Virginia Lucas Poetry Scrapbook

Emily Dickinson and Violent Poetry: Women, Writing, and War

Emily Dickinson, one of America’s most notable poets, is commonly remembered as a sexually frustrated recluse who published ten poems during her lifetime. Readers get tangled in her religious language and complex syntax, and often forget the intelligent woman behind the words.  Instead of being recognized as an aware and savvy individual, Dickinson has become an abstract concept. She functions as a folktale in modern high school classes, with more students interested in her sexuality and odd tendencies than her poetry’s subject matter. This conception formed when early critics reasoned that a woman who rarely left her own home, and certainly did not engage in or approve of the Civil War surrounding her, must definitely have been unable to write about any subject outside of her own limited experience. Emily Dickinson, as scholars have since discovered, was more self-aware than early critics originally theorized. Dickinson, in fact, broke away from the conventional subject matter most nineteenth-century women wrote about, and this departure was a result of her desire to portray the events around her in a more modern, twentieth-century styles. Her poems, such as “The name–of it–is ‘Autumn’” and “My Life–A Loaded Gun,” address the physical violence of war and her personal opinions to that violence.

Although Dickinson’s style and cadence of writing differed from other female poets of the time, the American Civil War affected all women and was a popular theme in poetry. Early scholars, like David Reynolds, found that her “treatment of highly experimental themes through dense images in rhythmic poetry…constituted her greatest departure from other women writers of the day” (Walker 178). Cheryl Walker, in “Dickinson in Context: Nineteenth-Century American Women Poets,” refutes this by stating that Dickinson is not an outlier of her time, but actually representative of the women within it. She argues “for a balanced appreciation of Dickinson’s relationship to her contemporaries: by not only looking at the subject matter but also drawing attention to the echoes of other women poets in Dickinson’s work” (176). Walker specifically compares Dickinson’s work to the poems of Rose Terry (Cooke), who was “as wild in her way as Dickinson was in hers…[and] though we have no proof that Dickinson read [Terry’s] poems, the echoes of Terry’s “Daises” in Dickinson’s “Further in Summer than the Birds” still seem to me [Walker] startling” (184). Terry’s poems, too, could be described in the same way as one describes Dickinson’s, with “dense images in rhythmic poetry…Like the popular prose sensationalists Reynolds explores as sources for Dickinson’s work, Rose Terry’s poetry sometimes verges on melodrama” (186). Where Dickinson does differ, as Walker points out, is in the content of some of her poems. The war may have affected all, and can be found in poems such as “The Women Who Went to the Field” by Clara Barton, but the language does not always match Emily Dickinson’s tone. Walker writes:
With few exceptions, openly hostile poems are rare among nineteenth-century women poets, reflecting the influence of those like Rufus Griswold, who felt that women poets must compose poems like dews and flowers that comfort there readers…Dickinson, on the other hand, was the great innovator, looking ahead to twentieth-century experimental poets. (193, 196)

Historical context around Dickinson’s work can only provide so much information. Women’s lives of the nineteenth century show us that Emily Dickinson tried extremely hard to break away from the conventions of her time. However, “Dickinson herself knew she was not entirely alone, not writing in a vacuum” (Walker 197).

 Emily Dickinson continuously attempted to take the Civil War and make it approachable for other civilians like her, as seen in “The name–of it–is ‘Autumn’.”  David Cody’s version of the poem, in “Blood in the Basin: The Civil War in Emily Dickinson’s ‘The name of it is Autumn,’” reads:

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—                
                                    (Emily Dickinson)      

Dickinson puts the word “Autumn” in quotation marks in the first stanza because she is not, in fact, talking about the changing of the seasons. Critic Tyler Hoffman theorizes that Dickinson's quotation “represents her attempt to trope the linguistic contours of the name “Antietam,” a name that stood for ‘the most bitter and savage’ struggle of the Civil War (Sears xi)” (4). It also implies that the narrator is not completely certain about what the word entails, just as Dickinson is not able to fully relate to the war due to the fact that she is not a man fighting in it. She continues to describe autumn, and the colors, with bodily, almost gory images: “The hue—of it—is Blood—/An Artery—upon the Hill—/A Vein—along the Road–” (l. 2-4). The poem is in iambic tetrameter, where a line consists of four feet of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, and iambic trimester. This cadence lulls the reader into a false sense of security. The predictable, heartbeat-like cadence belies the images of war and death, and instead makes one think of cool, sleepy autumn days.  Dickinson further emphasizes the drumming of the meter by equating the leaves falling to rain, specifically scarlet rain, which reminds the reader of blood. Since blood is a symbol of life, Dickinson is “in the larger context” commenting on the bloodshed of the Civil War and the “leaves are inevitably associated with the men who were falling in battle” (Cody 30-31).  War causes people to die rapidly­–like leaves falling off of a tree–and “eddies like a Rose–away–/Upon Vermillion Wheels–” or trampled by the passage of time (l. 11-12). This imagery  of “has the virtue of reminding us that after all of the autumn leaves have fallen and been borne away by the river, the enervated speaker will be left to confront the barren and desolate “White Hills” of Winter­–the season of trial and separation” (Cody 30). Emily Dickinson purposely does not include any identifying pronouns, Hoffman points out, because she is creating a poem that can equate the violence of war to something that a person outside of battle would understand; in this way she does not alienate any reader (l. 4-5).
Dickinson was not limited to subtly writing about the war, though. She was able to use the violence she saw in soldiers’ daily lives to talk about the oppression and violence she experienced in her own life. One of Dickinson’s poems that discusses violence and war is “My Life had stood–a Loaded Gun.” The Harvard University Press version, edited by Ralph W. Franklin, reads:

My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun - 
In Corners - till a Day 
The Owner passed - identified -
And carried Me away -
And now We roam in Sovreign Woods -
And now We hunt the Doe -
And every time I speak for Him
The Mountains straight reply -
And do I smile, such cordial light
Opon the Valley glow -
It is as a Vesuvian face
Had let it’s pleasure through -
And when at Night - Our good Day done -
I guard My Master’s Head -
’Tis better than the Eider Duck’s
Deep Pillow - to have shared -
To foe of His - I’m deadly foe -
None stir the second time -
On whom I lay a Yellow Eye -
Or an emphatic Thumb -
Though I than He - may longer live
He longer must - than I -
For I have but the power to kill,
Without - the power to die –
                                    (Emily Dickinson

The poem does not have to be read through a war lens, although using the historical context as a backdrop to the poem allows for a deeper understanding of the violence that Dickinson is discussing. Like “The name–of it–is ‘Autumn’,” this poem is also written in roughly common meter, which is the metrical pattern for most hymns. And as in “The name–of it–is ‘Autumn’,” the meter provides a steady, lyrical beat that the reader could easily sing. The first stanza, “My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun - / In Corners - till a Day / The Owner passed - identified -/And carried Me away–” almost requires a second reading, because the meter lures one into a false sense of security, similar to boredom, and one does not realize the violence that is about to take place.  After an initial reading, one assumes that the poem is simply personifying a gun. However, Jeanne Holland realizes that “rather than a struggle which results in a clear victor, Dickinson figures her relation with a strong male precursor in terms of exchange, albeit a violent one, where issues of authority, possession, and power cannot be tallied and scored” (142). There is a noticeable contradiction in the third stanza of “My Life had stood–a Loaded Gun,” where the polite tone is at odds with the violence occurring; this highlights “the abhorrence of the Gun/Speaker and remov[es] her from the scene of destruction. Such reading circles back to the previous stanza to lay blame on the Master” (Holland 140). After the first four stanzas, the poem breaks away from the hard “d” sounds, like “our good Day done,” into a lighter tone. There appears to be a sense of freedom in the violence the speaker/gun is facing, although they are not allowed to die. Instead of reading the last stanza, “Though I than He - may longer live/He longer must - than I -/For I have but the power to kill,/Without - the power to die–,” as a negative cycle, the speaker is stating that they will be the ultimate victor (l. 21-24). The speaker, whether a gun or soldier or woman, will survive while the one perpetrating the violence will perish.

Tyler Hoffman points out that as late as 1958, previous critics such as Thomas Johnson “could claim of Emily Dickinson without serious contest: ‘the fact is she did not live in history and held no view of it, past or current’” (1). Scholars had placed Emily Dickinson in a constricting box by claiming that she did not live in or view history because she was not a vocal activist against the war. However, many critics are shifting their stances and challenging the commonly held beliefs of the twentieth century; a “significant effort has been [given] to reconnect her to the most overwhelming event to happen in her lifetime, an event which coincides with her most prolific period–the American Civil War” (Hoffman 1). Faith Barrett analyzes this shift in thinking in her article “Public Selves and Private Spheres”:

 In 1984, three scholars broke new ground in Dickinson studies by offering suggestive historical and theoretical analyses of Dickinson’s relationship to the Civil War. Karen Dandurand’s discovery that Dickinson had published four poems in New York area newspapers in 1864—including three that appeared in the Drum Beat, a fundraising vehicle for support of the Union Army—reopened the question of Dickinson's ambivalent perspective on publication; simultaneously Dandurand’s discovery also suggested that Dickinson was perhaps not so entirely indifferent to the war as scholars      had previously thought. (1)

When one reads Dickinson’s poetry out of context and ignores the fact that Dickinson was living during a period of great turmoil, her poetry reads like that of an angst-ridden teenager who desires an outlet for her emotions. Since, as Jacob Stratman of John Brown University states, “she rarely mentioned particular battles, events, or people in her poetry, it seems easy to dismiss any involvement with the war; however, many critics discuss her appropriation of the war to discuss her own inner demons and struggles” (60). Even though Emily Dickinson was an alert and reactive poet, she did not attempt to publish the majority of her poetry during her lifetime. This is not a result of fear, but rather understanding. In “Addresses to a Divided Nation,” Barrett states:
Acutely aware of the challenges a woman writer faces both in addressing the nation and in representing war, Dickinson chooses not to publish her work via the conventional print means. This choice gives her the freedom not to compromise her own  vision: though she feels obligated to represent war's horrors, she also feels obliged to insist that no poem can convey the experience of war to its readers. (89-90)

Although recent scholars have recognized that Dickinson was indeed aware of the war, Hoffman warns critics to not become overzealous while analyzing her work. She was indeed a woman ahead of her time, but she was most certainly not as well informed as a modern feminist reading might suggest. Even though she was most productive during the years 1861-1865, Dickinson was removed from the war itself. Although she was not a recluse completely shut off from the rest of the world, and her writing shows how educated and socially opinionated she was, she still spent the majority of her time away from the general public.

Emily Dickinson’s poems, such as “The name–of it–is ‘Autumn’” and “My Life–A Loaded Gun,” address the physical violence of war and her personal opinions to that violence. There is more to Dickinson’s poetry than clues to a possibly lesbian hermit who was unaware of the war happening right outside her door. Emily Dickinson was communicating with other women writers by emulating and comparing poetry, while looking toward future writing styles and themes. Women writers’ opportunities to write about violence, of the physical and sexual nature, have expanded over recent decades. In this light, Emily Dickinson’s poetry is important to read and understand because it marks the beginning of a turning point in women’s writing. As Jacob Stratman points out, “most of our students have been reading Dickinson’s poetry since middle school. They have studied her life; compared her verse to Whitman’s and other contemporaries.” Yet their reading has been influenced by New Criticism and very rarely do schools teach Dickinson in light of the events around her (50). In order to fully appreciate her life and realize that she did engage in external conflict and had a mastery of the soldier’s voice, readers have to look at her work in the context of her life and into the lives of the women writers who influenced her.

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