1. Analyze one or more of the poems featured on this site--"What if I say I shall not wait!"; "When I was small, a woman died"; "They dropped like flakes"; "We dream - it is good we are dreaming"; "Did you ever stand in a cavern's mouth"; "A tongue to tell him I am true!"; "Sweet - safe - houses"; "I years had been from home"; "I am alive - I guess"; "It feels a shame to be alive"; "That after horror - that 'twas us"--in the context of its/their fascicle home(s). How does a reading of these poems in their material contexts complicate--alter, deepen--readings of these poems as isolated lyrics?
2. Look at the entries for "home" (or "homes," "homesick," "homestead," "house") and "war" (or "battle," "battles," "battlement") in Rosenbaum's The Concordance to the Poems of Emily Dickinson. Analyze the ways in which these clusters of thematically related poems help to illuminate Dickinson's relationship to both homefront and warfront.
3. Dickinson's poem beginning "I years had been from home" exists in two versions: the first, composed c. 1862, appears in Fascicle 21; the second, composed ten years later c. 1872, appears on a loose sheet of notepaper. In an analysis of the two versions of the poem, meditate on Dickinson's reasons for excerpting this poem from its fascicle context (home). In what ways--and why--is this poem about home made homeless by its author?
4. Between 1862-1865, Dickinson published six poems in newspapers: "Safe in their alabaster chambers," titled "The Sleeping," appeared in the Springfield Daily Republican (1 March 1862); "Flowers - Well - if anybody," titled "Flowers," appeared in the Drum Beat (2 March 1864), the Springfield Daily Republican (9 March 1864), the Springfield Weekly Republican (12 March 1864), and the Boston Post (16 March 1864); "These are the days when birds come back," titled "October," appeared in the Drum Beat (11 March 1864); "Some keep the Sabbath going to church," titled "My Sabbath," appeared in The Round Table, I (12 March 1864); "Blazing in gold and quenching in purple," titled "Sunset," appeared in the Drum Beat (29 February 1864), the Springfield Daily Republican (30 March 1864), and the Springfield Weekly Republican (2 April 1864); and "Success is counted sweetest" appeared in the Brooklyn Daily Union (27 April 1864). Analyze one of the poems listed above in the context of its periodical publication. Analyze the ways in which the bibliographical codes of the periodical bear on a reading of the poem. Examine the poem in relation to the writings surrounding it. What other homes--i.e., fascicles, letters to friends, literary correspondents--does the poem have?
5. Define "elegy" and offer readings of any of the poems and/or letters featured on this site as elegies. In what sense does Dickinson draw on elegiac conventions? In what sense do her poems disrupt the expectations common to the elegiac writing? Note: Two sites in The Classroom Electric offer valuable information on the elegy and consolation literature: Whitman, Dickinson, and the Elegy, and Consolation Literature in the Nineteenth Century.
6. According to Thomas H. Johnson's dating, Dickinson sent only nine letters to Thomas Wentworth Higginson between 1862-1865 (no letters for 1865 are extant), the years when their correspondence overlapped with the Civil War. Three of these letters -- J L 280, 282, 290-- contained direct references to the Civil War. Several other letters were accompanied by poems, including "Safe in their alabaster chambers," "The nearest dream recedes unrealized," "We play at paste," "I'll tell you how the sun rose," "The soul unto itself," "The possibility to pass," and "The only news I know." In a close reading of these letters and the enclosed or embedded poems, analyze Dickinson's overt and covert linguistic response to the War as well as her overt and covert emotional responses to the possibility of losing her "preceptor" to the War.
7. Compare and contrast Dickinson's war poetry with war poetry by her contemporaries published in the Drum Beat, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, and other Northern newspapers. Or, compare and contrast Dickinson's war poetry with Whitman's poems in Drum-Taps. Note: For the text of Whitman's Drum Taps, see The Walt Whitman Hypertext Archive.
8. Many of the fascicles were constructed by Dickinson at home during the Civil War: Can any one or any pair of these fascicles be read through the lenses of "home" or "War"? (Note: Fascicle 24 may yield interesting readings in response to this question.)
9. Compare and contrast the rhetoric of Thomas Wentworth Higginson's "Letter to a Young Contributor" with Dickinson's rhetoric in her first letter to him, J L 260. Is the rhetoric of war behind both of these other texts?
10. Compare and contrast the letters and poems Dickinson sent to the warfront (see especially her letters and poems to Higginson when he was serving on the battlefield) with the letters Whitman composed for the wounded soldiers in the hospitals and then sent to the homefront. Analyze the relationship between the addressee, the writer, and, in Whitman's case, the ghost-writer. Analyze the language of the letter or poem. How does the destination of the letter or poem impact its form and content--its voice? How many of these letters or poems may be considered "dead letters"?
11. Compose a parallel reading of Dickinson's 31 December 1861 letter to Louise and Frances Norcross (J L 245) with Whitman's poem "Come Up From the Fields, Father."
12. A number of Dickinson's poems refer to lists--such lists are almost always lists of the dead: "They dropped like Flakes - / They dropped like stars - / Like Petals from a Rose - / When suddenly across the June / A Wind with fingers - goes - // They perished in the seamless Grass - / No eye could find the place - / But God can summon every face / On his Repealless - List" (Fr 545) (For additional poems featuring lists, see: Fr. 279, 634, 927, 1111). Construct as complete a history as possible for one man whose name appears on the list of Amherst wounded or dead (add link to this list).
13. Two issues of the Springfield Republican -- 1 January and 6 February --feature articles on Higginson and his troops. Dickinson's first intelligence of Higginson's serious wounding on the battlefield also came from newspapers. Obtain the relevant issues of the Springfield Republican and analyze the coverage of Higginson and his troops. How is Dickinson's response to Higginson's plight and to the War in general--in poems and in letters--related to the newspaper accounts of the War?
These assignments were first developed in Marta Werner's spring 1999 seminar; to see the course syllabus, click here.