When I was small a Woman died (F518 A, J569)

When I was small, a Woman died –
Today – her Only Boy
Went up from the Potomac –
His face all Victory

To look at her – How slowly
The Seasons must have turned
Till Bullets clipt an Angle
And He +passed  + quickly round –

If pride shall be in Paradise –
Ourself cannot decide –
Of their imperial conduct –
No person testified –

But, proud in Apparition –
That Woman and her Boy
Pass back and forth, before my Brain
As even in the sky –

I’m confident, that Bravoes –
Perpetual + break abroad
For Braveries, +remote as + this
+In + Yonder Maryland –

   + went

+softly   + be–   + go  + His [this]

+Scarlet    + just sealed in  + proved[?]

Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Packet XIV, Mixed Fasciles, ca. 1860-1862. Copied into Fascicle 24 about Spring 1863. First published in Poems (1890), 145, with the alternatives not adopted. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

Scholars disagree on when this poem was written, sometime between 1861 and 1863. Dickinson biographer Richard Sewall dates it to early 1862 and calls it an elegy for Dickinson’s distant cousin Francis H. Dickinson, “the first man on Amherst’s quota to give us his life for his country,” killed in action at Ball’s Bluff, Virginia on the Potomac, near the Maryland border, October 21, 1861. Cristanne Miller notes that, “Dickinson changes the few details she appears to give of his life story,” that he was killed in Virginia, not Maryland, was not an only child, and she was twenty-three when his mother died, hardly “small.” But, Miller adds,

Individualizing elements do not play a significant role in Dickinson’s war verse.

More important is that, according to Miller,

[b]ecause Dickinson never refers to herself as a mother among the many named guises or dramatic perspectives she adopts in her poems (including boy, Czar, Earl, Queen, wife), it is notable that one of her most explicit responses to the war imagines the reunion of a mother and son in heaven. The strong bond between soldiers and their mothers gave rise to an extremely popular subset of sentimental war poems.

She notes that Dickinson would have read the story, “First of Our Dead” in the January 11, 1862 Springfield Republican about William Hunt, a soldier and “dutiful son” who penned a poem he sent home to his mother depicting a soldier on watch thinking of his mother who

prays for me …
Till, though the leagues lie far between,
This silent incense of her heart
Steals o’re my soul …
And we no longer are apart.

Compare this to Frazar Stearns’ last letter to his mother, quoted in this week’s post, where Stearns is more focused on the broader effects of the war and less specifically on his link to his mother. Miller cites other such popular poems, “which encourage mothers to give their sons gladly to the war.”

Miller hears detachment in the poem and concludes that it “provides no moment of mourning for the son and no particular point of pride for the mother or the spectator.” Still, the imagery connects to Dickinson’s letters on Stearns’ death and suggests how haunted she was by it. In particular, the “Apparition” of the mother and son that “Pass back and forth, before my Brain,” recalls the description in her letter to Bowles of Austin or Dickinson stunned into silence, repeating over and over the fact of Frazar’s demise.


  • Miller, Cristanne. Reading in Time: Emily Dickinson in the Nineteenth Century. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012, 161-62, 173.
  • Sewall, Richard. The Life of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980, 536.

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