We don’t just “read” Dickinson’s poems, we are often pursued by them, startled and unsettled by them. And we get attached to them as if they speak directly, individually, and personally to us. Many of the poems with this kind of power are dated to 1862, the year Dickinson composed at the astounding rate of nearly a poem a day.
In one such poem, she dares the reader to “see a soul” in a state of utmost spiritual/emotional/creative furor she describes as “at the White Heat” (F401, J365). From this intensity, Dickinson composed many unforgettable poems, many gathered in “fascicles,” small, hand-sewn booklets discovered after her death. Significantly, in April, she “came out” as a poet when she wrote to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a prominent literary figure whose “Letter to a Young Contributor” she just read in The Atlantic Monthly.
The year 1862 was also a crucial moment in the national trauma known as the Civil War, which affected Dickinson profoundly. If we want to immerse ourselves in a poet’s white-hot creative life during a time of war, the year 1862 is a good place to start.
The phrase “White Heat” felt like a fitting evocation of this extraordinary year. In 2009, Brenda Wineapple used it to title her study of the friendship of Dickinson and Higginson, which began this year. For us, this phrase suggests the highest level of creativity. Furthermore, as we will explore in upcoming blogs, “white” has crucial and multiple resonances in Dickinson’s world