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:
Fr527In 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"?
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?
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."
Fr247Here 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?