ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel
  • »
  • Books, Literature, and Writing

Emily Dickinson’s Civil War Tribute – Analysis of Poem No. 444

Updated on August 18, 2013

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.

Photograph of Thomas Wentworth Higginson
Photograph of Thomas Wentworth Higginson | Source

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.

Illustration of the Battle of New Bern from the April 5, 1862 edition of Harper's Weekly
Illustration of the Battle of New Bern from the April 5, 1862 edition of Harper's Weekly | Source

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


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • profile image

      Rayne123 4 years ago

      Such great history. I love the old history, the stuff we love to learn.

      I would love to travel back in time, that would be a great ride.

      great hub, her poems were so short but told a story all the time.

      Great information

      Thank you


    • KoffeeKlatch Gals profile image

      Susan Haze 4 years ago from Sunny Florida

      What a wonderful analysis of this beautiful poem by Emily Dickinson. I enjoyed reading it very much.

    • LastRoseofSummer2 profile image

      LastRoseofSummer2 4 years ago from Arizona

      AudreyHowitt - Thank you for reading and for your lovely comment. I'm glad you liked it.

    • AudreyHowitt profile image

      Audrey Howitt 4 years ago from California

      I love this work and want to thank you for such a wonderful analysis of it!


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: ""

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is used to quickly and efficiently deliver files such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisements has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)