Emily Dickinson and the Limit of War
In 1958 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" (Letters 1: xiv).1 More recently, however, critics have begun to challenge this very limited and limiting point of view. Perhaps their most significant effort has been 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. Against Johnson's belief that the war was simply "an annoyance" for Dickinson, that a "shallow facetiousness" was the only note she could sound on the subject, contemporary critics have looked to her poems for a more complicated history of the relationship (Letters 1: xiv). In the most comprehensive of these studies, Emily Dickinson: A Voice of War, Shira Wolosky argues that "the presence of war in Dickinson's poetry has been greatly underestimated," proposing that the poet's work "be placed, not only within the intellectual and literary currents of the period, but also into the realm of concrete historical events" (37, 34). Wolosky's deconstruction of the myth of Emily Dickinson as a self-enclosed persona, one with no interest in events of public history, represents a valuable historical correction.2 [End Page 1]
But as important as this correction is, the urgency of Wolosky's revisionism occasionally leads her into overstatement. Ignoring the very real limits imposed on Dickinson as a result of her location on the home front, Wolosky insists on the poet's total identification with the "strife of objective battlefields," arguing without exception that "combat penetrates Dickinson's private world," making "every civilian . . . a soldier" (55-56). In blurring the distinction between civilian and soldier, she mitigates the reality of Dickinson's mediated relationship to the war, missing the ways in which the poet turns the limits of her condition to rhetorical advantage. Ultimately, Wolosky fails to account for poems like "The name—of it—is 'Autumn'—" (P656), which are specifically about the inability of the civilian to identify fully with the experience of war, to be wholly integrated into its frame of violence.3
"The name—of it—is 'Autumn'—," which Johnson dates circa 1862, was first published in Youth's Companion on September 8, 1892 (Poems 2: 506). It is a poem that would appear to take as its subject the seasonal shedding of leaves at "the dying time of the year" (St. Armand 286):
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 Vermillion Wheels—
Significantly, this poem did not appear in Youth's Companion under the title "'Autumn,'" which would have maintained Dickinson's quotation of the word in the first line of the poem; instead, it was called more simply "Autumn." The editor's refusal to acknowledge Dickinson's quotation of the word when assigning the poem a title, while it may make for easier reading, [End Page 2] neglects an important, defining fact of the text. Mabel Loomis Todd took similar liberties with the poem when she edited it for inclusion in Bolts of Melody (1945), where it appears without dashes, without capitalization (except at the heads of lines), and without quotation marks around the word "Autumn" in the first line (38). Todd further circumscribes the meaning of the text by fixing it under the subject heading "The Round Year," a gesture that effectively seals its status as a nature poem.
Despite Todd's editorial license, the evidence of Dickinson's poetry suggests that when she frames an expression in quotation marks, isolating it from its cultural context, it cannot be so easily dismissed. Usually when she quotes a word or phrase, she is holding that utterance at arm's length as she calls its integrity into question. Often it signifies her interrogation of a euphemism for death or dying which has become part of customary discourse; for example, quoted words like "'Promotion'" (P73) and "'fading'" (P120) are intended ironically, encouraging us to ask what reality they are hiding, what fiction (religious or otherwise) they are meant to maintain.
"Autumn," though, would not seem to be an expression people use in polite society to represent a more difficult truth; rather, it is a rhetorical figure that poets use. In the last stanza of her early poem "There's something quieter than sleep" (P45), Dickinson distinguishes between tropological language and plain speech, making clear her awareness of the former as an evasive tactic:
While simple-hearted neighborsChat of the "Early dead"—We—prone to periphrasis,Remark that Birds have fled!
The expression "Birds have fled" metaphorically refigures—and thereby glosses over—the grave fact of death. In contrast to other instances of ironic quotation in her poetry, where it is "simple-hearted neighbors" who come to judgment, these final lines point up the practice of rhetorically gifted poets ("We") who talk around reality through their figurative constructions. Although Dickinson does not seem to ironize "periphrasis" here (the [End Page 3] figurative phrase is not encased in quotation marks and held up to ridicule), her awareness of it as a fiction, as a way of speaking the unspeakable, looks forward to "The name—of it—is 'Autumn'—."
The syntactical ambiguities of this later poem complicate the challenge that Dickinson's quotation of the word "Autumn" initially poses. The first stanza features only intransitive verbs, with relations between words tenuously constructed through a series of insistent dashes. The prepositional phrase "of it" that intercedes between "name" and "'Autumn'" in the poem's first line further confuses what "it" is that Dickinson seeks to define. Is "it" a pronoun that "'Autumn'" renames? Or is "it" something other than the season that the word "'Autumn'" figuratively redescribes? Here the relationship between signifier and signified is unclear, although the quotation marks around "'Autumn'" would point to the strong probability that "it" is not the same as the season, but something that the season figures.
Historical circumstances at the time of Dickinson's composition of the poem provide important clues in determining the identity of this ambiguous pronoun and the reason behind her periphrastic design. In the fall of 1862, Confederate General Robert E. Lee initiated the Maryland campaign of the war, beginning with his crossing of the Potomac in the early days of September 1862 and culminating shortly thereafter in the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862. Dickinson's quotation of the word "autumn" in her poem, a product of this same season and year, 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). The phonetic correspondence of the words "autumn" and "Antietam"—which begin with the neighboring vowels /æ/ and /ə/, respectively, and end in the identical syllable //—would not have been lost on Dickinson, a poet whose use of rhyme signals her interest in the sound effects of segmental units. Significantly, though, Dickinson was not the only one to respond to the unusual auditory quality of "Antietam"; it also caught the eye of a reporter for the Springfield Republican, who exclaimed of the word in his account of the battle, "Phoebus, what a name!" (27 Sept. 1862).4 [End Page 4]
Framing "'Autumn'" as she does, Dickinson is able to call attention to the word as a linguistic entity and to pun on it. As the poet Mary Jo Salter remarks of Dickinson's penchant for wordplay: "often we see her using sound not as a substitute for meaning but as a guide in groping toward it, in a world where meaning is every day less clear" (212). Here her unwritten pun—"'Autumn'" for the more newsworthy "Antietam"—must be read as just such an evasion with meaning. In addition to being a pun, the configuration of the words constitutes what Salter calls "accordion rhyme," that is, rhyme in which the final sounds are respectively identical. She argues that one of the most powerful uses of this kind of wordplay for Dickinson is "to disguise the undesirable: despair, or arrogance, or heresy" (219). In "The name—of it—is 'Autumn'—," "it" represents the despair of battle that Dickinson works to disguise; and if meaning was ever "every day less clear," it probably was never more so than during the period of war leading up to Antietam, when Union victories were scarce. Here it is the undesirable truth of war (what Dickinson refers to as the "truth—of Blood—" in P531) that she tells slant. The silent consonant that stands at the end of the word "autumn" is as misleading to phonetic relationship with "Antietam" as Dickinson's poem is to the reality of war that is its subject.
In "I'm sorry for the Dead—Today—" (P529), also written in 1862, Dickinson similarly plays on the phonetic resonance of two words—one written, the other unwritten; not surprisingly, it is another poem in which the war figures. There a speaker meditates on the dead farmers in their graves who are unable to join in the communion of harvest. She ends the poem with the following observation:
A Wonder if the SepulchreDont feel a lonesome way—When Men—and Boys—and Carts—and June,Go down the Fields to 'Hay'—
In this last stanza, the quoted infinitive verb "to 'Hay'—" clearly signifies something beyond the labor of mowing. The men and boys she depicts in their descent to "the noise of Fields—"are not just going "to 'Hay'—," [End Page 5] they are going off to war, "to die." The close phonemic relationship between these two three-letter words (/e/, /aI/) creates an off-rhyme that ends the poem with an unscripted joke: although the speaker begins by claiming she is "sorry for the Dead—Today—," her final pun suggests that it is not life the buried farmers are deprived of, but another chance to die.
Clearly, then, periphrasis is a strategy Dickinson employs to avoid confronting directly the unpleasant reality of war. But what assures us beyond sheer phonetic coincidence of the connection between "The name—of it—is 'Autumn'—" and the Battle of Antietam are the specific rhetorical figures she enacts in her poem. Although Barton Levi St. Armand would make it seem a matter of convention that Dickinson's autumn is "marked by a . . . sacrificial crimson," most seasonal verse in popular magazines and newspapers of the day did not erupt in such violence (286). The following stanza of "Autumnal Days," a poem published anonymously in the Republican (23 Oct. 1862), typifies this more tranquil vision:
Nor yet is Autumn desolate and cold,For all his woods are kindling in huesOf gorgeous beauty, mixed and manifold,Which in the soul a kindred gold transfuse.
This poet's "Gold-girdled autumn," a season of "gorgeous beauty" that thrills the soul, does not have much in common with Dickinson's bloody season. In a poem entitled "Waiting," which ran in Atlantic Monthly (Dec. 1862), the speaker is similarly spirited; she recognizes "Nature's death," but, concomitantly, her own paradoxical "quickening":5
Drop, falling fruits and crisped leaves! Ye tone a note of joy to me; Through the rough wind my soul sails free,High over waves that Autumn heaves.
Here the speaker refuses to imagine any resemblance between the fate of Nature and the fate of man. Significantly, neither "Autumnal Days" nor "Waiting" allows the violence of war to color reflections on the fall. [End Page 6]
John Greenleaf Whittier's poem "The Battle Autumn 1862," which made its first appearance in print alongside field reports from the battle of Antietam in the Republican (20 Sept. 1862), insists specifically that the field of nature and the field of war are not analogous.6 In the first three stanzas, Whittier figures the fighting in vague, even conventionally heroic, terms, erasing all trace of the graphic violence that scars Dickinson's poem:
The flags of war like storm-birds fly, The charging trumpets blow;Yet rolls no thunder in the sky, No earthquake strives below,
And, calm and patient, Nature keeps Her ancient promise well,Though o'er her bloom and greenness sweeps The battle's breath of hell.
And still she walks in golden hours Through harvest-happy farms,And still she wears her fruits and flowers Like jewels on her arms.
Ultimately, Whittier reads Nature's fecundity as a forecast of times to come, envying its ability to retain its surface calm and look toward a future peace. He believes Nature's apparent lack of sympathy with "battle's breath of hell" to be a positive expression of its faith in vital natural cycles that even war cannot disrupt. Dickinson, however, does not allow us to see past the horror of war, which bleeds onto the landscape, permitting us no refuge.7
It is fitting, therefore, that she should be responding to the Civil War contest that stands as the bloodiest single day in our nation's history. At the end of only twelve hours of fighting, casualties on both sides totaled over 26,000 (Livermore 92-93). Stephen Sears documents the saturation of the field in blood that Dickinson's poem asserts. In introducing his account of the battle, he traces the source of his book's title, Landscape Turned Red: "'So intense and sustained was the violence [at Antietam], a man recalled, that for a moment in his mind's eye the very landscape around him turned red'" (ix). Although Dickinson would not have been privy to this soldier's diary, the superlatives that figure so prominently in the Republican's accounts of the [End Page 7] battle would have encouraged her interest. In the newspaper, correspondents referred to Antietam variously as "the largest and most destructive battle of the whole war"; "the bloodiest field of this most bloody war"; and "the greatest battle ever fought on this continent" (27 Sept. 1862, 20 Sept. 1862, 19 Sept. 1862). As a result of these grim statistics, which Dickinson would have read, Antietam soon became a benchmark by which to measure horror.
Oliver Wendell Holmes had occasion to describe "the bloody field of Antietam" just a few days after the battle in his personal narrative, "My Hunt after 'The Captain,'" a record of his search for his wounded son (738). Published in December 1862 in Atlantic Monthly, Holmes's story bears witness to the devastation: "There was something repulsive about the trodden and stained relics of the battlefield. It was like the table of some hideous orgy left uncleared, and one turned away disgusted from its broken fragments and muddy heeltaps" (749). But these "relics" were not the only things left on the field. As the Republican reported, "The enemy's dead, which nearly all fell into our hands, were thickly strewn over the fields, in many places lying in heaps" (19 Sept. 1862). Even several days after the fighting one of the paper's reporters observed:
In passing over the ground to-day, the evidence was manifested where the most deadly contests occurred, the dead and dying lying thick and in rows where they had fallen . . . the dead laying so close as to be nearly within reach of one another's hands along the entire distance, while in many places they lay one upon another.(22 Sept. 1862)
Samuel Fiske (a correspondent for the Republican writing under the name "Dunn Browne") also confronted the "horrors" of Antietam, but he saw over the field at last a double rainbow that "crowned all the earthly evils with the promise of ultimate most glorious good" (27 Sept. 1862).
Defiant of hope, Dickinson's poem insists that there be no ultimate redemptive value; instead, she focuses exclusively on the repulsive aftermath of battle. The biological diction that shapes her first stanza—"Blood," "Artery," "Vein"—is striking for its elaboration of a consistent metaphor, [End Page 8] one that depicts a terrible transparent anatomy. Although Dickinson does not pile up bodies, she figures a disemboweled landscape. The violence is so intense, in fact, that her metaphor spills over into the second stanza. There the "Great Globules" clogging the alleys do double duty figuratively: they represent the leaves that have fallen from the trees and, more shockingly, the coagulated blood of fallen soldiers.8
Other eyewitness accounts of Antietam that would have weighed heavily on Dickinson also appeared in the Republican. As one observer noted: "The artillery was unceasing; we could often count more than 60 guns to the minute; and the musketry was like the patter of rain-drops in an April shower" (24 Sept. 1862). The analogy of musket fire to rain shower remained a vivid memory of the battle in its aftermath. Sergeant James Shinn's description of combat at Antietam in his diary supports the aptness of the metaphor: "'The minnie balls, shot & shell rained upon us from every direction except the rear'" (Sears 245). The gunfire on this day was more concentrated and more furious than anyone could remember; as Lieutenant Thomas Livermore of the 5th New Hampshire recorded: "'The thundering of artillery, the roaring of bursting shells, the rolling of musketry, and humming of deadly fragments and bullets, . . . all seemed to fill the whole horizon and drive peace away forever'" (Murfin 257). Testimony published in the Republican confirmed these private reflections: "Old officers said the musketry fire was the hottest they had ever heard" (27 Sept. 1862).
Dickinson's metaphors, particularly those in the second stanza, faithfully represent this "Rain" of terror: "And Oh, the Shower of Stain—/ When Winds—upset the Basin—/ And spill the Scarlet Rain—." Here Dickinson uses falling leaves as a figure for falling rain, which, in turn, metaphorically represents the hot fire of the muskets that results in bloodshed. Dickinson's description of the "Rain" as "Scarlet" further clarifies this scene as one involving both nature and man; as John Ruskin, one of Dickinson's favorite writers, notes of the painter J.M.W. Turner's use of the color scarlet, "'It is this color which the sunbeams take in passing through the earth's atmosphere. . . . It is also concentrated in the blood of man'" (St. Armand 286).9 It is significant that the adjective "Scarlet" also appears in "When I [End Page 9] was small, a Woman died—" (P596), an elegy for Francis H. Dickinson (the first Amherst casualty of the war).10 In this poem, Dickinson does not attempt to disguise the fact of war, naming both the "Potomac" River and the state of "Maryland" in her contextualizing of the poem's events. Johnson dates P596 as of "[e]arly 1862," suggesting that it was composed several months after the young soldier's death on October 21, 1861, in the Battle of Ball's Bluff (a town in Virginia near the Maryland border). Despite his assignment of an early date, the poem would seem an unlikely description of Maryland prior to fighting there, which did not take place until September 1862, the same month as the Battle of Antietam.
But whatever that poem's relationship to Antietam, the debt that "The name—of it—is 'Autumn'—" owes to the configurations of that battle is much more definite. In addition to the unprecedented bloodshed, the landscape Dickinson depicts is a strikingly accurate transcription of the terrain around Sharpsburg, the town through which Antietam Creek flows. Sears's description of the topography of the countryside provides the most thorough account to set beside the rich detail of Dickinson's poem:
To Federal observers scanning the field from across the Antietam, the variations in the texture of the landscape looked most pronounced south of the town, where broken and wooded hills and ravines climbed fairly steeply 150 feet or so from the creek to the crest of the ridge. . . . North of town the ground seemed flatter and more inviting for maneuver, but the impression was deceptive. The terrain there, wrote a Northern war correspondent, was "completely deceitful," full of little hollows and rises and stone outcroppings.(186)
Significantly, this steeply graded ground—ravines, ridges, hollows, rises—and the dead men strewn across it figured prominently in reports from the front lines. Dunn Browne, in his review of the field of battle for the Republican, includes the following account of the landscape: [End Page 10]
The excitement of battle comes in the day of it, but the horrors of it two or three days after. I have just passed over a part of the field, I suppose only a small part of it, and yet I have counted nearly a thousand dead bodies of rebels lying still unburied in groves and cornfields, on hill sides and in trenches.(27 Sept. 1862)
The best known of these trenches—the Sunken Road (later renamed "Bloody Lane")—proved the site of some of the most grotesque violence of the battle. As historian James Murfin records:
The battle for the little sunken road had lasted for three and a half hours. It was the bloodiest period of the day. Federal casualties numbered 3,000. There was no way of determining Confederate losses. One Federal soldier wrote that the gray dead lay so thick in the road that a man could have walked its length without touching ground.(262)
In the Republican Brigadier General Kimball, who led the Union attack against the Confederate troops in the narrow Sunken Road, officially reported at the battle's end that "in the ditch . . . the bodies are so numerous that they seem to have fallen dead in the line of battle, for there is a battalion of dead rebels" (25 Sept. 1862). Dunn Browne estimated the number of slaughtered men in this one road at three hundred and fifty (27 Sept. 1862). Soldiers on the field recalled the sight similarly (if a bit more impressionistically): "'In this road there lay so many dead rebels that they formed a line which one might have walked upon as far as I could see,'" remembered Lieutenant Livermore. "'They lay just as they had been killed apparently, amid the blood which was soaking the earth'" (Sears 273).
In "The name—of it—is 'Autumn'—," Dickinson reveals the extent and depth of her newspaper readings by depicting a "Hill," "Alleys," and, perhaps most significantly, a "Road," all coursing with blood. The disjointed syntax of her lines—a syntax severed by dashes—grammatically represents the mutilation of battle as well as this "broken" landscape. Through her prosodic arrangement, Dickinson makes it difficult to see continuously (we are [End Page 11] given only fragmentary glimpses), miming her own piecemeal experience of war, in which reports from the front came in days (and even weeks) after the fact, as eyewitness accounts trickled in.
It was on this "'deceitful'" ground of Antietam that a turning point in the war was won. The Union victory (qualified as it was) at last paved the way for Lincoln to issue his Emancipation Proclamation. As Gary Gallagher argues, however, the Battle of Antietam was not only a turning point militarily and politically but culturally as well:
For Northerners, Antietam signaled a special turning point in the war. Photographers reached the battlefield before the dead had been buried—a first in American history. Their probing cameras captured the horrors along the Hagerstown Pike, east of the Dunker Church, and in the ghastly Sunken Road. . . . Profoundly moved, those who saw the pictures would never again think of battle as carefully dressed ranks of brave men moving gallantly forward. Their understanding of war now included images of the twisted bodies of North Carolinians and Louisianians, of dead horses and broken equipment, and of a blasted landscape.(91)
Although there is no evidence that Dickinson saw any of these shocking photographs, Harper's Weekly and Atlantic Monthly carried stories about them, and woodcuts of the death studies were reproduced in Harper's Weekly.11 Her imagination of the violence, while it does not have the same clarity or concretion as a photograph, achieves a similar effect: the absence of transitive verbs and the static syntactic patterning of the first six lines of the poem together convey the same frozen moment a photograph does, a snapshot of violence.
Mathew Brady's October 1862 Broadway photographic exhibit entitled "The Dead of Antietam" gave the public a chance to view these photographs firsthand. In fact, an anonymous New York Times review of the exhibit published on October 20, 1862, affords important perspectives on "The name—of it—is 'Autumn'—," especially on the final rhetorical move Dickinson's poem makes: [End Page 12]
The living that throng Broadway care little perhaps for the Dead at Antietam, but we fancy that they would jostle less carelessly down the great thoroughfare, saunter less at their ease, were a few dripping bodies, fresh from the field, laid along the pavement. There would be a gathering up of skirts and a careful picking of way; conversation would be less lively, and the general air of pedestrians more subdued. As it is, the dead of the battle-field come up to us very rarely, even in dreams. We see the list in the morning paper at breakfast, but dismiss its recollection with the coffee.
Referring to the lists of war casualties that appeared regularly in hometown newspapers, the reviewer points out the civilian's inability to keep in mind the memory of these dead soldiers, to be moved sufficiently by the enormity of the loss at Antietam. In his hypothetical description, he specifically figures the civilian as a woman, saying "[t]here would be a gathering up of skirts" if the "dripping bodies" of Antietam were transported to Broadway. As he goes on to note of the civilian condition (and here he includes himself): "We recognize the battle-field as a reality, but it stands as a remote one."
In the last stanza of "The name—of it—is 'Autumn'—," Dickinson asserts her own remove from Antietam, representing her occluded position in relation to that blood-soaked world. Recalling the reviewer's figuration of the civilian as woman, Dickinson observes that the blood "sprinkles" on the heads of women—on "Bonnets—far below." In this scenario, women are distanced from the violent realities of the battlefield: they are dripped on, not drenched. The poet's displacement of these synecdochic bonnets underscores the emotional and physical distance she feels between the source of violence and its ultimate reverberation on the home front, the location of most people of her gender.
As the final stanza comes to its close, Dickinson represents the war's inexorable movement away from her. Through the image of the rose in the poem's last two lines ("Then—eddies like a Rose—away—/ Upon Vermillion Wheels"), she signifies her inability to relate fully to the experience of the soldier.12 In other of her poems, the rose's departure from the landscape signals the advent of fall. For example, as she announces in [End Page 13] "The morns are meeker than they were—" (P12): "The nuts are getting brown—/ The berry's cheek is plumper—/ The Rose is out of town." In "The name—of it—is 'Autumn'—," though, it is not the "Rose" itself that departs; instead, "it" "eddies like a Rose—away—." Dickinson's placement of the rose in a simile, as the figure for something else's leaving, stands as further proof that the change of seasons is not her primary interest. The mysterious "it"—what we now recognize as the Battle of Antietam—finally refuses to remain: "We see the list in the morning paper at breakfast, but dismiss its recollection with the coffee."
Although it may be true in some ways, as Jerome Loving has observed, that "[Dickinson] knew the war better than Higginson," there is much about it he knew far better than she (37). By Dickinson's own admission, her location on the home front allowed her nothing more than a partial view. Her restricted civilian position is perhaps most forcefully expressed in the variant final line of the poem: "And leaves me with the Hills."13 In the end, she imagines herself as shut out, abandoned, left behind as the fighting carries on.
In his poem "To a Certain Civilian," Whitman derides this distance, accusing the civilian of wanting "dulcet rhymes," ones that are "peaceful and languishing," so as to construct neat fictions about war (455). However, in "The name—of it—is 'Autumn'—" Dickinson's rhymes are anything but "dulcet," coming slant instead to match her own oblique angle to the bloodshed. It is the same feeling of remove that compels Dickinson at the beginning of her poem to speak of "'Autumn'" and not "Antietam." Her use of trope reflects rhetorically the estrangement she experiences. Through periphrasis, she is able to avoid claiming a legitimacy that men like Whitman (ironically not a soldier, but nevertheless close to the front lines) would only ridicule.
Outside of this poem, Dickinson asserts her alienation from the fighting in a letter to her mentor Colonel T. W. Higginson, telling him that "[w]ar feels to me an oblique place—" (L280). She goes on to compare Higginson's disappearance to the season's, a relationship between figure and figured that corresponds to that invoked in "The name—of it—is 'Autumn'—": "I found you were gone, by accident, as I find Systems are, or Seasons of the year." In this same letter, Dickinson refers to "the limit of War" and entrusts [End Page 14] Higginson to pass it safely, thereby indicating her belief that there is a "limit" to her full involvement in and knowledge of such horrors.
This letter to Higginson is one of the few times we hear the poet speaking in her own voice about the war. In it, she reveals the sentiments that lie behind many of the rhetorical strategies that mark "The name—of it—is 'Autumn'—"as well as her other civilian war poems. For instance, in the concluding lines of "When I was small, a Woman died—," the speaker hails "Braveries, remote as this / In Yonder Maryland—."14 The adjectives she chooses—"remote" and "Yonder"—assert the disjunction she feels between her life in Amherst and these battlefield heroics. In "I'm sorry for the Dead—Today—," Dickinson again depicts her remoteness from the world of war: "It seems so straight to lie away/From all the noise of Fields—." Here her use of the word "fields" conjures up the image of farm fields as well as battlefields, which at Antietam are one and the same. The rather curious adjective "straight" also carries two meanings, referring both to the dead in their "Sepulchre" (stretched out "straight") and to the speaker's "[n]arrow," or constricted, view of the war. The fact of her peripheral civilian existence appears again in P444 (circa 1862), this time as a guilty privilege: "It feels a shame to be Alive—/When Men so brave—are dead—."In the course of this poem, Dickinson meditates on "Battle's—horrid Bowl," preserving throughout a distinction between "we that wait" and "the Men who die—."
Another poem of 1862, which Dickinson includes in the same fascicle as "The name—of it—is 'Autumn'—," represents the civilian's relationship to the battlefield in congruent ways (Manuscript 1: 481):
Whole Gulfs—of Red, and Fleets—of Red—And Crews—of solid Blood—Did place about the West—Tonight—As 'twere specific Ground—
And They—appointed Creatures—In Authorized Arrays—Due—promptly—as a Drama—That bows—and disappears—(P658) [End Page 15]
Using the war as a figure for sunset's awful hue, Dickinson imagines a sanguinary scene that touches everything from large to small (she moves from die "Gulf" to the "fleets" sailing on it and, finally, to the "Crews" of men aboard). But the speaker's involvement in this "Drama[tic]" performance is contingent; once again, desertion has the last word. Ironically, although Dickinson is not "Authorized," as these "Arrays" of troops are, to full access to the fighting, her "authoring" of this poem allows her to remark on her passive station.
"The name—of it—is 'Autumn'—," along with these other poems, refuses totalizing fictions about the poet-civilian's ability to identify with the war. Although the poem has received almost no critical attention (as a result of its reputation as a straightforward nature poem), the little it has attracted seriously misrepresents Dickinson's relationship to the violent world she seeks to describe. Far from being a pathological projection of the poet's diseased mind, as Cynthia Chaliff argues, the poem depicts realistically the nightmare of battle at the same time as it asserts Dickinson's distance from it.15 Ultimately, our recognition of the role Antietam plays in "The name—of it—is 'Autumn'—" allows us to reclaim Dickinson as a poet of a particular historical moment, one who wrote imaginatively on and about the circumference of war.
Tyler B. Hoffman is a doctoral candidate at the University of Virginia. His dissertation is on Robert Frost's theory of "the sound of sense," its relationship to modernist philosophy and poetics, and its mythological and ideological import as a fiction of form.
1. All references to letters in this edition will appear as L followed by the number Johnson has given them.
2. Wolosky builds on Thomas Ford's groundbreaking 1965 essay, a very brief account of several poems that signify the poet's interest in the Civil War.
3. All references to poems in Johnson's variorum edition of the Poems will appear as P followed by the number Johnson has given them. All information regarding variant lines of Dickinson's poetry is from this edition. It is important to note that Wolosky does not even cite P656 as a poem about the war.
4. Subsequent references to the Springfield Republican will appear in the text as Republican with date of issue in parentheses. Jack Capps reports that the Dickinson family subscribed to the Republican and asserts that this paper was "the most important" Emily [End Page 16] Dickinson knew, that she "habitually clipped and saved" news items from it to inspire her future work (140). Dickinson herself wrote of the Republican to her friends the Hollands, "I read in it every night" (L133).
5. Capps states that the Dickinsons subscribed to Atlantic Monthly. Furthermore, St. Armand attests that Emily Dickinson was "an avid reader of this journal" (329).
6. It is quite possible that Whittier's poem was also written in response to the Battle of Antietam in light of that poem's tide and date of publication; however, it does not bear the same compelling signs that Dickinson's poem does.
7. In addition to Dickinson's troping of the word "Antietam," I would want to keep open the possibility that she is also reimagining the figure of autumn that Whittier so benignly represents in his poem. Influence theorists could make much of the fact that Whittier's poem is written in common meter and is arranged in quatrains, a formal pattern identical to that of Dickinson's poem (although her second and fourth lines are not indented).
8. Webster's definition of "globule" leaves no doubt as to its association with blood: "a word particularly applied to the red particles of blood which swim in a transparent serum, and may be discovered by the microscope."
9. Citing authors important to her, Dickinson wrote to Higginson: "For Prose [I have]—Mr Ruskin—Sir Thomas Browne—and the Revelations" (L261).
10. The word "Scarlet" appears in the variant final line of the poem, "In Scarlet Maryland"; it is a change Dickinson's editors usually adopt.
11. For more information on these news items and a detailed account of the importance of photography in representations of the Battle of Antietam, see William A. Frassanito's Antietam: The Photographic Legacy of America's Most Bloody Day.
12. This eddying motion recalls Thoreau's essay "Autumnal Tints," particularly the section entitled "Fallen Leaves," where he observes that "large fleets of leaves" move "round and round in some great eddy which the river makes" (392). This is yet another trope of autumn in a mass-circulation magazine that may have informed the rhetoric of Dickinson's poem.
13. Although this change is adopted for publication in Youth's Companion, both Todd (in Bolts of Melody) and Johnson reject it.
14. "In Yonder Maryland" is Dickinson's original final line.
15. Cynthia Chaliff claims that the poem "with its hidden projection of anger onto the neutral universe, is an example of how she [Dickinson] coped with emotions inadmissible to her consciousness" (29). Clearly, this reading constitutes a serious evasion of history; by failing even to mention the fact of war, Chaliff perpetuates the myth of Dickinson as "madwoman in the attic." [End Page 17]