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The Emily Dickinson Journal 12.1 (2003) 25-52



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Blood in the Basin:
The Civil War in Emily Dickinson's "The name - of it - is 'Autumn' -"

David Cody


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 -

(J656)

It was Emily Dickinson herself who observed that "The Riddle we can guess / We speedily despise" (J1222), a comment that goes far, perhaps, to explain the self-consciously enigmatic nature of "The name - of it - is 'Autumn' -" (J656). A riddle of daunting complexity, Dickinson's poem continues both to beckon and to baffle its readers, and the present essay is devoted not so much to an attempt to "guess" its meaning as to the more modest task of recalling or reviving, palingenetically as it were, some faint ghost or echo at least of the rich, complex and increasingly remote cultural moment in which it came into being. Precisely because it seems to embody [End Page 25] Dickinson's response to one of the most bloody and traumatic periods in our national history—the season that John Greenleaf Whittier referred to as the "Battle Autumn" of 1862—this intense, evocative and volatile poem might well be thought of as a sort of essence, one of those poetic "Attar[s] so immense," as the poet herself has it, distilled from the "familiar species / That perished by the Door" (J448). The distiller's raw materials, in this case, included a remarkably wide range of literary sources, including contemporary travel essays and magazine stories, the Bible, religious poetry, anatomical texts, war news, and works by favorite authors such as Sir Thomas Browne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Ruskin, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, all of them subsumed into an emotionally-charged but typically oblique or "slant" commentary on or response to the notion (expressed, in the white heat of the moment, by many of Dickinson's contemporaries) that the ongoing Civil War was to be interpreted as a great purgative sacrifice or blood-offering demanded of an erring nation by an angry God. 1

Though Tyler B. Hoffman would have it that "the landscape Dickinson depicts is a strikingly accurate transcription of the terrain around Sharpsburg, the town through which Antietam Creek flows" (10), her sources suggest that initially at least she was thinking of terrain not in Maryland but in New Hampshire, and specifically of the minor river (one of the sources of the Pemigewasset and the Merrimac) that fills and overflows the famous "Basin," a large and picturesque pothole located a little more than three miles below Profile Lake in the Franconia Notch region of the White Mountains (or the "White Hills," as they were often called in Dickinson's day). The poet herself, of course, never visited the Notch in person, but in 1862 she would have been able to draw upon accounts and depictions of the area made over the course of more than forty years by a veritable horde of travelers and tourists, including Thomas Cole, Jasper Cropsey, Asher B. Durand, Timothy Dwight, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Washington Irving, James Russell Lowell, Charles Sumner, Henry David Thoreau, and Daniel Webster. Citing F. Allen Burt's estimate that summers in the years immediately preceding the outbreak of the Civil War brought as many as ten thousand visitors to what had become "one of the most [End Page 26] popular scenic regions in the country" (46), Dona Brown reminds us that one inevitable result of the enormous growth in tourism was "an increasingly voluminous outpouring of prints, travel literature, and guidebooks" (48), insuring that visitors "drove and walked through mountain scenery about whose every peak and waterfall they had read stories and poems; stayed in hotels with romantic names; and viewed scenes they...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1096-858X
Print ISSN
1059-6879
Pages
pp. 25-52
Launched on MUSE
2003-04-17
Open Access
No
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