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25 November 2011

To fight aloud is very brave

To fight aloud, is very brave—
But gallanter, I know
Who charge within the bosom
The Cavalry of Woe—

Who win, and nations do not see—
Who fall—and none observe—
Whose dying eyes, no Country
Regards with patriot love—

We trust, in plumed procession
For such, the Angels go—
Rank after Rank, with even feet—
And Uniforms of Snow.
                                               - F138 (1860) 126 

Dickinson starts off with a singsong line of iambic tetrameter and then a grammatically rocky transition takes us to the subject of the poem – the heroism of unobserved internal battles. Dickinson never describes what the internal battles are or how they are felt, but rather she sets up a contrast to what they are not.
            They are not like the charge of a Cavalry across the battlefield – which in all its visible and noisy clamor would be to “fight aloud.” Instead, these uncelebrated warriors fight the onslought of “Woe” – a whole cavalry of it. The second stanza then sets up the negative descriptors: that is, we see what the “aloud” warriors receive: if soldiers win, nations see; if soldiers fall, many observe; if they die, their country loves them in patriotism and gratitude. None of this, of course, holds for the fight against despair (which is considered in Christianity to be a major sin – if not the major sin, the unforgivable one). That is a lonely battle – but “gallenter.”
            While the first stanza is written in first person, “gallenter I know,” describing the internal battles of those who battle woe, in the third and last stanza the poet shifts to the inclusive “We.” This is a tacit admission that the poet and everyone else fights this battle. It is also an assumption that her “we” believes – and trusts – in angels. In her mid-1850s Amherst, most all citizens probably did, at least respectable ones.
Gustave Dore, from Dante's
Divine Comedy
            “We trust,” she says, in the “procession” of angels with their plumy wings, their calm progress with “even feet” – no stumbling or prancing, and their brilliant white garments as pure as “Snow.” Dickinson uses the word “Uniforms” as a way of unifying the martial imagery she employed in the previous stanzas.  The contrast between the “aloud” soldiers that the nation depends on and the angels is dramatic – and very skillfully drawn. The soldiers “charge” while the angels have “even feet.” The soldiers have war-like uniforms and weapons while the angels’ uniforms are the white of purity and 


  1. Im writing about this poem in class and this was extremly helpful. Thank you!

  2. What do you mean when you say despair is a sin?

    1. You'd have to look up Christian theology to get a complete answer. I think it has to do with the loss of hope: despair signifies a deep lack of faith in God / Jesus / Holy Ghost.

    2. thanks so much! also what would you say is the tone of the poem?

    3. You first - how would you describe the tone?

    4. I would say it's recongnition, your turn:)

    5. Re-check the notion of 'tone' in poetry (or other creative writing). It's like tone of voice. Mine is sardonic. Yours seems hopeful.

  3. This poem is a fine example of a relatively early poem by Dickinson that deals with the subject of woe, and whose military analogies may have been partly inspired by the context of the impending Civil War.

    Firstly, would I be correct in thinking that there are in fact 8 syllables in the first line, which suggests that the meter is, initially, iambic tetrameter rather than pentameter?

    The theme of battle, which is referred to literally and metaphorically, is striking in the poem. As mentioned, the adjective 'aloud', denoting an actual battle, aptly conveys the clamour and commotion of war, and contrasts markedly with the inner emotional battle fought 'within the bosom', which is not vocalised, visible or physically bloody. It is worth noting that the verb 'know' (which describes the speaker's personal affinity with or awareness of those suffering emotionally) rhymes with the noun 'Woe'. This reinforces the speaker's empathy with the grief-stricken, perhaps having been subjected to such an internal conflict herself. Maybe she has conquered her woe, or is still wrestling with it. By implication, she casts herself as immensely courageous too.

    Despite the bravery of those battling grief, we are aware of the travesty and tragedy surrounding their fate since no glory will honour their victory should they ever overcome their woe, just as no martyrdom will accompany their 'fall' or demise. In comparison with the love of whole 'nations' extended to the military soldier of war, we are given the chilling sense that the warrior of internal grief, through the very nature of his/her inner struggle, is an isolated individual both in life and at the moment of death. This is enhanced by the repeated caesuras or dashes in the second stanza which have the effect of separating the grief-stricken from the rest of the world (Who win, and nations do not see/Who fall - and none observe -). Indeed, the only form of salvation from and commemoration of the inner battle waged may possibly occur after death, in heaven.

    As well as the syntax, the words of the poem are, as ever, rich with suggestion. It's worth noting that the 'Cavalry of Woe' is capitalised while the literal, physical battle is referred to in the lower case. This evokes the greater force of the internal battle, which purportedly requires even higher levels of bravery to oppose and overcome it.

    In addition, the noun 'Cavalry', due to its phonetic qualities, is suggestive of the word 'Calvary' (denoting the Cross and the suffering of Christ). Dickinson employs this latter noun in reference to woe in poems such as 'I measure every Grief I meet'. By indirectly invoking the notion of great suffering and also of consequent resurrection, the suggested word 'Calvary' equips us for the imagery of the final stanza; here, the woe-stricken, hopefully or supposedly ('We trust'), are resurrected in Heaven, where their ultimate commemoration ostensibly occurs. It is fitting that the word 'Snow' (describing the Angel's attire) rhymes with 'Woe', seemingly suggesting the heavenly creatures' empathy towards the inner suffering of humanity. And yet, paradoxically, this ostensible empathy is undercut by very reference to 'Snow' which, while implying purity and salvation, also suggests coldness and unfeelingness.

    This intimation extends the hint of scepticism introduced by the conjectural phrase 'We trust' in line 9. As in many of Dickinson's poems, we are given the sense that what lies beyond in eternity can only ever be a matter of speculation. Perhaps it is solely the poet herself who is able, through her verse, to commemorate the inner battles fought, paying a general tribute to those who triumphed over their woe and those who, tragically, lost the fight.

    1. Thanks, Jimmy, particularly for the discussion on Cavalry and Calvary. And for pointing out the mistaken 'pentameter', which I just changed.

      You thoughts on the skepticism are interesting -- Yes, the 'I trust' does lead to the steady but cold procession of angels and introduce a bit of hesitation over their empathy.

  4. Thanks a lot for the excellent commentaries! I too was struck by the transition from the the first to the third stanzas:
    Intimate knowledge and conviction in first stanza in first person, contrast of individual experience with ingrained perceptions in the second stanza, and the stark skepticism in the third.

  5. “We trust” could be either an indicative-mood verb, – “We believe the angels go with even feet”, – or conditional, as Jimmy suggests– “if heaven cares, then angels march with even feet, but don’t expect warm empathy – they're wearing uniforms of snow)”.

    Given ED’s skeptical leanings, conditional mood seems more likely. Life is tough, get used to it.

  6. Whose dying eyes.... Patriot love how can this line be seen as central the theme of the poem??
    Could anyone please answer this question for me ?