This essay situates Dickinson's nature poems in the context of her readings of the great debates between science and theology as represented in the New England periodicals to which the Dickinsons subscribed and key volumes in the family library. It is informed by Stephen Greenblatt's concept of energia, the ability of great writing to crystallize the social energies of a cultural moment. In the 1860s and 1870s New England was a major battleground in the confrontation between science and theology, and the New England periodicals to which the Dickinsons subscribed give a sense of the largeness of speculation stimulated by nineteenthcentury science. To be anti-darwinian in Dickinson's Amherst was to be against the spirit of learning and progress. Dickinson's poems and letters reveal that she was well aware of these issues. By the mid 1860s her theme might be called the emotional toll of darwinian theory as she tells us what it feels like to inhabit a darwinized place and to balance "The Chemical conviction / That Nought be lost" (Fr1070) with an awareness of the possibility of utter extinguishment. She writes about the struggle to come to terms with transience and to "build the dwelling earthward whose site is in the skies - "(L50), insisting on "The Fact that Earth is Heaven - / Whether Heaven is Heaven or not" (Fr1435). In some sense Dickinson is closer to Darwin than to his New England disciples; like him, she reveled in the sheer diversity, energy, and fecundity of nature, but like him, she was acutely aware of the suffering of individual creatures and of irredeemable loss.


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