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17 August 2011

A Day! Help! Help! Another Day!

A Day! Help! Help! Another Day!
Your prayers, oh Passer by!
From such a common ball as this
Might date a Victory!
From marshallings as simple
The flags of nations swang.
Steady—my soul: What issues
Upon thine arrow hang!
                                                       - F 58 (1859)

I’m not overly fond of this poem, but I do like ‘swang’ as past tense of ‘swing’. It’s true I can relate to the first line, especially when working for my last boss, but I didn’t think to marshall the prayers of passers by.
Dickinson uses martial imagery to convey the potential in every day to be a decisive moment. The soul is about to shoot an arrow and so must be steady. The people are to be marshaled in service of their country. The Day is a bullet, a ‘common ball’.
            The poet takes the role of both recruiter and infantry: she calls for reinforcement and she also fights. The question to ask, then, is what battle, what stakes, and what enemy? It’s easiest if starting from the end. The soul’s arrow is a prayer. The supplicant must aim it properly as there is much at stake – heaven vs. hell, perhaps. The prayers of others are bullets and they might help tip the balance of the battle so that the soul is victorious. So what is the cause for the battle? Since the poet is calling for help as another day dawns, we can surmise she battles for the will to continue rather than surrender, or perhaps with the will or ability to believe in Heaven. Each day becomes a battle for her soul. As nations have fallen or been saved by a simple call to arms (perhaps Dickinson is referring to the Revolutionary War where resistance was sometimes organized on the spot), so the poet calls on reinforcements.
            All those spondees in the first line (“Day! Help! Help!) and all those exclamation marks give the impression of shouting. But it is a tongue-in-cheek sort of shouted alarm. After all, who would holler for help because it’s another day? And so although the poem’s idea seems grave and important, the piece on the whole seems almost flippant.

1 comment:

  1. This poem may be a plea for prayers to vanquish ED's fear of death, but its martial imagery is no accident. ED was an inveterate newspaper reader and likely understood that a Civil War approached. Twenty-four months before ED wrote this poem, the Supreme Court decided that Dred Scott, who was born a slave in a southern state, was property, had no rights, did not become a free man when his owner moved to a free territory. The tone of ED’s pleading cry in 1859, Help! Help!, likely reflects the bad news of her country spiraling into war:


    On March 7, the U.S. Supreme Court reaches the Dred Scott v. Sandford decision, a 7 to 2 ruling that Congress lacks the power to exclude slavery from the territories, that slaves are property and have no rights as citizens, and that slaves are not made free by living in free territory. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney concludes that the Missouri Compromise is unconstitutional.


    February: A fistfight among thirty Congressmen divided along pro-slavery and anti-slavery lines takes place on the floor of Congress during an all-night debate on the pro-slavery Lecompton constitution for Kansas.

    May 19: Pro-slavery Missourians capture 11 free-staters in Kansas, then attempt to execute them in the Marais des Cygnes Massacre. Five are killed and five wounded.

    June 16: Lincoln gives his "House Divided" speech.

    The New School Presbyterians, who support slavery, split from the U.S.Presbyterian Church and form the United Synod of the Presbyterian Church.

    The Lincoln-Douglas Debates focus on issues and arguments that will dominate the Presidential election campaign of 1860. Lincoln emerges as a nationally known moderate spokesman and a moderate opponent of slavery.

    Senator James Henry Hammond of South Carolina proclaims: "No, you dare not make war on cotton. No power on earth dares to make war upon it. Cotton is King.”

    U.S. Senator William H. Seward of New York says there is an "irrepressible conflict" between slavery and freedom.

    Although solid evidence of their guilt is presented, the crew of the illegal slave ship, The Wanderer, is acquitted of engaging in the African slave trade by a Savannah, Georgia jury.

    Similarly, a Charleston, South Carolina, jury acquits the crew of The Echo, another illegal slave ship which is caught with 320 Africans on board.


    February: U.S. Senator Albert G. Brown of Mississippi says that ….. the federal government must pass a slave code to protect slavery in the territories. If it does not, Brown says he will urge Mississippi to secede from the Union.

    Oregon is admitted to the Union as a free state but prohibits the residency of any person of African origin, slave or free.[206]

    The U.S. Supreme Court rules that the 1850 Federal Fugitive Slave Law is constitutional and that states that don’t agree cannot overrule federal law.