Emily Dickinson: An Epitaph for Today


The difference between Despair
And Fear – Is like the One
Between the instant of a Wreck
And when the Wreck has been –

The Mind is smooth – no Motion
Contented as the Eye
Upon the Forehead of a Bust –
That knows – it cannot see-


Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

Biographers note that Emily Dickinson, who died on May 15 in 1886, was most productive in the first half of the 1860s. Secluded within the family home in Amherst, Massachusetts (except when tending the flower garden), she turned out hundreds of poems, mostly short, striking, often astonishing — but unnoticed by the outside world; her fame came after her death, which was likely okay with her.

Biographers speculate about what spurred this massive outburst (she left 1700 poems behind, almost none with titles, given numbers  instead). Some extended personal crisis? Missives to a secret love?  (She did seem to have some “affairs of the heart,” but most were entirely epistolary, and the few signals are mixed enough to suggest some may have been same sex.)

I haven’t read all the biographies, but want to dip my amateur oar into this rippling reflecting pool, to mention a possibility not dwelt upon in those I’ve seen: could the flood of verse have been her way of coping with the Civil War?

The Dickinsons were well educated; her father was active in politics, even serving a term in Congress; western Massachusetts was a hotbed of organized abolitionism, voted heavily for Lincoln in 1860, and sent thousands off to the war.

Thus, even though the battlefields were distant, the Civil War reverberated through Amherst, even into the Dickinson home. Although not exactly wealthy, the family was well enough off that by digging deep, Emily’s brother Austin avoided the military draft, by paying a hefty fee for a “substitute” (i.e., someone less well-fixed) to take his place.

Frazar Stearns, one of Austin’s close friends, the son of the president of Amherst College, did sign up. He was soon killed in a 1862 bloody charge against a Confederate  cannon unit around New Bern,  North Carolina.

The Amherst Cannon

Despite heavy losses, Union forces captured the cannons, and sent one to Amherst, specifically as a memorial to Stearns.

The Dickinsons, among others, were deeply shaken by this homecoming, and others for three more years. Dozens of other Civil War veterans followed Stearns, and rest in Amherst’s West Cemetery. Did Austin feel any survivor’s guilt?

Austin Dickinson


For largest Woman’s Heart I knew-
‘Tis little I can do –
And yet the largest Woman’s Heart
Could hold an Arrow – too –
And so, instructed by my own,
I tenderer, turn Me to.


Nature – sometimes sears a Sapling –
Sometimes – scalps a Tree –
Her Green People recollect it
When they do not die –

Fainter Leaves – to Further Seasons –
Dumbly testify –
We – who have the Souls –
Die oftener – Not so vItally –

That same year of 1862, Emily piled up hundreds of verses, stuffing them into drawers, much of it preoccupied with death and its meaning, or meaninglessness. And though after Appomattox, with the cannons stilled and her own departure still 21 years off, the aftershocks of that other long national earthquake, while often lightened by shafts of light, even ecstasy, never seemed to be far away.

Did she and her siblings suffer a civilian variant of a malady widely known in the  post-bellum years as “soldier’s heart”? Her poetic output noticeably slowed down.

Do our times feel to any readers like that? They do to me. Maybe this is another reason I feel like a sort of distant cousin to Dickinson, and her verse remains green, like the grass.


The Grass so little has to do
A Sphere of simple Green –
With only Butterflies to brood
And Bees to entertain

And stir all day to pretty Tunes
The Breezes fetch along –
And hold the Sunshine in its lap
And bow to every thing –

And thread the Dews, all night, like PearIs –
And make itself so fine
A Duchess were too common
For such a noticing –

And even when it dies – to pass
In Odors so divine –
Like Lowly spices, lain to sleep –
Or Spikenards, perishing –

And then, in SovereIgn Barns to dwell –
And dream the Days away,
The Grass so little has to do
I wish I were a Hay –


I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading – treading – till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through –
And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum –
Kept beating – beating – till I thought
My mind was going numb –
And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space – began to toll,
As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race,
Wrecked, solitary, here –
And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down –
And hit a World, at every plunge,

And Finished knowing – then –







6 thoughts on “Emily Dickinson: An Epitaph for Today”

  1. Thanks Chuck.
    I will never know the person who I would have been if it hadn’t been for the advent of HIV, I think maybe I would have been happier for awhile at least —though can it be said that one is happy while ignoring the sadness inherent in our usual lives.
    I am old now and learning those lessons that I didn’t want to learn any more than the lessons I learned from this worlds response to AIDS. Lessons, it hurts me to say, I am glad I learned. I am glad I am who I am now instead of living without the knowledge of what? Sin on a grand scale? Without sin Jesus died for nothing.. right?
    Ben Schultz

    1. I added a caption to the portrait, but it got cut accidentally. In the portrait, Emily is the redhead at left, her brother Austin is center, and her sister Lavinia is at right.

      1. Really? in general, girls’ hair was parted in the center, boys’ on the side, so I assumed three boys. and there goes assuming again.

        1. I don’t know about hair styling practices in that era or locale. But the three were thus named in the place where I found the image (Wikimedia as I recall); and Emily was described as having red hair in other sources too.

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