Emily Dickinson’s Civil War Tribute – Analysis of Poem No. 444
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. The floodgates of creativity truly opened for Dickinson in 1862. She wrote more poems in this one year (366, to be exact) than during any other year of her life.
1862 was also the year when Emily Dickinson famously wrote to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a somewhat renowned critic, asking for advice about the possibility of publishing her poetry. Dickinson’s letter, which asked Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?, was dated April 15, 1862. In November of 1862, Higginson himself went off to war as a colonel commanding an all-black regiment from South Carolina (The First South Carolina Volunteers). Dickinson and Higginson corresponded while the latter was away fighting the war, and continued a relationship – albeit a distant one – which culminated in Higginson helping to compile and publish Dickinson’s works after her death.
An extremely traumatic event in Dickinson’s life took place during early 1862: the Civil War hit extremely close to home when, on March 14th, a young man named Frazar Stearns was killed during the Battle of New Bern in North Carolina. Frazar was the son of William Augustus Stearns, the current president of Amherst College. 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 No. 444, 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 –
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.
Thomas H. Johnson edition
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. 444 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. To put this in perspective, $500 at the time of the American Civil War amounts to around $12,000 in today’s money.
The price is great – Sublimely paid –
Do we deserve – a Thing –
That lives – like Dollars – must be piled
Before we may obtain?
Are we that wait – sufficient worth –
That such Enormous Pearl
As Life – dissolved be – for Us –
In Battle’s – horrid Bowl?
It may be – a Renown to live –
I think the Man who die –
Those unsustained – Saviors –
Present Divinity –
In fairness to Austin, it should be added that he was very much shaken by Frazar Stearns’ death. Emily realized this too and described in a letter to her friend Samuel Bowles that the news of “Frazar’s murder” basically sent her brother into shock.
However, it is entirely plausible that Emily Dickinson may have had some underlying thoughts as to the reason why her brother was still alive and Frazar Stearns was dead. This is all the more believable when you realize that Dickinson’s family paid basically no attention to her poetry during her lifetime, and she probably expected that It feels a shame to be Alive would never be read.
© 2013 LastRoseofSummer2