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24 November 2011

Who never lost, are unprepared

Who never lost, are unprepared
A Coronet to find!
Who never thirsted
Flagons, and Cooling Tamarind!

Who never climbed the weary league—
Can such a foot explore
The purple territories
On Pizarro's shore?

How many Legions overcome—
The Emperor will say?
How many Colors taken
On Revolution Day?

How many Bullets bearest?
Hast Thou the Royal scar?
Angels! Write "Promoted"
On this Soldier's brow!
                                                                   - F 136 (1860)  73

The poem takes a bit of unpacking because Dickinson leaves out not only explanatory words but words that complete the grammatical structure of a phrase or sentence. The word “Those,” for example, should begin the poem and introduce similar phrases in later lines. (An alternative would be “Whoever”.)
            It begins with a paradox: winners may be less prepared for a crown than losers. Perhaps this is because losers will have been struggling and visualizing a prize or a better life whereas those for whom life has been so easy that they have “never lost” may simply be content to take life as they find it. Likewise, those who aren’t thirsty are not going to go seeking flagons of exotic tamarind. Consequently when the Coronet or flagon appear, the deprived and struggling folk will go for it with gusto.
            Francisco Pizarro is a Spanish explorer known for conquering the Incan Empire. Unsurprisingly his great victories are not as celebrated or romanticized today as they were in Dickinson’s. Her Christian milieu regarded those who effected the often brutal defeat and colonizing of the New World as bringers of civilization to the heathen and  missionaries to save the Indian soul. But it was hard work for the Spaniards and so the poet suggests that those who hadn’t worked for it, “climbed the weary league,” would be unfit to surmount the Peruvian Andes with Pizarro.
            Likewise, the emperor cares about how well his soldiers fought and how successful they were. If they have taken enough bullets and have received “the Royal scar” then they get “Promoted” into heaven.
            The phrase “Royal scar” is the  most interesting part of the poem. The poem works metaphorically as a description of getting to heaven (getting “Promoted”). Getting there means striving daily, thirsting for it, being lost sometimes, fighting against temptation – taken bullets over it. The scar here reminds me of the  poem “There’s a certain Slant of light” that she writes after this poem. In it she describes a “heavenly hurt” that doesn’t leave a scar. That would be a “Royal scar,” I think. But she changes, later, to think it isn’t really a scar, just a hurt. Wanting the divine, feeling the power of God but without knowing or understanding, being as sensitive as Dickinson was, might very well lead to an internal scar—a marking, so to speak, whereas the rest of us just cheerily sing hymns or pray in grief and hope.


  1. This poem's theme reminds me of "success is counted sweetest." Her grammatical juggling elevates the meaning - although I don't think Dickinson even thought about such things. Good website, by the way!

    1. Thanks, Signore. I agree on your point about the two poems. But I do think Dickinson played with grammar, syntax, and punctuation to achieve specific effects -- sometimes resulting in great power and sometimes confounding even her most fervent readers!