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.