You are here

Dovell, Karen: "Classical Thermopylae in Works by Emily Dickinson: War, Death, and Immortality"

Classical Thermopylae in Works by Emily Dickinson: War, Death, and Immortality

Karen Dovell, SUNY Suffolk Community College

Selected works by Emily Dickinson reflect her ongoing engagement with Western classical tradition. Critics who have focused on this tradition in Dickinson’s works note her familiarity with classical philology, history, mythology and philosophy; they cite her well-documented knowledge of Latin and Greek, finding similarities between her terse lyric form and the Greek epigrams and Horatian odes she studied in school. However, discussions of Dickinson’s classical allusions have centered mainly on establishing the extent of her knowledge; they do not account for the reception of classical tradition in nineteenth-century American culture, and rarely comment on ways in which Dickinson may have adapted it for her own purposes.

This paper focuses on Dickinson’s allusions to the Battle of Thermopylae, an event in classical history with particular resonance in nineteenth-century American culture. At Thermopylae, a narrow mountain pass in ancient Greece, three hundred Spartan soldiers and their leader, King Leonidas, died while defending the pass against the invading Persian army in 480 B.C. According to classical tradition, as Dickinson knew, the defenders of Thermopylae exemplified heroic self-sacrifice in the face of certain death, for which they achieved immortality. As Dickinson also surely knew, references to Thermopylae, Leonidas, and the Spartan soldiers were common in nineteenth-century American culture, in connection with contemporary warfare. Beginning with the battle of the Alamo in 1836, and throughout the Mexican War and the Civil War, newspapers and journals cited Thermopylae repeatedly as a symbol of heroic self-sacrifice in the name of patriotism, associating classical civic virtue with the actions of American soldiers and commanders. Dickinson alludes to Thermopylae in four poems and two letters, written between 1863 and 1886. It is her most frequent classical reference, yet to date there has been no in-depth study of this allusion as a recurrent figure in her work, in the context of its significance in nineteenth-century American culture. Dickinson questions whether the sacrifice is necessary or worthwhile, and whether it will lead to immortality. In Dickinson’s engagement with classical tradition, Thermopylae emerges as a complex figure for her central themes of death and immortality.