What did Emily Dickinson think about the American Civil War, that great national trauma that occurred during her most productive time as a poet? And what did she think about the great national sin that was the cause of that war, slavery?
Emily Dickinson often writes puzzling poems, compressed like a set of speaker’s reminder notes on an index card. Despite occasional antique words and references to obsolete technology, Dickinson’s poems don’t really seem to dwell in a particular time or have any anchors in a time’s signature events. Instead we are left with the multiple capitalized idealized concepts that in the hands of most poets would doom a poem to vapid incorporeality—but the speed and brio of a Dickinson poem seems like the rush of thoughts, and that and they carry us along. All of this lets us see a remarkable mind thinking, but it doesn’t necessarily tell us the conclusions, only the methods by which it tries to reach them.
With many other American poets of her day we can tell what they thought of the Civil War and where they stood on the issues of slavery. Of course, we no longer read most of them, and we continue to read Dickinson. Even though my curiosity about these matters is personal, and in the end it doesn’t significantly change the originality and attraction of Dickinson’s work, I’ve still looked to see what I could find.
Dickinson’s father, Edward, was a politician, a member of the short-lived Whig party, and so there are political stands associated with him. The American Whig party, particularly for northern Whigs, was a “free soil” party. This meant that they did not stand for the abolition of existing slavery but wished to limit any expansion of the practice. Southern slaveholder interests were not content with that as a compromise. In an era when new territories and states were being added to the Union, they feared that they would eventually be too small a minority in a growing United States. In the 19th century before the Civil War, time and again these interests would come into conflict, and it was generally the Whigs who worked out some compromise that put off the Civil War. Edward Dickinson seems to have been an orthodox Whig, he supported those compromises, including voting for one of the last and most fateful of them, the Compromise of 1850 that gave the slave holders a Federal Fugitive Slave Act, giving license for bounty hunters of dubious ethics to haul escaped slaves back to the South (and financial rewards if they over-reached and just grabbed a free black person “by mistake”) and requiring local state authorities to assist in their efforts.
The injustices of the Fugitive Slave Act enraged Afro-Americans and energized abolitionist sentiments. And in the slave states who would secede at the start of the Civil War one of their chief complaints was that the Federal Government wasn’t doing enough to enforce this Fugitive Slave law against individual states that were hampering rather than aiding these “slave catcher” bounty hunters.
The Whig parties balancing act fell off the high wire shortly after that. It essentially split into two parties, the new Republican Party which was more adamant about free soil with no compromises, and eventually became the “party of Lincoln” and slavery’s abolition. The other part was the Constitutional Unionist Party which wanted to continue the Whig-style balancing act. Edward Dickinson seems to have aligned with the Constitutional Unionist faction, which completed the rapidly increasing progression to irrelevance for the Whigs.
On the other hand, both Edward and Emily Dickinson were on friendly terms with those who went the Republican route and even the more radical abolitionist bent. If yesterday’s story of Angeline Palmer might lead you to see a 19th century Massachusetts casting of To Kill a Mockingbird with Edward as Atticus Finch and the young Emily as Scout, the reality of the Dickinsons is much more ambiguous.
I’ve found various critics and commentators who have sought to answer my questions about what Emily Dickinson thought on these things. Some point to Dickinson poems and have suggested readings of them, but these are most often unconvincing to me. She does have poems mentioning warrior courage, duty and loss, but none of them seem to say anything about the causes or necessity of the pressing war in her time. Even more rare are references to slavery or people of color in the poems.
Mysterious and burning. Dickinson’s mind by lamplight
The poem I use for today’s piece is one of those rare ones. “The Lamp burns sure” is Dickinson at her most compressed and ambiguous. The poem’s plot is clear enough, an oil lamp whose oil is supplied by slaves or serfs (the poem says both at first, muddying the waters if it’s talking about slavery) runs out of oil because they have stopped filling the reservoir. The lamp’s wick is so busy burning that it doesn’t notice that it’s out of fuel and would in the normal course of events burn itself out shortly. The poem does not proceed to that end however. It leaves us only with the wick’s obliviousness, and then breaking the tie between the oil bringer’s role as being a serf or a slave, leaves us with the final statement that the busily burning wick is also unaware that the oil is out because “the Slave — is gone.” We don’t get to find out if the lamp is some Hanukkah mystery that will go on burning longer miraculously.
So, what does it mean, if it indeed means one thing? Some read it as a parable of creativity, that we’ll work ourselves past our resources in our passion. A key word there would be “within” indicating some imaginary inner lamp and the slave is just our body and emotional resources.
Some read it as a comment on the base labors that support a civilization that in turn supports arts, science or spiritual pursuits, and in that reading it’s an acknowledgment of the necessity of those labors—take them away, no light! The confusion of serf and slaves is a necessary confusion as it’s talking generally about civilizations.
And then some think, since this is a poem written in 1861 as the Civil War has broken out, and all the slave labor that has supported a large portion of the agricultural economy of the nation is now in question along with that nation itself, that this is not a generalized metaphor. The slave who’s gone, is an American slave, the light is an American light that will burn golden on.
Emily Dickinson’s desk with a whale oil lamp, a little luxury that could extend her writing hours
That last one would make it the closest to an Emily Dickinson statement on slavery and the Civil War. As I burn my own midnight oil tonight and I think of Emily Dickinson who wrote at night by the light of an oil lamp, I lean to the first reading. But some other day I might see something else and read it another way. I’d like to be surprised and to find out that Emily Dickinson’s keen and questioning mind could see what only some in her time could see about people of color and slavery, but that might not be the case. But here’s what I do find when I go to the music of that mind: a mind unafraid to be original and like Frederick Douglass in Robert Hayden’s poem, to believe freedom thought to be as needful as a heartbeat. Even if she didn’t free anyone from slavery like Lewis Frazier and his fellow servants in our last post, or agitate and orate like Douglass, I find there’s liberation there that burns sure.
Here’s my performance of Emily Dickinson’s “The Lamp burns sure.” Use the player below to hear it.