It can be difficult to know precisely what Emily Dickinson means in her poems. It is not that her language is obscure, though it can be quirky, more that it is oblique, that she comes at things from an unexpected angle. But this one seems fairly clear: she is saying that there are two kinds of courage: there is the extrovert martial courage of, say, soldiers fighting for their country, and this is good in its way, but still greater is the quiet unsung courage of those who deal privately with life’s trials, with isolation, illness, bereavement, who face down their inner demons alone.
Some years back my three-year old grandson started nursery school. When asked how he got on on his first day, he said ‘I was a bit sad, but Big Connor said don’t whinge, so I didn’t’. If I read this poem right, I think Emily Dickinson would have approved four-year old Connor’s sturdy philosophy of life. Which need not mean that she lacked a proper compassion for the suffering and disadvantaged – the best stoics ask of themselves more than they ask of others.
Textual note: versions of the poem can be found online in which ‘cavalry’ in the fourth line is replaced by ‘Calvary’, the place of the Crucifixion, enabling the expositor to link the idea to the suffering of Jesus. As far as I know there is no warrant for this dyslexic reading, and to me charging an enemy cavalry makes more sense than charging a place, so the commoner version of the line is what I’ve stuck with.
To fight aloud is very brave,
But gallanter, I know,
Who charge within the bosom,
The cavalry of woe.
Who win, and nations do not see,
Who fall, and none observe,
Whose dying eyes no country
Regards with patriot love.
We trust, in plumed procession,
For such the angels go,
Rank after rank, with even feet
And uniforms of snow.