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03 January 2017

The Battle fought between the Soul

The Battle fought between the Soul
And No Man — is the One
Of all the Battles prevalent —
By far the Greater One —

No News of it is had abroad —
Its Bodiless Campaign
Establishes, and terminates —
Invisible — Unknown —

Nor History — record it —
As Legions of a Night
The Sunrise scatters — These endure —
Enact — and terminate —
                    Fr629 (1863)  J594

In this rather cryptic poem, Dickinson contends that the interior battle waged between the Soul and the mysterious "No Man" is by far greater than the great battles fought between armies. That Dickinson wrote this during the height of the bloody Civil War underscores how seriously she takes this inner conflict.

The central question involves what Dickinson means by 'No Man'. Perhaps this is the Soul fighting with itself in some great existential conflict such as hope versus despair. More than a few of Dickinson's poems depict despair as a great foe of the Soul. While hope is "the thing with feathers" (Fr314), despair is an "imperial affliction" (Fr320). It is also, according to Christian doctrine that would have been familiar to Dickinson, the one unforgivable sin. No wonder it must be battled!
        But 'No Man' may well refer to God or some divine agent or sublime force. In "He fumbles at your Soul", God "Deals One  imperial Thunderbolt – / That scalps your naked soul –" (Fr477). In "I know that He exists" (Fr365), Dickinson depicts God's occasional "fond Ambush" as potentially lethal. For the Soul to hold its own against such a dangerous force would indeed entail a mighty battle.
        Dickinson's use of 'Campaign', though, expands our understanding of 'Battle': It is not a single contest, but an ongoing one. Unlike Civil War campaigns, however, no battle news is ever published. No analysts will ever puzzle over strategems. Even how it begins and ends is 'Invisible' and 'Unknown'.

One expects that the analogy Dickinson draws between the Soul's campaign and the routing of Night's legions by the ascendant Sun will shed some light on the meaning of "No Man"; instead, it introduces a fundamental ambiguity.
        First, the sun's victory over darkness is neither unknown nor invisible. Neither is there any doubt as to the outcome. More importantly, though, is whether the Soul is analogous to Night or to the Sun. If Night, then the soul is always scattered by the God-like Sun, its pieces enduring to fight again until some final termination. If, however, Dickinson identifies the Soul with dawn, then perhaps the battle is against the darkness of Despair, which even when routed regroups and attacks again, night after night.
        Finally, that last 'terminate' adds to the ambiguity of this reading. Who or what is terminated? Interestingly, Dickinson's manuscript includes the alternate word 'dissipates' for the final 'terminate'.

Regardless, the poem leaves me with a sense of relentless battle, the action recurring and ending, both sides enduring.

I am reminded of one of Dickinson's great Gothic poems: "The Soul has Bandaged moments"  (Fr360where various stanzas portray the soul in bandaged and constrained moments when subject to assault, in moments of Escape followed by retaken moments when she is shackled and led to where "The Horror welcomes her, again".  Here, too, the Soul wages desperate battle that it seems incapable of winning.


  1. I read the battle as an existential conflict -- whether there is an eternal soul or not. To say that there is a soul is to say that there is a self. "No Man" is a striking way to describe non-existence -- the struggle to find permanence and meaning.

    I don't see any mention of God in the poem -- except to the extent that the existence of "Soul" implies a God.

    I also don't see despair in the poem -- except to the extent non-existence implies despair.

    The last stanza is a metaphor. The legions of the night giving way to dawn is an everyday, common occurrence. It is not invisible, but it is so commonplace that history does not record it. Likewise, birth, life and death rendered in abstract, almost legal or clinical terms (endure, enact, terminate), is commonplace -- too close and intimate to be historic.

    It's a difficult poem.

  2. I'll just add -- Dickinson has a subtle, unconventional approach to the idea of despair.

    The phrase "imperial affliction" implies that despair has nobility. It is a "heavenly hurt". I have the sense that Dickinson would not trade this feeling for any kind of superficial happiness.

    Elsewhere, she describes despair from being parted forever from a lover as a "white sustenance". Here, I think she means that despair can be a source for nourishing the lost connection between lovers. Perhaps this is unhealthy -- in the same way that one can indulge in grief ("grief is a gourmand -- spare his luxury"). But the adjective "white" tends to take despair out of a simple black and white / good and bad dichotomy.

    The current poem (above) describes a battle. The words (establishes, endure, enact, terminate (2x)) are abstract and clinical -- without the depth of emotion that Dickinson uses elsewhere in talking about despair. And I don't think that we necessarily should think that Dickinson wishes that the soul should win the battle between "Soul" and "No Man".

    1. I have been thinking about this for the past week. I usually find my readings deepened and my appreciation sharpened by your comments but this time the insights go deep.

      Quite a few of the poem's I've studied thus far involve examinations and portrayals of despair. I generally take Dickinson's 'despair' to represent hopelessness -- the conventional interpretation. But the examples you provide in your argument for a more unconventional approach resonated with me immediately. Dickinson is original, deep, and linguistically brilliant; your reading reflects that much better than the conventional.

      As an example, thinking of 'heavenly' as both a positive adjective and a directional one deepens the poems (and those similarly layered) for me. Thank you!

  3. My reading of the poem is that NO MAN is not meant to represent a specific state of being, deity, or person that the reader should identify. I read the reference as a negation meant to eliminate the other possibility, i.e., man against man. I have possibly missed something deeper, but it came across to me that the battle between the soul and No Man just indicates an internal conflict. It could be existential angst, although THAT is not unrecorded. On the contrary it is universal and very much recorded, and analyzed.

    Anyway, continuing with my line of thinking: when the soul undergoes such a conflict, it is unlike the turmoil of man against man, and yet is an even greater conflict.

    So this interpretation got me through the second stanza, which I understood as a comment that for such a soul there may be no outward signs despite the ferocity of the inner battle - nothing noted or reported or set down to history, so unlike the Civil War that was blazing away with the thunder of ordinance, every skirmish widely reported.

    Unfortunately, there is also an inconsistency in my interpretation, because if internal struggles are unnoticed and therefore forgotten, just as Legions of the Night [banks of night clouds that dissipate after the sun rises sprang to mind for me, as a regular stargazer] are forgotten and unrecorded, why are they said to endure?

    So MY central question is, who are "these" that endure, enact and terminate.

    This being said, I like the other two interpretations and come away with new insight. I just gravitate to a simpler reading that finds in this poem a powerful description of a soul in the grip of a moral dilemma.
    Lee Silverwood

    1. I struggled with the 'these' for quite a while. Using your simpler rubric one could go with "Legions" as the grammatical choice. Yet it is unsatisfying.

  4. I really wish I had your command of her body of work. As a novice, I find that the only meaning that applies to this text is the slaves submission so the war is an internal one between submission or emancipation. It also works with everything you've already said. The last stanza says to me, the stars remain even as daylight extinguishes them making any captive see that his freedom is eternal.

  5. Thank you, Susan, for your great blog posts! I think "No Man" is plainly biblical: Eph 6:11-13, for "No Man" esp. 12. also Mark 5:8-10, for "Legion," esp. 11. Then the poem is probably simply about fighting with the devil.

    1. Thank you so much -- those verses are really germane. They truly paint a picture of inner spiritual war.

      For other readers: here is the Ephesians:

      And here is the Mark:

  6. I am thrilled about discovering your blog. Do you have an opinion about the Dickinson poem I cited in my blog this morning?
    I would be pleased to know your thoughts.

    1. I think that poem is about the thrill of faith. Dickinson isn't talking about some anodyne style of living as the Church might teach but by actually embarking on a journey that offers both danger and exaltation. Your blog looks very interesting!

  7. This is a great inspiring article.I am pretty much pleased with your good work.You put really very helpful information...


  8. I want to read this poem as simply as the commenter above did, as a spiritual battle, but I have a bit of a hard time reading No Man as a mere substitute for "principalities...powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world...spiritual wickedness in high places." (Ephesians 6:12) What would that mean? "No One" is metaphor for "powers" and "spiritual wickedness in high places", which would mean corrupt power like governments or businesses? This could be it, but it still doesn't seem very Dickinsonian though to me. And it certainly doesn't seem Dickinsonian to believe in actual demons.

    I see two other possible interpretations of "No One" implied here, though both are quite different from each other, perhaps even opposite in a way.

    My first thought was that No Man here represented the dead, or the lost self, perhaps indicating a suicidal thought, where the soul is fighting for the man keep existing, to "be". In this sense it would be the same battle as is expressed in Hamlet, "To be or not to be, that is the question." Your reading above alludes to this I believe with the idea of "despair".

    I can see that battle in myself, especially when I am very tired, wanting to just let go, while another part is raging against the dying of the light. I see it in ED's work too, in poems like F605, which starts out "I am alive - I guess" and ends "How good - to be alive!" In that poem the sunlight eventually scatters the legions of the night. "No Man" gives way to the soul.

    Then I wondered if "No Man" might mean "no other man", as in,
    "The Battle fought between the Soul/ And No (other) Man." This would mean the battle is between the soul and no other man besides the self itself.

    And that makes sense too, that the soul must fight against the self, against the defined sense of self, the ego. I see that battle in Dickinson too. In fact in that same poem mentioned previously, F605, ED writes "I am alive because I do not own a house."

    I can recognize both of these struggles inside, "where the meanings are".

  9. I go on to the second stanza for help with understanding what ED means in the first, but instead the questions deepen. There are a few ambiguities in these lines too, not least of which that "terminate" there at the end (where the poem itself terminates.) Is what "enacts" terminated? Or does what "enacts" terminate, as in kill? This seems like a sliding modifier of sorts, like a purposeful ambiguity, similar to the one at the end of "After great pain a formal feeling comes". Is it life being let go of, or is it the pain being let go of when she writes, "First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go – "? You don't know because it depends on whether or not the hour of lead is "outlived" or not. The poet is, as Helen Vendler points out, still in the midst of the crisis. So it is, perhaps, with this poem. The ambiguity of that terminates is as of yet indeterminable, we don't know whether the legions end up eventually scattering like sunrise, or if it "endures" into the daylight and kills us.

    The fact that "dissipates" was the alternate word for terminate leads me to believe that ED was going for the idea that though the battles may endure for a long time, the darkness eventually dissipates, comes to an end as the day begins (whatever "day" signifies). But I wonder if ED chose "terminate" instead of "dissipates" for the way it ambiguates the poem?

    There is a magic trick to poems like this. The entire poem is a sliding modifier. This is one of those poems you could ask 100 people to interpret and get a different, perhaps even an opposite, angle from each. How can ED be so PRECISELY imprecise?

    If I had to side with a reading of this poem though, I'd guess it is telling us we are in (or THINK we are in) an invisible battle with darkness, and because we feel it so deeply, it is more prevalent than other battles, but, that we shouldn't despair because eventually the sun comes out. In that sense maybe "No Man" means, "nothing". The soul is an unnecessary battle because if the sun scatters the darkness eventually, than the battle wasn't necessary in the first place, unless it is the battle just to stay alive until morning. It is telling us to wait out the darkness.

    Along these lines I would guess that the first "terminates" in this poem is meant to mean "kills" and the second "terminate", using the clue of the alternate word "dissipates" means the battle itself ends. She uses it twice, to get at the difference between darkness "killing" us as opposed to the darkness enacting, but eventually "being killed".

  10. You read a Dickinson poem deeply and reflections of it start to appear around, as if in conversation. Here a couple echoes from today’s reading,

    Peanuts cartoon, Linus says to Charlie Brown, “the thing we call failure. It is not the falling down. It is the staying down.”

    Also germane, from Saint Exupery, “it is such a secret place, the land of tears.“

    -D Scribe

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  12. COMMENT ON F623, ‘Prayer is the little implement’, (January 19, 2024 at 3:38 PM):

    “As ED poem succeeds ED poem, it feels she moves gradually from “God the loving Father” to “God the Watchmaker” to “God the Unconcerned” to “God the Deaf, Dumb, and Blind” to “God the Human Invention”. . . .

    “I wonder whether ED ever reached that . . . simple belief: there is no there there.”

    COMMENT ON F624, ‘What care I for the dead’ (January 19, 2024 at 6:38 PM):

    “With this poem, . . . ED hints at an answer to the implied question of F623, The answer leans yes, at least for this poem.”

    COMMENT ON F629, ‘The Battle fought between the Soul’

    In this poem, ED definitively answers the implied question, Who or what is God?:

    “The Battle fought between the Soul / And No Man . . . //
    “No News of it is had abroad — / Its Bodiless Campaign / Establishes, and terminates — //
    “Nor History — record it — / As Legions of a Night / Enact — and terminate —”

    Susan K got it right in her third paragraph: “No Man” refers to God. “No Man” and God are one and the same: nobody, nichts, nothing.

    The “Legions of a Night” enacted and terminated God.