December 10-16, 1862: Paradise

This week, to celebrate Dickinson’s 188th birthday, we focus on the “occupation” she declared for herself in “I dwell in Possibility,” gathering Paradise. What does this mean and what is its relationship with poetry? Dickinson was not always so optimistic and knew Milton’s great poem, Paradise Lost, very well. We also have fresh in our minds the devastating effects of the Camp Fire, which roared through the town of Paradise in northern California. In gathering Paradise, Dickinson often failed to find it or lost it, and that is part of this story as well.

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This Week's Reflection – Martha Nell Smith

Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf
Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf


This week in 1862, Emily Dickinson celebrated her 32nd birthday, and there was something to celebrate. She had weathered the emotional crises of the past year, was writing astonishing poetry at an astonishing rate, and had established fruitful relations with a new literary interlocutor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson.

At the end of his “Letter to a Young Contributor,” which a struggling Dickinson read in the April issue of the Atlantic Monthly, Higginson calls on “the mute inglorious Miltons of this sphere” to “sing their Paradise as Found.” At some point in the year, Dickinson will write a signature poem of optimism, “I dwell in Possibility” (F466, J657), that seems to answer Higginson's call directly. Describing her imaginative “dwelling,” and with a characteristic playfulness of scale, she declares:

For Occupation—This—
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise—

This week, we focus on Dickinson’s stated “occupation,” gathering Paradise. What does she mean by that and what is its relationship to poetry? Next week, on December 19, Susan Gilbert Dickinson would also celebrate her 32nd birthday. Although relations between the two girlhood friends were strained at this time, Dickinson frequently links Sue’s love and support and her boundless love for Sue with “forever” and “Infinity,” a kind of Paradise on earth (see Letters 288 and 912).

But Dickinson was not always so optimistic; she  knew Milton’s great poem, Paradise Lost, very well. We also have fresh in our minds the devastating effects of the Camp Fire, which roared through the town of Paradise in northern California, destroying it. Our literal “Paradise” turned into a hell and burned to cinders by climate change.

Similarly, in gathering Paradise, Dickinson often also failed to find it or lost it, and that is part of this story as well.

“Lift the Earth to Paradise”

Springfield Republican, December 13, 1862

Progress of the War, page 1
“The sameness of long continued planning and preparation is at length relieved by a real battle and several important forward movements. The enemy in northwestern Arkansas rallied from their defeat by Gen. Blunt at Cane Hill [on November 28] and reinforced by Gen. Hindman attacked Gen. Herron’s division of our army at Fayetteville with superior numbers but were repulsed and driven again to the Boston mountains after a battle of great severity. The contest has begun at Fredericksburg, and Gen. Banks’ expedition is moving off in installments to its unknown destinations; important movements of some sort are going forward at Newbern and at Suffolk; the armies of Grant and Hovey have reached Grenada, Mississippi,  the enemy retreating before them; a naval expedition has left Hilton Head, S.C., for some point North, and may cooperate with Gen Banks at Wilmington, N.C.; the Gulf squadron has been reinforced for an attack on Mobile; the blockade of Charleston has been strengthened, and all things look like work.”

In late 1861, the US Navy bought old ships, loaded them with New England granite, then sank them off Charleston in an attempt to blockade the harbor. credit Brian Hicks
In late 1861, the US Navy bought old ships, loaded them with New England granite, then sank them off Charleston in an attempt to blockade the harbor. credit Brian Hicks

The First Condition of Peace, page 2
“Our armies are now at their maximum strength. All that we shall add henceforth will not more than replace the natural waste by sickness, desertion and death. The past history of the war shows that location reduces our armies quite as rapidly as an active campaign and demoralizes them more. If, then, the war is to be brought to a successful issue, the ensuing three months must be months of the most energetic activity. If before spring we have taken Richmond, Charleston and Savannah, have driven the rebels from Tennessee, and got full possession of the Mississippi, then we may begin to talk about peace upon terms that shall be honorable to the government and safe for the nation.”

Fallen Leaves (by Henry D. Thoreau), page 7 [excerpted from “Autumnal Hints” in the Atlantic Monthly, October 1862.]

“When the leaves fall, the whole earth is a cemetery pleasant to walk in. I love to wander and muse over them in their graves. Here are no lying nor vain epitaphs. Your lot is surely cast somewhere in this vast cemetery, which has been consecrated as of old. You need attend no auction to secure a place. There is room enough here. The loose-strife shall bloom, and the huckleberry-bird sing over your bones. The woodman and hunter shall be your sextons, and the children shall tread upon the borders as much as they will. Let us walk in the cemetery of the leaves—this is your true Greenwood cemetery.”

Books, Authors and Arts, page 7
“The literary metropolis of New England leans rather to books than periodicals, rather to journals than magazines. The Atlantic Monthly is an exception. Its contributors are many and eminent, not those merely who lend it the luster of their names, but those who write for it often and well. Holmes and Lowell, Emerson  and Agassiz  have each departments in which they have been rarely equaled, never surpassed. Mrs. Stowe writes as a woman never wrote before, and other feminine authors, a round dozen in number, have furnished essays, romances and poems that could not well be spared. Yet we have a few things against it, deserving and prosperous as it has improved. It has contained during the last year many articles of public interest, yet its statesmanship lacks the impress of a mastermind, and is only to be inferred from the aggregate of varying contributions. Its poetry was very early stigmatized as pretentious and dull, and has varied widely from the average standard, alternating from the vigorous to the vapid.”

Hampshire Gazette, December 16, 1862

“This forever looking forward for enjoyment, don’t pay. From what we know of it, we would as soon chase butterflies for a living, or bottle up moonshine for cloudy nights. The only true course is to take the drops of Happiness as God gives them to us, every day of our lives. The boy must learn to be happy when he is plodding over his lessons; the apprentice when he is learning his trade; the merchant while he is making his fortune. If he fails to learn this art, he will be sure to miss his enjoyment, when he gains what he sighs for.”

Atlantic Monthly, December 1862

[The issue leads off with this essay, a description of paradise on earth]

“The Procession of the Flowers,” by Thomas Wentworth Higginson
“To a watcher from the sky, the march of the flowers of any zone would seem as beautiful as that West-Indian pageant. These frail creatures, rooted where they stand, a part of the ‘still life’ of Nature, yet share her ceaseless motion. In the most sultry silence of summer noons, the vital current is coursing with desperate speed through the innumerable veins of every leaflet; and the apparent stillness, like the sleeping of a child’s top, is in truth the very ecstasy of perfected motion.”

[and end with this, a depiction of hell on earth]

“My Hunt after The Captain” by Oliver Wendel Holmes [Holmes describes his frantic search through Civil War-torn landscapes for his wounded son, the future Supreme Court Justice]

“And now, as we emerged from Frederick, we struck at once upon the trail from the great battle-field. The road was filled with straggling and wounded soldiers. All who could travel on foot,— multitudes with slight wounds of the upper limbs, the head, or face,— were told to take up their beds,—alight burden or none at all— and walk. Just as the battle-field sucks everything into its red vortex for the conflict, so does it drive everything off in long, diverging rays after the fierce centripetal forces have met and neutralized each other. For more than a week there had been sharp fighting all along this road. Through the streets of Frederick, through Crampton's Gap, over South Mountain, sweeping at last the hills and the woods that skirt the windings of the Antietam, the long battle had travelled, like one of those tornadoes which tear their path through our fields and villages. The slain of higher condition, “embalmed” and iron-cased, were sliding off on the railways to their far homes; the dead of the rank and file were being gathered up and committed hastily to the earth; the gravely wounded were cared for hard by the scene of conflict, or pushed a little way along to the neighboring villages; while those who could walk were meeting us, as I have said, at every step in the road. It was a pitiable sight, truly pitiable, yet so vast, so far beyond the possibility of relief, that many single sorrows of small dimensions have wrought upon my feelings more than the sight of this great caravan of maimed pilgrims. The companionship of so many seemed to make a joint-stock of their suffering; it was next to impossible to individualize it, and so bring it home, as one can do with a single broken limb or aching wound.”

Harper’s Monthly, December 1862

Edward Howard House (1836-1901)
Edward Howard House (1836-1901)

Love by Mishap, Edward Howard House
“But was it the sunlight that suddenly flashed across those four young faces, or the full tide of hope, and joy, and faith bounding ruddy from their hearts, and, as it glowed and beamed, openly telling the secret of their dearest thoughts in that happy hour? Ah, that happy hour! There is none other like it, to glorify the present, to gild the future, to turn the thorny ways of life to paths of bounteous promise, to lift the earth to paradise.”

“Earth so like to Heaven”

We have little information about how Dickinson would have celebrated her 32nd birthday or Susan’s 32nd birthday the following week on December 19, but such anniversaries are often an occasion to sit back and take stock. As explained in the Overview, sometime during this year, Dickinson wrote a poem in which she declared her “Occupation” to be that of gathering “Paradise,” which, presumably, she discerned all around her, there for the taking. Many of her letters support the notion, garnered from Romantic and Transcendental writers, of a Paradise on earth.

For example, Patrick Keane notes that in an 1852 letter to Sue, Dickinson cites but rewrites a passage about an earthly paradise from Milton’s Paradise Lost, a poem she knew well. As the archangel Raphael struggles to explain celestial warfare to a human mind by “lik’ning spiritual to corporeal form,” he wonders:

Though what if Earth
Be but the shadow of Heaven, and things therein
Each to the other like, more than on earth is thought?” (Paradise Lost 5:573-76).

At this time, Susan is away and Dickinson, who is missing her deeply, writes:

I can only thank “the Father” for giving me such as you, I can only pray unceasingly, that he will bless my Loved One, and bring her back to me to “go no more out forever.” “Herein is Love.” But that was Heaven –– this is but Earth, yet Earth so like to heaven that I would hesitate, should the true one call away.” (L85, 195)

The phrase “go no more out” is from Revelation 3:12 where Christ assures the faithful that on the Day of Judgment, they will never have to leave heaven. Dickinson adds the “forever.” Keane comments on how Dickinson reverses Raphael’s “therein” to locate love “Herein,” on earth “and concludes by taking literally the angel’s rhetorical but intriguing question.” As support, he cites an 1873 letter to Elizabeth Holland, a close friend, in which Dickinson notes that her sister Lavinia just returned from a visit to the Hollands and reported they “dwell in paradise.” Dickinson adds wryly:

I have never believed the latter to be a supernatural site.
Eden, always eligible, is peculiarly so this noon. It would please you to see how intimate the Meadows are with the Sun … While the Clergyman tells Father and Vinnie that “this Corruptible shall put on Incorruption”—it has already done so and they go defrauded” (L391, 508).

Dickinson's gardens recreated at the Homestead
Dickinson's gardens recreated at the Homestead

Paradise, for Dickinson, was closely associated with her friends, her loved ones and gardens, especially at the height of summer, the season for her of ecstasy and transport. Keane borrows the term “Natural Supernaturalism” from the writer Thomas Carlyle to describe Dickinson’s conception of paradise, especially in terms of influences from the works of Wordsworth, Keats, and Emerson:

In his essay on the mystic Swendenborg in Representative Men, Emerson claimed that the only thing “certain” about a possible heaven was that it must “tally with what was best in nature.” It “must not be inferior in tone…agreeing with flowers, with tides, and the rising and setting of autumnal stars.”

Dickinson’s “preceptor,” Thomas Higginson, voices a similar view in his essay in the Atlantic Monthly for this month, which Dickinson praises him for in a later letter. In the final passages, he addresses the important point, also on Dickinson’s mind, that our inability to perceive the heaven around us indicates a “defect … in men:”

But, after all, the fascination of summer lies not in any details, however perfect, but in the sense of total wealth which summer gives. Wholly to enjoy this, one must give one's self passively to it, and not expect to reproduce it in words. We strive to picture heaven, when we are barely at the threshold of the inconceivable beauty of earth. Perhaps the truant boy who simply bathes himself in the lake and then basks in the sunshine, dimly conscious of the exquisite loveliness around him, is wiser, because humbler, than is he who with presumptuous phrases tries to utter it. There are multitudes of moments when the atmosphere is so surcharged with luxury that every pore of the body becomes an ample gate for sensation to flow in, and one has simply to sit still and be filled. In after-years the memory of books seems barren or vanishing, compared with the immortal bequest of hours like these. Other sources of illumination seem cisterns only; these are fountains. …
If, in the simple process of writing, one could physically impart to this page the fragrance of this spray of azalea beside me, what a wonder would it seem!—and yet one ought to be able, by the mere use of language, to supply to every reader the total of that white, honeyed, trailing sweetness, which summer insects haunt and the Spirit of the Universe loves. The defect is not in language, but in men. There is no conceivable beauty of blossom so beautiful as words,—none so graceful, none so perfumed. It is possible to dream of combinations of syllables so delicious that all the dawning and decay of summer cannot rival their perfections, nor winter's stainless white and azure match their purity and their charm. To write them, were it possible, would be to take rank with Nature; nor is there any other method, even by music, for human art to reach so high.

But if paradise is a garden, then it has the earthly limits of gardens, such as frost and death. In a letter from August 1856 to Elizabeth Holland, Dickinson describes her vision of heaven on earth with a series of conditional clauses. She also reprises the phrase she used in her 1852 letter to Sue from Revelation 3:12:

I read my Bible sometimes and in it as I read today, I found a verse like this, where friends should “go no more out” … And I am half tempted to take my seat in that Paradise of which the good man writes, and begin forever and ever now, so wondrous does it seem. My only sketch, profile, of Heaven is a large, blue sky, bluer and larger than the biggest I have seen in June, and in it are my friends–all of them–every one of them–those who are with me now, and those who were “parted” as we walked, and “snatched up to Heaven.”

If roses had not faded, and frosts had never come and one had not fallen here and there whom I could not awaken, there were no need of other Heaven than the one below, and if God had been here this summer, and seen the things that I have seen—I guess he would think His Paradise superfluous. Don’t tell Him, for the world, though, for after all He’s said about it, I should like to see what He was building for us, with no hammer, and no stone, and no journeyman either (L185).

From this, Keane concludes,

Emily Dickinson’s Earthly Paradise is not only beautiful but death-haunted.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum


Martha Nell Smith

December 1862. Susan and Emily Dickinson have had quite a year. In March, Susan excitedly wrote Emily,

. . .There were two or
three little things I wanted to talk
with you about without witnesses
but to-morrow will do just as
well – Has girl read Republican?
It takes as long to start our
Fleet as the Burnside.

Susan refers to the publication of “The Sleeping,” a version of Emily’s “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers,” just above Susan’s own “The Shadow of Thy Wing.” Their substantive exchange about the meaning, the effects, the power of this poem (see “Emily Dickinson Writing a Poem”) resonate with Susan’s declaration in a letter to Curtis Hidden Page

. . . Poetry is my
sermon – my hope – my solace
my life –
            Yours very sincerely
            S. H. Dickinson

out of the storm
February seventeenth /

Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson (1830-1913)
Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson (1830-1913)

Poetry is Possibility. Gathering wide our narrow hands to gather Paradise. Poetry was sermon – hope – solace – life for both Susan and Emily Dickinson. No wonder the manuscripts passed between them are spattered with traces of wine, delicious morsels, the stains of a flower dried and long pressed against the word made flesh, the pinholes made when attached to Susan’s sewing basket or to an album in which she preserved her beloved friend’s poetry, poetry written and given to her, Emily Dickinson’s most frequently addressed audience. So often and so many were these carnal, heavenly bequests that Susan noted to editor William Hayes Ward how “baffled” Emily’s own sister Lavinia was by Susan’s “possession of so many mss. of Emily’s.

On May 15, 1886, Emily Dickinson took her last breath, but she left two major archives of her scriptures, verses that are alive and, as long as there are readers, always will be.

1862. A year when Susan contributed “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers” to the Springfield Republican, a year they could savor seeing their work printed together. By the time of their birthdays, Susan had submitted several poems of Emily’s to publications in places such as Drum Beat, Round Table, Brooklyn Daily Union. Back in April, they had strategized which copy of “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers” to send to Thomas Wentworth Higginson in response to his “Letter to a Young Contributor.”

bio: Martha Nell Smith is Distinguished Scholar-Teacher, Professor of English, and Founding Director of the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH at the University of Maryland.  Her numerous print publications include six singly and coauthored or co-edited books—Emily Dickinson, A User’s Guide (2018); Everywoman Her Own Theology: Essays on the Poetry of Alicia Suskin Ostriker (2018); I Dwell in Possibility: Collaborative Emily Dickinson Translation Project, edited with Professor Baihua Wang, Fudan University (2017); Companion to Emily Dickinson (Jan 2008); Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson’s Intimate Letters to Susan Dickinson (1998; Choice); Comic Power in Emily Dickinson (1993; Choice); Rowing in Eden: Rereading Emily Dickinson (1992; Hans Rosenhaupt First Book Award Honorable Mention, Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation)—and scores of articles and essays in journals and collections such as American Literature, Present Tense: Rock & Roll and Culture, Textual Cultures, ESQ, Studies in the Literary Imagination, Journal of Victorian Culture, South Atlantic Quarterly, Women’s Studies Quarterly, Profils Americains, San Jose Studies, The Emily Dickinson Journal, ESQ, Journal of Victorian Culture, and A Companion to Digital Humanities. Most recently, working with Professor Baihua Wang of Fudan University (Shanghai), Smith has edited sections on Dickinson for three different international journals—Comparative Literature, World Literature, Cowrie: A Journal of Comparative Literature and Culture, and the International Journal of Poetry and Poetics. At present she is completing Lives of Susan Dickinson, and Life Before Last: Martha Dickinson Bianchi's Memoir (ed. with Jane Wald, Executive Director of the Emily Dickinson Museum).


Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. “Letter to a Young Contributor.” Atlantic Monthly, April 1862.

“Camp Fire.” USA Today. November 29, 2018.

Atlantic Monthly, December 1862
Harper's Monthly, December 1862
Hampshire Gazette, 
December 16, 1862
Springfield Republican, December 13, 1862

Higginson, Thomas. “The Procession of the Flowers.” Atlantic Monthly X. LXII December 1862.

Keane. Patrick. “Natural Supernaturalism: Emily Dickinson’s Variations on the Romantic Theme of an Earthly Paradise.Numéro Cinq V.12 December 2014.

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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.

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

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 “Foreword” 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”


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 suggests 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 two earlier 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 recently had been 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


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


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.




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.

Hampshire Gazette, June 10, 1862

Springfield Republican, June  7, 1862


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 9-15, 1862: Edward Dickinson

This week’s post takes a look at the influence Edward Dickinson had on Emily Dickinson’s life and writing. Having grown up in a family facing financial trouble, Edward Dickinson governed his own household with a firm hand, kept a tight domestic economy, and imposed his values on his family members. While Emily Dickinson respected her father greatly, and tended to obey the rules he set for her, she kept her poetry well out his reach.

Edward Dickinson

This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Hannah Matheson
Sources/Further Reading

“He buys me many Books – but begs me not to read them”

Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf
Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf

Though Edward Dickinson may have bought Emily Dickinson many books, his role in her life was more complicated than that of a fatherly didact. One such book he purchased was Letters on Practical Subjects to a Daughter by William B. Sprague, a sort of etiquette manual of orderly conduct for women. At the very least, this gift shows some fatherly desire to control, to reign in his daughter's intellect. Edward also bought her Dr. Gregory’s A Father’s Legacy to His Daughter, another advice manual. Writing to Higginson, Emily Dickinson comments that her father “buys me many Books” but knows little about her and how she occupied her time, because he is “too busy with his Briefs” (L261). Even when he was absent on business trips, the books he gave to his daughter were an attempt to maintain control over her conduct and shape her sense of social decorum.

That Edward Dickinson begged his daughter not to read books, fearing they  would “joggle the mind,” makes his gifts all the more curious. He certainly wasn’t afraid that she might internalize those instructive manuals on female conduct. He must have feared the effect other, perhaps literary and intellectual, books had on her—a father afraid that his daughter’s ever-growing intellect would break the belt he had strapped around her life.

Edward Dickinson, 1840. Portrait by O.A. Bullard. Houghton Library, Harvard University
Edward Dickinson, 1840. Portrait by O.A. Bullard. Houghton Library, Harvard University

This week’s post explores the influence Edward Dickinson had on Emily Dickinson’s life and writing. Having grown up in a family facing financial trouble, Edward Dickinson governed his own household with a firm hand, kept a tight domestic economy, and imposed his values on his family members. While Emily Dickinson respected her father greatly, and tended to obey the rules he set for her, she kept her poetry well out of his reach. She only mentioned him directly in one poem, “Where bells no more affright the morn” (F114), whic is based in fact: he would literally wake his children with a bell at an early hour. Still, he is largely absent from her poetry. Following the lead of Dickinson scholars, we’ve located him in other places: in her legal vocabulary, in her metaphors of domestic control, and in her notions of power.

“No more kid-glove policy”


Hampshire Gazette, April 15, responds to the battle of Shiloh on April 6-7th in southwestern Tennessee:

The best contested and most sanguinary battle that ever took place on this continent, occurred on Sunday and Monday of last week. The rebel forces, under Gens. Beauregard and S.E. Johnston, advanced from their fortified position at Corinth, evidently with the intention of defeating our army by piecemeal, and attacked that portion of it stationed at Pittsburg Landing in Tennessee. It was a complete surprise and during the first day our forces were defeated, and had it not been for the opportune arrival of reinforcements, the union army would have met with a most fatal reverse.

Springfield Republican, April 12, “Civil War in Cipher,” p. 4:

“A Cipher Despatch from Beauregard.—We have been shown a dispatch or message, in cipher, from Beauregard to some confederate in Washington, which, in addition to the ingenuity which characterizes the cipher, contains intrinsic evidence both as to its origin and the desperate means proposed by the rebel general for getting possession of the capital. It seems certain that arson and assassination were component parts of the chivalry of which we heard so much a year or so ago, and perhaps the publication of such a dispatch as this may modify the tender sensibility of those who adhere to the kid-glove policy in dealing with rebels who themselves stickle at nothing in prosecuting their traitorous schemes.”

Springfield Republican, April 12th, p. 5, Proclamation by the President:

“By the President of the United States of America—a Proclamation: It has pleased Almighty God to vouchsafe signal victories to the land and naval forces engaged in suppressing an internal rebellion, and at the same time to avert from our country the dangers of foreign intervention and invasion. It is therefore recommended to the people of the United States, that at their next weekly assemblages in their accustomed places of public worship, which shall occur after the notice of this proclamation shall have been received, they especially acknowledge and render thanks to our Heavenly Father for these inestimable blessings.”

The Amherst Cannon on display at the North Carolina Museum of History, 2012
The Amherst Cannon on display at the North Carolina Museum of History, 2012

Hampshire Gazette, April 15th: Edward Dickinson Makes the Paper

Presentation of Cannon.—The ceremony of presenting a six-pound brass cannon captured from the rebels at the battle of Newbern, by the 21st Mass. regiment, to the trustees of Amherst College, took place at Amherst yesterday. The occasion called together about two thousand people, who gathered in front of the college chapel building, where the ceremonies were held. The cannon is a beautiful piece. It bears the stamp of “U.S.,” and is believed to be one of the pieces captured from the federal army at Bull Run. … Hon. Edward Dickinson presided and introduced the speakers.

Atlantic Monthly, April 15, “Letter to a Young Contributor” by Thomas Wentworth Higginson

My dear young gentleman or young lady,—for many are the Cecil Dreemes of literature who superscribe their offered manuscripts with very masculine names in very feminine handwriting,—it seems wrong not to meet your accumulated and urgent epistles with one comprehensive reply, thus condensing many private letters into a printed one. And so large a proportion of “Atlantic” readers either might, would, could, or should be “Atlantic” contributors also, that this epistle will be sure of perusal, though Mrs. Stowe remain uncut and the Autocrat go for an hour without readers.

How few men in all the pride of culture can emulate the easy grace of a bright woman’s letter!

Yet, if our life be immortal, this temporary distinction is of little moment, and we may learn humility, without learning despair, from earth’s evanescent glories. Who cannot bear a few disappointments, if the vista be so wide that the mute inglorious Miltons of this sphere may in some other sing their Paradise as Found? War or peace, fame or forgetfulness, can bring no real injury to one who has formed the fixed purpose to live nobly day by day.

“His Heart was pure and terrible and I think no other like it exists”

The eldest of nine children, Edward Dickinson—Emily Dickinson’s father—was born in Amherst, Massachusetts in 1803 to an established family. His parents, Samuel Fowler Dickinson and Lucretia Gunn Dickinson, valued education and, despite financial difficulties, sent their son to Amherst Academy, Yale University, and Northampton Law School.

Equipped with a first-rate education and a traditional set of values, Edward Dickinson launched a successful career in law, was elected as a Representative to the General Court of Massachusetts in 1838, the National Whig Convention in Baltimore in 1852, and to the Congress of the United States as a Representative from the Tenth Massachusetts District in that same year. His successful career buoyed his stature in the Amherst community, and he governed the Dickinson household with a authoritative hand commensurate with his status as a prominent legal and political figure.

Even his personal life was touched by his ambitious resolve; in a letter to Emily Norcross, whom he would later marry, he wrote,

My life must be a life of business, of labor and application to the study of my profession.

His obsessive commitment to his career set in motion a precarious, and at times, distant relationship with his family, especially his eldest daughter, Emily Dickinson. As a politician, he was eager to bring a railroad to Amherst, an accomplishment that was met with

great rejoicing through this town and the neighboring [one],

according to Emily Dickinson in a letter to her brother Austin (L72). She admired his success, commenting later in the correspondence that

Father is really sober from excessive satisfaction, and bears his honors with a most becoming air.

Though Emily Dickinson clearly thought highly of her father, his conventional values and imposing authority strained their relationship. Writing to Austin, who was away at school, she expressed regretfully that she and her family

don’t have many jokes tho’ now, it is pretty much all sobriety, and we do not have much poetry, father having made up his mind that it’s pretty much all real life. … Father’s real life and mine sometimes come into collision, but as yet, escape unhurt! (L65).

Similar sentiments emerge in other correspondences. To Higginson, Dickinson wrote,

and Father, too busy with his Briefs – to notice what we do – He buys me many Books – but begs me not to read them – because he fears they joggle the mind (L261).

Their relationship was  one of contrasts: Edward Dickinson was supportive of her education yet wary of its effects, overbearing in his authority yet distant, and, as Emily withdrew from religious observance, Edward underwent a religious conversion in the revival in Amherst in 1850. Her tone about him is routinely marked by a regretful distance. In a letter to Joseph Lyman, she wrote:

My father seems to me often the oldest and the oddest sort of a foreigner. Sometimes I say something and he stares in a curious sort of bewilderment though I speak a thought quite as old as his daughter… And so it is, for in the morning I hear his voice and methinks it comes from afar & has a sea tone & there is a hum of hoarseness about [it] & a suggestion of remoteness as far as the isle of Juan Fernandez.

Richard Sewall, Dickinson's biographer, describes their relationship as follows:

Emily’s attitude toward her father, even as we have seen it so far, was compounded of many elements incompatible with fear. It developed early into an amused tolerance, a touch of condescension arising from an entirely justified sense of intellectual superiority, a tender devotion that made her delight in serving him in many ways, and later on into a deep, pervasive pity for his lonely and austere life.

Edward Dickinson died in Boston on June 16, 1874 shortly after speaking in the General Court, where he reportedly felt ill. Though  Dickinson occasionally commented on her relationship with her father while he was alive, her posthumous remarks are keenest. In a letter to Higginson in 1874, a month after Edward's passing, she reflects on the memories she has of her father (L418):

The last Afternoon that my Father lived, though with no premonition – I preferred to be with him, and invented an absence for Mother, Vinnie being asleep. He seemed peculiarly pleased as I oftenest stayed with myself, and remarked as the Afternoon withdrew, he “would like it to not end.

His pleasure almost embarrassed me and my Brother coming-I suggested they walk. Next morning I woke him for the train – and saw him no more.

His Heart was pure and terrible and I think no other like it exists.

I am glad there is Immortality-but would have tested it myself- before entrusting him.

Mr Bowles was with us–With that exception I saw none. I have wished for you, since my Father died, and had you an Hour unengrossed, it would be almost priceless. Thank you for each kindness.

My Brother and Sister thank you for remembering them.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum



Hannah Matheson

Hannah Matheso photo

Two Poems


Salvation’s brutal logic. Our Father progenitor
of Munchausen by proxy: made us wrong
to be the one to fix broken. Fashioned
to fall. How’s that for self-
indulgence? His and mine,
I mean. Made in His image,
cheap facsimile that
I am, a mirror of ire. Anger is
unflattering. This is why we say
fear of God, and this is why
Sunday service finds me close-
fisted, fingernails carving red
crescents into my own palms,

but even if I gall I recognize
the architecture of a fine thing,
ornate scaffolding of psalms—
exquisite echolalia of call
and response, which is at least
an answer, even if it returns
in the sound of one’s own voice
whispering prayer, soothing
sleep along. What alternative
do I offer when, asked
a question, I can do nothing
but point to all my milk teeth
scattered on the floor?


and my eyes, like the Sherry in the Glass, that the Guest leaves –Dickinson

For so long, Emily, my body as a scaffold of loss: self-
portraiture a composite of leavable parts. Anatomy
predicated on negative space—skeleton defined
by the emptiness filling around it. My ribs so hungry,
bone stitches suturing air. So much nothing. So much
take it or leave it, as they wished. I did not want to tell you

about what I allowed this frame to weather.
My labia scoured by a whiskered mouth. Rawed down
until I swelled, bleeding rose—red spattering of cells
in my underwear. I took it like a moth pinned
to corkboard, wingspread, still. Another time,
a different pair of hands, also hungry… I yearned
my pelvis away from his looming need. Battering
ram of his fingers breaching my borders, somehow
he sowed longing, somehow I wanted him
to want me, the truth is I did

go back, as if searching for the pummeling. What
did I think I could wrest from another night
in that dank room? As simple as a dog returning, wanting
to be un-kicked. I keep running from, running to
this exacting metronome but and of course the jolts
of these pulses are like everything else
a familiar rhythm—heartthrums, footfalls, the same
frat house couch spring
it hurt it hurt it hurts

bio: Hannah Matheson is a member of the class of 2018 at Dartmouth College and was an English major concentrating in Creative Writing.  She studied poetry with Vievee Francis. She has edited for Mouth and The Stonefence Review, literary publications at Dartmouth, and sang in The Subtleties, an all-female a cappella group. . 


Habegger, Alfred. My Wars are Laid away in Books. New York: Random House, 2001, 46.


Atlantic Monthly, April 15, 1862.

Hampshire Gazette, April 15, 1862.

Springfield Republican, April 12, 1862.


Dickinson, Emily. The Letters of Emily Dickinson. Eds. Thomas Johnson and Theodora Ward. 3 vols. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958.

Martin, Wendy, ed. All Things Dickinson: an Encyclopedia of Emily Dickinson’s World. Greenwood, an Imprint of ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2014.

Sewall, Richard B. The Life of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard Univesity Press, 1974, 61. Print.