October 1-7, 1862: Sixth Letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Antietam

This week our post takes as its point of departure Dickinson’s 6th and final letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson written in 1862, as he is preparing to lead men into battle. It is also the week when the media started extensive coverage of the Battle of Antietam, also called the Battle of Sharpsburg, which occurred on September 17, 1862. It was a decisive and deadly day that would achieve the dubious distinction of being the bloodiest battle in US history, and also the first to be photographed. This new technology brought the consequences of war into the homes of noncombatants and would change war journalism forever.

Overview
This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Sarah Khatry
Sources

This week our post takes as its point of departure Dickinson’s 6th and final letter (L274) to Thomas Wentworth Higginson written in 1862; they continue to correspond until the very end of Dickinson’s life. At this time, Higginson was busy recruiting and training troops from Massachusetts for the War, but in November would accept an extraordinary commission: command of the First South Carolina regiment composed of freed slaves. Even though Dickinson’s letter indicates a lull in their correspondence, which began in April 1862, her exchanges with Higginson will prove to be crucial in Dickinson’s life.

This week in 1862 saw the first extensive coverage of the Battle of Antietam, also called the Battle of Sharpsburg, which occurred on September 17, 1862. It was a decisive and deadly battle that would achieve the dubious distinction of being the bloodiest battle in US history. It also had the distinction of being one of the first battles to be extensively recorded by an emerging technology that would change the face of war journalism forever: photography. Matthew Brady sent two photographers to the battlefield who captured the battle’s horrifying aftermath. These images, as photographs and illustrations, circulated widely and contributed to a new, appalling recognition – reflected in the poetry of Emily Dickinson – of just how costly this fratricidal war was. For this post, we draw on work by Sarah Khatry, Dartmouth ’17, from an assignment she did for Ivy’s Dickinson seminar in Winter 2017.

"The Dead of Antietam"

Springfield Republican, October 4, 1862

Progress of the War, page 1
“Another week of rest and preparation. There have been only preliminary reconnaissances towards the enemy either in Virginia or in Kentucky. But it is now evident that the enemy is checkmated and has reached the limit of his aggressive movements, and that is a great deal, when we look back a single month and see where we were then and what were our fears and forebodings.”

Books, Authors and Art, page 3

Frederick II, King of Prussia (1712-1786)
Frederick II, King of Prussia (1712-1786)

“A great rarity in the shape of coins has lately been sold at Paris—namely, a silver one struck off at Breslau in 1751. Among the persons employed at the time in the mint was an Austrian, who, out of hatred to Frederick II of Prussia [link], conceived the idea of revenging himself on that monarch in the following manner:—The motto on the coin, ‘Ein reichs thaler’ (a crown of the kingdom), he divided in such a manner as to make it read, ‘Ein reich stahler’ (he stole a kingdom). The king ordered those insulting coins to be melted down, but some few of them still exist.”

English Beauty, page 6
“I have heard a good deal of the tenacity with which English ladies retain their personal beauty to a late period of life; but (not to suggest that an American eye needs use and cultivation before it can quite appreciate the charm of an English beauty at any age) it strikes me that an English lady of fifty is apt to become a creature less refined and delicate, so far as her physique goes, than anything that we western people class under the name of woman. Yet, somewhere in this bulk must be hidden the modest, slender, violet-nature of a girl, whom an alien mass of earthliness has unkindly overgrown.”

Hampshire Gazette, October 7, 1862

Position of McClellan’s Army, page 1
“Gen. McClellan still had his headquarters near Sharpsburg yesterday, when Gen. Sumner occupied Boliver Heights. It is evident to us that there will be a movement on Gen. McClellan’s part as soon as his army is properly supplied by the quartermaster’s department. Our troops are in the best possible spirits, and eager again to get at the rebels, who must be suffering dreadful torments.”

Getting Rich, page 1
“Men are never richer on their millions than on their thousands or hundreds—they are never satisfied, whatever they have; they are never blessed, but always to be blessed. We start out in the world without a cent, and think, while we toil for a mere pittance, that if we had a house over our heads we could call our own, we should be independent and contented; then we want five or ten thousand dollars; and by the time that has accumulated, the expenses of living have pressed upward so fast that we must double it to keep clear of absolute want.”

Harper’s Monthly Illustrated Magazine, October 4, 1862

[from a full description of each stage of the battle of Antietam/Sharpsburg, with illustrations.]"The battle began with the dawn. Morning found both armies just as they had slept, almost close enough to look into each other’s eyes… A battery was almost immediately pushed forward beyond the central woods, over a plowed field, near the top of the slope where the corn-field began. On this open field, in the corn beyond, and in the woods, which stretched forward into the broad fields like a promontory into the ocean, were the hardest and deadliest struggles of the day… But out of those gloomy woods came suddenly and heavily terrible volleys—volleys which smote, and bent, and broke in a moment that eager front, and hurled them swiftly back for half the distance they had won. Not swiftly, nor in panic, any further. Closing up their shattered lines, they came slowly away—a regiment where a brigade had been, hardly a brigade where a whole division had been, victorious. They had met from the woods the first volleys of musketry from fresh troops—had met them and returned them till their line had yielded and gone down before the weight of fire, and till their ammunition was exhausted…The field and its ghastly harvest which the reaper had gathered in those fatal hours remained finally with us. Four times it had been lost and won. The dead are strewn so thickly that as you ride over it you can not guide your horse’s steps too carefully. Pale and bloody faces are every where upturned. They are sad and terrible, but there is nothing which makes one’s heart beat so quickly as the imploring look of sorely wounded men who beckon wearily for help which you can not stay to give."

“You Saved my Life”

Dickinson’s plaintive letter to Higginson this week (L274) indicates her increasing dependence on their epistolary relationship and her ostensible desire to “please” him. In fact, Dickinson usually argued with and ultimately ignored Higginson's advice on her writing. But as a figure in and of the world of letters and actions, he provided an important and invaluable contact. In a letter from June 1869, she confessed to him:

Of our greatest acts we are ignorant –
You were not aware that you saved my Life. (L330)

Still, it is no wonder that Higginson did not have time to write to Dickinson in the Fall of 1862. She last wrote to him in response to his letter sometime in August. By October 6th, she had not gotten a response from him and penned her plaintive inquiry. According to historian Ethan Kytle, during the fall, Higginson

was recruiting and then training boys from his adopted hometown of Worcester, Mass., to serve in the [Massachusetts] 51st. . . After declining an officer’s commission in the early months of the Civil War, the 38-year-old Transcendentalist minister had decided that if “antislavery men” expected to influence the conduct and settlement of the conflict, then they “must take part in it.

He thus accepted a commission as a captain and wrote in a letter of this company that he “already loved [them] like my own children.”

In a month, though, Higginson would be offered the command of the 1st Regiment of South Carolina Volunteers, which was comprised of freed slaves. According to Sage Stossel,

The preliminary Emancipation Proclamation announced by President Lincoln in September 1862 allowed the Union army to recruit blacks. … [Higginson] kept a diary of the experience, which was later excerpted in The Atlantic as “Leaves From an Officer’s Journal” (1864) and subsequently released as a book, Army Life in a Black Regiment.

Meanwhile, newspapers and journals began their detailed coverage of the horrific battle of Antietam. Because of the rather long news cycle (certainly longer than ours), this coverage would continue well into December. As Sarah Khatry notes: “The farther from the event itself, the closer and more detailed the coverage became.” In her exploration of this event in Dickinson’s life, Sarah focused

not so much on the immediate events of the Civil War during that week, but on their transmission and how Emily Dickinson would have encountered them … Through image–photograph and illustration–through prose–news, letters, narratives–and through personal connection.

From the coverage in Harper’s, we can infer that illustrations often based on the new technology of photography, played a large role.

In fact, two days after the battle, Matthew Brady send Alexander Gardner and James Gibson to Maryland to photograph the aftermath of the bloodiest battle in US history. A month later, Brady set up an exhibit of almost 100 pictures in his gallery on Broadway in New York City called, simply, “The Dead of Antietam.” The photographs were so sharp, viewers could make out faces, and so unfiltered as to bring the effects of the war, before remote and abstract, into unmistakable focus for the first time. Some of the illustrations Dickinson might have seen in Harper’s were based on Brady’s gut-wrenching photographs.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum

 

Reflection: "Trauma and the Image"

Sarah Khatry

Sarah KhatryThe real-time scholarly project of White Heat invites not only engagement with the week-by-week experience of Emily Dickinson’s life in 1862, but juxtaposition with our own. This past week seems an appropriate one to reflect upon the real and traumatic individual impact of nationwide events, even those transmitted to us only through image.

The modes and means of transmission have changed. As this week’s poems demonstrate, Dickinson experienced the Civil War and particularly Antietam through personal impact on her family and community, the vivid magazine and newspaper reporting of the day, and also the then-developing technology of photography.

It was not Death, for I stood up,
And all the Dead, lie down -
It was not Night, for all the Bells
Put out their Tongues, for Noon.

It was not Frost, for on my Flesh
I felt Siroccos – crawl -
Nor Fire – for just my marble feet
Could keep a Chancel, cool -

And yet, it tasted, like them all,
The Figures I have seen
Set orderly, for Burial
Reminded me, of mine -

As if my life were shaven,
And fitted to a frame,
And could not breathe without a key,
And ’twas like Midnight, some -

When everything that ticked – has stopped -
And space stares – all around -
Or Grisly frosts – first Autumn morns,
Repeal the Beating Ground -

But most, like Chaos – Stopless – cool -
Without a Chance, or spar -
Or even a Report of Land -
To justify – Despair.
(F 355)

In “Death’s Surprise, Stamped Visible,” Eliza Richards draws upon the poem above, finding in the third stanza a rather direct description of a famous photograph by Andrew Gardner and James Gibson of the bodies after the Battle of Antietam: “The Figures I have seen / Set orderly, for Burial”.

I will attempt to take this reading further, and argue an even stronger correlation. In the first two stanzas, Dickinson establishes a multi-fold disconnect between the experience the poem describes and the speaker’s subjectivity. “It was not Death” because the speaker is on her feet, not dead, and whatever it is she contemplates is not death itself, but something like it. That object or experience is also at a remove in time for her, for she hears the bells tolling noon, but she must remind herself it is not night. The sensory experience being conveyed, as described in the second stanza, is similarly disassociated from the speaker—

And yet, it tasted, like them all” (l. 5)

These first two stanzas could describe the experience of standing before a photograph, one of such power and visceral empathy that the speaker has to repeatedly emphasize to herself that she is not there. She is not one of “The Figures… Set orderly, for Burial.” It is not her life “shaven, / and fitted to a frame” but the lives she considers, quite possibly those belonging to the dead of Antietam.

In the word “Autumn” (l. 19), Richards argues phonetic similarity with Antietam, driven home by Dickinson’s poem below, evocative of the massacre and excess of a battlefield:

The name — of it — is “Autumn” —
The hue — of it — is Blood —
An Artery — upon the Hill —
A Vein — along the Road —

Great Globules — in the Alleys —
And Oh, the Shower of Stain —
When Winds — upset the Basin —
And spill the Scarlet Rain —

It sprinkles Bonnets — far below —
It gathers ruddy Pools —
Then — eddies like a Rose — away —
Upon Vermilion Wheels —
(F 465)

No New England fall, I believe, clamors for such blood-filled celebration. But Antietam was in mid-September, the advent of autumn, and its traumatic bloodshed, spilling as if from an “Artery — upon the Hill,” traveled up the Veins, the roads, of the nation, spilled into alleyways and sprinkled Bonnets far from the battlefield.

The speaker in “It was not Death” feels, by the final line, despair. The figures set for burial are frozen equally by death and by the photographic medium. They are “Without a Chance, or spar – / or even a Report” (ll. 22-23), paralyzed and mute, unable to give voice or justification to the despair of the speaker.

It can feel almost without justification to despair over the trauma of a distant stranger. But in moments of national crisis and discord, the trauma comes home to the individual, if not in the form of a direct parallel experience, but in the mirror of empathy. We have seen that in recent events. During the day of testimony by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford last week, the RAINN sexual assault hotline saw a 147% increase in calls, according to Abigail Abrams.

Far different events, more immediate modes of transmission, new lines of division… but still we and Emily Dickinson’s speaker must remind ourselves it was not me, and reconcile the reality of what did transpire, and to whom, and what it means.

Sources
Abrams, Abigail. “National Sexual Assault Hotline Spiked 147% During Ford Hearing.” Time,= 27 Sept. 2018.

Richards, Eliza. ""Death's Surprise, Stamped Visible": Emily Dickinson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Civil War Photography." Amerikastudien 54.1 (2009): 13-33, 27.

Bio: Sarah Khatry received a BA in physics and English from Dartmouth College in 2017. Her novella Ritual won the Sidney Cox Memorial Prize in 2015. Her nonfiction appears in 40 Towns, the Dartmouth, and elsewhere.

Sources:

 

 

 

History
Hampshire Gazette, October 7, 1862

 

Harper's Monthly, October, 1862

 

Springfield Republican, October 4, 1862

 

Biography

Khatry, Sarah. “December 7-14: A Nation Infused by Trauma.” Assignment for Eng 62. Dartmouth College. Winter 2017.

Kytle, Ethan J. “Captain Higginson Takes Command.The Opinionator: A Gathering of Opinion from Around the Web. November 16, 2012

Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. “Leaves from an Officer’s Journal.” Introduced by Sage Stossel. Atlantic Monthly 1864.

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September 10-16, 1862: Higginson’s “The Life of Birds”

This week in 1862, Dickinson most likely read Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s essay, “The Life of Birds,” in the September edition of the Atlantic Monthly. To help us explore Higginson’s essay and its influence on Dickinson’s many poems about birds, we are so pleased to welcome Christine Gerhardt author of A Place for Humility: Whitman, Dickinson, and the Natural World (2014) as guest blogger this week.

Overview
This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Christine Gerhardt
Sources

This week in 1862, Dickinson most likely read Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s essay, “The Life of Birds,” in the September edition of the Atlantic Monthly. It is one of the many essays he published in the Atlantic later collected in a volume in called Out-door Papers (1863) and was inspired in part by his admiration for Thoreau.

According to Christine Gerhardt, author of A Place for Humility: Whitman, Dickinson, and the Natural World (2014):

Birds were a major preoccupation of Dickinson’s throughout her life, and they mattered to her both as potent metaphors and as actual, living creatures.

Birds Dickinson mentions by name are: bluebird, blue jay, bobolink, crow, hummingbird, lark, oriole, owl, phoebe, robin, sparrow, woodpecker and wren. To help us explore Higginson’s essay and its influence on Dickinson’s many poems about birds, we are fortunate this week to have Christine Gerhardt as a guest blogger !

Her book, A Place for Humility, is a revelation. Not just because it finds surprising and substantial links between the two major poets of the 19th century who are more often set in opposition, but on account of the exquisite and often surprising treatment of their nature poetry as poetry about real nature. We are so accustomed to reading Whitman and especially Dickinson as poets of self and consciousness using the world as metaphor that we sometimes forget they were also keen observers of the nature around them. Christine shows why this is important. She reads their work in the context of the emerging science of ecology and environmental sensibility of the second half of the 19th century, and the result is a model of eco-criticism that also highlights the growing, pressing concerns we face today in a world of headlong and devastating climate change.

“Birds are the Poor Man’s Music”

Springfield Republican, September 13, 1862

Progress of the War, page 1
“The rebel armies still march on. There is no longer any doubt of their intentions. They have adopted the offensive policy, and are marching straight for the free states, hoping to do such damage and create such a panic before our new levies are brought into the field as shall bring us to their feet to accept peace on their terms. They have left their coast defenseless and have massed all their available force in Virginia and Tennessee, where they are moving northward and westward.”

Wit and Wisdom, page 6
“Birds are the poor man’s music, flowers the poor man’s poetry; and the rich man has no better.”

A Mad Poetess, page 7
“In that part of the Washington asylum which is still devoted to its insane patients, Dr. Nicholas showed me a sight which was particularly touching to me. Cross-legged upon the round table in the centre of the room was seated a woman, perhaps thirty years of age, who had the remains of remarkable beauty. Her long, gray hair was disheveled, and of her dress and appearance she evidently had not a thought; but, open upon her lap was a volume from which she was pretending to read aloud, making an unintelligible and incoherent gabble. By her side lay a volume of a novel of her own writing, with her own likeness as a frontispiece, and she had gone crazy as an authoress. But what a pity is such an apparently unnecessary wreck of a lifetime of a beautiful girl, for I am told that her recovery is hopeless. Alas for the head that is to go wild with over-endowing!”

Poetry, page 6

Hampshire Gazette, September 16, 1862

"Sketch of Troops Marching" in Middleton, MD, c. Sept 14 1862. Alfred R. Waud (1828-1891). Library of Congress

Glorious Victory!!: The Enemy Fleeing in Panic, page 2
“A very severe engagement took place on Sunday last, between our forces under Gen. McClellan and the rebels under Gen. Lee. The rebels were overtaken by our troops 3 miles northwest of Middleton. Gen. Lee was wounded, and Gen. Garland was killed. Our troops pursued the enemy as fast as possible. Gen. Hooker captured a thousand prisoners, and Gen. Lee, it is said, places his own loss at 15,000, and is represented to have said that he was shockingly whipped.”

Atlantic Monthly, September 1862

The Life of Birdsby Thomas Higginson, page 368
“When one thinks of a bird, one fancies a soft, swift, aimless, joyous thing, full of nervous energy and arrowy motions—a song with wings. So remote from ours their mode of existence, they seem accidental exiles from an unknown globe, banished where none can understand their language; and men only stare at their darting, inexplicable ways, as at the gyrations of the circus. Watch their little traits for hours, and it only tantalizes curiosity. Every man’s secret is penetrable, if his neighbor be sharp-sighted. But this bird that hovers and alights beside me, peers up at me, takes its food, then looks again, attitudinizing, jerking, flirting its tail, with a thousand inquisitive and fantastic motions—although I have the power to grasp it in my hand and crush its life out, yet I cannot gain its secret thus, and the centre of its consciousness is really farther from mine than the remotest planetary orbit.”

“Small, like the Wren”

                                                                   by Christine Gerhardt

Birds were a major preoccupation of Dickinson’s throughout her life, and they mattered to her both as potent metaphors and as actual, living creatures. In many of her letters, she identified with birds intensely, engaging some of her culture’s more conventional views of birds while also reshaping these views in provocative ways.

Consider, for instance, her famous epistolary self-portrait, sent to Higginson in the summer of 1862, close to the cultural moment that this week’s blog focuses on:

I […] am small, like the Wren; and my hair is bold, like the Chestnut Bur; and my eyes, like the Sherry in the Glass, that the Guest leaves. (L268)

This snapshot echoes culturally condoned claims of female modesty, yet it also links being small to a transgressive sense of natural-cultural boldness. Just days later, she wrote to her friends the Hollands :

My business is to love. I found a bird, this morning down – down – on a little bush at the foot of the garden, and wherefore sing, I said, since nobody hears? One sob in the throat, one flutter of bosom—‘My business is to sing’ – and away she rose! (L269)

Here, the common association between birds and delicate, humble song begins to suggest a somewhat precarious relationship to Dickinson’s own audience, and a necessary, albeit melancholy sense of artistic independence. And when she wrote to her young cousins,

I think the bluebirds do their work exactly like me. They dart around just so, with little dodging feet, and look so agitated. I really feel for them, they seem to be so tired (L339),

she merged a Victorian woman’s practiced compassion for the small with a subdued sense of crisis regarding women’s work, and, maybe, even with concern over the fate of birds in the increasingly cultivated landscapes of New England, undercutting her time’s widespread notions of birds’ cuteness and childlike innocence.

Thus, the numerous birds in Dickinson’s letters and poems form a nodal point of her deep connection with the world around her, from which she drew inspiration and to which she responded so intensely. Orioles and phoebes, hummingbirds and jays were among the many non-human creatures she frequently encountered during her explorations of Amherst’s fields and forests as a girl and young adult, and even when her outward life became more and more secluded, she kept meeting birds in the extensive family gardens.

Birds were also part of Dickinson’s life through various environmental discourses that intensified in the mid-nineteenth century, also and especially in her native New England. For one, the newly specialized natural sciences not only included astronomy, botany, chemistry, and geology, which Dickinson studied at Amherst Academy and Mount Holyoke, but also the somewhat younger discipline of ornithology, which her textbooks discussed under the more general rubrics of Natural Philosophy and Natural History. (More indirectly, birds were also discussed in her immediate vicinity when renowned geologist and natural theologian Edward Hitchcock of Amherst College discovered thousands of fossil dinosaur footprints in the Connecticut valley, insisting they stem from flightless birds.)

"Red-tailed Hawk" from Birds of New England and Adjacent States by Edward Augustus Samuel, 1875

Second, Dickinson kept herself informed about the latest developments in natural history, including the emerging field of ornithology, through her avid readings of the Springfield Republican, Harper’s New Monthly, Scribner’s Monthly, and, especially, the Atlantic Monthly. These newspapers and periodicals carried not only reviews of Alexander von Humboldt’s Cosmos (1845-1862), with its massive notes on diverse bird populations of South America, and of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859), which was inspired by his discovery of the Galapagos finches, but also of Edward A. Samuels' Ornithology and Oölogy of New England (1867) and the popular field guide The Birds of New England (1869).

And third, Dickinson was deeply familiar with the time’s popular genre of natural history essays, dozens, if not hundreds of which focused on birds – from Wilson Flagg’s “Birds of the Night” (1859) to Olive Thorne Miller’s “A Tricksy Spirit” (1885). Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s “Life of Birds” (1862), which this week’s post focuses on, was among its most influential examples, and Dickinson probably read it in the September issue of the 1862 Atlantic Monthly and owned it in book form, as part of Higginson’s Out-Door Papers (1863).

These seemingly innocent, largely descriptive bird essays are noteworthy for their combination of detailed description, moral instruction, and spiritual reflections, and also for their early conservationist arguments – years before the American Ornithologists’ Union (founded in 1883) and the National Audubon Society (1886) emphasized the need to protect various bird species from the threat of extinction through hunters, farmers, and the millinery trade.                                                     

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum

 

Reflection

Christine Gerhardt

New England Robin
New England Robin

It’s a fascinating exercise to go back and forth between Higginson’s essay and the bird poems Dickinson wrote around the same time. Dickinson knew the essay well, and critics have pointed out that she saw Higginson’s nature essays as a “firm bond between them” (Habegger 453). If her poems can be read as answers to his question about what literature could do “towards describing one summer day” (Habegger 453), these answers are much more unruly than they seem, especially regarding the earth’s smallest life forms.

More generally, the dialog between Higginson’s essays and Dickinson’s poems reveals noteworthy similarities in their proto-ecological attention to natural detail and the dynamic relationships between species and their environments, as well as a shared eco-ethical humility. It also highlights how boldly Dickinson’s poetic snapshots pushed beyond his learned, sentimental, moralistic prose, mediating between exultant gestures of identification and the recognition of nature’s difference without resolving the tension, and embracing scientific nomenclature and conventions without assuming interpretive control, even at moments of highest achievement.

Higginson’s bird essay accentuates a related but different quality of Dickinson’s ecopoetics, which has to do with their shared interest in birds’ large-scale, unsettling movement. I don’t mean their fluttering about, or their sheer ability to fly – of course birds are mobile – but movement of a different order. Higginson begins by stating that

so remote from ours their mode of existence, they seem accidental exiles from an unknown globe, banished where none can understand their language,

viewing birds’ global, even cosmic motions as key to their life and tantalizing elusiveness. Just as remarkably, he casts New England as a hub of such wide-ranging movements:

[Migration] is, of course, a universal instinct, since even tropical birds migrate for short distances from the equator, so essential to their existence do these wanderings seem. But in New England, among birds as among men, the roving habit seems unusually strong, and abodes are shifted very rapidly.

Yet in spite of his focus on birds’ migrations, and the recognition that one cannot “know” a single hummingbird (an “exiled pigmy prince, banished, but still regal”) or swallow (“the strange emigrant from the far West”), his text is driven by the impulse to grasp these “images of airy motion.”

Hummingbird
Hummingbird

Ultimately, he imaginatively contains all of his birds through detailed descriptions, “translations” of their song, and allusions to their good habits, monogamy, and parental instincts, claiming that “[a]mong all created things, the birds come nearest to man in their domesticity.”

Dickinson’s bird poems turn this tension between birds’ mobility and their apparent domesticity on its head, most memorably, perhaps, in “A Bird came down the Walk – .” Initially, this genteel robin leisurely strolls through a garden, yields the right of way, and drinks delicately. Yet its final flight undoes all of this scene’s assumptions. In the speaker’s New England garden, this robin is increasingly out of place: “frightened” and nervous from the third stanza on, its flight, for all its ephemeral softness, marks an escape into an unbounded realm where it is actually at “home.” As the speaker’s attempt to care for and feed the robin fails, so does the poem’s effort to symbolically domesticate it: here, tame birds are not to be had, and even sharing a place with them is fraught with tensions.

Less directly, this inter-species encounter gone wrong also renders the garden and its boundaries fluid. Commonly idealized as delimited space where cultivation recreates heaven on earth, this garden is crossed by birds and other animals who will forever re-wild it. As such, this bird’s final flight also undermines humankind’s larger efforts to domesticate all that seems “too wild” in this world. In this, we can imagine Dickinson talking back to her naturalist friend Higginson, who would later remember his meeting with her by posing as an ornithologist yielding (at least some of) his systems of control:

I could only sit still and watch, as one does in the woods; I must name my bird without a gun.

Sources:
Habegger, Alfred. My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson. New York: Random House, 2001.

bio: Christine Gerhardt is Professor of American Studies at the University of Bamberg, Germany. She is the author of A Place for Humility: Whitman, Dickinson, and the Natural World (U of Iowa P, 2014) and Rituale des Scheiterns: Die Reconstruction-Periode im US-amerikanischen Roman (Winter Verlag, 2003). She is also the editor of The American Novel of the Nineteenth Century (2018) and one of the co-editors of Religion in the United States (2011). Her essays have appeared in Profession, ESQ, The Emily Dickinson Journal, The Mississippi Quarterly, and the Forum for Modern Language Studies.

Sources:

Overview
Gerhardt, Christine. A Place for Humility: Whitman, Dickinson, and the Natural World. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2014.

History
Atlantic Monthly, September 1862

Hampshire Gazette, September 16, 1862

Springfield Republican, September 13, 1862

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August 6-12, 1862: Fifth Letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Sometime in early August, 1862, Dickinson wrote her fifth letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson and enclosed two poems, “I cannot dance upon my toes” (F381A, J326) and “Before I got my Eye put out” (F336A, J327). This week, we will examine this letter, the two poems included in it and other poems that speak to the themes both letter and poems suggest as pertinent to this crucial developing friendship.

Overview
This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Jason Hoppe
Sources

Sometime in early August of 1862, Dickinson wrote her fifth letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson and enclosed two poems, “I cannot dance upon my toes” (F381A, J326) and “Before I got my Eye put out” (F336A, J327). It is a long letter covering themes such as self-governance, waywardness, “Orthography,” seclusion, her dog Carlo, fraud and literary imitation, and ends with an offer to share with Higginson one of the three portraits of Elizabeth Barrett Browning friends have sent Dickinson. Apparently, every self-respecting friend of Emily must have a portrait of this extraordinary writer, who died in June 1861 — or is this offer meant as a substitute for the portrait of Dickinson  that Higginson requested in his last letter, which she said she did not have?

T.Higginson with his daughter. Emily Dickinson Museum
T.Higginson with his daughter. Emily Dickinson Museum

In her letter, Dickinson repeats many of Higginson’s questions and comments, giving us a fuller sense of his interests in her and their correspondence. She replies with alluring but enigmatic answers. This week, we will examine this letter, the two poems included in it, and other poems that speak to the themes both letter and poems suggest as pertinent to this crucial, developing friendship.

“Pure Christianity Never Was, and Never Can Be, the National Religion of Any Country upon Earth”

Springfield Republican, August 9, 1862

Progress of the War, page 1
“The great event of the week is the call by the president for 300,000 militia from the states for nine months’ service. We have recovered from the failure of the second ‘forward-to-Richmond’ movement much quicker than the first, and the third movement is now in progress. The president has announced that Gen. Hallock has undivided control of the operations of the war.”

Do We Want Canada?, page 4
“Our British cousins evidently think we do. The revelations made in the latest debates in the British parliament as to the defense of Canada are curious and instructive. The idea that the United States’ desire to absorb the Canadas and other British American provinces, and will ultimately do so, manifestly accounts for much of the hostile feeling towards this country, and especially for the strong wish to see the Union broken under and our power thus crippled for generations to come.”

Stand by the Cause, page 4
“The day for petulant complainings and critical doubts is long gone by, and the hour come when every man should throw himself with complete sympathy and new enthusiasm into the spirit of every onward movement. Let us talk victory—think victory—dream victory—and it shall come.”

Poetry, page 6 [by Horatius Bonar]

Raeburn's portrait of Sir Walter Scott in 1822
Raeburn's portrait of Sir Walter Scott in 1822

Books, Authors and Art, page 7
“The seventh and eighth volumes of Lockhart’s Life of Walter Scott are books of personal history and charming literary gossip, being largely composed of extracts from the novelist’s diary and letters to eminent friends. Persons who have long had a satisfactory edition of the novels would find their value much enhanced by the comment furnished in these inviting volumes of the author’s life.”

Hampshire Gazette, August 12, 1862

Christianity, page 1
“Pure Christianity never was, and never can be, the national religion of any country upon earth. It is a gold too refined to be worked up with any human institution, without a large portion of alloy; for no sooner is this small grain of mustard seed watered with the fertile showers of civil emoluments, then it grows up a large spreading tree, under the shelter of whose branches and leaves the birds of prey and plunder will not fail to make themselves comfortable habitations, and thereby deface its beauty and spoil its fruits.”

page 2
The New York Times has got to be the sensation paper of the day.”

Amherst, page 3
“The Amherst recruits, with others from neighboring towns, left for camp at Pittsfield on Monday, in charge of Lieut. M. W. Tyler of Amherst.”

“Syllables of Velvet / Sentences of Plush”

Grave of Eudocia Flynt
Grave of Eudocia Flynt

August 1862 was a time of waiting for Dickinson. The excitement of the Amherst Commencement on July 10, and all the events, visitors and entertaining that entailed for the Dickinsons, was over. Dickinson gives evidence of enjoying the hoopla, writing to her cousin Eudocia Flynt from Monson sometime before July 21,

Dear Mrs Flint

You and I, did’nt finish talking. Have you room for the sequel, in your Vase?

All the letters I could
write,
Were not fair as this –
Syllables of Velvet –
Sentences of Plush –
Depths of Ruby, undrained –
Hid, Lip, for Thee,
Play it were a
Humming Bird
And sipped just
Me –

Emily. (L270)

She enclosed a flower with this lush letter-poem about her preference for talking face to face, which emerges as a theme in this week’s selections.

Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson
Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Then, in August, Dickinson wrote her long fifth letter to Higginson, who was busy at the time training raw recruits from his adopted hometown of Worcester, Massachusetts to serve in the 51st regiment. “My company is admitted to be the best drilled & disciplined in the regiment,” he announced with pride in a letter of November 9 from a camp outside the town, as he waited for instructions about the regiment’s deployment. Five days later, he received a letter from Brig. General Rufus Saxton, another Massachusetts man with ties to the Transcendentalist circles of which Higginson was a member, who was enlisting freed slaves as troops for the Union army and offered Higginson command of this new regiment. Higginson left for South Carolina within days to take up this mission.

Another letter Dickinson wrote at about the same time to Samuel Bowles, still traveling in Europe, expresses her longing to have her friend back:

Summer a’nt so long as it was, when we stood looking at it, before you went away, and when I finish August, we’ll hop the Autumn, very soon – and ’twill be Yourself. … I tell you, Mr Bowles, it is a Suffering, to have a sea – no care how Blue – between your Soul, and you. … It is easier to look behind at a pain, than to see it coming. A Soldier called – a Morning ago, and asked for a Nosegay, to take to Battle. I suppose he thought we kept an Aquarium.” (L272)

The last remark about the soldier has been cited as evidence of Dickinson’s aloofness, elitism, and distance from the Civil War and its ongoing death toll, and her remark about the aquarium, though opaque, does seem snarky. But in the context of a comment about the pain of separation, this comment can be read as a recognition of and sympathy with the Soldier’s approaching rupture from family and friends. Dickinson offers the Soldier as an example of someone who “see[s] the pain coming” by contrast with herself, who has already faced the pain of separation from Bowles, which is almost over, and is looking back at it as aftermath with some relief.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum

 

Reflection
Jason Hoppe

 

Jason HoppeSeveral observations and themes in this post resonate with me, though I’m not yet sure how or whether to connect them. The post puts together such a provocative tapestry, for instance, of Dickinson’s varied interests in “faces”—in her preference for face-to-face meetings over correspondence, in the faces she makes of mountains in the poem about waywardness mentioned (F745), and even in how she insists in her fifth letter to Higginson on taking him at the very “face value,” as the post puts it, that she makes it quite difficult for him to reciprocate (in part by declining to send him any self-portrait other than a metaphorical one, or one of Elizabeth Barrett Browning).

Maybe the first item that stood out to me in the post, though, has something to do with this too, albeit in a roundabout way: it was the brief newspaper poem, “Be True,” by Horatius Bonar.

I read it a couple times, increasingly bemused. Of course Bonar is writing in the same hymn meter that Dickinson drew from—and actually innovated. But how sententious and banal do Bonar’s lines read next to hers! I couldn’t help but wonder over how differently, how much more complexly, being “true” plays out in her early correspondence to Higginson. Bonar seems to take being “true” to be readily self-evident; thinking and living “truly” is rather a simple affair and, ultimately, the solution to global hunger. It’s a sentimental vision for which I think Dickinson would have little regard, though she might have delighted in parodying it.

When she first writes to Higginson, of course, Dickinson asks him to “tell me what is true” (L260). She counts herself among the “True” in her third letter to him (L265), and in her fourth verifies that he does “truly consent” to the relationship she establishes between them while also congratulating him for being “true” about an earlier judgment (L268). And she opens the fifth letter by thanking him, in advance, for the “Truth” of his judgment about her poems (L271). However, given their context, nothing about these moments of indexing what is “true” and "truthful"—which, for Dickinson, raise hard, intersecting questions about loyalty, accuracy, insight, and honesty—is simple or straightforward. But while there is coyness and uncertainty in these letters to Higginson, they also do not lack for sincerity. Dickinson is nothing if not ingenuous when playing with the truth. But she also evinces a more realistic understanding of the difficulty of getting at what is true, performing the same, and the consequences of such performances.

Take “I cannot dance upon my toes ”(F381A). As the post notes, the deeply performative nature of this poem only further complicates the ostensibly tutorial relationship that Dickinson establishes with Higginson. How is he to “tell [her] what is true,” when she (or her surrogate speaker) needs no man’s instruction to access the “Ballet Knowledge” within the mind? In this poem, though, Dickinson also relentlessly distinguishes what is true, and “full as Opera,” in the self and what is outside of it, at least so far as the “placards” of publics go. The majority of the poem renounces the latter—that’s quite different than the lockstep relationship of true self and world imagined, say, in Bonar’s hymn. This is not to declare, as critics of old, that Dickinson abandons the world, but it is to make clear that, following fascinating interpretations like Runzo’s, she realizes that facing it requires more deftness and nuance for some than others.

bio: Jason Hoppe is an Associate Dean and Associate Professor at the United States Military Academy (West Point). He is working to complete a book on how a number of major nineteenth-century New England authors brought together their lives and literary achievements. Articles from the project on Emily Dickinson and Margaret Fuller have been published in Texas Studies in Literature and Language and ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance, respectively.

Sources:

History
Hampshire Gazette, August 12, 1862

Springfield Republican, August 9, 1862

Biography

Dickinson, Emily. The Letters of Emily Dickinson. Eds. Thomas Johnson and Theodora Ward. 3 vols. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958, 414.

Kytle, Ethan J. “Captain Higginson Takes Command.The Opinion Pages, November 16, 2012.

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July 23-29, 1862: School

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

Overview
This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Tom Luxon
Sources

“Emily Dickinson: a Mo Ho”

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

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

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

Mount Holyoke Female Seminary
Mount Holyoke Female Seminary

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

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

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

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

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

Springfield Republican, July 26, 1862

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

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

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










Poetry, Page 6


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

Hampshire Gazette, July 29, 1862

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

Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, page 1

Mary Lyon (1797-1849)

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

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

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

Amherst Academy
Amherst Academy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mount Holyoke Female Seminary
Mount Holyoke Female Seminary

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

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

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

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

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum

 

Reflection
Tom Luxon

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

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

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

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

and in Queer Milton, edited by David L. Orvis: 
https://www.palgrave.com/us/book/9783319970486

 

Sources:

History
Hampshire Gazette, June 17, 1862.

Springfield Republican, July 29, 1862

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

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


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

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


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

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July 16-22, 1862: Circumference

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

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

“My Business is Circumference”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Greatest, Wisest and Meanest of Nationkind”

Springfield Republican, July 19, 1862

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

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

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

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

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

Books, Authors and Art, page 7

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

Hampshire Gazette, July 22, 1862

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

“You Must Banish Me”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum

 

Reflection

Ewa Chrusciel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

an orbit coterminous with longing,

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

the power of the mind over the possibilities of things.

Sources

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

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

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

Sources:

History

Hampshire Gazette, July 22, 1862

Springfield Republican, July 19, 1862

Biography

Hoppe, Jason. “Personality and Poetic Election in the Preceptual
Relationship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth
Higginson, 1862-1886.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 55. 3 (Fall 2013): 348-38, 359-60.

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June 4-10, 1862: Third Letter to Higginson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Virtues of Cold Water”

NATIONAL HISTORY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hampshire Gazette, June 10, 1862

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

“I am in danger–Sir–”

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

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

She enclosed four poems.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum

 

Reflection
Ivy Schweitzer

Two Poems

Southwest Corner

pencil enclosed in letter

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

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

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

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

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

+ edifice

webbed burfish

Identification

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

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

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

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

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

bio: Ivy Schweitzer is the editor of White Heat.

 

Sources:

Overview

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

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

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

History
Hampshire Gazette, June 10, 1862

Springfield Republican, June  7, 1862

Biography

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

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

 

May 28-June 3, 1862: Illness and Health

This week’s post situates Dickinson’s health and illness, especially her eye troubles, in the work of two of her contemporaries and influences, Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s editorial on “The Health of Our Girls,” and Henry David Thoreau’s essay, “Walking,” both published in the June 1862 issue of the Atlantic Monthly.

Overview
This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Giavanna Munafo
Sources

This week’s post takes its inspiration from the June 1862 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, which printed two articles related to health and illness: Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s editorial on “The Health of Our Girls,” and Henry David Thoreau’s essay, “Walking.” In April, Dickinson began a correspondence with Higginson in which she invoked illness both explicitly—“I was ill – and write today” (L261) and “I felt a palsy” (L265)—and implicitly in her language about her writing, with medicalized terms like “Balm” and “spasmodic” (L265).

Thoreau, Pointing out that editor Thomas Johnson dated 366 poems to 1862, biographer Richard Sewall considers Dickinson’s remarkable poetic inspiration and production during a time when she was in “such a deplorable emotional condition as is often hypothesized.” He observes, it

is hard to see how she could have had the strength to put mind to matter or pen to paper, let alone write poems of much coherence and power.

In fact, many scholars have attempted to figure out just what was going on in Dickinson’s life, and “the difficulty with her eyes is still a mystery.” Explanations range from John Cody’s psychosomatic, Freudian prognoses to investigations by Sewall and an ophthalmologist, who noticed in “the famous daguerreotype of Dickinson taken at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary” that her right cornea “deviated as much as fifteen degrees from true.” James Guthrie notes that Dickinson traveled twice to Boston two years later to see Dr. Henry Williams, an ophthalmologist. Though a diagnosis is now impossible, Guthrie speculates that

in this struggle, poetry functioned as an extension of herself, an alternative mode of perception that took place of her injured eyes and which was equally capable of revealing the truth to her.

A Quiet PassionInterest in Dickinson’s health persists in contemporary circles. Director Terence Davis gave it ample screen time in his 2016 biopic A Quiet Passion. This week’s post situates Dickinson’s health in the commentaries of two contemporary writers, Higginson and Thoreau, and in her own poems from around 1862 about illness and health.

 

“The Health of Our Girls”

NATIONAL HISTORY

Springfield Republican, May 31, 1862, page 1
Progress of the War.
This has been the most extraordinary week of the whole war—a week of needless defeat and retreat, and of sudden panic and quick reassurance. Under the misapprehension that the capital was again in danger there has been another outburst of popular patriotism scarcely less vehement than that of April of last year, and the two hundred thousand volunteers needed to fill up the ranks of our decimated armies will come forward at once, and the government be obliged to say, “Hold, enough!” almost before its new summons to arms has been proclaimed through the country.

Springfield Republican, May 31, 1862, page 1
Cotton and Consumption.
Dr. Alfred Booth of Lowell, formerly of this city, has published an article broaching the novel theory that the wearing of cotton next the skin is a cause of consumption. If this should be confirmed the destruction of King Cotton may prove a great blessing instead of an evil. Dr. Booth’s theory is at least ingenious.

Springfield Republican, May 31, 1862, page 2
Books, Authors and Art.

Max Muller (1823-1900), a German philologist
Max Muller (1823-1900), a German philologist

Dogs and horses receive a great many ideas, both detached and associated, but they are incapable of generalizing; so that Max Muller is substantially right when he says: “No animal thinks and no animal speaks, except man. Language and thought are inseparable. Words without thought are dead sounds; thoughts without words are nothing. To think is to speak low; to speak is to think aloud. The word is the thought incarnate.”

Springfield Republican, May 31, 1862, page 3
Emancipation at War.
A letter from Gen. Fremont’s camp in Western Virginia relates the following significant incident:

The presence and passage of our army in the country is having the effect of settling the slavery question here, for emancipation follows its path. I have talked with many of these poor negroes, and find them singularly intelligent… They are of great value to us in many ways, especially as guides, and the scouts tell me that there has never been an instance of false or even incorrect information derived from them.

Springfield Republican, June 7, 1862, page 3

The poetry of the June Atlantic is all good with one exception; very good, with two. Of its prose, the first essay, on Walking, does more to unfold the characters and habits of its author, the late gifted eccentric Henry D. Thoreau, than any ordinary biography would have done;—Thoreau, who was emphatically a man of today, a student of “that newer testament, the Gospel according to the present moment;” and who after sauntering through a brief but happy life, has passed a la Sainte Terre, and will return no more.  … Mr. Higginson’s article upon feminine health provokes a feeling of antagonism. He seems to ignore the fact that the brute vigor of the peasant woman is absolutely incompatible with culture and refinement, and that the scimitar of Saladin must keep to its graceful feats, and not attempt to deal the sledge-hammer blows of the heavy battle-ax of Richard. Moreover, physiologists are wont to confine themselves to material agencies, and yet there is an immaterial hygiene that affects, more vitally than we are fond of admission, “the health of our girls.”

Hampshire Gazette, June 3, 1862, page 2
The Emancipation and Confiscation Acts.
These two most important measures of the government came up in the House of Representatives last week, and the confiscation bill was passed by a majority of twenty, while the emancipation bill was lost by four votes. Both bills are published in another column. The people of Massachusetts are anxious that measures should be adopted by which some sort of punishment shall be meted out to the rebels, and they regret exceedingly that the bill for the emancipation of the slaves of rebels has failed.

Hampshire Gazette, June 3, 1862, page 2
Amherst.
The Selectmen have appointed Daniel Converse for the South part, and Marquis F. Dickinson for the North part, Special Police, to enforce the dog law. Mr. Converse canvassed the South Parish Wednesday and ad 10 dogs licensed on his route, and all but four in that parish are now registered, and those were allowed three days grace, on account of the absence of the owners… [Marquis F. Dickinson (1840-1915) was born in Amherst, graduated from Amherst College and Harvard Law School, and was a prominent Boston attorney, but does not seem to be related to the Dickinson's of the Homestead.]

Thomas M. Brown has been lecturing on temperance in Amherst, North Amherst, and other places adjoining—Dodge had a large audience at his concert in Amherst.

“Thoreau and Higginson on Health”

“I wish to speak a word for Nature …” -Henry David Thoreau, Atlantic Monthly, June of 1862

The June 7th printing of the Springfield Republican directs its readers’ attention to the Atlantic Monthly, reviewing columns by Henry David Thoreau and Thomas Wentworth Higginson (page 3). “Walking,” by the “late gifted eccentric” Thoreau, is said to “unfold the characters and habits of its author.” “The Health of Our Girls,” Higginson’s piece, on the other hand, “provokes a sense of antagonism.” The contemporary reader might also take issue with Higginson’s anachronistic arguments about women’s health, though writing about the topic at all was considered progressive for his time. Whatever the Springfield Republican has to say in review of this month’s Atlantic, it was certainly an issue to pique Dickinson’s interest, both for her focus on nature and her newfound relationship with Higginson.

In “Walking,” Thoreau makes a case for “Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil,—to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society.” He feels there are “enough champions of civilization” and too few of Nature. He notices the “subtle magnetism of Nature,” a force that Dickinson has well-documented. He does not, however, share her love for gardens, but instead, for walking: 



 yes, though you may think me perverse, if it were proposed to dwell in the neighborhood of the most beautiful garden that every human art contrived, or else of a dismal swamp, I should certainly decide for the swamp.

Thoreau, perhaps unlike Dickinson, places the garden on the order of “civilization,” the management and pruning of “Nature,” and is therefore surpassed by the wild, untouched swamp.

Around the same time that Higginson was in correspondence with Dickinson, he published his editorial, “The Health of Our Girls,” in the Springfield Republican, addressing what he saw as a decline in the vigor of New England women. Notably, Dickinson’s first three letters to Higginson (on April 15th, 25th, and June 7th) make use of the metaphors and metonyms of health.

“Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?” she writes in the first, as if to put her poetry on the hospital bed (L260). In the second, she thanks him for his “surgery,” writing from her pillow because she is “ill” (L261). In the third, she claims that his “Balm, seemed better” because he “bled her first” (L265). That her rhetoric affords him the role of a poetic doctor becomes all the more relevant when he publishes his piece on the health of women. His all-knowing assertion of what’s best for women’s health is reflected in his correspondence with Dickinson and his editorial comments on her poetry. At the same time that he performed surgery on her poetry, she was “ill” and found some relief in writing.

Higginson frames his argument within an American context, asserting that “Nature is aiming at a keener and subtler temperament in framing the American” due to a “drier atmosphere” which might produce a “higher type of humanity.” Female health, however, is determined largely by changing social conventions. He then cites the obstacles:

 What use to found colleges for girls whom even the high-school breaks down, or to induct them into new industrial pursuits when they have not strength to stand behind a counter? How appeal to any woman to enlarge her thoughts beyond the mere drudgery of the household, when she “dies daily” beneath the exhaustion of even that?

The “disease” of American women, as he calls it, is deeply embedded in the social, the “elevation of the mass of women to the social zone of music-lessons and silk gowns” such that they forgo the “rustic health” of field-labor and agriculture. Like Thoreau, he privileges “walking” which he sees as a “rare habit among our young women." He offers a panorama of possible solutions—forms of exercise that he finds well-suited to women—such as swimming, rowing, and riding horses. Of the condition of women’s health in American, he concludes with a dire prognosis and hints and emerging panacea:

 Morbid anatomy has long enough served as a type of feminine loveliness; our polite society has long enough been a series of soirées of incurables. Health is coming into fashion.

 

 

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum

 

Reflection

Giavanna Munafo

Giavanna MunafoThis week’s post and poems invite us to consider the complex ways that Dickinson’s health, especially her “chronic optical illness," influenced her poetry, is made visible or evident there, and/or might inform our understanding of her work from this period.

In response, I was called back to a poem very much of our current time and concerned with one of the greatest health crises of modern life, the AIDS epidemic. In “Heartbeats,” the poet and novelist Melvin Dixon asserts through poetic utterance his own stuttering process of coming face to face with illness and suffering. Dixon died at 42 of complications from AIDS. Every step of the way “Heartbeats” insists, in recurring imperative commands, on the tending of the body and its fitness while simultaneously cataloguing the determined, ever-escalating throws of its failure in the face of a persistent, fatal disease.

Melvin Dixon (1950-1992)
Melvin Dixon (1950-1992)

The battery of the poem’s repetitive two-syllable sentences in relentless couplets, along with the poem’s guttural rhythmic music, hammer home its story of ever-persistent symptoms and the speaker’s equally stubborn drive to fend them off. The final couplet, starting with a reprieve from the poem’s headstrong anti-sentimentality — “Sweet heart.” — introduces a tension similar to the one Guthrie notes in Dickinson’s work, giving possibility with one hand while taking it away with the other.

Lastly, another connection across the years worth noting, and one that remains a pressing matter today, is concern about public health in the specific context of subjugated populations put under medical scrutiny, populations to be managed or controlled. In Dickinson’s day (and, of course, sadly too often still), women were to be diagnosed and managed, and in our time those most devastated, and for far too long abandoned, by private and public neglect of the AIDS epidemic — gay men, intravenous drug users, and the poor — were and remain under the microscope, literally in medical terms and metaphorically in terms of their rights as citizens and fully human members of our communities.

Heartbeats
by Melvin Dixon

Work out. Ten laps.
Chin ups. Look good.

Steam room. Dress warm.
Call home. Fresh air.

Eat right. Rest well.
Sweetheart. Safe sex.

Sore throat. Long flu.
Hard nodes. Beware.

Test blood. Count cells.
Reds thin. Whites low.

Dress warm. Eat well.
Short breath. Fatigue.

Night sweats. Dry cough.
Loose stools. Weight loss.

Get mad. Fight back.
Call home. Rest well.

Don’t cry. Take charge.
No sex. Eat right.

Call home. Talk slow.
Chin up. No air.

Arms wide. Nodes hard.
Cough dry. Hold on.

Mouth wide. Drink this.
Breathe in. Breathe out.

No air. Breathe in.
Breathe in. No air.

Black out. White rooms.
Head hot. Feet cold.

No work. Eat right.
CAT scan. Chin up.

Breathe in. Breathe out.
No air. No air.

Thin blood. Sore lungs.
Mouth dry. Mind gone.

Six months? Three weeks?
Can’t eat. No air.

Today? Tonight?
It waits. For me.

Sweet heart. Don’t stop.
Breathe in. Breathe out.

 

Bio: Giavanna Munafo teaches in Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Dartmouth College. She is also a volunteer crisis counselor and advocate and does consulting work focused on diversity and equity. Giavanna’s poems have appeared in E.Ratio, Redheaded Stepchild, Slab, Talking Writing, The New Virginia Review, Bloodroot Literary Magazine, and The Nearest Poem Anthology (Ed. Sofia Starnes). She holds a BA and PhD from the University of Virginia and an MFA from the University of Iowa. Giavanna lives in Norwich, Vermont.

 

Sources:

Overview
Sewall, Richard. The Life of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980, 606.

Guthrie, James R. Emily Dickinson's Vision: Illness and Identity in Her Poetry. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1998, 8-9.

History
Hampshire Gazette, June 3, 1862

Springfield Republican, May 31,  June 7, 1862

Biography
Guthrie, James R. Emily Dickinson's Vision: Illness and Identity in Her Poetry. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1998, 8-9.

Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. “The Health of Our Girls,”  Atlantic Monthly, June 1862.

Thoreau, Henry David. “Walking,”  Atlantic Monthly, June 1862.

 

April 23-29, 1862: Second Letter to Higginson

On April 25th, 1862, Dickinson wrote to Higginson for the second time, apparently after some delay, responding to his critique of her poems and including several poems, thought which exactly are in dispute. This week’s post explores one of Dickinson’s experiences receiving literary criticism, underscoring the literary shrewdness and subversive assertions in her reply.

Overview
This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week‘s Poems
This Week‘s Reflection - Joseph Waring
Sources/Further Reading

“Thank you for your surgery”

On April 25th, 1862, Dickinson wrote to Higginson for the second time, apparently after some delay:

Your kindness claimed earlier gratitude – but I was ill – and write today, from my pillow. (L261)

As discussed in last week’s post, Dickinson was first prompted to write after reading Higginson’s essay, “Letter to a Young Contributor,” published in the Atlantic Monthly on April 15th, and her letter inspired a swift response. Though we don’t know exactly what Higginson said in his reply to Dickinson, we do know that he offered some criticism of the poems she enclosed—criticism that she refers to in her second letter as “surgery.” Having her poems dissected by an established male editor “was not so painful as I supposed,” she writes, but she side-steps his advice, engaging on her own terms, in a series of dense, opaque lines, discussed in This Week in Biography.

Adrienne Rich (1929-2012)
Adrienne Rich (1929-2012)

This scenario is all too famillar to poets who are women. In 1964, Adrienne Rich wrote a poem to Emily Dickinson, referencing Higginson's involvement in the posthumous publication of her poetry. Its title is a phrase taken directly from Dickinson's June 7th, 1862 letter to Higginson (L265). Check out the pun on “premises” at the end of the poem!

“I am in Danger Sir”

“Half-cracked” to Higginson, living,
afterward famous in garbled versions,
your hoard of dazzling scraps a battlefield,
now your old snood

mothballed at Harvard
and you in your variorum monument
equivocal to the end 
who are you?

you, woman, masculine
in single-mindedness,
for whom the word was more
than a symptom 

a condition of being.
Till the air buzzing with spoiled language
sang in your ears
of Perjury

and in your half-cracked way you chose
silence for entertainment,
chose to have it out at last
on your own premises.

    – from  Necessities of Life

This week’s post explores one of Dickinson’s experiences receiving literary criticism, underscoring the literary shrewdness and subversive assertions in her reply.

“This hectic grandiloquence so fashionable among the codfish aristocracy”

NATIONAL HISTORY

Springfield Republican, April 26

The Pear and Grape Mania, p. 1:

“Pyrumnia, or pear fever, and vitifermania, or grape fever,” says the New York Horticulturist, are endemic diseases, affecting most violently the inhabitants of anti-rural towns, and chiefly those recently from city life in the spring. This disease, to plethoric purses, is well understood by nurserymen, to whom its appearance is as welcome as an epidemic to young physicians, or a financial crisis to briefless lawyers. The first stage of the disease usually commences soon after taking a country residence, and shows itself in a general admiration of fruit. Soon half a dozen or more thrifty tress and vines are bought. These trees are generally faultless in shape and proportion, and the nurseryman very reluctantly, but obligingly parts with them.

New Bradford Pear Tree
New Bradford Pear Tree

Emancipation and Colonization, p. 2:

Frank P. Blair of Missouri made a speech in Congress, on the 11th, in defense of the president’s war policy, and of his plan of colonizing the negroes as they are emancipated.

We can make emancipation acceptable to the whole mass of non-slaveholders at the South by coupling it with the policy of colonization. The very prejudice of race which now makes the non-slaveholders give their aid to hold the slave in bondage will then induce them to unite in a policy which will rid them of the presence of the negroes; and, as nine out of ten of the white people of the South are non-slaveholders, and as the right of suffrage is almost unlimited, it is easy to see what will be the result. It is objected, however, that we have no right to remove the negroes from their own country against their will. I do not believe that compulsory colonization is necessary to the ultimate success of this plan; but neither do I regard it with any abhorrence. On the contrary, I look at it as the greatest boon we can confer upon this race—greater by far than the gift of personal freedom in a land in which they must forever remain in a condition of social inferiority, among people who will treat them with every imaginable indignity.

The Abuse of Words

It may be a small matter to some that the noblest words in the English language are daily prostituted to the commonest affairs of life, but to an admirer of his mother tongue it is certainly painful. The constant application of great words to small things is gradually undermining the native strength of the language, insomuch that to make an impressive statement it is not infrequently necessary to pile a Pelion of adverbs upon an Ossa of adjectives. But that is not the only bad phase of the subject; to plain matter of fact sort of people nothing can be more nauseating than this hectic grandiloquence so fashionable among the codfish aristocracy.

Books, Authors and Art, p. 7:

Mrs. H. B. Stowe’s Romances of Italy and America, “Agnes of Sorrento,” and “The Pearl of Orr’s Island,” will appear in book form on the same day. One is a story of the Old World’s loves and sorrows, and the other is a vivid picture of our own country’s romance of a newer life. Messrs. Ticknor & Fields, in Boston, and Messrs. Sampson, Low & Co., in London, will bring out both these charming stories of the 1st of May. The author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” thus provides summer reading for both sides of the Atlantic.

The Unparalleled Flood of 1862, p.8

The rapid melting of immense bodies of snow throughout New England has caused a sudden freshet in most of the rivers, wholly unparalleled at some points. No rain fell until the water had begun to subside. The few warm days of last week caused the snow to melt and run like butter… As the great spring freshet of 1801 was called the “Jefferson flood,” and that of 1854 the “Nebraska flood,” so this unparalleled one of 1862 may perhaps go down to posterity under the name of the “Secession flood.”

Hampshire Gazette, April 29 1862

New Orleans Captured, p. 2

Dispatches from Gen. Wool at Fortress Monroe, and Gen. McDowell, at Fredericksburg, contain the intelligence, obtained from rebel newspapers, published in different southern cities, that New Orleans has been captured by the federal forces.

Fredericksburg Fully Occupied

The correspondent of the Herald, under date of the 23d, states that Fredericksburg, Va., is now occupied by Gen. McDowell’s force. The troops are in excellent health, only 75 being on the sick list, including 14 wounded. The flotilla has succeeded in clearing the Rappahannock of obstructions, and reached Fredericksburg on Saturday. Work has been commenced on the Acqui Creek and Fredericksburg railroad, which will soon be in running order. The railroad bridge over the Rappahannock will of course be immediately rebuilt.

“The Most Experienced and Worldly Coquette”

Upon receiving Dickinson’s first letter, Higginson was reportedly struck by

the impression of a wholly new and original poetic genius

exemplified by the four poems she enclosed. Just what Higginson wrote back to Dickinson is up for speculation; even he seems to have forgotten, as he admits in 1891 piece in the Atlantic, “On Dickinson’s Letters:”

It was hard to tell what answer was made by me, under these circumstances, to this letter. It is probably that the advisor sought to gain time a little and find out with what strange creature he was dealing. I remember to have ventured on some criticism which she afterward called “surgery,” and on some questions, part of which she evaded, as will be seen, with a naive skill such as the most experienced and worldly coquette might envy.

Indeed, Dickinson thanks Higginson “for the surgery,” riffing on whatever dissecting remarks he made about her four enclosed poems and the fact that, one line before, she claimed to be ill in bed. Jason Hoope remarks that “these passages expand on the stylistic criterion of vitality established by the first letter” and that Higginson’s criticism

dovetails with the phenomenon of Dickinson’s own physical illness; both her poetry and her person, she suggests, are in a state of recovery from Higginson’s salutary critical procedure—the invasions of editorial “surgery” are appreciated as “kindness.”

In the Atlantic, Higginson claims that in her second letter Dickinson attempted to “step nearer, signing her name” and calling him her “friend.” He is also impressed by her astute response to his didacticism:

It will also be noticed that I had sounded her about certain American authors, then much read; and that she knew how to put her own criticism in a very trenchant way.

Dickinson’s lines were trenchant, to say the least, and convey a pointed dishonesty that obscures her intent in responding to, or accepting, Higginson’s criticism, advice, and correspondence.

You speak of Mr. Whitman. I never read his book, but was told that it was disgraceful.

I read Miss Prescott’s Circumstance, but it followed me in the dark, so I avoided her.

Her demure categorization of Whitman as “disgraceful” leaves us wondering; a poet with her ear to the ground and an appetite for upending literary convention, she very well might have read Leaves of Grass, however disgraceful. As for Harriet Prescott Spofford’s Circumstance, the post for January 8-14 makes the case that several of Dickinson’s poems were directly influenced by what David Cody calls the “Azarian School” named after Spofford’s novel, Azarian. In fact, in a column Susan Dickinson wrote in the Springfield Republican praising Spofford’s works, she reports having sent “Circumstance” to Dickinson, her sister-in-law, after reading it. Dickinson immediately replied:

Dear S. That is the only thing I ever saw in my life that I did not think I could have written myself. You stand nearer the world than I do. Send me everything she writes.

Regardless of what Dickinson is willing to admit to Higginson, it is clear that she was interested in Spofford’s writing. And she clearly read the Azarian works thoroughly; Cody points to a handful of Dickinson’s poems that are intertexts for, or at the very least, heavily influenced by, Spofford’s novels.

These are not the letter’s only half-truths. “You ask how old I was?,” Dickinson writes, “I made no verse – but one or two – until this winter – Sir –.” This is, of course, blatantly false, as she had been writing deftly since 1858, and had penned hundreds of poems, distributing many to friends and family members before contacting Higginson. She goes on to mischaracterize her status as a novice, asking

I would like to learn – Could you tell me how to grow – or is it unconveyed – like Melody – or Witchcraft?

In asking for Higginson’s guidance and simultaneously likening it to witchcraft, Dickinson belies her claim to being a beginning poet. What could a male magazine editor have to offer to the unconveyable art of witchcraft or melody? Further, Hoope argues that Dickinson’s fib stands as a parody of Higginson’s condescension in the Atlantic’s “Letter,” where he said:

Do you know, my dear neophyte, how Balzac used to compose?

Dickinson goes on to relay that she

had a terror – since September – I could tell to none – and so I sing, as the Boy does by the Burying Ground – because I am afraid.

Cynthia Wolff comments that “for a long time critics supposed that this ‘terror’ was some disappointment in love,” but she disagrees:

she scarcely knew Higginson at the time of this letter, and it would be astonishing to find her alluding to such an intimate matter in so early a note.

If she had been referring to a love affair gone wrong, Wolff thinks she would have said “loss” or “disappointment.” Instead, she asserts, it is more likely that the “terror” refers to “periods of severely impaired vision.”

Additionally, Susan Leiter wonders if Dickinson might be referring to the departure of Rev. Dr. Wadsworth, which made the news that week.

Philadelphia Daily News

The Arch Street Presbyterian Church firmly but kindly resisted the application of the Rev. Dr. Wadsworth for a dissolution of the pastoral relation. So urgent were the people, that the Presbytery sent back the application to the congregation. But when it was found that the Dr. had made up his mind that it was his duty to go to California, the congregation yielded, and he was dismissed. HE was accepted the pastorate of the Calvary Church, San Francisco…

If Dickinson’s meanings in correspondence with Higginson are so obscured and indirect, then what were her intentions? Hoope asserts another possible reading of her letters:

By radically joining herself and her writing to Higginson and his writing, moreover, Dickinson links the antinomian qualities of her charismatic personality to social belonging and poetic achievement. In one movement she thus reverses the alienation and commonness Emerson associates with portfolioists, who are on his account mostly lonely eccentrics who litter the “masses of society,” with the fruits of their inspiration “sacred” to themselves alone.

In exchanging reading lists, asking for literary criticisms but then asserting her own, and even commenting on Higginson’s own writing—“I read your Chapters in the Atlantic – and experienced honor for you,” Dickinson engages Higginson in a discourse of two equals, or, as Hoope calls it, a “poetic elect.” Referring to Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of “equality in honor,” Hoope thinks we can understand Dickinson’s “riposte” as a relationship between writers who are both up for the challenge, willing to “play the game.” At any rate, Dickinson’s rhetorical agility and coy rebuttals in her second letter spurred a long correspondence and friendship with Higginson, who would long be inspired by her “wholly new and original poetic genius.”

Read this week’s poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum

 

Reflection

Joseph Waring

Joseph WaringScholars have argued for treating Dickinson’s letters, including her letters to Higginson, as literary texts, but rarely are they read for their subversive potential as queer. In light of her decision to sidestep the publishing industry and forgo conventional metrics of “success,” Dickinson wrote with a negative affect that resembles what Jack Halberstam terms a “queer art of failure.”

By negative affect, Halberstam means the “disappointment, disillusionment, and despair” that “poke holes in the toxic positivity of contemporary life” (Halberstam 3). Dickinson’s disillusionment with the publishing industry is well-documented in her verse—“Publication – is the Auction / Of the Mind of Man” (F788, J709)—and her second letter to Higginson invokes an ongoing sense of unnamed despair: “I had a terror since September, I could tell to none; and so I sing, as the boy does by the burying ground, because I am afraid” (L261). 

Moreover, in a letter that otherwise might have been a request for literary mentorship, Dickinson insists on invoking illness, pain, and loss while concealing her motives behind a cryptic rhetorical mask. Her letter rejects what Halberstam calls a certain strain of “positive thinking,” a “North American affliction” that traffics in

a combination of 'American exceptionalism' and a desire to believe that success happens to good people and failure is just a consequence of a bad attitude (Halberstam 3).

“Are you too deeply occupied to say if my verse is alive?,” Dickinson asks in her first letter, precluding the opportunity for Higginson to say if it’s good or “successful.”

Though scholars portray Higginson as a literary mentor and teacher, Dickinson’s letters verge on a vision of “education” that is anti-disciplinarian, anti-authoritarian, and untrained. First, she deceives Higginson, claiming that she “made no verse, but one or two, until this winter,” which we know to be untrue—a simple lie, but it undermines the teacher-student norm, which requires students to be honest. Second, she asserts herself as unschooled: “I went to school,” she admits, “but in your manner of the phrase had no education.” Instead, she avows an alternative form of education, an unconventional teacher: “When I was a girl, I had a friend who taught me Immortality.” Finally, she mentions past experiences with “tutors” that were rife with conflict. One died, leaving her with one companion, her “lexicon,” and the second “was not contented [that she] be his scholar, so left the land.”

Jack Halberstam
Jack Halberstam

Her misadventures with education and insistence on alternative pedagogy are akin to Halberstam’s “counterintuitive modes of knowing such as failure and stupidity” (11-12). Though no one would ever call Dickinson’s “stupid,” Halberstam invokes a sort of unschooled, subversive naiveté, a

refusal of mastery, a critique of the intuitive connections within capitalism between success and profit, and as a counter hegemonic discourse of losing (12).

“I would like to learn,” Dickinson insists, but she proposes only alternative pedagogies—learning immortality from a child, for example—and suggests that any “growth” might be unconveyed rather than studied, “like melody of witchcraft.” What does witchcraft have to do with education? It is, as Halberstam would call it, a “counter hegemonic discourse,” an alternative way of knowing (12).

In the closing line, Dickinson signs her letter, “Your friend,” as if to recall Ranciére’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster or Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Dickinson rejects the hierarchy of student-teacher relations, and insists on a “two-way street,” a “dialogic relation to the learner” (13). Halberstam comments:

[Ranciére’s book] examines a form of knowledge sharing that detours around the mission of the university, with its masters and students, its expository methods and its standards of excellence, and instead endorses a form of pedagogy that presumes and indeed demands equality rather than hierarchy.

Now, to zero in on the second letter’s most peculiar, and perhaps queer, diction. “Thank you for the surgery,” Dickinson writes, “it was not so painful as I supposed.” Why use a term like “surgery” to describe Higginson’s critique of her poetry? Why subject herself to his pen at all? Halberstam, verging on the Freudian, argues that “cutting”—where Dickinson’s “surgery” stands in as a textual metaphor for self-harm—“is a feminist aesthetic proper to the project of unbecoming” (135).

Writing to Higginson, knowing well the pain it might entail, is Dickinson’s form of “unbecoming,” implicating a “desire for mastery, and an externalization of erotic energy” (135). In two moves—exposing herself to critique and then undermining it—Dickinson shatters the hegemonic “self” of the conventional poet, a practice that “may have its political equivalent in an anarchic refusal of coherence and proscriptive forms of agency.” Out of the public eye and away from the editor’s pen, Dickinson remains illegible to the hegemonic powers that be. Her “surgery” is the cut that breaks her away through a “masochistic will to eradicate the body” and leave only the page: (135)

The antisocial dictates an unbecoming, a cleaving to that which seems to shame or annihilate, and a radical passivity allows for the inhabiting of femininity with a difference. The radical understandings of passivity … offer an antisocial way out of the double bind of becoming woman and thereby propping up the dominance of man within a gender binary (144).

What is queer about all this? Dickinson forgoes hegemonic structures, engages in self-shattering, revels in illegibility, and embraces the “incoherent, the lonely, the defeated, and the melancholic formulations of selfhood that it sets in motion” (148). If, at one time, her only companion was her lexicon, then that is a “lexicon of power” that “speaks another language of refusal” (139).

Sources:
Halberstam, Jack. The Queer Art of Failure. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011.

 

Bio: Joe Waring graduated from Dartmouth College, where he studied English, Italian, and Linguistics. He came by Dickinson like most, in his high school classroom, where he memorized “It Feels A Shame To Be Alive,” and was happy to revisit Dickinson in Professor Schweitzer's class, “The New Emily Dickinson: After The Digital Turn.” His favorite Dickinson poem is, unquestionably, “The Mushroom is the Elf of Plants” (F1350, J1298).

 

Overview

Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. "Emily Dickinson’s Letters," The Atlantic, October 1891. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1891/10/emily-dickinsons-letters/306524/

Rich, Adrienne. Necessities of Life.  New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1966.

History

Hampshire Gazette, April 29 1862

Springfield Republican, April 26 1862

Biography

Dickinson, Susan Huntington. “Harriet Prescott’s Early Work: A Reader Who Agrees with Us That Mrs. Spofford Should Republish.” Springfield Republican. 1 February 1902: 19.

Leiter, Sharon. Critical Companion to Emily Dickinson: A Literary Reference to Her Life and Work. New York, NY: Facts on File, 2007. Print

Hoppe, Jason. "Personality and Poetic Election in the Preceptual Relationship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, 1862-1886." Texas Studies in Literature and Language, vol. 55 no. 3, 2013, pp. 348-387, 352-58. Project MUSE, muse.jhu.edu/article/517590.

Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. “Emily Dickinson’s Letters.” Atlantic Monthly, October 1891.

Wolff, Cynthia. Emily Dickinson. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., Inc. 1988, 165.

 

April 2-8, 1862: Publication

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

 “Firmament to Fin”

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

Publication

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

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

A fascicle
A fascicle

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

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

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

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

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

“Things that are Not Things”

NATIONAL HISTORY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LITERARY HISTORY

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dickinson & Higginson: A Preface

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

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

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

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

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum

 

Reflection
Ivy Schweitzer

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

In Dickinson’s voice

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

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

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

     +crooning     +bursting

In a contemporary voice

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

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

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

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

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

 

Overview

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

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

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

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

History and Biography

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

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

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

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

February 19-25, 1862: Choosing

Dickinson lived in an era where women had agency in limited realms and were always 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, that 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. 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 Mattie, 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, then mimed the act of turning a key in the lock and said: “It's just a turn–and freedom, Matty!”

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum

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 to have been about people and silly social conventions, that word doesn’t capture the exhilaration of “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, the speaker finds that:

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

–Renunciation is a piercing virtue ( F782A, J745).

That is, sometimes the exhilaration of exercising choice is dampened by what one decides to choose; here, giving 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 this 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.

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