November 12-18, 1862: Crucifixion

This week in 1862 several items appeared in the newspapers and periodicals on the theme of suffering and sacrifice, which frame our exploration of a cluster of poems from this period in Dickinson’s life that use imagery of the Crucifixion.

This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Sheila Byers and Jennifer Leader

Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf
Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf

This week in 1862 several items appeared in the newspapers and periodicals on the theme of suffering and sacrifice. Not surprising subjects during wartime, they frame our exploration of a cluster of poems from this period in Dickinson’s life that use imagery of the Crucifixion to explore  suffering and sacrifice.

This week, the Springfield Republican published a poem titled “The Sweetest Death” that extols the glory of giving one’s life for one’s “fatherland” and the entanglement of sacrifice and love. This was a common refrain in poetry and prose of this era, which justified the bloody battles of the Civil War as a necessary “purging” of the national sin of slavery.

Right on cue, Ralph Waldo Emerson published an encomium on President Lincoln’s “Emancipation Proclamation” in the November issue of the Atlantic Monthly. In his praise of the president, Emerson specifically remarks:

This act makes that the lives of our heroes have not been sacrificed in vain.

Suggesting that without a momentous paradigm-shift in national consciousness and national policy, the deaths of so many soldiers and civilians might, indeed, have been sacrificed for nothing.

Readers often regard Dickinson’s allusions to the Crucifixion as more of an exploration of personal and psychic suffering than part of a religious or devotional tradition. Clustering in the months after she experienced her great “Terror,” poems with this imagery resonate both personally and religiously, and as so much in Dickinson’s writing during this period, take on an extra valence of meaning in the light of the war’s onslaught of suffering and loss.

“Life in America had Lost Much of its Attraction”

Springfield Republican, November 15, 1862

Progress of the War, page 1

President Lincoln and General McClellan meeting after Antietam
President Lincoln and General McClellan meeting after Antietam

“The event of the week has been the removal of Gen. McClellan from the command of the army in Virginia, and the substitution of Gen. Burnside in his place. The special reasons for the act are not known, but a letter of Gen. Halleck to Secretary Stanton, indiscreetly given to the newspapers, reveals the fact that Gen. McClellan delayed to move into Virginia for nearly three weeks after he had received positive orders to do so, and Gen. Halleck insists that the excuse that the army was not properly supplied with clothing is insufficient. Doubtless the president had other reasons, which will be made public at a suitable time, and which will show that the pledge given to McClellan, when he was implored to resume the command and protect Washington and drive back the rebel invaders, for the campaign should not be interfered with, has not been violated in spirit if it was in letter.”

The Southern Church and Slavery, page 4
“The Richmond Christian Advocate proposes a convention of the Christian churches of all denominations at the South to unite in a formal solemn testimony in vindication of their position in the sanguinary conflict which the federal conflict is waging against them. It wants such a testimony to demonstrate to their enemies and to the world that the southern churches are a unit in their unalterable resolution to maintain the independence of the confederacy, and defend their conservative and scriptural principles on the slavery question.”

Original Poetry, page 6 "The Sweetest Death"
[described in The Northern Monthly: A Magazine of Original Literature and Military Affairs, vol. 1. Ed. Edward P. Weston. Portland: Bailey and Noyes, 1864, 249 as “From the German of Wolfgang Mühler.”]

"The Sweetest Death"

Hampshire Gazette, November 18, 1862

True Felicity, page 1
“If men did not know what felicity dwells in the cottage of a virtuous poor man—how sound he sleeps, how quiet his breast, how composed his mind, how free from care, how easy his provision, how healthy his morning, how sober his night, how moist his mouth, how joyful his heart—they would never admire the noises, the diseases, the throng of passions, and the violence of unnatural appetites, that fit the houses of the luxurious and the hearts of the ambitious.”

Atlantic Monthly, November 1862

“The President’s [Emancipation] Proclamation,” by Ralph Waldo Emerson

"Better is virtue in the sovereign than plenty in the season," say the Chinese. 'T is wonderful what power is, and how ill it is used, and how its ill use makes life mean, and the sunshine dark. Life in America had lost much of its attraction in the later years. The virtues of a good magistrate undo a world of mischief, and, because Nature works with rectitude, seem vastly more potent than the acts of bad governors, which are ever tempered by the good-nature in the people, and the incessant resistance which fraud and violence encounter. The acts of good governors work at a geometrical ratio, as one midsummer day seems to repair the damage of a year of war. …

This act makes that the lives of our heroes have not been sacrificed in vain. It makes a victory of our defeats. Our hurts are healed; the health of the nation is repaired. With a victory like this, we can stand many disasters. It does not promise the redemption of the black race: that lies not with us: but it relieves it of our opposition. The President by this act has paroled all the slaves in America; they will no more fight against us; and it relieves our race once for all of its crime and false position. The first condition of success is secured in putting ourselves right. We have recovered ourselves from our false position, and planted ourselves on a law of Nature.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)

“The Man of Sorrow”

Though Dickinson came of age at a time when scientific thinking seriously challenged earlier religious foundations, she was, as Shira Wolosky argues, saturated in the Calvinist beliefs of her ancestors and family members, who embraced a

biblical and providential vision, encoding events in nature, history, and the self in an overarching divine pattern. … This divine order was specifically revealed through biblical pattern, focused on the life of Christ.

Thomas von KempenThe devotional practice Christians called “the imitation of Christ” has a long tradition. A fifteenth-century German monk named Thomas à Kempis (1380-1471) wrote a meditation on the spiritual life called Imitatio Christi, in which he urged readers to imitate Jesus and live a life of love and service. The Dickinson library contained two editions in English translation; it was apparently a favorite of Dickinson’s.

Dickinson wrote so many poems about the life of Jesus Christ all through her career that Dorothy Oberhaus argues they “form something like a nineteenth-century American Gospel.” By doing so, Oberhaus believes that Dickinson “stresses the Gospels’ contemporary relevance,” and furthermore, the

deep structure of her Gospel poem places them in the poetic tradition of Christian devotion, a tradition extending from the “Dream of the Rood” and Pearl poets, through the medieval lyricists, Herbert, Vaughan, Crashaw, and Hopkins, to Eliot and Auden in our own day.

Rather than highlight the Resurrection and promise of salvation, as many of these religious writers did, however, Dickinson fastened on the image of the suffering and abandoned Jesus of the Crucifixion, a man experiencing human death. The question why a beneficent and omnipotent God allows human suffering resonated powerfully with the public events and discussions of the day.

References to Jesus of the Cross appear in Dickinson early letters, as in this description from May 7 and 17, 1850 sent to her friend Abiah Root about the death of another friend’s father:

What a beautiful mourner is her sister, looking so crushed, and heart-broken, yet never complaining, or murmuring, and waiting herself so patiently! She reminds me of suffering Christ, bowed down with her weight of agony, yet smiling at terrible will. “Where the weary are at rest” these mourners all make me think of – in the sweet still grave. When shall it call us? (L36)

“Job's Tormentors” from William Blake's Illustrations for the Book of Job, 1792

The quotation echoes the Book of Job, considered a precursor of Jesus’s passion story, in which the afflicted man curses the day of his birth and calls for death, for “there the weary be at rest” (3:17). And while in this passage Dickinson strikes a naïve and romanticized note, Linda Freeman observes

that she was beginning, even at nineteen, to comprehend the philosophical meaning of the cross and her imagination was struck by the idea that Calvary was a test of Christ’s humanity–his patience, his agony, his suffering and his subservience to the divine will of the father.

Still, this letter is a far cry from the despairing pain of Dickinson’s later poetic invocations of Calvary, the hill on which Jesus was crucified, as we will see in the poetry section. Patrick Keane notes that in her “orthodox moods,” Dickinson depicts Jesus conventionally, as “the divine Son of Jehovah” but “her Jesus is far more often the human Sufferer admired by Schopenhauer and Nietzsche,” modern philosophers who rejected religious systems of belief but admired Jesus. In a letter late in her life, Dickinson explained this focus to Mrs. Henry Hills:

When Jesus tells us about his Father, we distrust him. When he shows us his Home, we turn away, but when he confides to us that he is “acquainted with Grief,” we listen, for that also is an Acquaintance of our own. (L932)

But, as Keane notes, Dickinson understands Jesus’s humanity even more radically, and this was the source of its powerful hold on her imagination. Writing to Thomas Wentworth Higginson in 1877, she said:

To be human is more than to be divine, for when Christ was divine, he was uncontented till he had been human.(L519)

Keane offers as evidence a poem dated 1882, in which Dickinson seems to say that even the Resurrection was “testimony to the humanity of Jesus:”

Obtaining but
our own extent
In whatsoever
Realm –
'Twas Christ's
own personal
That bore him
from the Tomb – (F1573, J1543)

Dickinson’s adaptation of a part of the ancient devotional practice called “imitatio Christi” (imitation of Christ) allowed her to explore the nature of God, the realm of suffering and renunciation, the limits of “fallen” human language, and the burden of the body and the natural world.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum


Sheila Byers

Calvary offers an opportunity to think about the complicated relationships between speaker and setting and internal and external that occur in Dickinson’s poems. Calvary is a place, a location in which a person can stand surrounded by a specific environment. It is also a site, a location known not as the physical place in the world that its name indicates, but as the setting in which the crucifixion occurred.

When Dickinson talks about the crucifixion, she is interested not only in the event with its spiritual or personal meanings, but also in the place that is the container to that event, its physical and geographical surroundings. But if the word Calvary means a hill outside Jerusalem, it also means “skull,” the name deriving from either the shape of the hill or the objects found there. Calvary is both a place external to the person who stands in it and the bones internal to that person. It is container and contained.

Hill of Calvary
Hill of Calvary

For Dickinson, of course, it is also a metaphor. It is agony, woe, the suffering of Christ. Here the troubling of internal and external intensifies. In “I measure every grief I meet,” Calvary is something the speaker passes, something external that also refers to the internal feeling of grief. When the speaker passes, she feels “A piercing Comfort.” She is pierced, meaning something passes from outside to inside. With this action, Calvary, the external symbol of the speaker’s internal grief, crosses the line of division between speaker and environment, reentering the space of the internal. In this action, grief becomes comfort.

These dizzying reversals of internal and external lead back to the question discussed in this week’s post: In what sense does Dickinson internalize the meaning of the Crucifixion? Is Calvary a projection of the speaker’s grief onto Biblical structures? Or an attempt to draw the stories of scripture into a personalized space of understanding? Or is it, perhaps, both, simultaneously a hill and a skull?

Bio: Sheila Byers is a PhD student in the English Department at Columbia. She works on 19th century American literature with a focus on the intersections of literature, science, and philosophy.

Jennifer Leader

Why, then, do you fear to take up the cross when through it you can win a kingdom? In the cross is salvation, in the cross is life, in the cross is protection from enemies, in the cross is infusion of heavenly sweetness, in the cross is strength of mind, in the cross is joy of spirit, in the cross is highest virtue, in the cross is perfect holiness. There is no salvation of soul nor hope of everlasting life but in the cross.

                                           — Thomas à Kempis, Imitation of Christ

When we suffer—and suffer inconsolably—we desperately wish for something larger and redeeming to come from our losses, if not for ourselves, then for the sake of others. If some meaning and gain can be made of and from our pain, we reason, then perhaps, as Dickinson writes in one of her most anthologized poems, we “shall not live in vain” (F982, J919). And, while I don’t believe the majority of Dickinson’s crucifixion poems to be a conscious attempt on her part to participate in a tradition of Christian devotional works, perhaps her desire to find a redemptive purpose behind the tremendous suffering inherent to the human condition is why she borrowed this image so frequently.

Like most of the more than two hundred references to the Bible in her poetry, Dickinson’s poems featuring or at least pointing toward the crucifixion are at play on many levels at once—on the level of national and personal losses of the Civil War, as a shorthand for individual grief, psychic or romantic pain, and, occasionally, as purely or mostly spiritual trope. Chief among the uses Dickinson makes of the cross is as an image of renunciation, what she terms “a piercing Virtue,” “the Choosing / Against itself – / Itself to justify / Unto itself -” (F782, J745).

Sometimes this renunciation is connected to thwarted romantic love, as in the beautiful “There came a Day at Summer’s full” in which the lovers share a day of communion so pure that it rivals “Sacrament” and the future “Supper of the Lamb,” a consummation depicted in the Bible as taking place between God and his “Saints, / Where Resurrections – be -” (F325, J322). The poem’s communion ends with separation, however, and a sense that as “Each bound the Other’s Crucifix -,” their love will not be allowed to be expressed again until after the resurrection, when it will have been “Justified” by this, their self-renunciatory “Calvaries of Love.”

Christina Rossetti (1830-1894)
Christina Rossetti (1830-1894)

Yet sometimes Dickinson’s lauding of renunciation makes me ask, “renunciation for what purpose?” I find that I agree with Joan Feit Diehl when she links this aspect of Dickinson’s writing to the Romantic movement and to the sense that suffering for its own sake gives an aesthetic and revelatory payoff; in this vein one could lay some of Dickinson’s poems alongside those of her contemporary Christina Rossetti and note more similarities than differences.

For me, this is where Dickinson’s use of the cross differs from the Christian devotional tradition: in the gospels, renunciation is a temporary means to an end, performed in the light of eternity for the sake of intimacy with a Savior, whereas in Dickinson’s poetry it is more frequently an end goal or fixed and final state; it is self-fulfilling rather than pointing away from self; the speaker’s story is not folded into a larger divine narrative as in “Dream of the Rood.” Instead, the lovers’ separations become dramatizations of making a virtue of a necessity, and individual existential suffering ends with the speaker crowning herself “The Queen of Calvary -” (F347, J348).

Dickinson seems to find it hard to poetically pair the grief of the cross with the once-and-future joy of the sort found in the Christian Scriptures (e.g. Jesus, “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God”) and the Thomas à Kempis passage above (Heb. 12:2, KJV). Rather, Dickinson’s joys are in the natural world and the beloved human relationships she so cherishes. But perhaps this is why as a reader and a critic I have mostly shied away from Dickinson’s crucifixion references—Dickinson knew the cross demands an emotional response; it makes us look at it without turning away to numb ourselves; it makes us take an accounting of rather than deny or despise our own suffering and the suffering of others. These are emotional equations I’d rather not solve. This is the religion of Lydia Maria Child and Harriet Beecher Stowe, putting sentiment and empathy to use to change their world.

Not, mind you, that Dickinson couldn’t write a profoundly—and orthodox—devotional poem when she wanted to. “Jesus! thy Crucifix” (F197, J225)  and “One crown that no one seeks” (F1759, J1735) are both cries of the heart in the Other-reverential spirit of what one might have found in her Congregational hymnal. But for me, the most interesting poems in which Dickinson chooses to participate in Christian tradition are the ones in which she makes use of the Protestant hermeneutics of typology, the practice of locating foreshadowings of Christ in the Hebrew Bible that are ultimately fulfilled in the Christian Scriptures.

This practice was extended by Jonathan Edwards into the wider text of the natural world and by Dickinson’s own nineteenth-century into such a broad trope that seminary textbooks cautioned new preachers against making too frequent use of what was becoming a hackneyed metaphor. Yet Dickinson frequently appropriated the structures of typology as a way to connect the material and temporal realm with the eternal and spiritual. In “One crucifixion is recorded – only-” (F670, J553) “Gethsemane” “is but a Province – in the Being’s Centre -,” and though the speaker finds that there are many “newer” and “nearer” crucifixions than that famous one, “Our Lord – indeed – made Compound Witness -.” As discussed earlier in “On Choosing the Poems,” Dickinson’s use of this last phrase is suggestive of interest on a loan (and, indeed, several of the poems in this section relay heavily on language emphasizing and contrasting the price of a life alongside the price of consumer goods).

Yet Dickinson’s term “Witness” is also remarkable. In A Kiss From Thermopylae: Emily Dickinson and Law, James Guthrie notes that Dickinson was frequently called upon by her lawyer father Edward to perform the legal function of signing as a witness to numerous document transactions he performed for clients. For Dickinson, then, the term “Witness” carried a weighty import. On the cross, Christ was serving as a “Witness” to two “Compound” parties in transaction with each other, the Heavenly father and the earthly children (and legal terms are used frequently both by the Apostle Paul in the Christian Scriptures and in the Covenant theology of the Reformed churches); by doubly being crucified and serving as “Witness” of it, he has created and inhabited an interstitial space allowing Heaven and earth to meet. “Gethsemane” is now “a Province – in the Being’s Centre–” that typologically references and is fulfilled in this moment on the Cross.

Indeed, the mirroring and “Compound”-edness of this poem puts me in mind of the “Compound Vision” and “Convex – and Concave Witness” of another typological poem referencing Christ’s death, “The Admirations – and Contempts – of time-” (F830, J906). Written in 1864, it seems a fitting (and Protestant) end of this meditation, leading “through an Open Tomb-.”

The Admirations – and Contempts – of time –
Show justest – through an Open Tomb -
The Dying – as it were a Hight
Reorganizes Estimate
And what We saw not
We distinguish clear -
And mostly – see not
What We saw before -

’Tis Compound Vision -
Light – enabling Light –
The Finite – furnished
With the Infinite -
Convex – and Concave Witness -
Back – toward Time -
And forward –
Toward the God of Him -

Thomas à Kempis. Imitation of Christ, ch. 12 par. 77. Christian Classics Ethereal Library

Guthrie, James R. A Kiss From Thermopylae: Emily Dickinson and Law. University of Massachusetts Press, 2015.

bio: Jennifer Leader is Professor of English at Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut, California. She is the author of Knowing, Seeing, Being: Jonathan Edwards, Emily Dickinson, Marianne Moore and the American Typological Tradition (2016). Most recently she has contributed essays on Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and Marianne Moore to The Bible and Feminism: Remapping the Field (2017), Whitman/Dickinson: A Colloquy (2017), and Twenty-First Century Marianne Moore: Essays From a Critical Renaissance (2018).


Atlantic Monthly, November 1862
Hampshire Gazette, 
November 18, 1862
Springfield Republican, November 15, 1862

Freedman, Linda. Emily Dickinson and the Religious Imagination. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011, 140.

Keane, Patrick J. Emily Dickinson’s Approving God: Divine Design and the Problem of Suffering. Columbia: University of Missouri Press 2008, 92-93.

Oberhaus, Dorothy. "'Tender Pioneer': Emily Dickinson's Poems on the Life of Christ." American Literature 59.3 October 1987: 341-58, 341.

Wolosky, Shira. “Public and Private in Dickinson’s War Poetry.” A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson. Ed. Vivian Pollak. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. 103-131, 114,

Yin, Joanna. “The Imitation of Christ.” An Emily Dickinson Encyclopedia. Ed. Jane Donahue Eberwein. Westport, CT.: Greenwood Press, 1998, 158-59.

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August 13-19, 1862: Emerson and Thoreau

This week in 1862, Emily Dickinson probably read in the Atlantic Monthly Ralph Waldo Emerson’s biographical sketch of his friend Henry David Thoreau, who died on May 6, 1862 at the age of 45. We take our cue from this to explore Dickinson’s literary debt to Emerson, at the time an eminent man of letters and leading exponent of “Transcendentalism,” as well as to Thoreau, considered Emerson’s disciple but an original thinker in his own right.

This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Marianne Noble

“Emerson and Thoreau”

This week in 1862 Emily Dickinson probably read in the Atlantic Monthly Ralph Waldo Emerson’s biographical sketch of his friend Henry David Thoreau, who died on May 6, 1862 at the age of 45. We take our cue from this to explore Dickinson’s literary debt to Emerson, at the time an eminent man of letters and leading exponent of “Transcendentalism.” We also consider her debt to Thoreau, regarded as Emerson’s disciple but an original thinker in his own right. Thoreau shared with Dickinson an investment in what scholars are now calling “vitalist materialism,” which we explored in the earlier post on Gardens and reprise here in more detail.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)

Emerson has come up numerous times in these posts as a thinker and writer whose ideas and phrases struck deep chords in Dickinson. Indeed, Jack Capps observes that

of all American authors whom she read, Emily Dickinson can be most closely associated with Ralph Waldo Emerson.

 He also notes that “Success,”the only poem published in her lifetime that garnered critical attention, was attributed to Emerson. Still, it is important to consider the ways she revises Emerson and diverges from Transcendental idealism.

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)
Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

Dickinson only mentions Thoreau twice in her correspondence, but scholars like Yanbin Kang trace her references to Eastern thought to

Dickinson’s life-long responses towards Henry David Thoreau’s construction of the East.

We will explore Emerson’s eulogy for his friend and how it may have struck Dickinson, his mentorship of both Thoreau and Dickinson, and their shared concerns with vitalist materialism and its radical political implications.

“Genius Makes its Observations in Shorthand”

Springfield Republican, August 16, 1862

General Jackson at Winchester, Virginia 1862
General Jackson at Winchester, Virginia 1862

Progress of the War, page 1
“Our expectations in regard to the Virginia campaign have been fulfilled. A new series of battles has commenced, and the result thus is far better than we had reason to expect. Stonewall Jackson did not await the concentration of Gen. Pope’s army to attack in force, but with his usual admirable energy, made an unexpected dash across the Rapidan and hurled his whole army upon the unsupported corps of Gen. Banks.

The Sin of the North, page 4
“It is time we had begun to know something of our relations to this [African] race, and to appreciate the wrongs we have inflicted upon it. It is the habit of the northern mind, or has been since the rebellion began, to wonder why the peculiar sin of the South should be permitted to bring such bitterness of punishment upon the North. But Count Gasparin finds [the sin of the North] here in our treatment of the free negroes—the only representatives of the African race with whom we have come in contact.”

Wit and Wisdom, page 7
“Genius makes its observations in short hand; talent writes them out at length.”

Disagreeable People, page 7 [reprinted from the Atlantic Monthly]
“There is nothing more disagreeable, and few things more mischievous, than a well-meaning, meddling fool. And where there was no special intention, good or bad, towards yourself, you have known people make you uncomfortable through the simple exhibition to you, and pressure upon you, of their own agreeable disagreeableness.”

Hampshire Gazette, August 19, 1862

Amherst, page 2
“There is considerable building in progress in Amherst, particularly in the vicinity of the depot. L. M. Hills & Son are preparing to build two fine residences for themselves. It is expected that these will be the most elegant houses in the town. Their shaker hood business is very prosperous.”

Harper’s Monthly, August 1862

Dinah Maria Craik (1826-1887)
Dinah Maria Craik (1826-1887)

Mistress and Maid: A Household Story, page 229 [by Dinah Maria Mulock Craik]
“The scarlet face, the entreating tones—there was no resisting them. One natural pang Hilary felt—that in her short poverty she had fallen so low as to be indebted to her servant, and then too she blushed, less for shame at accepting the kindness than for her own pride that she could not at once receive it as such.”

Atlantic Monthly, August 1862
Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Thoreau”
“The country knows not yet, or in the least part, how great a son it has lost."

Posts, a plaque, and a rock cairn mark the site of Thoreau's cabin near the shore of Walden Pond. J. Walter Green / AP
Posts, a plaque, and a rock cairn mark the site of Thoreau's cabin near the shore of Walden Pond. J. Walter Green / AP

He was born in Concord, Massachusetts, on the 12th of July, 1817. He was graduated at Harvard College in 1837, but without any literary distinction. An iconoclast in literature, he seldom thanked colleges for their service to him, holding them in small esteem, whilst yet his debt to them was important. After leaving the University, he joined his brother in teaching a private school, which he soon renounced. His father was a manufacturer of lead-pencils, and Henry applied himself for a time to this craft, believing he could make a better pencil than was then in use. After completing his experiments, he exhibited his work to chemists and artists in Boston, and having obtained their certificates to its excellence and to its equality with the best London manufacture, he returned home contented. His friends congratulated him that he had now opened his way to fortune. But he replied, that he should never make another pencil. "Why should I? I would not do again what I have done once." He resumed his endless walks and miscellaneous studies, making every day some new acquaintance with Nature, though as yet never speaking of zoology or botany, since, though very studious of natural facts, he was incurious of technical and textual science.

… he had a perfect probity, was exact in securing his own independence, and in holding every man to the like duty. But Thoreau never faltered. He was a born protestant. He declined to give up his large ambition of knowledge and action for any narrow craft or profession, aiming at a much more comprehensive calling, the art of living well.

“His Transcendental Arm”

When Emerson spoke in Amherst for the first time on December 16, 1857, he had already had been lecturing widely in his role as “the Sage of Concord.” That he stayed with Austin and Susan Dickinson at the Evergreens was an indication of just how high their social status had risen in the town. Emerson’s topic was “The Beautiful in Rural Life,” and, as noted by Jay Leyda, the report of the Hampshire and Franklin Express for December 18 captures the reigning opinion of Transcendentalism in that stronghold of conservative Congregationalism:

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s lecture greatly disappointed all who listened. It was in the English language instead of the Emersonese in which he usually clothes his thoughts, and the thoughts themselves were such as any plain common-sense person could understand and appreciate.

Susan Dickinson wrote in her journal, “Annals of the Evergreen:”

I remember very little of the lecture except a fine glow of enthusiasm on my own part. … I felt strangely elated to take his transcendental arm afterwards and walk leisurely home.

Despite Sue’s enchantment, Dickinson refused to meet Emerson on this occasion, complaining that she did not want to be introduced as someone’s [Austin’s] sister. It is unclear whether she attended the lecture, but she certainly heard from Sue about its contents. Sue reports Dickinson’s impression of Emerson at that time:

As if he had come from where dreams are born.

Dickinson’s refusal to meet the eminent visitor as merely a relation of his host might be connected to her own growing sense of vocation. Very soon, in 1858, she would commence gathering her poems into hand-sewn booklets known as “fascicles.” We know that Emerson was an important source for the young poet because her first “gentle, yet Grave Preceptor,” Benjamin Franklin Newton (1821-1853), a student in her father’s law office during 1847-49 and a frequent visitor to the family, sent her a copy of Emerson’s Poems (1847), his first volume of collected poetry, as a farewell gift. Newton was Dickinson’s first contact with the liberal-leaning Unitarian version of Christianity championed by Emerson. In his recommendations, Newton offered the nineteen-year old poet-in-the-making a view of human dignity and sovereignty of self more elevating than her family’s Congregationalism with its dour Calvinist teachings about innate depravity and a wrathful God. The first person to encourage Dickinson’s poetic sensibility, Newton opened a new world of spirituality and reading to her, and his gift of Emerson’s poetry had a lasting effect. He marked several poems for her special perusal, which we will discuss in the Poems section.

Dickinson mentioned Thoreau twice in her letters (L320 and L961) but with a familiarity that bespoke a deep engagement. For example, in August 1866, she wrote to Sue, who was vacationing at the seashore, and asked:

Was the Sea cordial? Kiss him for Thoreau –.

Thomas Johnson speculates that Dickinson and Sue might have been reading Thoreau’s Cape Cod, which appeared in 1865. The Dickinson family library contained two copies of Walden (1862), A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1862) inscribed with “E. Dickinson” and Letters to Various Persons (1865).

Scholars have long noted their shared engagement in nature and what the 19th century called natural history. More recently, investigations into the period’s debates over the nature of life have turned up a mutual interest in what Branka Arsic identifies as “vitalist materialism,” more traditionally known as “pantheism,” the belief that all matter in the world is imbued with life, often described as the “spirit” or “breath” of God or the divine. The 17th century Jewish-Dutch philosopher, Baruch Spinoza, was a proponent of pantheism as was Samuel Taylor Coleridge, an English Romantic. Arsic  finds that “Harvard [University] was a center of vitalistic progressive philosophies at least as of 1824” and into the 1840s, and that these scientists would have influenced Thoreau’s belief in the “substantial coincidence of the divine and material.”

Similarly, in illustrating what she sees as Dickinson’s belief in the feelings of plants, Mary Kuhn explores the period’s “debate over plant sentience” and finds a similar academic grounding for these ideas, quoting Thoreau’s musing that

the mystery of the life of plants is kindred with that of our own lives.

A link between these two findings is William Smellie’s The Philosophy of Natural History, updated by John Ware to include the new ideas of vitalism. This was the textbook Thoreau used in his studies of natural history, a copy of which remained in his library. It was also on the list of textbooks Jack Capps provides for courses at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary the year Dickinson attended. For both these writers, a belief in vitalism and in plant sentience had important ethical, political and ecological implications. In unseating the human as exceptional and blurring the line between natural objects and perceiving subjects, these beliefs lead to a more radically democratic notion of the material world and our (non-exceptionalist) place in it.

Another source of Emerson’s and Thoreau’s influence on Dickinson is in the writing of Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Richard Sewall notes that in times of disappointment in his life, Higginson would retreat into nature. In 1848, he was dismissed by his liberal Unitarian congregation in Newburyport, MA, for his radical views, which included visits from the radical abolitionist John Brown, the abolitionist minister Theodore Parker, the fugitive slave William Wells Brown, and a lecture he organized at the Newburyport Lyceum despite the objection of the majority of the board, by Emerson.

In 1850, Higginson visited Thoreau and found his simplified way of life congenial and healing. Similarly, after the failure of John Brown’s raid in Fall 1859, Higginson retreated to his natural haunts and wrote extensively in his journals. Before Dickinson contacted him in April 1862, Higginson published four nature studies in the Atlantic Monthly, written, according to Sewall, “in the shadow of Thoreau and Emerson,” which Dickinson “probably read” before she contacted him. Despite his “dilution of these masters,” Higginson modeled for Dickinson a close and deeply informed observation of nature and its seasonal changes, precise botanical knowledge, and an apprehension of the power and mystery of the natural world.

Emerson’s biographical sketch of Thoreau in the Atlantic Monthly would have also affected Dickinson. In a discussion of Emerson’s “anti-mentoring” of Thoreau and Dickinson, Lawrence Buell charts the changing effect of the 1862 sketch:

In the short run, the essay contributed to the bracketing of Thoreau as a minor figure, the quirky sidekick, and later, “the bachelor of thought and nature.” … Not long after, though, it started to become common practice to rescue Thoreau from Emerson’s clutches and chastise the memoir’s patronizing parts,

such as the passage quoted in the History section that rebukes Thoreau for his lack of “ambition.”

What might have appealed to Dickinson is Emerson’s account of Thoreau’s dismissal of the bustling world and professional concerns in order to wrestle

with graver questions … He interrogated every custom … and few lives contain so many renunciations.

She would have resonated with “his fancy for referring everything to the meridian of Concord,” just as she thought Amherst was heaven on earth. Also, that “His interest in the flower or the bird lay deep in his mind” and that “he had the source of poetry in his spiritual perception.” Emerson spends several paragraphs on Thoreau’s poetry and one can see Dickinson alighting on this passage:

He knew the worth of the Imagination for the uplifting and consolation of human life, and he liked to throw every thought into a symbol. The fact you tell is of no value, but only the impression. For this reason his presence was poetic, always piqued the curiosity to know more deeply the secrets of his mind. He had many reserves, an unwillingness to exhibit to profane eyes what was still sacred in his own, and knew well how to throw a poetic veil over his experience.

Buell ultimately sees a “mutuality” in this mentoring relationship, in which Thoreau’s “uncompromising integrity” becomes in Emerson 's view “both a personal aspiration and a personal lack.” Buell ends his discussion by considering Dickinson as a figure “often claimed to have been” an Emerson mentee, though mostly through Higginson, “her personal ‘preceptor’-designate,” who was himself a “derivative” of Emerson and Thoreau. Though Buell mischaracterizes Dickinson as “timid” and needing “the sanction of authority Emerson and Thoreau never did,” (perhaps because they were males in a male-dominated society?), he concludes:

Dickinson is the prototype of the brilliant mentee who figures out how to make the best of a much less perceptive mentor.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum


Marianne Noble

“Vital Materialism” is a wonderful term. This notion of a connection with nature that does not involve looking past the material world to the spirit that is its (supposedly) true nature represents an inspiring attitude towards the natural environment. It finds spirituality in aliveness itself. I appreciate the insight that this approach characterizes both Dickinson and Thoreau.

This blog post got me to wondering about which Thoreau works Dickinson might have encountered before reading Emerson’s obituary (all of the works mentioned in the blog date from 1862 or later). It is quite likely that she read Thoreau’s “Chesuncook” in the Atlantic Monthly of June 1858. I looked this essay up, and was astonished by the way the opening sounds like a hymn to vital materialism:

Strange that so few ever come to the woods to see how the pine lives and grows and spires, lifting its evergreen arms to the light,—to see its perfect success; but most are content to behold it in the shape of many broad boards brought to market, and deem that its true success. But the pine is no more lumber than man is, and to be made into boards and houses is no more its true and highest use than the truest use of a man is to be cut down and made into manure. There is a higher law affecting our relation to pines as well as to men. A pine cut down, a dead pine, is no more a pine than a dead human carcass is a man. . . . Every creature is better alive than dead, men and moose and pine-trees, and he who understands it aright will rather preserve its life than destroy it.

In the second paragraph, Thoreau stresses that the one who best understands the pine tree is the poet, “who knows whether its heart is false without cutting into it.” The poet loves the pines “as his own shadow in the air, and lets them stand:”

when at length I saw the tops of the pines waving and reflecting the light at a distance high over all the rest of the forest, I realized that [industrial uses] were not the highest use of the pine. It is not their bones or hide or tallow that I love most. It is the living spirit of the tree, not its spirit of turpentine, with which I sympathize, and which heals my cuts. It is as immortal as I am, and perchance will go to as high a heaven, there to tower above me still.*

When Thoreau says he sympathizes with the living spirit of the tree, feeling connections of kinship and similarity, he is stressing the spiritual continuity of living things. His sympathy heals his cuts, which themselves seem to resemble the cuts inflicted on felled trees. Thoreau is every bit as wounded by a utilitarian approach to things as the trees are, and when he focuses on his kinship with the pine trees rather than his dominion over them, he discovers that he heals those ruptures in his soul.

In claiming that the pine trees are “as immortal as I am,” Thoreau claims a different notion of immortality from that of the conventional Christian imaginary. It is not quite clear what it is, though it suggests an immortality of the unified cosmos, the spirit-infused material world, rather than a separate world where human souls resume their worldly conditions. To feel the immortality of the pines is to feel the immortality of the spirit-infused material world that lives, changes, and grows.

Thoreau’s notion of knowing “whether” something’s “heart is false without cutting into it” sounds a lot like Dickinson’s poem “Split the Lark” (F905A, J861). In this poem, a skeptic wants to know if his bird is true and proposes to “split the lark.” The speaker seems to say, “Go ahead—the music is inside, like flower bulbs rolled in silver.” And yet, the speaker does not really endorse this splitting approach to understanding. As the poem develops, she criticizes this penetrative approach as a “scarlet experiment” that will kill the lark. She echoes Thoreau’s conviction that a “pine cut down” is not a pine, just as a human carcass is not a man, just as a dead lark is not a lark. A lark, like a pine tree, is a living thing, and its beauty is not a spiritual essence haunting a material carcass; it is an unleashing of vitality into the world. It is an intersubjective and networked spiritual quality. Living things must be understood as living things, not as potential industrial products.

Vital materialism strikes me as a timely concept in our Anthropocenic days. If we try to lean into the ways that we are one with the natural world, we might find ourselves moved to heal the wounds we have inflicted upon the world. And in doing so, Dickinson and Thoreau suggest, we might heal the wounds that the world has inflicted upon ourselves.

*According to Thoreau Historical Society, “Henry David Thoreau’s ‘Chesuncook,’ the second essay of The Maine Woods, is well known for the controversy resulting from Atlantic Monthly editor James Russell Lowell’s decision to remove a now famous sentence referring to a pine tree.” That excision is the last sentence of this quotation, which makes the case for vital materialism – and more. See: See Joseph J. Moldenhauer, “Chesuncook: Textual Notes,” in The Maine Woods, by Henry David Thoreau (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972), 435. 

Bio: Marianne Noble is Associate Professor of English at American University. Her teaching and research interests include American literature, culture studies, and gender studies, with a particular emphasis on the construction of sexuality in nineteenth-century American women's literature. She is the author of The Masochistic Pleasures of Sentimental Literature (Princeton UP 2000), which won a Choice Outstanding Book Award. She has recently published articles on gothic and sentimental literature and is currently working on a book entitled Sympathy and the Quest for Genuine Human Contact in American Romanticism.


Capps, Jack L. Emily Dickinson’s Reading: 1836-1886. Cambridge: Harvard University, 1966, 113.

Kang, Yanbin. “Dickinson’s Allusions to Thoreau’s East.” ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes and Reviews. 29:2, 92-97, 92.

Atlantic Monthly, August 1862

Hampshire Gazette, August 19, 1862

Harper’s Monthly, August 1862

Springfield Republican, August 16, 1862

Arsic, Branka. Bird Relics: Grief and Vitalism in Thoreau. Cambridge: Harvard University, 2016, 124-25, 134.

Buell, Lawrence. “Emersonian Anti-Mentoring: From Thoreau to
Dickinson and Beyond.” Michigan Quarterly Review 41:3 (2002 Summer), 347-60.

Capps, Jack L. Emily Dickinson’s Reading: 1836-1886. Cambridge: Harvard University, 196, 189-90.

Dickinson, Emily. The Letters of Emily Dickinson. Eds. Thomas Johnson and Theodora Ward. 3 vols. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958, 455.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Thoreau.” Atlantic Monthly 10, 58, August, 1862.

Kuhn, Mary. “Dickinson and the Politics of Plant Sensibility.” ELH 85,  1, (Spring 2018): 141-170, 156.

Leyda, Jay. The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960, 1: 351-52.

Sewall, Richard. The Life of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980, 115 note 15; 468, 546-47, 568 (includes Susan Dickinson's
“Annals of the Evergreens.”).

Thoreau, Henry David. Wild Fruits: Thoreau’s Rediscovered Last Manuscript. Ed. Bradley P. Dean. New York: Norton, 2001, 242.

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