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12 October 2011

My friend attacks my friend!

My friend attacks my friend!
Oh Battle picturesque!
Then I turn Soldier too,
And he turns Satirist!
How martial is this place!
Had I a mighty gun
I think I'd shoot the human race
And then to glory run!
                                                                          - F 103 (1859)  118

This is Dickinson in an exasperated, ironic mood. The attack of one of the poet’s friends on another must have been something to witness: it was a “Battle picturesque”, like something out of an old tale. Not wanting to stand idly by, the poet throws herself into the fray and gets a nasty faceful of satire (sarcasm, no doubt) from the first combatant. It’s a war zone! And the poet isn’t just thinking this is an odd bit of behavior among friends; no, she’s ready to “shoot the human race” and then head for “glory.” I hope by “glory she doesn’t mean to turn the gun on herself. Perhaps she thinks that if she did the Almighty this big favor she could get a ticket to Paradise.
            The poem has a comic tone, partly because the second line signals it, partly because of the thicket of exclamation marks, but also because of the structure: except for the penultimate line the poem is in strict iambic trimeter—a meter that services humor quite well. “I think I’d shoot the human race” is in tetrameter and is the stand out line in the poem.
            I’d like to think the poem can be taken at a deeper level as concerning battles between nation “friends." Further, closer to home, tensions leading to the Civil War were building. 1859 was the year of John Brown’s Harpers Ferry raid. Not that Dickinson would be referring specifically to Harpers Ferry (she would have hardly considered Brown a friend in any light), but this episode was a prelude to a true battle between friends.

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