Singing off charnel steps : the war poetry of Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Marcellin, Leigh-Anne Urbanowicz
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Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Barrett Browning are not known primarily as war poets. However, Dickinson addressed the American Civil War in both her letters and in a substantial number of poems, while Barrett Browning wrote extensively about the Risorgimento, the struggle of the Italian states for independence and unification during much of the nineteenth century. The first chapter of this project treats Dickinson’s letters that refer to the war, revealing how the poet engaged with this conflict in her correspondence with her Norcross cousins, Samuel and Mary Bowles, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. In the second chapter, Dickinson’s war poetry is examined in detail. These poems about the soldiers who fall in battle and those who mourn them do not present a coherent political view, but rather suggest multiple stories and meanings. The third chapter includes poems less directly related to the war: poems about peace, revolution, patriotism, race, and the wars within nature and within ourselves. These works show how integral the Civil War was to Dickinson’s world view. The fourth and final chapter investigates Barrett Browning’s political and martial poems, focusing on three areas: her hero-worship, her position as an English poet writing about Italy, and her treatment of gender in these works. An examination of these themes illuminates the complexity of Barrett Browning’s Risorgimento poetry and the extent to which she wrestled with the political, philosophical, and social issues the Risorgimento brought to the fore. Though the two poets produced war poetry that often looks quite different, both approached war and politics from a similar angle. Both were keenly interested in the human heart, representing what Emerson terms “The republican at home” and wishing for a state based on “the principle of right and love.” Dickinson was greatly influenced by Barrett Browning; both “sang off charnel steps,” but believed fervently in humanity and its possibilities.