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  • Emily Dickinson's Civil War Poetry
  • Leigh-Anne Urbanowicz Marcellin (bio)

Though scholars recently have flooded the critical terrain with studies of Emily Dickinson, very few have probed her close connection to the most cataclysmic event ever to shake the United States. The American Civil War was not a remote event in the life or work of Emily Dickinson; rather, it touched her directly, and she treated it directly.

When scholars do approach the subject of Emily Dickinson and the Civil War, they tend to see it as merely a metaphor in Dickinson's poetry; for them, the martial elements of her work are just a key to her psyche. Dickinson may well have internalized the war, and she certainly employed war imagery for a number of purposes. But the civil conflagration that consumed her nation was more than a trope in her work. Emily Dickinson was interested in the Civil War as an historical event. The evidence of her ruminations lies in her war-related letters and in a rich and varied body of war poetry.1

Dickinson biographer Richard Sewall establishes the link between the poet and the war, affirming that Dickinson was well-informed about the issues and events of her day. For example, she had a detailed knowledge of Thomas Wentworth Higginson's liberal views on slavery and women's rights from her extensive reading of periodicals, and she corresponded with him as he traveled south to command a black regiment in South Carolina. She was certainly aware of her father's abolitionist leanings and her brother Austin's purchase of a substitute to take his place in the Union army. More importantly, the deaths of Francis H. Dickinson, the first Amherst citizen to fall in the war, of the Adams boys, acquaintances of Dickinson, and of Frazer Stearns, a friend of the family, deeply affected Dickinson.

Despite these connections, Sewall argues that Dickinson generally made a metaphor of the war rather than discussing it openly. Daniel Aaron [End Page 107] and Barton Levi St. Armand also focus on history but contend that the Civil War merely mirrored Dickinson's inner battles. Similarly, Karen Sánchez-Eppler and Betsy Erkkila seek to resituate Dickinson in her cultural context yet fail to acknowledge the significance of the Civil War, concluding that Dickinson simply was not a political poet.2

Shira Wolosky, who has written the only book-length analysis of Emily Dickinson and war, does acknowledge that Dickinson engaged with this event. She notes that of the 1656 poems dated by Thomas H. Johnson, more than half were written during the Civil War (32); she also counts fifteen letters referring to the Civil War (36). Yet even Wolosky strays down the path of the other critics, ultimately arguing that Dickinson internalized the war because it reflected her own conflicts.3 Thomas W. Ford and Tyler B. Hoffman are the critics who stand alone in recognizing the profound influence of the historical war on Emily Dickinson's poetry. Hoffman explores the relationship between poem 656 and Antietam, while Ford focuses on four of Dickison's war poems, poems 409, 426, 444, and 596. Of course, there are many more, including poems 582, 615, 622, 639, 658, and 759.4

The poems discussed here also are only a small sampling of Emily Dickinson's impressive war canon. In these diverse writings, Dickinson explores the experiences of specific soldiers and mourners as well as the war's religious and moral implications. Even the politics of the conflict appears in her poetry. For instance, Sewall notes that Dickinson takes the phrase "Earthquake in the South" in poem 502 from Henry Ward Beecher's highly politically-charged 1862 commencement speech at Amherst and uses it to describe the chaos of the war (646). Dickinson hints at the economic reasons for the war in poem 444, and, in poem 970, she touches on the most talked about reason for the war—slavery. This poem, though not really a war poem, seems to embody abolitionist sentiment, asserting that "Color—Caste—Denomination—/ These—are Time's Affair—" (1-2) and ultimately not important.

Dickinson uses many different voices in her poems, and her speakers are...