Week 453: ‘To fight aloud is very brave’ by Emily Dickinson

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.

Emily Dickinson

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9 thoughts on “Week 453: ‘To fight aloud is very brave’ by Emily Dickinson

  1. “We” in the last verse seems to be the people “Who charge within the bosom”, that is, as David says, those who fight privately against life’s trials.

    • I prefer to take the ‘we’ to refer to those who admire and celebrate those ‘who charge within the bosom’, rather than necessarily the chargers themselves. A less self-interested reading, as it were.

      • Yes your suggestion seems to make sense. “We trust” = we trust in them (the cavalry and foot soldiers (“with even feet”))?

      • Ah, once again our readings diverge! I have always taken the last two lines to refer not to the cavalry and foot soldiers, but to the angels, ‘in plumed procession’, carrying out the celestial equivalent of a march past to give the dead heroes the honour that was not theirs in life. ‘With even feet’ i.e. marching in step, and with ‘uniforms of snow’ because we traditionally think of angels as wearing white. Personally I’d rather think of angels as being a bit less spit-and-polish, but no doubt Emily was influenced by the hymns of her time.

      • I think verse 3 is unclear, hence you and I read it differently, and that’s fine.

      • I noticed Johnson has a comma after “For such”. If “For such” = “for such people”, then I change my mind, I think your reading is correct.

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