Poet Emily Dickinson (Amherst College Library)
It’s hard to keep track of the plethora of “holidays” made prevalent through social media. Did you know we even have a #huganewspersonday?
As crowded as the marketplace becomes, March hosts two of my favorites. March 21 commemorates World Poetry Day which was adopted during UNESCO’s 30th session in Paris in 1999 with a main objective to “support linguistic diversity through poetic expression and to offer endangered languages the opportunity to be heard within their communities.” We also celebrate Women’s History Month in March, which started in 1981 with an act of Congress.
In celebration of these two commemorations culminating, we’re taking a moment to highlight a Civil War-era female poet whose works continue to move and inspire—Emily Dickinson.
The great American composer and playwright Jonathan Larson wrote a powerful lyric in La Vie Bohème from his musical Rent proclaiming, “The opposite of war isn’t peace….it’s creation!”
Dickinson, like so many of her Civil-War era contemporaries, found this sentiment to be true. Creating was a way of countering the darkness of war—a way to work through its complexities while awaiting the long path to true peace.
Dickinson led a self-imposed life of seclusion, likely because of a paralyzing fear of death she developed in childhood. She rarely left her father’s homestead in adulthood, corresponding to friends, family members, and mentors through letters and poems. Like her contemporary Walt Whitman, who pioneered the free-verse style of poetry, Dickinson’s poetic style also strayed from tradition. She chose unconventional capitalization, broken rhyme, and obscure use of dashes throughout most of her works.
Due to her isolation, she wasn’t physically immersed in the war as many of her contemporaries, but her writings reflect her internal conflict balancing the high cost of victory with the price it pays on those living through and after it.
Despite being a lifelong resident of Massachusetts, she never claims Union pride nor affirms or dismisses the Southern cause in her work. Instead, she uses her pen as a tool to dissect the metaphysical and theodicean complexities of the war. As Shira Wolosky depicts in her book Emily Dickinson: A Voice of War, “Unlike other northern writers, Dickinson does not address the specific issues of slavery or of union involved in war’s politics…..political causes are secondary to the metaphysical constructions they imply. For her, the war is war as such. What concerns her are the metaphysical issues raised by the war and implicit in its theological rhetoric.”1
To Dickinson, war was a murderer and its killings were senseless. Dickinson struggled with the widely adopted notion of the time that the Civil War was rooted in God’s will or that the sacrifice and suffering that came with it were rewarded by a greater good or higher calling. She struggled internally with conceptualizing it all as it was reflected in her 1862 poem,
Victory comes late—
And is help low to freezing lips—
To take it—
How sweet it would have tasted—
Just a Drop—
Was God so economical?
His Table’s spread too high for Us—
Unless We dine on tiptoe—
Crumbs—fit such little mouths—
The Eagle’s Golden Breakfast strangles—Them—
God keep His Oath to Sparrows—
Who of little Love—know how to starve—
As the war progressed, Dickinson tried to make sense of it and of her conflicting feelings around life’s varying parallels. Good vs. evil, life and death, God vs. the devil, war and peace, and victory over defeat are weighted and debated throughout her works,
My Triumph lasted till the Drums
Had left the Dead alone
And then I dropped my Victory
And chastened stole along
To where the finished Faces
Conclusion turned on me
And then I hated Glory
And wished myself were They.
What is to be is best descried
When it has also been —
Could Prospect taste of Retrospect
The tyrannies of Men
Were Tenderer — diviner
The Transitive toward.
A Bayonet's contrition
Is nothing to the Dead.
The war didn’t provide Dickinson with any type of closure, but instead fed into her internal confusion and conflict with the physical and metaphysical world around her.
While many of her friends and associates were aware of her writings, Dickinson’s work was as reclusive as she was during her lifetime. It wasn’t until after her death that her poems were discovered and published. Today, her poetic creations evoke conversation, contemplation, and debate about topics that still resonate with citizens everywhere.
As UNESCO states, “Poetry reaffirms our common humanity by revealing to us that individuals, everywhere in the world, share the same questions and feelings. Poetry is the mainstay of oral tradition and, over centuries, can communicate the innermost values of diverse cultures.”
1Wolosky, Emily. (1984) Emily Dickinson: A Voice of War. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.