Search This Blog

20 March 2014

It feels a shame to be Alive —

It feels a shame to be Alive —
When Men so brave — are dead —
One envies the Distinguished Dust —
Permitted — such a Head —

The Stone — that tells defending Whom
This Spartan put away
What little of Him we — possessed
In Pawn for Liberty —

The price is great — Sublimely paid —
Do we deserve — a Thing —
That lives — like Dollars — must be piled
Before we may obtain?

Are we that wait — sufficient worth —
That such Enormous Pearl
As life — dissolved be — for Us —
In Battle's — horrid Bowl?

It may be — a Renown to live —
I think the Men who die —
Those unsustained — Saviors —
Present Divinity —
                                  F524 (1863)  J444

Early in 1863, the year this poem was written, Dickinson wrote to her "Preceptor" Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson, then serving as commander of the first regiment of freed slaves. "War feels to me an oblique Place" (L280), she said. It follows then that few of her nearly 1800 poems can be considered true war poems. This is one of them. 
1863 was also the year Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation to free the slaves. The battle of Gettysburg, bloodiest battle of the war with nearly 100,000 casualties, was fought a few months later.  With these momentous events and her concern over Colonel Higginson, it is no wonder that the price of freedom would have been on the poet's mind. 
 "Hancock at Gettysbug" by Thure de Thulstrup,
showing Pickett's Charge

In this poem Dickinson ponders over the bloodshed and lives lost in the cause of "Liberty". Do we deserve it, she asks? 

What a question! The Civil War was fought over slavery: the right to own slaves and reap the economic benefit vs. the corrosive effects of slavery on the republic – to say nothing of the yearning and rights of the slaves themselves. (Yes, there were other factors, but I'm convinced by Doris Kearns Goodwin's conclusion in her highly regarded biography of Abraham Lincoln that ultimately the war was waged over slavery). Who would question such a battle, particularly after all the arts of statecraft and compromise had been exhausted in preceding years?

Dickinson, however, places herself where she can ask that question – as one for whom the battle is fought. 

On a cursory read the poem seems to be about honoring soldiers who die for the good of their country. They are "Pawn for Liberty", their lives forfeit. But for whose liberty are they dying? 
When Dickinson asks if "we that wait" are worth the enormous price paid in blood, how can she be referring to anyone other than the slaves waiting for emancipation? She asks if "we deserve" the bodies piled "like Dollars" – and this, too, must be from the slaves' point of view.
Dickinson also makes reference to the Spartans who died heroically in their doomed stand against a huge invading Persian army in 480 BCE. Did the civilian Greeks for whom they fought wonder at the price paid? Did the farmers and herders and townspeople reckon themselves of "sufficient worth"? (For the sake of the poem we should overlook the fact that Thermopylae was essentially a defeat for Greece.)
I find her question deeply humanistic. What is the proper balance between freedom and life, especially when it is your freedom and someone else's life? Dickinson here puts herself in the place of those Americans whose emancipation is at stake and still finds herself asking if Liberty is worth the "horrid" bloody bowl of war. We don't know what Colonel Higginson wrote to Dickinson about his battles and his troops, but his letters may have planted this thought.

Alternatively, while the poem may have been more urgently written because of the war being waged, Dickinson may have been meditating war in general. It is perhaps never truly worth the horrors and carnage, yet it births heroes, "Saviors," who pay the price "Sublimely". 

There is no denying the soldier deification in the poem. The dead soldiers are "so brave" their bodies ennoble the dirt in which they are buried. Dickinson compares the value of their lives to an "Enormous Pearl". Helen Vendler claims this is a reference to Cleopatra who, legend has it, dissolved a pearl in a cup of wine "to show the extent to which she disdained wealth." Were these dead soldiers' lives equally wasted in "Battles' – horrid Bowl"? 
In the final stanza Dickinson compares the soldiers to Jesus: they are "unsustained – Saviors" who exemplify "Divinity". Christianity worships Jesus as one who died so that humanity might be saved from the doom of sin. The Union dead died in service, ultimately, of Emancipation.


  1. The battle of Thermopylae was in 480 BCE.

    The reference to "Stone" likely refers to the famous ancient epitaph at Thermopylae:

    "Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by
    that here, obedient to their law, we lie."

    1. Thanks. Yes, the Spartan reference does double duty here, not only as a reminder of the heroes at Thermopylae, but as a gravestone providing information about a single Spartan – who he was and what side he fought for.

  2. The equating of lives with dollars also references those who paid others to serve for them. Her brother Austin was one of those who paid to avoid service. ED's and her family benefited greatly from those who served and I can see why she thought about this.

  3. ED begins with singular “This Spartan” because she is thinking of Frazar Sterns, her close friend and Austin’s Harvard roommate:

    “This Spartan put away
    What little of Him we — possessed”

    ED refers to a soldier who died following his officer’s command to charge, just as Frazar Sterns followed Officer/Professor Clark’s order to charge into an angry swarm of Confederate minie balls. In final fairness, “we” ordered Frazar Sterns into battle.

    “Do we deserve — a Thing —
    That lives — like Dollars — must be piled”

    Do “we” deserve the right to order Frazar Sterns into deadly battle?

    “Are we that wait — sufficient worth[?]—”

    What have “we” done to deserve that right?

    ED shifts to plural, “Saviors”:

    “Those unsustained — Saviors —
    Present Divinity —”

    Those dead soldiers, four from Amherst died at The Battle of Ball's Bluff, gave their lives so that “we” might have everlasting freedom, no matter the color of our skin.

    Just as “we” did nothing to deserve Christ’s sacrifice for our sins, “we” did nothing to deserve those soldiers’ lives.

    Except Austin; he paid some poor Irish immigrant $500 to take his place in the front line.

  4. Speculation:

    How would lives at Homestead/Evergreens been different if Austin instead of Frazar had joined the Union Army and been killed at Ball’s Bluff? That battle occurred on October 21, 1861. Ned Dickinson, Austin and Sue’s oldest child, was born on June 19, 1861.