The hue — of it — is Blood —
An Artery — upon the Hill —
A Vein — along the Road —
Great Globules — in the Alleys —
And Oh, the Shower of Stain —
When Winds — upset the Basin —
And spill the Scarlet Rain —
It sprinkles Bonnets — far below —
It gathers ruddy Pools —
Then — eddies like a Rose — away —
Upon Vermilion Wheels —
F465 (1862) J656
|photo: Christopher O'Donnell
Reader, you may choose to read this poem as an extended metaphor of the famous flaming New England fall colors as blood. The red trees follow the cliffs on the hill and the river valleys as if they were veins or arteries. The wind swirls the colored leaves off the trees, and they fall like “Scarlet Rain.” Trees from the upper cliffs drift down to sprinkle the hats and bonnets of people below. Dips and hollows fill with the scarlet leaves until a gust of wind eddies and swirls them away “Upon Vermilion Wheels.”
Or, reader, you may feel, as I do, that such a close focus on blood is her horrified reflection on this very bloody year of the Civil War. In 1862, the year Dickinson wrote this poem, the War was raging at perhaps its most intense level. Notorious and bloody battles in this year were those of Shiloh, Antietam, and Fredericksburg.
Dickinson scholar David Cody wrote an article on this poem* pointing to a poem by John Greenleaf Whittier titled “The Battle Autumn of 1862.” It was published in The Atlantic in October 1862, and Dickinson would probably have read it. The poem is in praise of Nature whose “bloom and greenness sweeps / The battle’s breath of hell.” It includes this stanza:
She meets with smiles our bitter grief,
With songs our groans of pain;
She mocks with tint of flower and leaf
The war-field's crimson stain.
“Stain” is a poetically convenient word in terms of rhyme potential (“rain” [Dickinson] and “pain” [Whittier]). It is expected in the Whittier poem as a contrast to Nature’s “fields and fruited trees,” but it is jarring in Dickinson’s poem, which is seemingly about a beautiful autumnal scene. It forces one to re-think the red blossoms as something more sinister. The same can be said for “Globules” –which I doubt have ever before or since been used to describe the leaves of New England.
No, I think Dickinson is describing a landscape drenched in blood where the dying of the year and the dying of the soldiers mingle into a haze of dripping and flowing red.
*David Cody, “Blood in the Basin: The Civil War in Emily Dickinson’s 'The name of it is Autumn.'" The Emily Dickinson Journal. V. 12.1, 2003