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”

"

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 with a 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 find 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

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

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 a 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

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

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 Dickinson 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, with Thomas Higginson. 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).

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 bedroom 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.

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 build on 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 in 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 Dickinson 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. Attitudes like the one asserted by the Republican, that 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 both served 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 for this somewhat unusual volume, 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 to the volume, 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! Nevertheless, 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 origin 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 supposedly “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 in this passage by Fuller 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 he 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.

Also this week, Dickinson writes a letter to Mary Bowles, the wife of Samuel Bowles, 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, 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 -” she says).  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 plaintively 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 adored and corresponded with throughout her life, about her sister 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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

February 19-25, 1862: Choosing

Dickinson lived in an era where women had agency in limited realms and were often overseen by men. During 1862, as she withdrew more and more from activities outside her home and even within it, Dickinson contrived a mental sphere of empowerment for herself by choosing carefully how to live her life and who to allow in it. This theme of “selecting” and “choosing,” both in Dickinson’s life and writing, guides our post this week.

Overview
This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Charif Shanahan
Sources

“and I choose…”

Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf
Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf

Still ringing in our ears are the last words from the last poem in last week’s post:

“With Will to choose,
Or to reject, and I choose, just a crown.”

The flood of power that comes with embracing one’s agency, often associated in Dickinson’s poems with images of royalty, has the speaker feeling “adequate,” becoming “erect,” and “crowing” like a rooster over his roost—that has to warm any feminist’s heart. And because there is so much celebration in the news this week in 1862 on account of a string of Northern victories, we want to continue the mood of exultation by exploring the theme of “choosing.”

It is not clear how much choice women of Dickinson’s time, place and class could exercise in their lives. Within certain realms—the domestic sphere, emotional life, religion—women of this class had scope for agency, but always granted and surveilled by men. Dickinson’s father was notoriously controlling and supervisory, but so were the gossiping tongues of relatives and neighbors in the small town of Amherst.

Dickinson's room with three portraits
Dickinson's room 

During this year, as she withdrew more and more from activities outside her home and even within it, Dickinson contrived a mental sphere of empowerment for herself by choosing carefully how to live her life and who to allow in it. Her niece Martha, Susan Dickinson’s daughter, recalls a childhood memory of entering Dickinson’s upstairs bedroom with her, and tells how her aunt closed the door behind them, mimed the act of turning a key in the lock and said: “It's just a turn–and freedom, Matty!”

We also wanted an excuse to organize a group of poems around the incomparable poem, “The Soul selects her own Society.” When a version of the poem was published in the first collection of 1890, the editors Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Wentworth Higginson gave it the title “Exclusion.” While being “exclusive” sounds discriminating, as we know Dickinson was about people and silly social conventions, that word doesn’t capture the exhilaration of actively “selecting” and “choosing.” We want to explore the differences between s/electing and being s/elected; choosing and being chosen. And in the poems section, we will explore Sharon Cameron’s provocative phrase and title for her book describing Dickinson’s governing method and ethos in her fascicles, “Choosing not Choosing.”

Not that all choosing in Dickinson’s work or life was the occasion for celebration. There is exclusion in “The Soul selects her own society” and it has serious, even painful consequences. In another poem Franklin dates to late 1863, “Renunciation is a piercing virtue” (F782A, J745), the speaker finds that:

Renunciation – is the Choosing
Against itself –
Itself to justify
Unto itself

That is, sometimes the exhilaration of exercising choice is dampened by what one decides to choose. In this passage, one gives up a present joy “for an expectation.” Is it worth it?

“Who is she?

NATIONAL

From the Springfield Republican for Saturday February 22, 1862

Review of Week: Progress of the War: “This has been a week of triumph and exultation, unbroken by a single disaster. The series of victories continues and increases in value. The victories at Fort Henry and Roanoke Island have been followed by the capture of Fort Donelson, with fifteen thousand prisoners, and all their arms and supplies, while Price has ignominiously fled into Arkansas and his army is being captured piecemeal or dispersed.”

Major-General Sterling Price (1809-1867) Credit: Civil War Trust

Home Matters: “The deep interest felt in the war has taken a new start and led to extensive rejoicings over the federal victories, which will culminate in this city in public services and a splendid illumination on Saturday, the 130th anniversary of the natal day of the father of the country. His soul need not now be ashamed of his loyal children.”

Religious Intelligence: Church and Ministry. “A revival has been going on in the Northampton Methodist church, for five or six weeks past … and as a result some twenty-three persons have professed a hope in Christ.”

Opinions and Movements: “A Massachusetts soldier on the upper Potomac, recently went to hear a hardshell Presbyterian slaveholder preach, and gives the following graphic account of his style:”

Like most men of his profession who live in open violation of the moral precepts of Christ, he is a perfect tiger in doctrines. … There was not one kindly, charitable word in the whole sermon. I can easily see how such a man–so positive where modest men utter their convictions with some sort of deference to the opinions of other men, and where the great majority of hearers have very poorly defined views–should be a very effective preacher. It is in religion much as in medicine–the mass of men concern themselves so little about it that the quack who assumes the most and speaks most positively usually carries the day.

A Visitor at Washington “Who is She?” Correspondence of the Republican.

The story is told of a certain Caliph … that he was in the habit of going about incog. to observe the state of affairs in his capital, and whenever he saw any disturbance, or heard of any trouble or quarrel, his one question always was, “Who is she?”– thereby proving his acuteness and knowledge of the world. … Perhaps, if we were Caliphs, we might arrive at the truth as to the part woman has taken in this wild and wicked rebellion; as it is, our information is partial, but startling. Beyond the line of Mason and Dixon, (is that why it is called Dixie?) they were early aroused, and were stirring up their sons and brothers, husbands and lovers, to resist this dreadful oppression. Poor dears, they did not stop to reason–women never do; they jump at conclusions, and it is but justice to say that their impulses are often right … But in this case … nothing that woman has done since Eve ate the fruit (I never did believe it was an apple) has wrought such mischief to the country.

The writer goes on to castigate the courage of the Southern women who “have quilted quinine into their skirts, and carried arms in their trunks” to support their fighting men and exclaims:

How they have taken advantage of our proverbial national courtesy to women.” But in the next breath, he recounts: “I know a man who applied for a certain post [in Washington] and he was well fitted for it, and had some claim. But, the highest lady in the land (who is she?) said, “Tell him he cannot have it, I have promised it elsewhere;” and she carried her point. It is certain we are indebted to the same influence for some very curious appointments, more curious than suitable.

We will see many more criticisms of Mrs. Lincoln from this source in the coming weeks.

Mary Todd Lincoln (1818-1882)

Books, Authors and Art. Notes a new edition of the popular author Bayard Taylor, and recommends a passage from “A Young Author’s Life in London,” which is relevant to Dickinson’s upcoming correspondences with Higgingson:

O, the dreams we dream! O, the poems we write! Kind are the hands that hold us back from rushing into print; tender the words which pronounce such harsh judgments upon our works. For a year, we proudly curse the stupidity of our advisers; forever afterwards we bless them as benefactors. Reader, that knoweth, peradventure, how many bad poems I have published, little dreamest thou how many worse ones a kind fate has saved me from offering thee.

The article concludes: “The reader will perhaps be reminded of those playful lines of Lowell’s:

While you were thinking yourself to be pitied,
Just think how much harder your teeth you’d have gritted,
It ‘twere not for the dullness I’ve kindly omitted.

Original Poetry: Printed “February” a long poem in tetrameter quatrains rhyming abab about the coming spring as a metaphor for the peace of summer longed for by the nation. [We found this in a volume titled A Quiet Life and Other Poems by EDR, or Elizabeth Dickinson Rice Biancardi 1833-1885, author of At home in Italy, NY: Houghton Mifflin and Co, 1884, but no more information on her.] “The Photograph Album,” in the same form, about the fear of loss of a loved one. “Along the Lines” uses a more rousing ballad measure to evoke the men fighting the rebellion, and “My Love,” a humorous poem in common meter of 8 line stanzas describing the speaker’s passion for an ill-favored man [which gets reprinted in the Labor Digest and other books about workingmen]:

My love, dear man, turns in his toes,
My love is tangle-kneed,
Cross-eyed, left-handed, hair and beard
In hue are disagreed.
He has no soft and winning voice,
No single charm has he.
And yet, this awkward, ugly man
Is all the world to me.

In Selected Miscellany: Two poems: “Into the Darkness” by Mary Forest, in iambic tetrameter quatrains with variable rhyming, about the inevitability of death. “The Compass” by S. D. Robbins, iambic pentameter quatrains rhyming abab about God as the speaker’s moral index.

Also, from Gail Hamilton, “The Time to Make Love to a Woman”– after she has been jilted by another; “The Army of the English Commonwealth” by John Milton, who, he claims, was exemplary for reading scripture and hearing sermons in their off-hours; “The Women of a Nation” by Alexis de Tocqueville, who, though he argues that women are sometimes a positive and redeeming influence on men, most often are negative influences because “the grand notion of public duty was entirely absent” from their minds. “Stick to your Opinions” by John S. Hart, “Baby Talk” a complaint about the degeneration of the language from Vanity Fair.

Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. c. 1879 (1809-1894)

Hampshire Gazette for February 25, 1862, publishes on its first page from the Atlantic for March, “Voyage of the Good Ship Union” by Oliver Wendell Holmes, with 8 line stanza of two quatrains of ballad measure rhyming ababcdcd and ending,

One flag, one land, one heart, one hand, / One Nation, evermore!

Besides coverage of the war they print a column on “A Royal Courtship,” about the late Prince Albert’s courtship of Queen Victoria, and “A Few Reflections on Boys” about how to raise honorable men.

INTERNATIONAL

From the Springfield Republican, February 22, 1862: “In the January number of the Westminster Review is an interesting article on the Religious Heresies of the Working Classes of England. In speaking of the atheism of a certain class of unbelievers, it is said that they carry their opposition to theism so far that their organs strike out the word ‘God’ in all poetry they quote. Thus, the ‘National Reformer,’ having occasion to quote, to serve its own purpose, Bryant’s celebrated stanza, beginning–

Truth crushed to earth will rise again,
The eternal years of God are hers

[from William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878) The Battle-Field,” ll. 33-34, which was made into a hymn. The first, famous line was quoted by M. L. King and gave the title to an album by the hip hop group House of Pain] alters the second line in this way,

Surely eternal years are hers.

In the minds of these bigots of atheism, Truth may be eternal, but God cannot be permitted to have even a momentary poetical existence.”

“Joyful Victory”

On February 17, the Springfield Republican reported that Edward Dickinson had been re-elected president of the Amherst, Belchertown and Palmer railroad for the current year. See Dickinson's poem about the railroad, “I like to see it lap the miles” (F383A, J585), written in 1862.

On February 20 the town of Amherst rang the bells to celebrate the news of the capture of Fort Donelson.

The stars and stripes were unfurled from the tower of the chapel and cheer on cheer rose from College hill.

And on February 22, a short notice in the news from Amherst, which presages the tragedy to come:

We have just ascertained that the son of President Stearns [of Amherst College 1854-187], engaged in the battle of Roanoke as Adjutant, was slightly wounded on the head. So we feel quite glorious over our share in the joyful victory.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum

 

Reflection

Charif Shanahan

Credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths

To spend a life
In choice –
Not in having chosen, but in
Choosing –

A choice of its own
I suppose –
A railway paved as it goes –

The figs –
Ripe and dropping
From the encumbered boughs –
Before reach –

O Natural World
To commit – to be –
O to be certain so –

I was recently in Amherst for the first time and took the opportunity to visit Dickinson’s home. Unfortunately, the house was closed for the winter months, though I did have the chance to walk around and feel the energy of the estate. While there I recalled the details of a visit to Dickinson’s house that the great poet Jorie Graham had shared in an interview for Slate. Graham, pregnant with a child and at something of a crossroads in her life, was seeking guidance, direction from outside herself about how to proceed—perhaps from Dickinson’s spirit itself, still so alive in that small town it is almost tangible. During her visit, Graham noticed, on or near the poet’s grave, a ladybug, which then flew up and landed on her hand for a moment before flying in the direction of The Homestead. Graham followed the ladybug to Dickinson’s house, which was closed—for the winter season, as it was for me, or perhaps for renovations; I can’t recall the details. I do recall that Graham managed to convince the attendant to let her enter not only the house, but Emily’s upstairs bedroom where, incredibly, Graham found, next to Emily’s impossibly narrow desk, a small wooden crib—a sign to continue on the path of making poems in the face of imminent motherhood.

It’s likely I’m misremembering some details of Graham’s story—I looked for the interview in the Slate archives, but was unable to find it—though the story, as it exists in my memory, has stayed with me since I first encountered it years ago as an MFA candidate in New York City: I was struck that a poet as visionary and accomplished as Graham might, like myself and so many of the young poets I knew then personally, question how, or whether at all, to continue on a path of making poems. Given the demands of the world that might take us away from the craft, or simply given the other commitments one could choose to make in this life—some more clearly mapped, with fewer obstacles and less resistance, than a life of writing poems—I was encouraged to discern that the doubt, the questioning might simply be a part of the path that lies before any artist—of any age, background, experience, or life stage. As sentimental as it sounds, I think of the story—and of poetry—whenever I see a ladybug.

Years after first hearing Graham’s story, with a book of my own now in the world, I am grateful for the opportunity to re-read Dickinson’s poems “of choosing”—in her case, not only her art, but her reclusive life—and to be reminded of the many ways to be a poet in the world and of the responsibility we share to reflect the world back to itself, however we can.

At a time when so many of us carry a sense of helplessness and dread in the face of unimaginable greed, rampant and institutionally-sponsored violence, and the dehumanization of our brothers and sisters all around the world, I am “Held fast … By my own Choice” to engage in exactly the kind of truth-telling work that poetry allows. I sit in the Ferry Building of downtown San Francisco, looking into the open expanse above the Bay, on the opposite side of our “ample nation”—itself at a kind of crossroads and in need of the compassion and action that poetry can offer and inspire in us—and think of Dickinson at her small desk writing these lines:

A still – Volcano – Life -
That flickered in the night -
When it was dark enough to do
Without erasing sight -

 

Bio: Charif Shanahan is the author of Into Each Room We Enter without Knowing (SIU Press, 2017), winner of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award. His poems appear in New Republic, New York Times Magazine, PBS NewsHour, and elsewhere. Called a "vital and profound new voice" by Publishers Weekly, Shanahan is the recipient of awards and fellowships from the Academy of American Poets, Cave Canem Foundation, the Frost Place, the Fulbright Program/IIE, Millay Colony for the Arts, Starworks Foundation, and Stanford University, where he is a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry. Originally from the Bronx, he lives in San Francisco.

Sources

History
Hampshire Gazette, 
February 25, 1862
Springfield Republican, February 22, 1862

 

Week of January 22-28: Fascicle 12

Dickinson chose to self-publish fascicles, booklets filled with hundreds of poems and variants, to avoid the pitfalls of the publishing industry. Upon her death, the fascicles were dismantled by her editors and then, in 1981, painstakingly pieced back together. This week, we explore what role the context of the fascicles plays in reading Dickinson’s poems by looking at Fascicle 12.

Overview
This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Madeline Killen
Sources

Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf
Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf

Book-Making: Fascicle 12

Emily Dickinson was ambivalent about the publishing industry of her time, to say the least. She was aware of the gendered conventions and limitations placed on women writers and thought her poetry would not be conveyed accurately in print. The editorializing of her work both during and after her lifetime shows she was right. A Dickinson poem is hard to capture in a single traditionally printed manuscript or the sea of print and columns that was a mid-nineteenth-century newspaper page. Many of her friends urged her to publish her work, and editors approached her. The ten poems published during her lifetime appeared without her permission or supervision and often caused her consternation.

Instead, Dickinson chose a form of self-publication that allowed her to edit on her own terms and produce multiple fair copies and versions of one poem on a single sheet. She did this by including variants of words and phrases on the fair copies, often indicated by a small cross in the text next to the word with the variants in a list at the bottom or on the sides. The variants thus become a part of the poem, which itself becomes dynamic and performative. From 1858 to around 1864, Dickinson hand sewed the pages together, creating little booklets her first editor, Mabel Loomis Todd, called fascicles, which contained hundreds of her poems and thousands of variants.

A Dickinson Fascicle

Dickinson produced forty fascicles (that we know of). She never labeled them or the poems in them, or gave them numbers or titles. When they were discovered after her death, her editors immediately took them apart; now, multiple reconstructions of the fascicles exist, not all agreeing. In 1981, Ralph Franklin undertook a painstaking re-assemblage (based in part on the direction the needle went into the paper!) and printed the fascicles in manuscript, which is the only way we have of reading Dickinson as she presented herself. In an important study from 1992, Sharon Cameron argues that reading Dickinson's poems in the fascicles substantially changes our understanding of her work. The inscrutable, difficult single lyric poem stands in a rich and complex, perhaps, more comprehensible context.  In 2016, Cristanne Miller published a reading edition based on the fascicles titled Emily Dickinson’s Poems: As She Preserved Them.

In addition to disagreement over how the sheets go together, there is also lively debate on why the sheets go together – what did Dickinson intend by grouping these specific poems and in that specific order? How does the context of a fascicle inform the reading of her poetry? Why do some poems appear in multiple fascicles? How do the fascicles relate to each other? Some scholars, like Franklin, view the fascicles as merely a way for Dickinson to organize her poems, part of “her workshop” in a period of immense productivity. Others see them as poetic sequences with a consistent narrative or organizations of complex relationships. Cameron goes further, arguing that they represent, as the title of her study pithily puts it, Dickinson Choosing Not Choosing. That is, they illustrate Dickinson’s self-conscious playfulness and her resistance to closure or fixity. We thought it important to explore one of the first fascicles Dickinson put together in early 1862, Fascicle 12.

“Life in Washington. Through the Spectacles of a Lady”

INTERNATIONAL

Short news articles appeared this week on the history of French emancipation (presumably to apply to Civil War tactics and the lively emancipation debate in the North), and on the “Rejuvenation of Spain,” referring to the country’s reinvigorated military and economic power at the outset of the Second French Intervention in Mexico, when Spain joined with France and Britain to forcibly collect debts from Mexico after the country declared a suspension of loan payments to foreign creditors.

NATIONAL

Victory, with a teeming sense of urgency and anxiety, color this week’s affairs. The Springfield Republican’s “Review of the Week” describes how a “great victory crowns the new campaign,” referring to a battle in Kentucky where the Union obliterated a Confederate camp, seized some supplies, and pushed the enemy into retreat. The Hampshire Gazette contains the full report from Washington, and both papers pulled some quotations from Southern newspapers to show the past few weeks’ effect on Confederate morale. Numerous strong Union victories put a damper on things, and The  Republican concludes that the only hope the “rebels” have is not to lose the whole war very badly. The “educated Southern men” are said to “rebel against the rebels,” and to think that the constant fighting is now pointless.

Also in the Springfield Republican, lengthy war preparation reports from states in New England follow some important upheavals in the North. On January 27, President Lincoln ordered all land and naval troops to advance southward by February 22 (George Washington’s birthday) to avoid Major General McClellan’s vastly unpopular waiting game war tactics. Lincoln also appointed Edwin Stanton as new Secretary of War, replacing Simon Cameron after allegations of corruption surfaced. The Hampshire Gazette chronicles an interview with Lincoln about this cabinet change, to which he replied his cabinet now feels more “cohesive.”

Two op-eds stand out in this week of taxation complaints: one about the unchanging and ever-similar “American Society” of both the North and the South, and one entitled “Life in Washington. Through the Spectacles of a Lady.” An anonymous upper class woman tells of her trip to the Senate to hear Charles Sumner’s speech on the Trent Affair,

Lithograph of Preston Brooks' 1856 attack on Sumner

including the sights of Washington, the distinguished socialites present (including other famous women), the politics discussed and derived from the experience, and the conclusions of the speech. The author makes a point to talk to the reader directly, her tone of voice and astute observations about Washington revealing that a woman, too, can not only engage in public political life but also form her own opinions on the happenings in Washington.

“A State of Constant Flux”

No letters are definitively linked to this week, but then we don’t know exactly when Dickinson wrote most of her letters. Over the next two weeks, Dickinson will pen multiple letters to Samuel Bowles, who is preparing to travel to Europe for his health. Some of these letters included poems, both old and brand new.

Recreated fascicles, Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst

Another task that occupied part of Dickinson’s time was the production of her fascicles, and we focus this week on Fascicle 12. Cristanne Miller dates its sheets from early 1861 all the way to April 1862, and probably later than that. As is clear from the widely varied dates of different sheets, Dickinson was in a state of constant flux and revision with her fascicles, and frequently edited them by taking poems out or putting poems in, editing words and adding alternate choices, and probably re-sewing them together as well.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum

 

Reflection

Madeline Killen

Believe it or not, I made it to age 18 and through an entire American public school education without reading an Emily Dickinson poem. The “Emily Dickinson” card in my mental rolodex had a couple of bullet points — recluse, apparently couldn’t stop for death — but was otherwise blank. Whether related to my Dickinson ignorance or not, I’d also never developed a particular affinity for poetry, choosing the less fair house of prose any day. I disliked that poetry so often felt like a locked chest with one little gem hidden inside; I wasn’t interested in searching for the key to a form that was so eager to resist me.

Yet somehow, as my undergraduate career comes to a close, I find myself writing a senior honors thesis on one of the most interpretation-resistant poets imaginable. In an ironic turn of events, it’s Dickinson’s seeming inaccessibility that makes me love her poetry as much as I do. She’s not inaccessible, she’s impossible; trying to decipher the core meaning of any one of her poems is a completely futile exercise, simply because there isn’t one. Rather than being infuriating, that’s liberating — Dickinson poems change depending on the angle you look at them from, like the smooth side of a seashell in the sunlight. Nowhere is this more striking than in her fascicles, where Dickinson’s choices of order and proximity cause you to lose your grasp on what you believe she’s writing about the moment that you start to feel confident about it.

Poet and visual artist Jen Bervin's composite renderings of Dickinson’s seldom-seen editing marks and word variants

When Fascicle 12 starts with “I taste a liquor never brewed -,” I see a Dickinson in love; can any phrase describe a lover struck by the “extasy” of their reciprocated feelings like “Inebriate of air –”? This leads me to a single reading of the brutal drop in mood from the fascicle’s first poem to the later “I got so I could hear his name -” — a broken heart trying to mend.

I got so I could stir the Box -
In which his letters grew
Without that forcing, in my breath -
As Staples – driven through -

Can any Dickinson reader envision anything now besides Dickinson shifting through her correspondence with Master? But this is the brilliance of Dickinson’s fascicles — “A single Screw of Flesh” depicts a tortured relationship with a “Deity” and casts the preceding poem in a different light. Could the Box in which his letters grew be a Bible? Are we watching Dickinson fall from faith or fall out of love? Both, and neither, and who knows, and what does it matter? We dwell in possibility now.

Bio: Madeline is a member of the Dartmouth class of 2018, where she completed an English honors thesis, supervised by Ivy Schweitzer, that focuses on Dickinson's Fascicle 18. An English major and an Italian minor, she took “The New Dickinson: After the Digital Turn” seminar, which inspired her thesis topic, in Winter 2017. A chapter of that thesis on the variants of "Bliss" won the award for best undergraduate essay on Dickinson from the Emily Dickinson International Society in 2018.

Sources

Cameron, Sharon. Choosing Not Choosing: Dickinson’s Fascicles. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Dickinson, Emily. Emily Dickinson’s Poems: As She Preserved Them. Ed. Cristanne Miller. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2016.

Dickinson, Emily. The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson. 2 vols. Ed. Ralph Franklin.  Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1981.

Heginbotham, Eleanor Elson. “Fascicles.” An Emily Dickinson Encyclopedia. Ed. Jane Donahue Eberwein. Westport, CT.: Greenwood Press, 1998: 108-09.

Hampshire Gazette, Volume 76, Issue 26. January 28, 1862.

“January 27: This Day In History.” History.com

Springfield Republican, Volume 80, Issue 4. January 25, 1862.