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28 January 2013

Inconceivably solemn!

Inconceivably solemn!
Things go gay
Pierce—by the very Press
Of Imagery—

Their far Parades—order on the eye

With a mute Pomp—
A pleading Pageantry—

Flags, are a brave sight—

But no true Eye
Ever went by One—

Music's triumphant—

But the fine Ear
Winces with delight
Are Drums too near—
                                                                 J582,  F414 (1862)  

Many people who have watched a parade can understand the paradox Dickinson describes here. There is something quite gay about a parade with its music, its marchers, its colors and displays. Yet this gaity contains a pervasive solemnity. The Memorial Day parades honor soldiers and their grave risks and duty; Labor Day festivities remind of us of backbreaking work done by pioneers and of the battles faced by early union workers.

         Dickinson was writing this during the Civil War, and so those local parades would be not just solemn but “Inconceivably solemn.”  The marchers and bands might “go gay” past the crowd, but we would have been pierced “by the very Press / Of Imagery” rather than made cheerful. The “Pomp” is “mute” for it has nothing to say. The visuals tell all: uniforms, muskets, flags, horses, carriages. If they did speak they would have to talk of death.
         The “Pageantry” is “pleading.” There is certainly an irresistible call on our emotions as row after row of marchers go by. The soldiers – new recruits, veterans, and current warriors – march in step, look straight ahead; they’ve polished their boots, cleaned their uniforms; they straighten their backs. Everything seems designed to lift our spirits and make us more confident (and I’m speaking here of an “us” that would be present at Civil War-era parades with their local militias and citizens groups). And yet it is a plea. Do not forget us, do not pity us, do not let us be invisible. Help us be proud and strong.

Library of Congress: Members of the Garibaldi Guard
parade past President Lincoln.
         The third and fourth stanzas give examples of the parade paradox. The flags are “brave” and signal the pride and determination of those fighting on their country’s behalf – or those supporting that fight. And yet those who truly see the blood by which those flags are raised cannot watch them go by without tearing up or briefly looking down. Likewise, the “fine Ear” of those who truly hear what the “triumphant” music discloses, “Winces with delight” when the drums go by. First there is the delight, but then the wince. The triumph celebrated by the lively march music contains a full measure of tragedy. Every one in town would have known a fallen soldier. Death was beating beneath the drum rolls.

Walt Whitman captures the same sense of terrible exhilaration behind the drums in “Beat! Beat! Drums!” Here is the last stanza of that call to arms:

    Beat! beat! drums!—Blow! bugles! blow!     
    Make no parley—stop for no expostulation;     
    Mind not the timid—mind not the weeper or prayer;     
    Mind not the old man beseeching the young man;     
    Let not the child’s voice be heard, nor the mother’s entreaties;     
    Make even the trestles to shake the dead, where they lie awaiting the hearses,     
    So strong you thump, O terrible drums—so loud you bugles blow.   

As always, Dickinson and Whitman write in such opposite styles and with such opposing energies that one would never guess they lived their lives within a few hundred miles of each other and were both writing during the Civil War.

Update: I was just re-reading Dickinson's poem about the piercing pain of the pageantry of spring (F347: "I dreaded that first Robin, so") and was reminded that she viewed the march of the seasons with the same sense of solemn, wincing joy.


  1. First of all,thanks for writing such a beautiful blog.I have been a Dickinson fan long time and this blog is really good.It's so much better to know the background and all.

  2. Thank you, Malik. I appreciate your taking the time to comment -

  3. I love your pairing with Whitman - also see “Cavalry Crossing a Ford” where “...Scarlet and blue and snowy white,/ The guidon flags flutter gayly in the wind.”

  4. ED wrote Higginson (L280) “War feels to me an oblique place”.

    ED Lex defines oblique: “Aslant”, ED’s 1844 Webster “not direct”.

    Tell all the Truth but tell it slant —
    Success in Circuit lies
    Too bright for our infirm Delight
    The Truth's superb surprise

    As Lightning to the Children eased
    With explanation kind
    The Truth must dazzle gradually
    Or every man be blind —
    (F1263, 1872)

    To avoid blindness, however defined, tell the truth about war, but tell it slant. Every stanza of F414 is discordant:

    1. “Gay” victors / “Solemn” survivors,
    2. Parade “pomp” / “Silent” sorrow,
    3. “Brave” soldiers / “Unsteady” limp,
    4. Victory’s “delight” / “Wince” of pain.