July 23-29, 1862: School

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

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

“Emily Dickinson: a Mo Ho”

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Springfield Republican, July 26, 1862

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

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

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

Poetry, Page 6

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

Hampshire Gazette, July 29, 1862

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

Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, page 1


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Tom Luxon

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

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

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

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

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



Hampshire Gazette, June 17, 1862.

Springfield Republican, July 29, 1862

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

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

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

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

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

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July 16-22, 1862: Circumference

In her fourth letter to Higginson, written sometime in July 1862, Dickinson declared “My Business is Circumference.” This week, we explore just what this “business” of “circumference” is and means in Dickinson’s poetry and letters, and examine Dickinson’s fourth letter to Higginson, its signal disclosures, and her growing relationship to this crucial correspondent.

This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Ewa Chrusciel

""“My Business is Circumference”

Sometime in July 1862, Dickinson wrote her fourth letter (L268) to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, which includes several notable revelations. Such as her quirky description of herself, in the absence of a portrait Higginson asked her to send, and her statement of an important principle of her poetic practice, which people who read the poems for biographical hints ignore:

When I state myself, as the Representative of the Verse – it does not mean – me – but a supposed person.

Most importantly, in the middle of a long paragraph in which Dickinson invokes surgeons setting broken bones, calls Higginson “Preceptor,” and promises him “Obedience,” she asserts rather curtly:

Perhaps you smile at me. I could not stop for that – My business is circumference.

Startling in its assurance, this declaration is an expression of Dickinson’s poetics.

This week, we will explore just what this “business” of “circumference” is and means in Dickinson’s poetry and letters. Originally a term from geometry, circumference is an idiosyncratic and paradoxical concept Dickinson invokes in many of her most challenging poems. A figure of both enlargement and limitation, circumference is a foundation for knowledge, language, and experience of the divine.

Scholars have considered circumference in relation to the Transcendental and Romantic sublime, Christian mysticism, feminine mythology and archetypal psychology, existential theology, the rhetorical figure of catachresis, and as part of Dickinson’s terrestrial and geographical imaginary. In the process, we will examine Dickinson’s fourth letter to Higginson, its signal disclosures, and her growing relationship to this crucial correspondent.

“The Greatest, Wisest and Meanest of Nationkind”

Springfield Republican, July 19, 1862

Progress of the War, page 1
“There has been no new movement by Gen. McClellan’s army during the week, but all the accounts from the James River indicate that the offence which succeeded the week of battles is soon to be broken. What the plan of attack may be is not yet developed, but it is evident that the fleet is to play an important part in the grand movement.”

The General Situation, page 1
“There is no doubt that the strength of the government and the country has been to some extent neutralized by political discussion. War has been made on our generals because of their party politics, and the public mind has been distracted by irrelevant questions, to the neglect of what should have the whole attention and energy of the people.”

A Summer in Europe, page 2 [from Samuel Bowles]
“These excursions through England and her adjacencies and this residence in her capital of course yield abundant material for more descriptions and comments and criticisms. Perhaps I may sum up England with the sarcasm of Macauley, or Sidney Smith, or somebody else, or her greatest philosopher and statesman (Lord Bacon), and say she is at once the greatest, wisest and meanest of nationkind.”

Original Poetry
“Homeless” by Adelaide A. Proctor (excerpt), page 6

Nay; — goods in our thrifty England
Are not left to lie and grow rotten
For each man knows the market value
Of silk or woolen or cotton.
But in counting the riches of England
I think our Poor are forgotten.

Books, Authors and Art, page 7

""“A recent reviewer says of Mrs. Stowe that her descriptions of negro life and character have never been surpassed. This is high praise, but scarcely deserved. The very redundancy of her genius, more creative than imitative, leads her to make of her prominent characters the mouth-pieces to utter her own rich thoughts. She has seized upon the externals of the colored race, picturesque in their misery, and breathed though them a vitality not wholly African, but bearing many traces of Anglo-Saxon origin.”

Hampshire Gazette, July 22, 1862

page 2
“An important war bill has been passed by Congress. It gives the President powers to call out the militia in sufficient numbers to crush out the rebellion at once.”

“You Must Banish Me”

In his account of Dickinson’s letters to Higginson, Jason Hoppe argues:

It is in her fourth letter to him that Dickinson appears finally to accept whatever assent Higginson has voiced to her proposal, pronouncing that if he really does “truly consent,” she will be “happy to be [his] scholar, and will deserve the kindness, [she] cannot repay” (L 268).

Although we cannot know for sure, in the absence of his responses, it appears that Higginson has been reading the poems Dickinson encloses in her letters and critiquing them—that is, he is acting like her “Preceptor” in the literary art of poetry. However, it is interesting to note that in this letter, as in earlier letters, Dickinson describes this tutelage in melodramatic terms of curing her illness or performing “surgery” and setting her fractured bones. Her pledge of “Obedience” to Higginson also seems overblown, since in the very next sentences, Dickinson tells him, in no uncertain terms, what her “Business” is — “Circumference.” As if startled by her own boldness, she then acknowledges that he has “business” too, and offers him a release clause, which has a whiff of masochism about it:

Because you have much business, beside the growth of me – you will appoint, yourself, how often I shall come – without your inconvenience. And if at any time– you regret you received me, or I prove a different fabric to that you supposed – you must banish me.

Theirs is an intricate minuet of need, power, and recognition. Thus, it is not surprising that Dickinson would announce her central occupation of Circumference to this eminent literary figure. Around the same time, in the summer of 1862, Dickinson wrote to her friends, Elizabeth and Josiah Holland, in similar though more conventional terms:

Perhaps you laugh at me! … My business is to love.

And later in the same letter, in the voice of a bird,

My business is to sing (L269; see the post on this letter).

Josiah Holland was also a well-known literary editor and writer, but an intimate and friend, not a “Preceptor,” not someone Dickinson necessarily saw in the role of mentor.

And Circumference is a more elusive, even ambitious, occupation than loving or singing, which were the expected province of “poetesses” of the time. Dickinson’s Webster’s lists three definitions of the word, all of which refer to or quote from the work of epic poet John Milton, giving it quite a bit of gravitas:

1. The line that bounds a circle; the exterior line of a circular body; the whole exterior surface of a round body; a periphery. – Newton. Milton.
2. The space included in a circle. – Milton. Dryden.
3. An orb; a circle; any thing circular or orbicular; as in Milton, speaking of a shield, The broad circumference / Hung on his shoulders like the moon.

The word appears in 17 poems throughout Dickinson’s canon, but the notion of Circumference and its attendant ideas—circuit, periphery, limitation, boundary, circles (crowns), arcs (diadems, crescents), transcendence—permeate many more. The word also appears in six letters: in Letter 269 from 1862, mentioned above, a year of intense productivity for Dickinson, and then much later in a letter in 1881 and four in 1884, two years before her death.


Ewa Chrusciel

""When Emily Dickinson sent her poems to Thomas Wentworth Higginson – a writer for Atlantic Monthly – she asked whether her verse was alive.

What does the semblance of felt life have to do with Dickinson’s “circumference”? Could Dickinson’s desire for her verses to be alive also have something to do with circumference? Furthermore, what does circumference have to do with the human mind, processes of thinking, and an epiphany?

The poem “A Coffin – is a Small Domain” (F890B, J943), dated to 1864 and so not included in the poems for this week, will help us lay the foundation of circumference, as defined in relation to other containers.

A Coffin – is a small
Yet able to contain
A Citizen of Paradise
In it's diminished Plane –

A Grave – is  a restricted
Breadth –
Yet ampler than the Sun –
And all the Seas
He populates –
And Lands He looks opon

To Him who on it's
 small Repose
Bestows a single Friend –
Circumference without Relief –
Or Estimate – or End –

As the poem progresses with a rising gradation of bounded spaces, the unbounded spaces also keep expanding. A coffin and grave seem to be in almost a binary juxtaposition to Circumference and Relief. Geometrically speaking, we have rectangular shapes juxtaposed with circular spaces and out of this juxtaposition the new dimension emerges – the third space of circumference.

Circumference is always in motion, ever expanding. This state of ever expanding in Dickinson’s poetry is indispensable to liberation from static containers. In a sense, circumference becomes a container for eternity in time and infinity in space.

Liberation from static and bounded containers requires undertaking a journey. LIFE AS A JOURNEY is one of the most basic conceptual metaphors. However, Dickinson goes beyond a linear progression, which a standard journey would imply. For her, a voyage becomes not earth-bound, but boundless in outer space of circumference. As cognitive scholar Margaret Freeman suggests, Dickinson restructured a linear and temporal journey into a circular, spatial one. Freeman writes,

in a cyclical universe, the geographical metaphors of goal, location as up or end have no physical, bodily grounding, with the consequence that it no longer makes sense to speak of “destination after” death.

Here is my pictorial representation of the container metaphors in “A Coffin — is a small Domain:”

""To borrow a bit from cognitive linguistics, we could claim that the circumference is located at the periphery of our view.

""The circumference is presented in this picture on a periphery. It is consistent with one of the definitions included in Webster’s Dictionary: a periphery. Visually, it also resembles an arc, which is also congruent with the definition in Dickinson’s Lexicon in reference to “A Coffin — is a small Domain:”

Infinite lines, planes, degrees, arcs, angles, diameters, projections, intersections and repetitions of circles; [fig.] the infinite dimensions of life, reality, existence.

Conceptually, it can also be associated with a rainbow and the Biblical promise of resurrection and eternal life.

In my understanding, circumference is an epiphany, because it is never static or stable, an always emergent and incipient third space. The epiphany is alive. Perhaps such circumferential progression inward signifies the fourth dimension, a concept discussed by H.G. Wells and explored by Picasso and Braque in their cubist paintings, which restructures the linear and temporal movement into a circular and spatial orientation.

In order to attain such an epiphanic and circumferential state, one has to abandon his/her daily orbit of vision and enter

an orbit coterminous with longing,

as Seamus Heaney says in his poem “Wheels Within Wheels.” Perhaps this intuitive comprehension, or in other words, tacit knowing has some ties with Dickinson’s understanding of circumference and epiphanic cognition. I would venture to say, however, that Dickinson’s notion of epiphany anticipated modern epiphany, which relies on image rather than vision. It also anticipated the modern imagination, what Wallace Stevens calls

the power of the mind over the possibilities of things.


Freeman, Margaret. "Metaphor Making Meaning: Dickinson’s Conceptual Universe. " Journal of Pragmatics 24, 6 (December 1995): 643-666.

Stevens, Wallace. The Collected Poems. New York: Vintage, 1990, 136.

bio: EWA CHRUSCIEL is a bilingual poet and a translator, born in Poland. Her three books in English are Of Annunciations (Omnidawn Press, 2017), Contraband of Hoopoe (Omnidawn Press, 2014) and Strata (2011). She has also published three books in Polish: Tobo ek (2016), Sopi ki (2009), Furkot (2001). She is an associate professor of creative writing and poetry at Colby-Sawyer College in New Hampshire.



Hampshire Gazette, July 22, 1862

Springfield Republican, July 19, 1862


Hoppe, 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): 348-38, 359-60.

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