During the 1850s, Emily Dickinson was reading about the Fugitive Slave Law and the reactions to the law, and it was a burning topic in Washington when she visited the capital in 1855. As we come to expect from Dickinson, her reactions to this issue are powerful but oblique. If we look, for example, at some of her poems that deal with the nature of being a fugitive or of being hunted, we can see how she investigates a burning contemporary issue in surprisingly universal terms--suggesting the way that we are all in some sense fugitive slaves, seeking escape from enslaving aspects of our own selves. Dickinson, after all, is the great poet of Master-relationships; her "Master letters" and "Master poems" have generated massive amounts of commentary over the years, but few have thought of Dickinson's "Master" relationship in the context of the "Master-Slave" relationship that was central to the culture at the time.

A familiar trope in Dickinson's time was the comparison of fugitive slaves hunted down by slaveowners to deer hunted down by hounds: "Thus was I like the hunted deer," wrote the West African slave Olaudah Equiano in his popular 1789 slave narrative. John Greenleaf Whittier's well-known 1850 poem, "A Sabbath Scene," uses the trope to introduce the fugitive slave as she enters a Northern church, pursued by the slaveowner:

Like a scared fawn before the hounds,
Right up the aisle she glided,
While close behind her, whip in hand,
A lank-haired hunter strided.
Now let's take a look at some Dickinson poems where the trope of deer pursued by hounds and of "master" relationships might be usefully read in the context of fugitive slaves.


One Anguish - in a Crowd -
A minor thing - it sounds -
And yet, unto the single Doe
Attempted - of the Hounds
'Tis Terror as consummate
As Legions of Alarm
Did leap, full flanked, opon the Host -
'Tis Units - make the Swarm -
A Small Leech - on the Vitals -
The sliver, in the Lung -
The Bung out - of an Artery -
Are scarce accounted - Harms -
Yet mighty - by relation
To that Repealless thing -
A Being - impotent to end -
When once it has begun -

(c. 1863)

In this poem, Dickinson associates anguish with being a fugitive. The second stanza offers an evocation of a fugitive attacked by pursuing hounds every bit as horrific as Whitman's evocation in "Song of Myself" of the "hounded slave" wincing at "the bite of the dogs." Here, as in Whitman, there are religious overtones of a crucifixion, as the swarm of dogs leaps on the "Host" (which suggests the body of Christ in Communion ceremonies, as well as a host for parasitic invaders, as the next stanza suggests; futher, it is etymologically related to "hostage," which is what the fugitive, if he lives, is becoming at the very moment of attack). The fugitive slave's body is "host" to the swarm of its captors, just as the body hosts the leech, to drain blood supposedly for health. Are the bloodlettings and small slivers of destruction in the penultimate stanza like the Fugitive Slave Law? Small harms done, so we are told, for the greater good of the larger body? Small injustices to escaped slaves in order to preserve the Union?

But, Dickinson seems to ask, are these harms ever really small when they begin to attack a "repealless" "Being"? Once something has been given its humanity or has had the will to claim its liberty, perhaps no law--like the Fugitive Slave Law--can take it away. Is the suggestion here of fugitive as Christ a kind of examination by Dickinson of the ways that "bloodletting" has often been seen--in religious and medical ways--as an ultimate path to a higher good, but in fact always drains vitality? Are there hints in this poem that slavery, and the spread of its evil through the Fugitive Slave Law, is draining the nation of its vitality with each fugitive who is caught? Are the "Units" that make the swarm here, in addition to being literally the hounds that are attacking, also suggestive of the individual incidents of fugitive captures, the individual states that have now been coerced into joining in the hunt for fugitives, the individual citizens now deputized by the Fugitive Slave Law to aid the slavehunters? Is Dickinson suggesting with her use of the word "Repealless" that there are higher laws of humanity that must be evoked that allow citizens like Thomas Wentworth Higginson to violate the Fugitive Slave Law until it is repealed? Consider the ending of Whittier's "A Sabbath Scene" in relation to Dickinson's poem: Whittier's narrator, seeing how the Church and the South twist the Bible to make it support slavery, makes a claim to a "statute higher." How is this "statute higher" related to Dickinson's "Repealless thing"?


A wounded Deer - leaps highest -
I've heard the Hunter tell -
'Tis but the exstasy of death -
And then the Brake is still!
The smitten Rock that gushes!
The trampled Steel that springs!
A Cheek is always redder
Just where the Hectic stings!
Mirth is the Mail of Anguish -
In which it cautious Arm,
Lest anybody spy the blood
And "you're hurt" exclaim!

(c. 1860)


This poem focuses on the way that anguish is disguised by mirth, the way that people who most anxiously insist on their happy appearance may be hiding the deepest anguish, presented in this poem again as attacks on a fugitive, who finds the greatest strength in the final moment before capture. Consider the ways that black slaves were cast again and again by white commentators as serene and happy, lazy and contented, grinning and passive. Fugitive slaves by definition gave lie to that stereotype, for fugitive slaves were active and intense and agitated and anything but serene. How does this poem probe these issues?



My Life had stood -a Loaded Gun -
In Corners - till a Day
The Owner passed - identified -
And carried Me away -
And now We roam in Sovreign Woods -
And now We hunt the Doe -
And every time I speak for Him -
The Mountains straight reply -
And do I smile, such cordial light
Upon the Valley glow -
It is as a Vesuvian face
Had let its pleasure through -
And when at Night - Our good Day done -
I guard My Master's Head -
'Tis better than the Eider Duck's
Deep Pillow - to have shared -
To foe of His - I'm deadly foe -
None stir the second time -
On whom I lay a Yellow Eye -
Or an emphatic Thumb -
Though I than He - may longer live
He longer must - than I -
For I have but the power to kill,
Without - the power to die -

(c. 1863)


This poem deals explicitly with the Master/slave relationship, though most readers have interpreted the poem in terms of husband/wife or more general male/female relations. How would you read the poem in terms of the fugitive slave issue? Does the hunted doe work in the same way here as in the previous two poems? Here the speaker, if thought of as a slave, can speak only for his/her Master; the slave has no voice of her/his own. And, as a slave, the speaker can be pressed into service to help hunt down a fugitive and even carry out the destruction, because the slave is allowed her/his own identity only at the behest of the Master. Consider the definition of "slave" in the 19th-century Webster's: "A person who is held in bondage to another; one who is wholly subject to the will of another; one who has no freedom of action, but whose person and services are wholly under the control of another."


I never hear the word 'Escape'
Without a quicker blood!
A sudden expectation!
A flying attitude!
I never hear of prisons broad
By soldiers battered down -
But I tug childish at my bars -
Only to fail again!

(c. 1860)

Could this poem be read, on one level, as Dickinson's response to the numerous stories of fugitive slave escapes that she would have read about regularly in newspapers and journals? Does she find a kind of secret affiliation with the fugitives, a desire to share their "flying attitude"? Could the second stanza be a response to the many reported instances of Vigilance Committees throughout the North who stormed jails where captured fugitive slaves were held in order to free the slaves?


The Lamp burns sure - within -
Tho' Serfs - supply the Oil -
It matters not the busy Wick -
At her phosphoric toil!
The Slave - forgets - to fill -
The Lamp - burns golden - on -
Unconscious that the oil is out -
As that the Slave - is gone.

(c. 1861)

Here we have a poem explicitly focused on the "Slave," who provides the labor and the fuel to keep "the Lamp" burning--for the Master and the Master nation, so busy perhaps with its self-absorbed business that it tends to forget what that business is built on. But a nation that has learned to depend unthinkingly on the obeisance of its slaves may someday find the Lamp, which might still burn bright for awhile after the slave "forgets--to fill" it, will suddenly go out when "the Slave--is gone." Is the image at the end of this poem of a fugitive slave (suddenly "gone") suggestive of the eventual fate of slavery? Will the institution of slavery itself become a fugitive when the country learns it can no longer depend on its own light coming from the dark race that serves it invisibly?