Emily Dickens

Topics: Emily Dickinson, American Civil War, Poetry Pages: 8 (1492 words) Published: May 18, 2014
Monika Pietrzykowska

Emily Dickinson and Civil War in selected poems

Emily Dickinson was very much affected by the American Civil War. During the four years of conflict (1861-1865), she wrote nearly 850 poems. This number amounts to almost half of her entire works and more than four times what she had written before this period. Emily Dickinson wrote four poems directly influenced by the war: "They dropped like Flakes",

"It don't sound so terrible—quite as it did" ,
"It feels a shame to be Alive" ,
and "When I was small, a woman died" .
In 1862 an extremely traumatic event in Dickinson’s life took place. A young man named Frazar Stearns the son of William Augustus Stearns, the current president of Amherst College was killed during the Battle of New Bern in North Carolina. The Stearns were very close to the Dickinson family. Many of their friends had gone off to fight, but not one of them had died before. This shock about the reality of war most likely prompted Emily Dickinson to write her poem ,,It feels a shame to be Alive”. This poem is as important today as it was during the Civil War. It not only is a tribute to the fallen, but also illustrates the survivors’ feelings of loss and guilt. It feels a shame to be Alive –

When men so brave – are dead –
One Envies the Distinguished Dust –
Permitted – such a Head –

The Stone – That tells defending Whom
This Spartan put away
What little of Him we – possessed
In Pawn for Liberty –
This poem questions the bravery of those who live “When Men so brave – are dead”; When Men so brave – are dead; this was the unmentionable subject during the American Civil War. In that time a man’s honor and bravery was more important than his life, and to question the honor and bravery of a man who survived something so brutal as the civil war was simply not done.  In stanza one, line 1 Alive and line 4 Dust establishes a stark contrast between life and death because each word is capitalized. Therefore, when seen on a page, readers are forced to confront the question, who deserves to live while others die? Through the use of these lines, Dickinson also seems to hint at the religious concept of life - from dust, to dust we shall return. One envies the Distinguished Dust, Permitted such a Head gives the impression that one should be jealous of the dust, or the grave, as it is honored to have a person so brave that could die in battle buried in it. The capitalization of Distinguished Dust serves to emphasize this. In the second stanza, the persona talks about a headstone “The Stone – that tells defending whom” a clear image of death. The persona also calls the dead a “Spartan”, thus likening the dead to a warrior that was historically renowned for their ferocity, bravery and valor. In the... Despite the somber tone of this poem, there is quite an obvious reference to eternal life in the second verse: What little of Him we – possessed is a beautiful way to mention that the body is only one part of a human being. There is something else which goes on and which cannot be used as a Pawn for Liberty. Dickinson was very likely feeling rather fatalistic when she wrote this poem, not only because of the death of Frazar Stearns, but also because he was only one of the 90 Union Army members killed during the Battle of New Bern. Aside from being a tribute to Stearns and the other men killed during the Civil War, there is very much a possibility that Dickinson’s poem No. 44444, is an attack directed at her brother Austin. He and Stearns had been very close friends and they most likely attended Amherst College at the same time. William Austin Dickinson, however, did not serve in the Civil War. He, like many other rich young men, had taken advantage of America’s substitution policy which basically allowed him to hire another man to die for him. Austin paid $500 to avoid service. The price is great – Sublimely paid –

Do we deserve – a Thing –
That lives – like Dollars – must be piled...
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