuttle”

 Comet Swift-Tuttle, captured by astronomer Jim Scotti of the University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, through a Spacewatch telescope at Kitt Peak on Nov. 24, 1992 during the comet's last close approach to Earth.

Comet Swift-Tuttle, captured by astronomer Jim Scotti of the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory through a Spacewatch telescope at Kitt Peak on Nov. 24, 1992 during the comet’s last close approach to Earth.

This week, we take our cue from the Springfield Republican for July 13, 1862, which reported the sighting in New England of what would eventually be called the Comet Swift–Tuttle. A ball of ice, dust, and debris whose nucleus is 16 miles wide, this comet is notable because, though it only passes by Earth every 133 years, its constituent debris creates the Perseid meteor shower every year when Earth moves through the trail of its orbit. This spectacular display was first seen in 1862, a particularly active year for comets.

Two astronomers discovered this comet independently in the following week: Lewis Swift on July 16, 1862 and Horace Parnell Tuttle on July 19, 1862. These kinds of astronomical discoveries were big news in the nineteenth century, which was a period of enormous expansion and growing popularity of the field of astronomy. Developments in optical technology led to advancements in telescopes and photography and were abetted by new concepts about the origins of the universe, the speed of light, and expanded ability to do calculations. The nineteenth century saw the discovery of 36 asteroids, four satellites, a planet—Neptune, a new ring around Saturn, and several comets, including the Swift-Tuttle comet.

Although Dickinson does not mention this sighting, biographer Richard Sewall notes how frequently Dickinson uses astronomical language, references, and motifs in her writing. We know Dickinson studied astronomy as one of her subjects at both Amherst Academy and Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in the 1840s. She not only mentions planets, heavenly bodies, and constellations in her writing but knowledgeably references astronomical phenomena like eclipses, angular measurement, and solstices. Scholars who study these references suggest that Dickinson had a deep engagement with astronomy and that her very conception of poetry is astronomical: Brad Ricca claims that

Dickinson uses poetry as a sextant,

an instrument for celestial navigation that measures the angular distance between an astronomical object and the horizon. This means of finding one’s way or connecting two points “slantwise” conforms to Dickinson’s recommendation to “Tell all the truth/ but tell it slant” (F 1263A, J1129) .

This week, we explore why Dickinson turned often to astronomy and found it so hospitable to her metaphorical imagination. One explanation is that the “new sciences” of this period were radically challenging older conceptions of the world and Dickinson wanted to participate in these exhilarating new ideas. Specifically, Dickinson’s engagement with astronomy occurred at the moment of a decisive shift away from religious explanations of science. Astronomy allowed her to focus on the universe, on perception and cognition, and explore the limits of scientific knowledge. It would also have a staggering personal effect on members of her family.

“The Waning of the Comet”

Springfield Republican, July 13, 1862

Review of the Week, page 1
“Doubt and hesitation are at an end. Congress, the executive, the patriot army and the people are ready, and the first crash of the grand onset which is to overwhelm the gigantic and infamous rebellion of 1861 now begins.”

The Waning of the Comet, page 2
“The comet that flashed so suddenly upon our vision a week and a half ago, is now visibly seen on the wane, and will soon be out of sight, lost among the constellations of the north. It has been in view just long enough to convince the astronomers that their knowledge is not infallible, and to furnish fireworks for the millions on the evening of the 4th, and now it leaves as suddenly as it came. It seems smaller and less bright from night to night, and it will soon be invisible to the naked eye. Then it will rapidly fade from the sight of the telescope, and be gone, probably never again to be seen by this generation.”

Great Battle in Missouri Recalled, page 4
“On the morning of the 5th, [1861] Col. Siegel attacked a body of 6,000 rebels about seven miles east of Carthage on a prairie. Col. Siegel began the attack at 9:30 a.m., breaking the enemy’s center twice. After an hour and a half of fighting, he silenced their artillery.”

Literary Anniversaries: Amherst College, page 5
“Notwithstanding the absence of strangers and the presence of the heat, a large and intelligent audience assembled in the village church Sunday afternoon to listen to the Baccalaureate Sermon by President Stearns, founded on Revelations XXI:7— ”He that overcometh shall inherit all things.’”

Hampshire Gazette, July 15, 1862

Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887)
Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887)

Amherst, page 3
“In the afternoon of Wednesday, Henry Ward Beecher addressed the literary societies. He said it might be expected, perhaps, that he would choose a literary subject, but we are so near the edge of revolution that public questions must take the precedence.”

“Astronomy  is a Science which has, in all Ages, Engaged the Attention of the Poet, the Philosopher, and the Divine”

As mentioned in the Overview, astronomy became increasing popular during the nineteenth century but also experienced a decisive shift. It was a subject on the curriculum at Amherst Academy and Mount Holyoke Female Seminary when Dickinson studied there in the 1840s. The Dickinson family library included several books about astronomy, including Felix Eberty’s Stars and the Earth (1854) and Denison Olmsted’s Introduction to Astronomy (1861). Eleanor Heginbotham notes that Elijah H. Burritts Geography of the Heavens and Class Book of Astronomy (1838), a textbook used at  Amherst Academy, linked the study of astronomy directly to Dickinson’s art. Burritt announced:

Astronomy is a science which has, in all ages, engaged the attention of the poet, the philosopher, and the divine.

Maria Mitchell (1818-1889)
Maria Mitchell (1818-1889)

Astronomy also became a field in which women could and did excel. In 1839, William Mitchell and his daughter Maria observed Halley’s comet from their observatory on Nantucket, off Cape Cod. In 1847, Maria Mitchell discovered a comet on her own, which was named for her, and received a medal for her discovery from King Frederick VI of Denmark, which earned her international recognition and gave needed status to American astronomy. Mitchel was the first woman to be professional astronomer. She was appointed professor of astronomy at Vassar College, director of the Vassar College Observatory and, with much fanfare, became the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1848.

Dickinson’s exposure to astronomy was largely thanks to Edward Hitchcock, Professor of Geology and Theology at Amherst College and author of The Religion of Geology (1851), a book also  in the Dickinson family library. An eminent “geological theologian,” as he called himself, Hitchcock influenced the curriculum at both schools Dickinson attended. Although Hitchcock avidly embraced new scientific discoveries and encouraged an attitude of wonder, he supported the position, prevalent in the early part of the century, that sciences like astronomy and geology confirmed the existence of God and were compatible with Christian theology.

At Mount Holyoke Seminary, Dickinson used the textbook Compendium of Astronomy (1839) by Olmsted, which supported such a view. But after the publication in 1859 of Charles Darwin’s On the Origins of Species, which was reviewed favorably by Asa Gray in the Atlantic Monthly in 1860, scientific discoveries began to have a destabilizing effect on religious belief and signaled the beginning of a decisive shift away from a teleological trend in scientific thought. Joan Kirkby notes:

Between 1859 and 1873, New England was “the main battle-ground” of the confrontation between science and theology. … Emily Dickinson herself was imbricated in a unique web of affiliation with Darwin and darwinian ideas; the key New England figures in this debate were all known to Dickinson either through her family, her schooling, her library or the libraries at Amherst Academy and Mount Holyoke, or through the pages of the New England periodicals to which the Dickinsons subscribed.

Dickinson, too, was swept up in the excitement about the changing view of the world, though Sabine Sielke argues that Dickinson’s

take on science is critical and engaged rather than positivist and affirmative.

Woods Cabinet and Lawrence Observatory at Amherst College (Jones Library, Amherst)
Woods Cabinet and Lawrence Observatory at Amherst College (Jones Library, Amherst)

While astronomy was an important element in Dickinson’s intellectual world, we could also argue that it had a devastating effect on Dickinson’s family. One of the consequences of astronomy’s increasing popularity was the building of observatories; more than 170 were built across the country in the nineteenth century. This included the Lawrence Observatory at Amherst College, built in 1847. The addition of a larger telescope in 1854 helped the Lawrence Observatory to build a reputation for innovation. And this reputation attracted more students, which required more faculty.

Mabel Loomis Todd and David Peck Todd
Mabel Loomis Todd and David Peck Todd

In 1881, a young academic named David Peck Todd was hired as an assistant Professor of Astronomy at Amherst College and brought along his young wife, Mabel Loomis Todd. Mabel assisted David with his work, traveling with him to Japan to see a total eclipse in August 1896 and writing a book about it titled Corona and Coronet. Her importance to this story lies in her affair during the 1880’s with Austin Dickinson, many years her senior, which led to the bitter divide between the families that would prevent the publication of a “complete works” until Thomas Johnson’s edition in 1955. In 1890, Mabel began co-editing Dickinson’s poetry. The same year Mabel brought out a collection of Dickinson’s letters, she published Total Eclipses of the Sun, a survey of the history, science and characteristics of eclipses with a poetic epigraph from Dickinson (included in our poems for this week).

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum

 

Reflection
Ivy Schweitzer

Planetarium

Thinking of Caroline Herschel (1750—1848)
astronomer, sister of William; and others.

A woman in the shape of a monster   
a monster in the shape of a woman   
the skies are full of them
 
a woman      ‘in the snow
among the Clocks and instruments   
or measuring the ground with poles’
 
in her 98 years to discover   
8 comets
 
she whom the moon ruled   
like us
levitating into the night sky   
riding the polished lenses
 
Galaxies of women, there
doing penance for impetuousness   
ribs chilled   
in those spaces    of the mind
 
An eye,
 
          ‘virile, precise and absolutely certain’
          from the mad webs of Uranusborg
 
                                                            encountering the NOVA   
 
every impulse of light exploding
 
from the core
as life flies out of us
 
             Tycho whispering at last
             ‘Let me not seem to have lived in vain’
 
What we see, we see   
and seeing is changing
 
the light that shrivels a mountain   
and leaves a man alive
 
Heartbeat of the pulsar
heart sweating through my body
 
The radio impulse   
pouring in from Taurus
 
         I am bombarded yet         I stand
 
I have been standing all my life in the   
direct path of a battery of signals
the most accurately transmitted most   
untranslatable language in the universe
I am a galactic cloud so deep      so invo-
luted that a light wave could take 15   
years to travel through me       And has   
taken      I am an instrument in the shape   
of a woman trying to translate pulsations   
into images    for the relief of the body   
and the reconstruction of the mind.
 
Adrienne Rich, "Planetarium"  from Collected Poems: 1950-2012. Copyright © 2016 by The Adrienne Rich Literary Trust.  Copyright © 1971 W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. Reprinted by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc..
Source: The Fact of a Doorframe: Selected Poems 1950-2001 (W. W. Norton and Company Inc., 2002)
 
***
Since I first read this poem, in the early 1970s, it has moved me profoundly, moved me to tears I could not totally account for, until today. I understood  back then, during the second wave of feminist movements, that Rich was borrowing the language of astronomy and alluding to the extraordinary life of the first woman professional astronomer, who had to get out from her brother's shadow, to describe her 20th century sense of constraint as a woman with ambitions, as a woman who appeared monstrous to her culture because of those ambitions. It’s the monstrosity, being punished, disfigured, constellated for embodying  power, that choked me up. As a brainy girl growing up in the 1960s, I identified with it on a visceral level.

Dickinson’s engagement with astronomy came as a complete surprise to me. Yes, she wrote about moons, stars, eclipses, Pleiades, but it is her excitement about astronomy, how it opens up the cosmos, acts as a lens to an infinite world linking the heavens and Heaven, and, perhaps most importantly, how it puts the human female eye/I at the center of perception … I hadn't grasped how powerful that was for Dickinson, stargazing late into the night from her southwest window, orchard, or garden, communing with the universe—one can almost see how her “father's grounds,” which in the 1860s she claimed to never leave, might be sufficient given such a penetrating means of scrutiny. For her, the Astronomer’s obsessive searching “for his Pleiad's face,” such an intimate turn of phrase, represents the unending commitment to process, to searching and desire, to life itself.
 
From studying Dickinson’s engagement with astronomy, I now see that Rich gets the deeper point:
What we see, we see / and seeing is changing …
The masculine dominance of the ocular — seeing as dominating and dominating the gaze — has always been an issue for women and others. Rich’s speaker stands “in the direct path of a battery of signals” that are “untranslatable” but impossible to miss (monstrosity), and from that pommeling and bombardment she becomes “a galactic cloud so deep     so involuted ”that the wound is invaginated and blossoms into strength. It turns her into “an instrument,” like the sextants and telescopes of Caroline Herschel and Maria Mitchell, but now, for relief and reconstruction: the monster will resolve into a thinking woman.

 
bio: Ivy Schweitzer is Professor of English and Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Dartmouth College, and the editor of White Heat.
 

Sources:

Overview
Ricca, Brad. “Emily Dickinson: Learn’d Astronomer.” Emily Dickinson Journal 9.2 (Fall 2000): 96-109, 103.

Sewall, Richard. The Life of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980, 354.

Sielke, Sabine. “Natural Sciences.” Emily Dickinson in Context. Ed. Eliza Richards. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013, 236-245.

Williams, Sharone E. “Astronomy.” All Things Dickinson: An Encyclopedia of Emily Dickinson’s World. Ed. Wendy Martin. 2 vols. Santa Barbara: Greenwood: 2014, 55-59.

History
Hampshire Gazette
, July 15, 1862.

Springfield Republican, July 13, 1862

Biography

Heginbotham, Eleanor. “Reading in the Dickinson Libraries.” Emily Dickinson in Context. Ed. Eliza Richards. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013, 25-35 29.

Kirkby, Joan. “[W]e thought Darwin had thrown ‘the Redeemer’ away": Darwinizing with Emily Dickinson. Emily Dickinson Journal 19,  1, 2010: 1-29, 7.

Sielke, Sabine. “Natural Sciences.” Emily Dickinson in Context. Ed. Eliza Richards. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013, 236-245, 237.

"Why an Eclipse Can Only Last Eight Minutes, by Mabel Loomis Todd." New England Historical Society.

Williams, Sharone E. “Astronomy.” All Things Dickinson: An Encyclopedia of Emily Dickinson’s World. Ed. Wendy Martin. 2 vols. Santa Barbara: Greenwood: 2014, 55-59.

June 4-10, 1862: Third Letter to Higginson

This week we explore Dickinson’s third letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, dated June 7, 1862. This letter is significant for marking the beginning of what Dickinson denominates, for the first time, her “friendship” with Higginson.

Overview
This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Ivy Schweitzer
Sources

This week we explore Dickinson’s third letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, dated June 7, 1862.  This letter is most commonly known for what biographer Richard Sewall calls “disavowals that have contributed as much as anything ever said about her to the legend of the shy genius”—most specifically, a seemingly definitive expression of her disinclination for print publication ("foreign to my thought, as Firmament to Fin"). It also notably ends with Dickinson’s famous, coy request: “But, will you be my Preceptor, Mr Higginson?”

But elements in this letter undermine Dickinson’s possible “posing” here as needing a tutor and guide. This letter is significant for marking the beginning of what Dickinson, for the first time, denominates her “friendship” with Higginson. This is a weighty word that implies not tutelage or preceptorship but a relationship of equality. And letters have historically been a special genre for friendship, by which writers send themselves in words to their special recipient.

In fact, Dickinson carefully chose Higginson as a correspondent. As a prominent literary figure, he  was in a position to acknowledge and legitimate her as a poet.  This letter also sets the tone for this friendship, which will last until Dickinson’s death in 1886. It records Dickinson's playful parrying and resistance of Higginson’s criticism of her poetry, which we have to infer from Dickinson’s responses, since all Higginson’s letters to her were either burned after her death or lost.  As several studies of their relationship demonstrate, it’s not  clear who was the student and who was the teacher!

Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1823-1911)
Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1823-1911)

Exploring this letter, which has a poem embedded in it, also gives us the opportunity to consider it as an aesthetic object in its own right, and think about how Dickinson's prose and poetry interact. In the “Foreward” to a collection of essays about Dickinson’s letters, Marietta Messmer argues that her correspondence can “be regarded as her central form of public artistic expression.” Messmer cites pioneering work in this vein by scholars like Agnieszka Salska, who argues that Dickinson's letters

became the territory where she could work out her own style, create her poetic voice, and crystallize the principles of her poetics.

We will read this letter next to other poems written during this period that expand on its central themes of intoxication, illness, publication, and preceptors.

“The Virtues of Cold Water”

NATIONAL HISTORY

Springfield Republican, June 7, 1862, page 1
Review of the Week:  “This has been the most g[illegible] week of the war–a week of victories and successes, which make us forget all previous blunders and disasters. The rebel army in front of Richmond has been beaten in a two days’ battle, Beauregard’s army has fled in fright and confusion from Corinth, the rebels have been driven back up the valley of the Shenandoah, and the ground lost last week more than recovered, and it looks now as if the field fighting is really over.”

“The General Situation,” page 1:  “In connection with the victories won by our arms come reports of growing Union feeling at the South.”

William Gannaway Brownlow (1805-1877)
William Gannaway Brownlow (1805-1877)

“New England Matters,” page 1:  “The lectures of Parson Brownlow have excited great interest at the various points which he has visited; and he had full houses and enthusiastic applause at Hartford and in this city. He paints this wicked rebellion in such strong colors as may suitably be used by one who has felt the halter around his neck and the iron entering his soul for the crime of loving his undivided country.”

Religious Intelligence, page 1:  “Treason brutalizes priest as well as people. … Another reverend secesh, named Ely, distinguished himself by his outrages. After dinner he remarked to a young lady that he was going to Ball’s Bluff after trophies. He wanted some bones of the Yankee soldiers, in order to make finger rings, &c. to carry his presents to some of his female friends in Mississippi.”

Poetry:  “Spring in New England” page 2, in rhyming couplets by J. R. Lowell

Original Poetry, page 6
“The Kiss” and “Love’s Good Night” by H. M. E. and “A Sonnet After F. G. T.” which refers to an apparently execrable sonnet that appeared in this month Atlantic Monthly, and was called out by other commentators as well:

… Poor murdered language, lying still and stark;
Words that have somehow lost the vital spark;
As if the lexicon, in playful antic,
Shook them as from a dice-box,––new and old,
Nouns, adjectives and adverbs, more or less,
Just as it happened; so it is, I guess,
That, like a pebble in a ring of gold,
Lies a dead sonnet in the June Atlantic.    F. H. C.

Hampshire Gazette, June 10, 1862

John B. Gough (1817-1886)
John B. Gough (1817-1886)

Local IntelligenceNorthampton: “Another great success attended the lecture of [John B.] Gough last Tuesday evening. … The old temperance advocates were excited with delight, and even the lovers and users of intoxicating drinks were forced to accept his logic as conclusive and laugh at the exposures of their unmanly conduct. The closing portion of the lecture was an exceedingly beautiful picture of the virtues of cold water.”

There is another long column on page 1 about Gough’s lecture and the virtues of temperance in which the correspondent says, “we wish our poor brothers whom alcohol has almost destroyed could hear Gough.”

Also, a short piece, from “some curious letters” that were found in the post office at Norfolk when the Northern troops took possession. Among them was one from John Tyler [tenth president of the United States], dated October 6, 1860, which said, “Eight months ago I gave up the wine cup forever, to devote myself to my country until the end cometh.”

Literary, page 1:  Recommends three books for children and gives the contents for The Westminster Review for April, the London Quarterly for April, Blackwood for May, and the newest Rebellion Record.

Other columns on page 1: “What is a ‘Gentleman,’” “Truth at Home,” “Unruly Milch Cows,” “Kindness to Animals,” “A Plea for the Skunk.”

Amherst, page 2: “The eloquent John B. Gough will address the students by request, on Tuesday afternoon of Commencement week, in the Village Church. His subject will be “London.”


Amherst College, June 9: “We enjoyed a great treat last Saturday afternoon, listening to the heroic Parson Brownlow, from Tennessee. … The Parson’s daughter, the brave woman who defended the “Stars and Stripes” at the peril of her life against the savage hordes of rebeldom, is traveling with her father. She is a noble looking woman, and her outer bearing speaks for the great soul within.

“I am in danger–Sir–”

It is important to put Dickinson’s third letter to Higginson on June 7, 1862 (L265) into the context of her state of mind and their earlier correspondence. In an earlier post, we discussed Dickinson’s first letter to Higginson, a prominent literary figure and public reformer. Written on April 15, after reading his “Letter to a Young Contributor” in that month’s Atlantic Monthly, she asked:

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

She enclosed four poems.

Higginson wrote back quickly, but because his letters to Dickinson were either burned at her death (on her request to Lavinia) or lost, we have only those she sent to him and have to infer what was in his letters from her responses. In her second letter on April 25, Dickinson thanks him for his “surgery,” implying that he critiqued her poems, and answers in oblique and winsome ways some of the questions he put to her about herself, her reading, her family and companions. She enclosed two or three more poems, including the masterful account of renounced passion, “There came a Day at Summer’s Full” (F325A, J322) .

On June 7, 1862, Dickinson responded to the second letter Higginson wrote to her, sometime after the end of April. We should note that instead of addressing him as “Mr. Higginson,” as she did in her second letter, this letter begins “Dear friend.” and ends, “Your friend / E Dickinson,” suggesting quite a leap in intimacy for the reputedly shy Dickinson. It also suggess an aspiration to or even the assumption of equality. Jason Hoope, who argues for the importance of this correspondence to Dickinson, notes that she regarded Higginson’s “surgery” on her poems “as heralding literary legitimacy. The inevitable sincerity of evaluation in and of itself—regardless of its content—is ‘justice,’ as the third letter makes clear”:

Your second letter surprised me, and for a moment, swung – I had not supposed it. Your first-gave no dishonor, because the True-are not ashamed – I thanked you for your justice -but could not drop the Bells whose jingling cooled my Tramp-Perhaps the Balm, seemed better, because you bled me, first.

Whereas in the first letter, Dickinson asks Higginson to “tell me what is true,” here, as Hoope notes, Dickinson “asserts her own membership among ‘the True.’” This letter also reprises important themes from the earlier two letters, such as poetry as/and illness, her thinking about print publication and fame, and her eagerness for an interlocutor and confidante, a “friend.” We know from her letter of April 25 that Dickinson has been recently ill when she says, I “write today, from my pillow.” (L261). We also know that her close friend, Samuel Bowles, the editor of the Springfield Republican, had been away since Spring on a European tour for his health, and that Dickinson had been missing him keenly. Claiming to have exhausted language’s capacity to describe how moved she was by “The ‘hand you stretch me in the Dark,’” Dickinson embeds a poem into the letter, “As if I asked a common Alms” (F14, J323).

Although Alfred Habegger observes that “the letters to Higginson enacted the poet’s fondness for self-dramatization,” he also suggests that “The isolation she claimed was by no means wholly fictive.” Still, when her brother Austin read the 1891 Atlantic essay in which Higginson excerpted and commented on Dickinson’s letters,

he says Emily definitely posed in those letters. … The fraternal view had its blind spots, like the paternal condescension toward the female mind. These familial male superiorities help explain many things, including the poet’s quest for authoritative “tutors” and “masters” outside her home.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum

 

Reflection
Ivy Schweitzer

Two Poems

Southwest Corner

pencil enclosed in letter

The room– spare and bright.
Carlyle, Browning, and Eliot watch from the walls,
A tiny desk for weighty work.

Franklin stove gave private warmth,
Writing into the night, even–
deliciously–till dawn.
Later, pencils, scribbling on
Scraps stashed in pockets,
Envelopes splayed like butterflies
Straying through chores,
Winged +gleanings of song.

But the geranium on the sill?
Flamboyant blossoms coaxed in shivers,
For window musing, stroking sueded leaf,
heady scent of Orient and heat.

Then, shimmering grail of pilgrimage
The white dress
Surprisingly petite, front buttons requiring
No help. Too busy plumbing eternity for fussing.

Through the hush of admiration
–rustle of muslin, and
Glimpsed escaping behind the bedroom door
Pinned auburn hair
Bold, like the chestnut burr
Depthless eyes
Like the sherry in the glass the guest leaves.

+ edifice

webbed burfish

Identification

Spellbound I tail it,
coral shard
shifting too deliberately
in the rubbled shallows
I prowl between reef and shore.

First, tiny whirling fins appear,
little brooms propelling
a wedge-shaped body
brindled with three dark blotches
like bruises or spilled ink.
Then a face, square and wide,
with large unlidded eyes
and yellow spikes whiskering
a plated, smirking mouth.

For a sickening moment our gazes
lock–I am hooked and held.

Later, dry and safely landed,
I find staring out from a page
of the identification book:
Chilomycterus antillarum,
the webbed burrfish,
aka spiny boxfish, blowfish, balloonfish, globefish, hedgehog fish,                    swelltoad,
evil twin of the porcupine puffer
who delights us with its
Disney waifishness.

I add it to my life list
but it bewitches
my thoughts, twitching up,
talisman of depths,
never letting me forget
how in its world
I am forced to surrender
the engineering miracle of knees
kicking stiff-legged
tipped with rubber fins.

bio: Ivy Schweitzer is the editor of White Heat.

 

Sources:

Overview

Messmer, Marietta. “Foreword.” Reading Emily Dickinson's Letters: Critical Essays. Eds. Jane Donahue Eberwein and Cindy MacKenzie. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2009, vii-x, viii.

Salska, Agnieszka. “Dickinson’s Letters.” The Emily Dickinson Handbook. Eds. Gudrun Grabher, Roland Hagenbüchle, Cristanne Miller. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998, 163-80, 168.

Sewall, Richard. The Life of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980, 553.

History
Hampshire Gazette, June 10, 1862

Springfield Republican, June  7, 1862

Biography

Habegger, Alfred. My Wars are Laid away in Books. New York: Random House, 2001, kindle version.

Hoope, Jason. “Personality and Poetic Election in the Preceptual Relationship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, 1862-1886.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language. 55, 3 (Fall 2013): 348-387, 358.

 

April 30-May 6, 1862: Gardens

References to gardens, gardening, and the denizens of gardens pervade Dickinson’s work. For some readers, she is pre-eminently a “nature” poet. As spring ripens into summer, we thought we would explore Dickinson’s “garden politics”––that is, the power of gardens literal and rhetorical in her writing.

Overview
This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection - Ivy Schweitzer
Sources/Further Reading

“Garden Politics”

References to gardens, gardening, and the denizens of gardens pervade Dickinson's work. For some readers, she is preeminently a “nature” poet. As spring ripens into summer, we thought we would explore Dickinson's “garden politics”– that is, the power of gardens literal and rhetorical in her writing.

New York Botanical Gardens' recreation of Dickinson's gardens, 2010
               New York Botanical Gardens’ recreation of Dickinson's gardens, 2010

Thinking about Dickinson’s gardens and gardening has undergone something of a revolution since our recognition of the Anthropocene, the present geological age in which humans have had a dominant effect—and not for the good. This recognition has produced a “post-human” turn in thinking, a reconsideration of human subjectivity, species superiority, and materiality that has consequences for local and global ethics and ideas of scale. Several thinkers find a consciousness of these ideas in Dickinson’s famous garden poetry, changing the way we read it.

The conventional consensus has been that Dickinson’s nature writings are inordinately detailed and informed because of her study of natural history at Mount Holyoke Seminary and her deep experience in nature and with gardening. Critics see gardens as often standing for something else in her work, “microcosms of nature, analogies of heaven, and representations of her soul, home, and New England culture … a setting for musing on the sublime and fallen mortal world and imagining the immoral” (Yin). They also recognize that Dickinson often reversed this metaphor, finding Eden here on earth. In 2004, Judith Farr produced the first substantial study of Dickinson’s gardening, in which she linked the poet’s passion for horticulture to her equally strong passion for poetry: in essence, Farr argued, the garden gave Dickinson her metaphors, language, and symbols.

More recent scholarship asks different questions about the literal gardens in Dickinson’s life, her representation of plants that move and act and feel, her birds that seem to possess a higher intelligence past human capabilities and ask philosophical questions, her cultivation of exotic species in her conservatory, the circulation of such species globally through the horticultural imperialism of the West, even her brother Austin’s habit of “bioprospecting,”—that is, digging up trees from the wild and bringing them back to plant in his yard or meadows.

This week, we post the results of our collaboration with my colleague Melissa Zeiger’s Spring 2018 course at Dartmouth College titled “Garden Politics: Literature, Theory, Practice.” We visited the class to talk about Dickinson’s gardening and garden politics, read some exciting recent critical work, and asked her students to write short essays about garden poems Dickinson wrote around 1862. The results are fascinating.  

“May-day has come”

NATIONAL HISTORY

Springfield Republican, Review of the Week. Progress of the War: “The capture of New Orleans [on Monday, April 28] is the most important of our recent successes. It had been so long and confidently expected that the announcement of the event made no great sensation, yet the dismay it has carried throughout the South, too great to be concealed, and the renewed confidence it has produced in the loyal sections of the country, manifested especially in a remarkable appreciation of government securities, show the estimate placed upon the event in all parts of the country.”

Capture of New Orleans, 1862
Capture of New Orleans, 1862

The General Situation. “Rumors have been in circulation in respect to an armistice and compromise, but they were doubtless weak inventions of the northern allies of treason, who see the fate impending over the heads of their friends, and would gladly avert it. But neither the government nor the people will listen to any propositions until the rebels lay down their arms and make an unconditional submission, and that they are unlikely to do till their armies in Virginia and the Southwest are defeated and destroyed.”

Foreign Affairs. “The question of iron armored ships still continues to be the prominent topic in Europe.”

Local Matters. “May-day has come in the guise of a damp and chilling atmosphere, quite discouraging to out-of-doors recreations.”

The Educational Commission at Port Royal. “Very ungenerous, not to say malignant, attempts have been made to prejudice the people against the efforts made under government supervision to plant the deserted plantations on the South Carolina islands, and the men and women who have gone from New England and New York to direct the labors of the negroes and educate their children have been ridiculed and their efforts pronounced a failure in advance. But so far as we can judge from the most reliable accounts they are doing the difficult work of their mission with great tact and energy and with every prospect of success.”

Richard Lyons, 1st Viscount Lyons (1817-1887). Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=389373
Richard Lyons, 1st Viscount Lyons (1817-1887). Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=389373

“The government mail service has been thoroughly revised and improved this season, by placing new routes in operation, increasing the frequency of trips on the old and infusing additional vigor into every part of the system.”

The New Slave Trade Treaty. “The new treaty negotiated by Mr. Seward and Lord Lyons for the prevention of the slave trade, is published. … [it] will be hailed with joy by all true citizens.”

School-Girls, Ideal and Actual. —

An ideal school-girl is one of the very loveliest things on earth. Personally so fair, so fresh, so hopeful, the beauty of womanhood in its dewy promise, “a rose with all its sweetest leaves folded.” … But the real school-girl is sometimes a very different person. She is a rose too early opened, with its petals imperfect yet widely flaunting to catch the reluctant gaze. … She is only bent on amusing herself in her own untrammeled way, a way which lowers her position, depraves her taste, and robs the budding rose, while yet enfolded in protecting moss, of half its fragrance and its dew.

Poetry: “Under the Snow” by the Late Gen F. W. Lander (1821-1862) from The Atlantic for May.

Frederick W. Lander (1821-1862)
Frederick W. Lander (1821-1862)

It is an account, in four-line stanzas of iambic tetrameter rhyming abab, of a “fallen woman” driven out into the winter, pregnant and alone, back to the place of “her spring time vows” and, presumably, her fall, described as “where one ghastly birch/ Held up the rafters of the roof,/ And grim old pine trees formed a church.” Compare this to Dickinson’s “Some keep the Sabbath going to Church” (F236B, J324), a poem about the garden as church.

“Life’s Question” by the Dean of Canterbury

Books, Authors and Art. Reports publication of a collection of writing by Thomas de Quincey and previews the contents of May’s Atlantic Monthly:

The only bit of romance in the number is in the first part of a story by Miss Prescott, showing a good degree of her peculiar power, somewhat chastened and pruned of its early redundancies of expression. … it is not lavishly sensuous in its descriptions, and has many touches of simple, genuine nature. It awakens an interest which may not be fully sustained in the concluding chapter, as this writer, with all her vividness of imagination and pictorial power, does not usually excel in conclusions.

Hampshire Gazette May 6: Begins with “Lines, for Mrs. W. addressed to her husband, on their “Silver Wedding,” April 25, 1862 by E. T. Hayward

From the Beaufort Cor. Phila. Inquirer: Secession in its Effects upon Women.

The secession females (I will not call them ladies) … here, as elsewhere, endeavor to take advantage of their sex, and the disinclination of the officers to use harsh measures with them, to show their malignity and to do us all the injury in their power.

Notice about selection of officers of the Horticultural Club (of Springfield): all males in the subcategories of agriculture and horticulture except for three females “on Floriculture.”

Amherst:

Col. W. S. Clark has sent home to the College six muskets taken from the enemy at Newbern. In examining them, Mr. Oliver Hunt, the Janitor, found one loaded with six charges of Minnie balls, and burst the barrel in getting them out. Probably it is in this way that the rebels count one Southerner equal to five Yankees.

Amherst is now quite independent of the rest of the world on the score of news, for she boasts a daily newspaper—even the Amherst Daily Express. This little issue comes forth at the early hours of 6 o’clock, A. M. , containing “all the latest news from the seat of war by [illegible] telegraph.

“Earth as Heaven”

Dickinson once remarked to her Norcross cousins, “I was reared in the garden you know,” and the frequency and accuracy of garden imagery in her poetry substantiates this boast. Dickinson’s mother, Emily Norcross Dickinson, is generally credited with her children’s love of gardening. She was renowned around Amherst for her skill in producing the most delicious fruits, especially figs. Dickinson started gardening at age eleven at least, and never stopped.

A page from Dickinson's Herbarium. Houghton Library, Harvard University
A page from Dickinson's Herbarium. Houghton Library, Harvard University

As a child, Dickinson painstakingly filled an herbarium book with over 400 specimens of plants, which she labeled in Latin. We know from her letters to friends that she collected and traded specimens. In 1845, for example, she wrote to her friend Abiah Root,

I am going to send you a little geranium leaf in this letter, which you must press for me. Have you made an herbarium yet? I hope you will if you have not, it would be such a treasure to you … If you do, perhaps I can make some addition to it from flowers growing around here (L6).

Creating herbariums was a common occupation among young girls at the time, in part because the natural sciences were considered an acceptable feminine occupation which girls were encouraged to practice. Books were specially published with labeled spaces for pressed plants. Dickinson and her female peers studied science extensively at Mount Holyoke and Amherst Academy.

Dickinson's original conservatory, Dickinson Museum
Dickinson's original conservatory, Dickinson Museum

Judith Farr, who has made a deep study of Dickinson’s gardens, points out that in 1855, Edward Dickinson built his daughter a glassed-in conservatory off the dining room, so that she could garden year round and also keep exotic species of flowers like jasmine. Farr suspects that Edward gave this particular gift not only to please his daughter but

because growing flowers was, to him, a more suitable occupation for a woman than writing verse. 

Wily Dickinson made the two occupations interdependent, and often sent gifts of pressed flowers in her letters or tucked poems into bouquets from her garden and conservatory.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum

 

Reflection

Ivy Schweitzer

Two garden poems:

“Caging the Tulips”

Every spring their pale tips
poke through soil
in my neighbor’s plot,
a tiny platoon of beauty.

I imagine the autumn muster:
plump bulbs with  papery skins,
bottoms fringed with roots,
roll from perforated
sacks to be nestled
in close rank and file,
precisely eight inches beneath the loam.

In May, showers roust them out,
green recruits of incipient joy;
sun gives the drill command,
and we brace for the cadence of color—
when the cage goes up around them.

Four feet of chicken wire
open at the top but tall enough
to deter winter thin deer.

They come, then, smoldering
orange petals with blazing yellow
throats, pitch black at the center,
erect three lobed stigma
ringed by six slender stamen,
their anthers dusty with pollen and curved daintily outward,
splayed cups of exultation
penned in for their own protection.

I lope past after my morning run,
suddenly remembering how you reached for me
last night, unexpectedly,
how we panted in the dark air suffused by scents
from my rowdy spring beds
laced with manure.

Oh glorious disorder, I croon to the captives,
let us throw reason to the winds,
let us plant tulips for the spring
and let ravenous deer
eat the sweet tips,
or not.

My greenhouse
My greenhouse

“Bringing down the Basil”

Outdid yourself this summer—
thigh high and
      redolent,
lording it over the bush beans
rivaling the Sun Gold tomatoes,
rampant and clustered like grapes,
their simmering flesh panting
     for your heady infusion.

Subjected to weekly sheering and pinching
of blossoms, you grew potent by thwarting,
turning the heads of passersby
who paused, asking for my secret—
what is there to say?

manure and ruthlessness.

Broken on the blades of my blender,
your majesty challenged with
lobes of garlic, pignoli and reggiano,
pesto is a balm for the
     bruised soul.

Now cool September nights nip your leaves.
My pruners neatly sever your woody stems,
releasing a scent
     like a sigh
like the spirit escaping the lips of prey
     at the moment of passing—

Something ancient in reaping
what we have sown and fostered,
until in the fullness of touch
     and time
we break its body
     for succor.

bio: Ivy Schweitzer is the editor of White Heat.

 

Sources:

Overview:

“Emily Dickinson and Gardening.” The Emily Dickinson Museum.

Farr, Judith with Louise Carter. The Gardens of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004, 4-5.

Yin, Joanna. “Garden, as Subject.” The Emily Dickinson Encyclopedia. Ed. Jane Donahue Eberwein. Westport, CT.: Greenwood Press, 1998, 122-23.

This week in History:

Hampshire Gazette, May 5, 1862.
Springfield Republican,  Sat May 3, 1862.

This week in Biography :

Letter 233. Letters from Dickinson to Unknown Recipients, DEA.

 

April 2-8, 1862: Publication

One of the most intriguing aspects of Dickinson’s poetry is that most of her almost eighteen-hundred poems were published posthumously. Ten of them (and one letter) made it into print during her lifetime, none under her own name. We explore why a prolific and ambitious poet with such close relationships with prominent editors chose not to publish during her lifetime, and her evolving feelings about print publication and fame.

 “Firmament to Fin”

Overview
This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection - Ivy Schweitzer
Sources/Further Reading
Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf
Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf

Publication

One of the most intriguing aspects of Dickinson’s poetry is that most of her almost eighteen-hundred poems were published posthumously. Ten of them (and one letter) made it into print during her lifetime, none under her own name. (For a list of these, see EDA’s “Resources.”) Some people think that Dickinson contacted the editor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, in order to sound him out about publishing her poetry. But in her third letter to him, written on June 7, 1862, Dickinson stated: “I smile when you suggest that I delay ‘to publish’—that being foreign to my thought, as Firmament to Fin—” (L265). We will see, however, in exploring Dickinson’s first two letters to Higginson later in this month that she did not always tell him the truth. In point of fact, her contacting him at all was triggered by her reading his essay of advice to young and potentially publishing writers.

Why would a poet with such close relationships with editors, such as Samuel Bowles of the Springfield Republican and Thomas Higginson of the Atlantic Monthly, choose not to publish during her lifetime? The question is complicated by the fact that several of her poems did appear in the Springfield Republican—with varying degrees of her approval—and that she was already circulating poems to friends, family, and editors through correspondences.

A fascicle
A fascicle

What’s more, Dickinson edited her own poetry as if preparing it for publication: she made fair copies, destroyed the worksheets, and bound more than 800 poems into 40 fascicles, as if intending that they should be read in the groups she chose and published posthumously.

One common explanation of her choice not to publish was that she was responding to the print industry’s tendency to edit, punctuate, reword, and modify poetry before it hit the press, without the consent of the writer. We discussed this process in the post for February 26 – March 4 in which Dickinson’s poem “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers” was renamed “The Sleeping,” heavily edited so that it conformed to conventional poetic norms, and published in the Springfield Daily Republican on March 1st, 1862.

Springfield Republican Still, Cristanne Miller argues that the “editing” argument—though clearly a concern for Dickinson—is insufficient to explain why so much of her poetry went unpublished. Miller points to two compelling reasons that go beyond Dickinson’s preoccupation with editorial interference. First, her most profound poems deal with matters like death, loss, and life in “familiar forms, working from the hymn and popular ballad-style poetry, and using the popular idiom.” Dickinson will balk when Higginson suggests that her poetic “gait” is “Spasmodic,” and resisted his advice to write in blank verse. This may indicate that poetry was a form of reflection for her, a way to work through deep questions of war, life, and time without concerning herself with an audience. In effect, the process of writing without the pressures and demands of publication allowed poetry to maintain its role of personal exploration and experimentation in her life.

Second, Dickinson likely found objectionable the way print publication implicated her poems as commodities in a larger market. This point becomes all the more urgent when considered in the context of slavery, a market in itself that involved the attachment of monetary value to bodies, spirit, and labor. We will explore this theme in the poems section in our discussion of “Publication – is the Auction” (F788, J709). Furthermore, print publication fixes poem and makes them static. Karen Dandurand speculates that Dickinson’s frequent revising of her own poems, even years after they were written, suggests that she regarded poems as always “works in progress,” and it was essential for her to retain them within her control to keep them dynamic and open to change.

These reasons provide insight into Dickinson’s choice to avoid print and “publish” in her own way: binding her poems into forty fascicles, sending them off to friends and family in letters, and etching them into the corners of envelopes and paper scraps. Reworking the rules of “publication” allowed her to write, share, and preserve her work in a way that resisted the commodification of the “Human Spirit” that was so rampant in the nineteenth century’s media environment.

“Things that are Not Things”

NATIONAL HISTORY

As mentioned in the Overview, the horrors of war, death, and slavery were ever-present questions for Dickinson, just as they were for the nation at large. This week, the Springfield Republican includes extended meditations on both. A piece called “Things that are not things” focuses on the paradoxical treatment of slaves as both property and persons—a rhetorical gymnastics and perverse logic that slave owners use to argue their right to their own property and simultaneously avoid taxation:

The slaveholders refuse to be held to any definite theory on the subject, while they claim the advantages of the most opposite principles. Slaves are not property, when you talk about taxing them, or confiscating them, or in any way making them subject to the liabilities of other kinds of property; but if the government proposes to remove them from the national capital, paying a fair price for them, then they become property to all intents and purposes, and to touch them without the consent of the owners is a great outrage… The constitution does not recognize them as property… Slavery must not be allowed to shirk any of the burdens or evade any of the just consequence of the war it has instigated by mere quibbling.

A column titled “Speak kindly of the dead” attempts to make sense of death and offers instruction on how to think about the fallen soldiers of the Civil War, commenting that while “censure” might mean something for the living, it is powerless to the dead.

Fallen confederate soldiers with identifying headboards on Rose Farm. LOC, Civil War Trust.
Fallen confederate soldiers with identifying headboards on Rose Farm. LOC, Civil War Trust.

Let us speak kindly of the life that is closed… Every nature has its ennobling struggles, its inherent discords that can only be subdued to harmony by vigorous effort… The soldier went forth to do or die, and was cut down before the final charge was made and the dear-bought victory attained. Let us accept him if he fell manfully, with his face to the foe, and bear him mutely homeward upon his battered shield.

The Republican also announced an important early step in the government’s involvement in the freeing of slaves by way of an Emancipation Proclamation:

The United States Senate, on Tuesday, the 2d, adopted the joint resolve from the House, suggested by the president’s special message, offering the aid of the general government to such states as may choose to initiate emancipation.

… it is a great thing that senators representing three of [the border] states should declare for this first step towards emancipation. It required high courage, and they should have all honor for the act, for we must remember that in the South there is no such connection between loyalty to the government and hostility to slavery as exists generally among us, and the southern loyalists are by no means to be judged by our standard of opinion.

LITERARY HISTORY

In relation to this week’s focus on publication, it is important to note that the Springfield Republican frequently published poems by women on some of the same themes that interested Dickinson. The Springfield Republican for April 5, for example, includes “The Country Child” by Marian Douglas (Annie Green, 1842-1913), which invokes some of Dickinson’s favorite motifs: flowers, dew, and birds:

She seems to bring the country here—
Its birds, its flowers, its dew;
And slowly, as, amid the throng
She passes from our view, We watch her, sadly, as we might
Some pleasant landscape fade from sight. …

So fair a flower should open with
The daisy buds at home;
Mid primrose stars, as sweet and wild,
As she will be—dear, woodland child!

It also includes a poem by Edna Proctor (1827-1923) on heroism (“Are the Heroes dead?”), while the April 12th edition includes “The Dying Wife” by Emily Gleason.

The Republican also included a literary snippet on primary school instruction that reads like a “How-To” guide on writing like Dickinson. The “Books, Authors and Art” section for this week describes “Object-Lessons,” a new form of pedagogy for the young:

The principle employed in Object-Lessons is one likely to modify the whole process of primary instruction, and the culture of which it is the basis. It employs the fresh faculties in observing, closely and accurately, and in committing to memory obvious facts, not meaningless words. It just takes the many objects with which the child is familiar, and bids him note carefully their sensible properties, their shape, size, color, texture, flavor, resemblance or difference; doing for the dullest what talent does for the gifted.

Dickinson & Higginson: A Preface

On April 5th, 1862, the Springfield Republican published a notice of the upcoming edition of the Atlantic Monthly that would prove crucial in Dickinson’s relationship to publication. In the section titled “Books, Authors and Art,” the Republican reportd:

The Atlantic Monthly for April is one of the best numbers ever issued; not of that popular periodical merely, but of magazine literature since its first inception. It is full of rich thoughts clothed in well-chosen words; the ripe fruits of culture, presented with admirable taste. Its leading article, T. W. Higginson’s Letter to a Young Contributor, ought to be read by all the would-be authors of the land, although such a circulation would surpass that of the New York Ledger or any other periodical whatever. It is a test of latent power.

Although we don’t know if Dickinson saw this notice, she may have been aware of the irony of advertising a literary essay from the Atlantic Monthly in the Springfield Republican: publication of literary writing—be it poetry or prose—was entangled in a large commercial economy.

Though she reads this essay and ultimately decides to write to Higginson, her letters are often coy and evasive. We will study them in the last two weeks of this month.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum

 

Reflection
Ivy Schweitzer

Prospect Cottage, Kent. I. Schweitzer
Prospect Cottage, Kent. I. Schweitzer

In Dickinson’s voice

As Firmament to Fin – I said
the robin snug in wood
and great white whales in aqua
seas +singing to their brood –    

To fling a song the world among
from throat and – fearless eye
+Leaping in golden lines beyond  
ocean and the sky –

As Firmament to Fin ­– I think
I could assay – the weight
of breeze and wave that language – make
an essence rare to strike –

     +crooning     +bursting

In a contemporary voice

The answer is no from the poetry editor,
no from the national grant.
My snarky response—dies on my lips,
failures – clamor at my heart.

The answer is no from my children
hurrying into grown-up lives,
no from my husband, plugged into
his virtual toys. No from my balky knees
grousing at every mile I run, every
delirious slope I ski.
No from my sciatic nerve, achy hips,
hair-line eczema, vaginal dryness.

The answer is no
from the justice I swore to promote
at every barricade, real and
abstract, with youthful panache,
no from a world fraught
and fracked, from peace punished
and starved.

It’s time, my Soul, to transmigrate into a stone.

bio: Ivy Schweitzer is Professor of English and Women's and Gender Studies at Dartmouth College. Her fields are early American literature, American poetry, women’s literature, gender and cultural studies.  Her current projects include The Occom Circle, a digital edition of works by and about Samson Occom, an 18th century Mohegan Indian writer and activist, https://www.dartmouth.edu/~occom/, and a full-length documentary film entitled It’s Criminal: A Tale of Privilege and Prison, https://www.facebook.com/ItIsCriminal/, based on the courses she co-teaches in and about prison.

 

Overview

Dandurand, Karen. “Dickinson and the Public.” Dickinson and Audience. Eds. Martin Orzeck and Robert Weisbuch. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996: 255-77.

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

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

Smith, Martha Nell. Rowing in Eden: Rereading Emily Dickinson. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992.

History and Biography

Emily Dickinson Archive http://www.edickinson.org

Dickinson, Emily. Selected Letters. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 200.

Miller, Cristianne. Reading in Time: Emily Dickinson in the Nineteenth Century. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012.

Springfield Republican: April 5th & April 12th, 1862

March 5-11, 1862: Women of Genius

Although Dickinson never met the English author Mary Ann Evans, who wrote under the pseudonym George Eliot, she considered Eliot a friend and certainly a role model. Eliot was not the only “woman of genius” Dickinson admired and identified with in terms of their shared struggle to be recognized and accepted. This week, we look at “women of genius” of this time period and how Dickinson’s own genius shaped her life.

Overview
This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Ivy Schweitzer
Sources

Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf
Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf

"What do I think of glory"

This week we continue last week's post on a remarkable woman by picking up on a snarky comment from the February 22th Springfield Republican’s “Books, Authors and Art” section:

Miss Evans (George Eliot) promises a new novel this spring; but judging from her last (Silas Marner) her glory has departed; Happy marriage and rest from doubt and scandal take the passion out of women geniuses. Adam Bede and the Mill on the Floss were born of moral trial and heart hunger; and the reading world must find their compensation–if they can–for the falling off in their successors in the belief that the writer is content and at peace.

George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), 1819-1880

The forthcoming novel referred to here is Romola, a historical tale set in fifteenth-century Florence, which appeared in serial form in Cornhill Magazine from July 1862 to August 1863 and was published as a book in 1863. Note that the writer accepts the fact of Eliot’s artistic “glory,” but sees domestic happiness as antithetical to “women geniuses.” In fact, Eliot’s acknowledged masterpiece, Middlemarch, was still to come in 1871-72. Dickinson will rave about it in a letter to her Norcross cousins who solicit her opinion, using the same word, “glory,” as the Republican’s dismissive comment:

What do I think of Middlemarch? What do I think of glory – except that in a few instances this “mortal has already put on immortality.”

George Eliot is one. The mysteries of human nature surpass the “mysteries of redemption,” for the infinite we only suppose, while we see the finite. … (L389, late April 1873).

Dickinson’s reverence for Eliot as woman and writer is well known (see Sources). Of the three portraits Dickinson hung in her room, one of them was a picture of Eliot, the only woman in the group. Although she never met the English author, she considered her a friend, and certainly a role model. When Dickinson heard of Eliot’s death in December 1880, she was bereft, and wrote to her intimates about “Grieving for ‘George Eliot’” (L683) and called her “my George Eliot” (L710; emphasis hers). In a letter to Samuel Bowles, dated late November 1862 (L277), Dickinson alludes to an image from Eliot’s novel, Mill on the Floss, which she was probably reading during this time.

Eliot was not the only “woman of genius” Dickinson admired and identified with in terms of their shared struggle to be recognized and accepted. Eliot chose to publish under a male pseudonym, like the Brontë sisters before her, in order to evade prevailing cultural attitudes that trivialized or denigrated women’s artistic productions. As the Republican’s comment indicates, women could achieve genius if they were motivated by “moral trial” and “heart hunger.” But if they found some modicum of domestic happiness or stability, the quality of their work must inevitably fall off. That is, women could be artists, somehow transcending the limitations of gender, but not women at the same time.

In fact, Anglo-American culture has not been good to its women of genius, especially its poets. The first poet to publish a book of poetry written in the North American colonies was Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672), the educated daughter and wife of men who would both serve as governors of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

But when her brother-in-law carried her book of poems to London to be published in 1650, it was titled, The Tenth Muse, lately Sprung up in America. High flown praise, but muses are not writers. This brother-in-law felt it necessary to engage a bevy of notable literary men to write prefatory poems and endorsements, and he himself wrote a long letter confirming that, indeed, this was the work of a woman “honoured, and esteemed where she lives for … her exact diligence in her place.”

Over a hundred years later, the owners of the child prodigy and slave, Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784), tried to get her poetry published in Boston in the late 1760s.

Frontispiece to "Poems on Various Subjects," 1773

To do so, they not only appended a letter of verification, assuring a doubting public that this young African woman had indeed written poems that emulated Alexander Pope, but they also included a statement signed by a troop of prominent men who affirmed Wheatley's authorship. At the top of this list was the Governor, the Lieutenant-Governor and a host of Boston worthies, including a man who would soon make the act of signing his name the signal act of rebellion: John Hancock! Wheatley had to take her manuscript to London for publication.

One of the reasons for this treatment is the historical gendering of genius, enshrined in the Roman origins of the word itself, which connotes the male “essence” or “gens” that is passed down through the male lines of a family. Romantic and Victorian ideas of genius look back to the Greeks, who argued that certain men could be the medium for ideas of the divine, a creativity that looked a bit like madness, because they were, according to the reigning medical theory of humors, warm and dry.

Women, by contrast, were wet and cold on account of having wombs; their madness was not creative but procreative–that is, hysterical (from “hyster,” the word for womb). Thus, the rhetoric of genius that praised “feminine” qualities in male artists, like intuition and emotionality, excluded women and “primitive” peoples on the basis of biology and psychology. Some thinkers, like the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), developed the idea of the artist as a “third sex” or androgyne, who combined “feminine” receptivity and “masculine” will. But this led to different treatments of melancholia, a state closely associated with genius; in men, it was a channel to sublime revelation, but in women it led to weakness and mental illness.

Virginia Woolf, 1927

In her ground-breaking feminist analysis of genius, A Room of One's Own (1929), Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) conducted a telling thought experiment. She imagines that Shakespeare had a sister named Judith who was just as brilliant and ambitious as her brother, and tries to construct a life for her. After considering all the social constraints placed on Englishwomen of the sixteenth century, Woolf concludes that

 a highly gifted girl who had tried to use her gift for poetry would have been so thwarted and hindered by other people, so tortured and pulled asunder by her own contrary instincts, that she must have lost her health and sanity to a certainty.

Not surprisingly, in this tale Judith ends up pregnant, abandoned and, unable to support herself, commits suicide.

Margaret Fuller, daguerreotype

Judith’s story is not so far from that of women of genius in the nineteenth century. Margaret Fuller (1810-1850), hailed by her contemporaries as a rare intellectual and artist, condemns the treatment of women of genius of her day in her remarkable study, Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845). Notice the connection to Dickinson’s use of bird imagery for Sue and herself:

Plato, the man of intellect, treats Woman in the Republic as property, and, in the Timaeus, says that Man, if he misuse the privileges of one life, shall be degraded into the form of Woman; and then, if he do not redeem himself, into that of a bird. This, as I said above, expresses most happily how anti-poetical is this state of mind. For the poet, contemplating the world of things, selects various birds as the symbols of his most gracious and ethereal thoughts, just as the calls upon his genius as muse rather than as God. But the intellect is cold and ever more masculine than feminine; warmed by emotion, it rushes toward mother earth and puts on the forms of beauty. Women who combine this organization [the electrical, the magnetic] with creative genius are very commonly unhappy at present. They see too much to act in conformity with those around them, and their quick impulses seem folly to those who do not discern the motives. This is an usual effect of the apparition of genius, whether in Man or Woman, but is more frequent with regard to the latter, because a harmony, an obvious order and self-restraining decorum, is most expected from her.

Then, women of genius, even more than men, are likely to be enslaved by an impassioned sensibility. The world repels them more rudely, and they are of weaker bodily frame.

It is not hard to see why a woman, like Dickinson, who knew herself to be touched with brilliance would choose not to be an active member of a world that rudely “repels” women of genius.

“God spared my life, and for what”

Springfield Republican, March 8, 1862.

INTERNATIONAL NEWS

“Our position abroad is as good as we could desire.” Reports are that “the secession cause is in fact dead in Europe” and those backers in the British and French governments have accepted pending defeat of the South.

The war in Mexico concludes with “an armistice and negotiations for settlement.” The negotiations could continue for months, but the Union is not interested in rejoining the conflict, even if by chance it does start up again.

Trouble lies with Russia, however. Serfs criticize the law that gives them their freedom, because they have to buy their freedom, which is impossible for nearly all under serfdom. Poland and Finland seek to use this weak spot in Russian governing to gain independence. Germany, Hungary, Italy, Prussia, and Austria struggle with dissatisfaction in ruling powers and widespread imperial governments, and the Roman Catholic church is in turmoil due to an unstable Pope in times of war.

NATIONAL NEWS

Review of the Week: Progress of the War. “This week has been marked by important progress with little fighting,” says the Springfield Republican, and Union General Scott  says “that the war is over and there is nothing to do but to clear up and prepare for peace, and the recent national successes at the West would seem to be decisive of the final result, so far as can now be seen.”

Winfield Scott (1786-1866)

The “rebels” are retreating, cornered, or preparing to fight their last fights, and the Union has occupied most of the South by now. Tennessee officially rejoined the Union, and “the confederate leaders at Richmond are represented to be in a state little short of panic.”

From Washington. The paper reports that the South had known about the decisive capture of Harper’s Ferry on Monday, but Southern newspapers were barred from printing such an update on the War, presumably to hide it from the public.

Harper's Ferry, Virginia

Confiscation and Emancipation. Illinois Senator Trumbull proposed a bill for the “confiscation of the property and the emancipation of the slaves of rebels,” a controversial move that has people asking what the rights of southerners are.

Lyman Trumbull (1813-1896)

Senator Trumbull maintains that full war laws apply, and that the South is to be treated like an enemy nation with total destruction possible, but to lessen such a harsh punishment towards the rebels, that confiscation and emancipation was enough, and to treat them as “belligerents” was enough, at least until they could possibly be tried for treason.

"Suggestions for the Crisis." This column debriefs some lessons learned, reasons for war, and what should happen in the event of another uprising. The author notes that starting the war in the spring was a good move for the Union considering the paralyzing winters the North experiences, and that the South had produced “few great men in this generation.” They also try to tease out the exact reason of the rebellion, but can’t quite find it, resolving to label it a power grab of the dying Southern power.

"The Dark Side of the Picture." This letter from a Northern officer who was at Fort Donelson shows the “terrible realities of war.” He recounts the number of dead, the outcome, and the “wholesale slaughter” that left only seven out of 85 men alive.

Do not wonder, dear father, that I am down-hearted. My boys all loved me, and need I say that, in looking at the poor remnant of my company–the men that I have taken so much pains to drill, the men that I thought so much of–now nearly all in their graves–I feel melancholy. But I do not complain; God spared my life, and for what, the future must tell.

“Was I the little friend”

This week brought the sad news of the the death of the infant Edward Dickinson Norcross, on March 6. He was the son of Alfred and Olivia Norcross, Dickinson's maternal uncle and aunt.

Dickinson writes a letter to Mary Bowles, the wife of Samuel Bowles, this week about accidentally sending Mr. Bowles a note to complete an “errand” for her, forgetting he left for Washington on the first of the month.

Mary Bowles

She worries that Mary instead did it for her, and it “troubled” her, and if Mary could “just say with your pencil – 'it did’nt tire me – Emily'” she would cease her worries, as she “would not have taxed [Mary] – for the world -” Dickinson also asks about the new baby Charlie, and says she

sends a rose – for his small hands. Put it in – when he goes to sleep – and then he will dream of Emily – and when you bring him to Amherst – we shall be 'old friends.'

Mary was a close friend of Dickinson’s, who frequently wrote letters to her, but received next to none back (the reply Dickinson asks for in the above letter “will be the first one – you ever wrote me -”).  In editing some of Dickinson’s letters and poems, Mabel Loomis Todd switched the addressee from Sue to Mary to make their correspondence look more extensive. In the above letter, Dickinson asks Mary if “yet – was I the little friend – a long time? Was I – Mary?”

This week, Dickinson also writes to Frances Norcross, one of two  young Norcross cousins she adores and writes to frequently, about Vinnie’s illness:

 Poor Vinnie has been very sick, and so have we all, and I feared one day our little brothers would see us no more, but God was not so hard.

She also mentions that spring is supposed to be coming soon, but that this March has been particularly hard, with the Northeast hit  lately with violent winter weather.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum

 

Reflection

Ivy Schweitzer

For my women friends who are all geniuses!

Undammed

She is a neighbor and a painter,
mother of a wild red-headed girl
friends with my son
so long ago

calling to say she dreamt
of me in a café somewhere
hair wavy and golden
and I was sad, she said,

so sad, she had to call
though we are not close
how it flooded her night
snagged on the branches of sleep

and I am dumbstruck,
appalled by the mutinous grief
breaching my edges and
rushing into the ruts of the world

and I say yes,
I am sad and sorry to come
uninvited, and we talk
of the wild red-headed girl who works

at a women’s clinic in Texas,
facing protesters every day,
and my son dwelling in half-life
and our own lives as artists in this time

of profit and fools
and though nothing changes
I feel myself ebb as a tide
back into its almost

manageable course.

Bio: Ivy Schweitzer is the creator and editor of White Heat.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sources

Overview
Battersby, Christine. Gender and Genius: Towards a Feminist Aesthetics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989.

Bradstreet, Anne. The Tenth Muse lately Sprung up in America … London, 1650. Early English Books Online. https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/eebo2/A77237.0001.001?view=toc

Freeman, Margaret H. “George Eliot and Emily Dickinson: Poets of Play and Possibility.” The Emily Dickinson Journal. 21.2 (2012): 37-58.

Fuller (Ossoli), Margaret. Woman in the Nineteenth Century and Kindred Papers Relating to the Sphere, Condition and Duties, of Woman. Project Gutenberg EBook #8642. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/8642/8642-h/8642-h.htm. Section on “Tune the Lyre.”

Gee, Karen Richardson. “’My George Eliot’ and My Emily Dickinson.” The Emily Dickinson Journal 3.1 (1994): 24-40.

Heginbotham, Eleanor Elsen. “’What do I think of glory––’ Dickinson’s Eliot and Middlemarch.” The Emily Dickinson Journal 21.2 (2012): 20-36.

Wheatley, Phillis. Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. London, 1773. https://archive.org/details/poemsonvarioussu00whea

Historical
Springfield Republican, volume 89, number 10. Saturday, March 8, 1862.

Biographical
Emily Dickinson’s Correspondences with Frances and Louise Norcross, DEA

Emily Dickinson’s Correspondences with Mary Bowles, DEA

Johnson, Thomas, editor. The Letters of Emily Dickinson, 2 vols. Belknap Press, 1958.

Leyda, Jay. The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson. Yale University Press, 1960.

Smith, Martha Nell, and Ellen Louise Hart, editors. Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson's Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

January 1-7, 1862: The Civil War

As Dickinson’s “white heat” burned, her country faced the heat of the Civil War. News and discussion of the Civil War reached all parts of the country by 1862, including Dickinson in her Massachusetts home. This week we investigate the effects of the war in Dickinson’s writing, despite common misconceptions of disconnect between the two.

Overview
This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Ivy Schweitzer
Sources

The Start of the Year at the White Heat.

We begin with the week that started one of Emily Dickinson’s most productive years as a poet, January 1-7 of 1862. Perhaps one of the most poignant issues for Dickinson was the American Civil War, which is why we start this year exploring some of the implications of the War on her work. The popular myth of Dickinson as a recluse perpetuated the idea that she was a poet apart from the world and its turmoil, but her connections with the Civil War in her writing reveal this damaging assumption to be false.

This week’s news heavily centered on the War, still fairly new in the country’s mind as the second anniversary quickly approached in April 1862.

“Breaking the Backbone of the System”

INTERNATIONAL NEWS

Ireland officially announced that if Britain became involved in the American Civil War or declared war anew on the US, it would take the side of the US against Britain. Whether that would be the North or the South was never specified. This decision was sparked by the Trent Affair and provided a big confidence boost to the States, especially the North.

Also, news of the death of Prince Albert, beloved consort of Queen Victoria of England, on December 14 reached the States. On the one hand, his death inaugurated a Victorian culture of mourning (Victoria dressed in black for the rest of her life), but the backdrop for this culture had been created by Alfred Lord Tennyson's popular elegiac poem, "In Memoriam" (1849) and by the preoccupations of the late Romantics. Tennyson's influence on Dickinson will be explored in next week's post (many thanks to Colleen Boggs for this addition).

NATIONAL NEWS

The year 1862 starts in the throes of the second year of the American Civil War. This week, all is quiet – the Civil War saw no major battles recently and what battles there were the North won “handsomely” and tidied up “nicely” in the words of the Springfield Republican.

Attack of the 1st Minnesota at Gettysburg, by Don Troiani
Attack of the 1st Minnesota at Gettysburg, by Don Troiani

Notable, however, was the debate regarding emancipation of all slaves in the South, which would be announced later this year.

Both the Springfield Republican  and the Atlantic Monthly ran op-eds about the debate. The opposing sides included those who saw emancipation as a strategic misstep that would give the South reason to say the North took away its freedom to own slaves, and those who supported emancipation for solely ethical and socially justified reasons. Springfield’s op-ed, entitled “What Are We Fighting For?” is a good example of the debate. Dickinson’s friends were mostly abolitionists, as was her father.

An interesting “Letter From A Missionary ran in the local Hampshire Gazette. The author, a Christian missionary “to the Zulus in Africa,” describes the horrors of war and states what he believes the Civil War is about: liberation from slavery and “breaking the backbone of the system. The Atlantic also ran  historical pieces about President Thomas Jefferson and his views on slavery as a slave owner, and General Fremont’s “hundred days” before his controversial dismissal from the North’s army.

Celebrating and Mourning

Edward Dickinson, Emily's father.
Edward Dickinson, Emily's father.

This week, on January 1, the Dickinson family celebrated Edward Dickinson’s fifty-ninth birthday. Dickinson had a close relationship with her father Edward, but his restricting parental control caused much strain. In a letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson written in April of this year, Dickinson said of her father:  

 

He buys me many Books – but begs me not to read them – because he fears they joggle the Mind (L261).

Reverend Charles Wadsworth

Dickinson wrote a letter to Edward Dwight, a former local pastor, during this week. A month before, Dickinson received a letter from Dwight informing her that his wife, Lucy Dwight, had died. The couple, who were family friends, lived in Amherst until Lucy fell ill. Dickinson thought Dwight the best pastor in town. She wrote a passionate letter in response lamenting his loss, but accidentally switched it with a letter to Charles Wadsworth, another minister she met in Philadelphia, to whom some biographers connect her romantically. Awkwardness ensued: a recent widower and family friend receives a letter which might have contained romantic yearnings, and the very much alive Mrs. Wadsworth wonders at her assumed death. Dickinson cleared the air and sent an adapted version of the last stanza of There came a day at summer’s full(F325, J322)  to Mr. Dwight, and received a poem and a photo of Lucy in return.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum

 

Reflection
Ivy Schweitzer

I tell people who ask, that Dickinson called me. That is why I came up with this year-long project to document one of the most intense years in Dickinson’s writing life. I am both a scholar of early American literature with a particular focus on women, and a poet. Wanting to invigorate my relationship to poetry as a writer of it, I thought to immerse myself in all things Dickinson and get as close as I could to her writing process and to the texture and networks of her daily life. There are many exemplary biographies and accounts of Dickinson (see Resources) and no end of fascinating fan literature and fiction, but I wanted something more experiential and sustained.

I had just finished a digital humanities project, The Occom Circle, a scholarly digital edition of works by and about Samson Occom, a Mohegan Indian leader, public intellectual and Christian minister. In the course of working on that project, I explored the Dickinson Electronic Archive, an innovative research and teaching tool created by a collective of Dickinson scholars in the wake of the recently digitized Dickinson manuscripts by Harvard University and Amherst College. The world of Dickinson scholarship had been revolutionized in 1981 by the publication of Ralph W. Franklin’s The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson, which afforded a unique view of Dickinson’s texts as she wrote (and rewrote and preserved) them. Since then, scholars have been busy “unediting” Dickinson’s writing, as Marta Werner expressed it in Emily Dickinson’s Open Folios: Scenes of Reading, Surfaces of Writing, “undoing” a century of editorial and critical work so that we can finally begin to read what Dickinson actually wrote. The digital form of Dickinson’s manuscripts is producing another revolution, again in Werner’s words, “constellating these works not as still points of meaning or as incorruptible texts but, rather, as events and phenomena of freedom.” I wanted to explore and find a way to present Dickinson’s poems as events of freedom.

I thought I would use the digital technologies I learned about to share this immersive experience with a wider audience of poetry lovers, students of Dickinson, and folks interested in the nineteenth-century. I test-drove a good deal of this approach in the two iterations of a junior level colloquium on Dickinson I taught at my home institution of Dartmouth College, titled The New Dickinson: After the Digital Turn. It was a revelation to see how our readings of the poems changed, deepened, and grew more complex and dynamic when we worked with the digital scans of the manuscripts. As my students often commented heatedly, they felt “gipped” when comparing printed versions of the poems with the manuscript images. How dare the editor make those choices about diction, syntax, line breaks, and the fixed length of Dickinson’s iconic dashes without telling us! they complained. This “new” way of reading Dickinson was further aided by the ease of finding contextual materials on the web like newspapers, magazines, Dickinson’s lexicon, information about the Civil War and others. That is what I imagined our blog posts would offer.

And so, to the first week in January 1862.

Beyond the debates about the Civil War and why it was fought, Dickinson seems preoccupied with its effects, especially the nearness, prevalence, and arbitrariness of death. It is a commonplace that in the midst of life, we are all near to our mortality, but the line that haunts me in these poems is Dickinson’s description of dying as “passing into Conjecture’s presence.” We cross the boundary between life and death and so pass into a “presence,” but when it is personified as “Conjecture,” my mind starts buzzing. What would it be like to stand in the presence of Speculation, Guess, or another great Dickinson word from a related poem, “Because I could not stop for Death,” Surmise? Is this where she imagines death brings us: into a vast hall at the end of which presides a powerful Spirit whose demeanor and character we do not and cannot know? Whose character is Not-Yet-Knowing? Will we be devastated when we learn the true nature of this Spirit, or rapturous? or simply disappointed? This makes me think of the iconic line from Whitman’s answer to the child, who asked, “What is the grass?” in Song of Myself, Section VI: “And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.”

I am also struck by the speaker of “Unto like Story,” who remembers the tales of “Kinsmen” who died for their beliefs, who have “marched in Revolution,” and prays, “Let me not shame their/sublime deportments.” I have often pondered how we, how I, can live our lives in the light of our ideals and deepest-held beliefs. Especially in a time of perpetual war, of atrocities committed in our name in far-off places we will never see. And so, listening to the news every day, I try to put myself into the lives of the people I hear about in news stories, as a way to honor the dignity of their struggles and their humanity. And sometimes it takes the form of a poem, with words borrowed from Dickinson’s poems:

Adoptee

They call it attack of panic
when alarms clang in my head
as if I had swallowed fire drills,
forcing me back into the night,
under our hut, boots thumping overhead.
The teachers at my new school
gather me up, pressing me back into myself.

Before, I was surrounded by bustle.
Neighbors’ chatter, banging pots,
the bubble of simmering azuki beans
we loved to eat mashed with butter and sugar.
Sometimes, distant growls
measured how we shared the bush.

Here on our American street,
houses loom mutely on lawns.
Cars sleek as gazelle
slide soundlessly into garages.

New mother, corral my flying parts
my belly full of surmise,
tell me nothing can send me back.
Our entwined hands like long evenings
lit by a full moon.

Bio: Ivy Schweitzer is Professor of English and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Dartmouth College, where she teaches American literature and WGSS courses.  She is the editor of “White Heat.”

Sources

 

History
The Atlantic Monthly, Volume 9, Issue 51. January 1862.
Hampshire Gazette, January 7, 1862
Harper's Monthly Magazine, January 1862.
Springfield Republican, January 4, 1862

Attack of the 1st Minnesota at Gettysburg, by Don Troiani