Did Emily Dickinson mistake her tone, her presentation? This question occurred to me as I went off into the deeper, album cuts* of Dickinson’s work looking for autumn poems this fall. Her early poem, titled on posthumous publication “Autumn” is charming and very much in a mainstream short poem tradition of the day. If she was seeking publication or just checking in on an honorable hobby of an upper middle-class** young woman, it would do.
The next Dickinson Autumn poem I found and presented, “Besides the Autumn poets sing” is still charming, if self and otherwise referential in a sly way. If I was to “translate” it into the diction and particulars of New York in the 1950s it could be written by Frank O’Hara. I believe she intentionally means that poem’s opening word: “Besides,” and that is not a careless rendering of “beside”. That little “s” makes it a poem about what the poets of her time did “Besides” (meaning “in addition to,” or perhaps “surplus too”) Autumn, not merely poets rendering in verse the season while metaphorically writing en plein air. That makes the poem an expression of what is other than, or in opposition, to what a leading American poet of Dickinson’s day like William Cullen Bryant was writing.
If I was to read this poem in isolation, if it came to me “over the transom” would I make that assumption? I’ll be honest: I suspect most times I’d miss it. I’d hurriedly read the poem as another simple Fall season lyric. I’d miss that “s.”
Did Dickinson intend this slyness, if I’m right in my more careful reading? My understanding of her character is yes, she did. I could be wrong. If writers, if poets, can misunderstand how their tone will be read, certainly us readers, busy and full of our own prejudices, can also do our part to misread or read ourselves into their work.
But then I came onto this remarkable Dickinson poem, one that’s frankly strange on the surface: “The name of it is ‘Autumn’.” Even now, over 150 years after it was written, this makes no pretense to being a conventional poem.
The first thing I noticed was that as a poem of fall, it doesn’t really work—or work the way we expect a poem on that subject to work. Yes, fall leaf color is a common trope for landscapes that have this event.*** But this poem goes overboard if that is all it’s trying to do. Yes, many of the autumn leaves are red, and yes we can say they are blood red. But if that was what Dickinson was intending, and if repetition of that trope might add to its power, I think many readers would think it’s overdone.
And so my first thought was, that must be Dickinson’s intent—to over-do it—because I now trust Dickinson as an artist, and feel from reading her that she often is seeking some doubleness in her expression.
But before I continue with my sense of the poem, let me alert you to two other readings that have been put forward to explain what this unusual poem is on about. The first is that it’s a poem about a particularly deadly section of the American Civil War in the fall of 1862. Historically aware readers often wonder why Dickinson (unlike her contemporary poetic revolutionary Whitman) doesn’t deal with this deadly domestic war directly. Unlike Whitman she didn’t live in close proximity to the battles, but she was the daughter of a politician who had been caught up in the slide into this war, and an avid reader of the journalism of the day. The Civil War reading says this is her recasting of the slaughter of these battles.
If one accepts that idea the images make sense, a strong argument for it. But I’m unsure how Dickinson, even as an aware news-reader, could have received this explicitly gory battlefield scene. I’m unsure that the Republican newspapers she read would have featured detailed descriptions of the slaughter.**** The only way I can imagine Dickinson having an opportunity to pick up these specifically blood soaked slaughter/war images would be if the somewhat self-sufficient semi-rural Dickinson homestead slaughtered their own animals for food and Dickinson (who came to be responsible for the gardening food aspect of the homestead) observed that.
The other reading is that this is a menstruation poem. Likewise, the images can be fitted to that conception. And while we know nothing of Dickinson’s gynecological history (which as readers we need to know, along with the sperm and motility counts of all male authors) there is no barrier here regarding Emily Dickinson’s experience and knowledge, and so I think this one is more likely.
The third possibility is that Dickinson did intend this to be another autumn poem, just with stronger imagery; and if she may have misread how the poem’s tone would be encountered by others, that by this time in her life she didn’t care. She could intentionally have brought in those things other, modern, readers have seen in it, warfare and menstruation, and created one of those bidirectional images where the thing signified and the images used to illuminate it are of roughly equal importance. One clue to that is that she’s once more making use of quotation marks. “The name—of it—is ‘Autumn—’” the first line seems to say we need to examine that word. What could we find on examination? One thing I, the punster, finds is “Awe-tum.” The other thing she may be saying is: “Well, it’s got a common name we might find unremarkable, a mere label for a season, but it’s serious business to nature.” Then, all that blood—and in my reading, the intimate linkage to human fertility—is to make that case, to drown that conventionality.
In such a case, the imagery takes over from the subject. If in the process of composition, the poem became not about autumn but about menstruation, then autumn becomes an intense outward image for what would have been a private, if widely shared experience.
Given that frankly feminist examination of literature is no longer a rare thing, I wonder how unprecedented this was poetically as a subject? Anyone know of any poem preceding Dickinson’s that has a plausible focus on menstruation? A passing line in the old ballad “Willie O’Winsbury” doesn’t compare to this level of imagistic intensity.
Rather than some colorful fall landscape photo, here’s Anne Briggs whose singing helped bring the ballad “Willie O’Winsbury” to the fore.
Well, all that talk, and the comic incongruity of mansplaining my experience of Dickinson’s poem, but this poem is lovely again as word-music. Dickinson is famously sing-able, so I was charmed to put even my shaky voice on the line here. I keep thinking I’m building up to a big-time orchestral score or a mass of synthesizer lines, but today I’m musically down to just acoustic guitar once more. This past week, I found online an entire 90 minute coffeehouse set by Tom Rapp and Pearls Before Swine, and the melody today is similar to one used in Rapp’s “There Was A Man.” I even planned singing a couple of verses of that song in a sort of a round with Dickinson’s, but I couldn’t make that work.
The text of Dickinson’s poem is here. My performance of it is available in a player you should see below, or on most podcast platforms or Spotify as the Parlando Project.
*(in geezer voice) In my day there were musical collections sold on disks, and they had to have a bunch of songs, not just the hits. A kind of wireless streaming service called “radio” sometimes played cuts that weren’t the ones that you’d pick out for your playlist. It was a primitive existence, but we didn’t know any better back then.
**It’s not straightforward to place the mid-19th century Dickinson household in class hierarchy. Clearly they were a prominent family in their town, so in the context of Amherst, likely the 1% for the latter half or more of Dickinson’s life. But Amherst also wasn’t a wealth center, thus my approximation.
***It occurred to me as I looked at my series of autumn poems I’ve been presenting this month, that there are large portions of this globe that don’t have the “theater of the seasons” that Dickinson’s Massachusetts and my upper Midwest share. The whole leaf-turning fall colors event is a big deal and traveling to rural areas where the largest canvases can be seen is a thing here. One academic paper behind a paywall that I found an abstract for even suggests that fall-colors tourism in the mid-19th century to New England places like the Franconia Notch might have contributed to this Dickinson poem.
****The political career and situation of Dickinson’s father is too complex a subject to detail today. He was a unionist Whig, who supported the compromises with slavery-states meant to prevent the Civil War, while likely opposing the practice of slavery itself. When the Whig party died out it was largely absorbed into the newly founded Republican party, which included those who were more militantly opposed to slavery and such compromise.
Dickinson’s father stood with the compromisers who thought preserving the union primary over the more aggressive anti-slavery factions of the Republicans. It was the election of the first Republican President, Lincoln, who presented himself as unifying those two wings of his new Party which was the proximal cause of the outbreak of the American Civil War—in other words, the slaveholders in slave-holding states figured Lincoln wasn’t serious in acceptance of the ex-Whig and unionist wing of Republicans and that he would allow the more abolitionist wing to take power.
Once the war broke out, there was considerable agitation in the North to settle with the Southern slave states, either to reform the pre-war union or to accept the formation of the new slaveholder Confederate nation. A prime argument for this was the deadliness of the ongoing war. So, in general, Republican papers in the day would not have been in the business of publicizing the grizzly nature of the warfare instead of bloodless gallantry and sacrifice.