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12 October 2011

My friend attacks my friend!

My friend attacks my friend!
Oh Battle picturesque!
Then I turn Soldier too,
And he turns Satirist!
How martial is this place!
Had I a mighty gun
I think I'd shoot the human race
And then to glory run!
                                                                          - F 103 (1859)  118

This is Dickinson in an exasperated, ironic mood. The attack of one of the poet’s friends on another must have been something to witness: it was a “Battle picturesque”, like something out of an old tale. Not wanting to stand idly by, the poet throws herself into the fray and gets a nasty faceful of satire (sarcasm, no doubt) from the first combatant. It’s a war zone! And the poet isn’t just thinking this is an odd bit of behavior among friends; no, she’s ready to “shoot the human race” and then head for “glory.” I hope by “glory she doesn’t mean to turn the gun on herself. Perhaps she thinks that if she did the Almighty this big favor she could get a ticket to Paradise.
            The poem has a comic tone, partly because the second line signals it, partly because of the thicket of exclamation marks, but also because of the structure: except for the penultimate line the poem is in strict iambic trimeter—a meter that services humor quite well. “I think I’d shoot the human race” is in tetrameter and is the stand out line in the poem.
            I’d like to think the poem can be taken at a deeper level as concerning battles between nation “friends." Further, closer to home, tensions leading to the Civil War were building. 1859 was the year of John Brown’s Harpers Ferry raid. Not that Dickinson would be referring specifically to Harpers Ferry (she would have hardly considered Brown a friend in any light), but this episode was a prelude to a true battle between friends.


  1. ED certainly did not know John Brown, but his attack on the Harper’s Ferry arsenal in 1959 sparked red hot debates in New England (e.g., ‘A Plea for Captain John Brown’ by Henry David Thoreau; October 30, 1859). On March 6, 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court blundered into its worst decision ever, the Dred Scot decision [arguably, its worst decision until the Dobbs vs. Jackson decision of June 24, 2022]. John Brown’s attack was a protest against slavery and, in particular, against the Dred Scott decision. F103, ‘My friend attacks my friend!’, probably resulted from an argument about John Brown’s attack and his later hanging by the US Federal Government.

    This debate directly involved the Dickinson family. Edward Dickerson’s younger brother, Samuel Fowler Dickinson, Jr., had moved to Georgia as a young man, and, in common with many New England families, Edward and Samuel opposed each other about slavery. Samuel and his son, Loren Dickinson, were both vigorous secessionists, the latter fighting for three years for the Confederacy.'s%20Health%20Organization%2C%20No.%2019%2D,v.%20Casey%20(1992)

  2. Susan K is unclear about whether ED’s big favor to the Almighty is shooting herself or shooting the human race. In either case, ED’s 1859 flippancy would soon sour when several of her friends, including Frazer Sterns, a fellow student at Amherst Academy and her brother’s college roommate at Harvard, died in the Civil War.

  3. I think she is serious about shooting the human race.