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10 August 2013

He fought like those Who've nought to lose —

He fought like those Who've nought to lose —
Bestowed Himself to Balls
As One who for a further Life
Had not a further Use —

Invited Death — with bold attempt —
But Death was Coy of Him
As Other Men, were Coy of Death —
To Him — to live — was Doom —

His Comrades, shifted like the Flakes
When Gusts reverse the Snow —
But He — was left alive Because
Of Greediness to die —
                                                            F480 (1862)  J759

Perhaps responding to stories from the frontlines of the Civil War, Dickinson writes a short ballad-form poem about a soldier who throws himself into battle as if he has a death wish, only to endure unscathed. Although a conventional soldier narrative would have us cheer his survival, Dickinson leaves us with nothing to celebrate. Many have died and the one who lives is foolish, even greedy.

This particular soldier "Invited Death," for to him life was "Doom." Death, however, "was Coy of Him" as if death were a lover playing hard-to-get. Death was certainly not so coy around those who did not seek her out. She certainly did not respond to the "Greediness" of the one suitor, passing him by.
            Bravado under fire makes a good story, particularly when used by charismatic leaders to inspire their soldiers. But this soldier's actions are not heroic – either in motivation or in outcome. We cannot celebrate his survival and his "Comrades" have fallen dead all around him. Dickinson's image is grimly ironic. The magical swirling of snow in a gust of wind here becomes masses of soldiers twisting and falling as they are killed by musket, cannon, and sword. There is almost a maliciousness in the way Death harvests the unwilling and leaves the one who wants to die.

Under the guise of a war ballad featuring a brave soldier, Dickinson leaves us with a bitter sketch of the wasteful perversity of war.


  1. Poem after poem this brilliant mind/heart touches and awes me. That last stanza with the comrades shifting like flakes "when gusts reverse the snow," I find myself, after an image like that, staring into space, stopped, changed. Poem after poem, my god!

    1. She constantly amazes me with imagery, metaphor, and twist of phrase.

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  3. In November 1882 (L785) ED used “flake” in a simile to describe her mother’s soul at death:

    “On 14 November 1882 ED’s mother died; ED was 51. Two weeks later she wrote her favorite cousins, Louise and Francis Norcross:

    “There was no earthly parting. She slipped from our fingers like a flake gathered by the wind, and is now part of the drift called "the infinite."

    ED also used “flake” in ten poems, at least two of which dealt with souls at death :

    45 I counted till they danced so
    54 "Lethe" in my flower,
    332 Doubt Me! My Dim Companion!
    480 He fought like those Who've nought to lose
    486 He told a homely tale
    545 They dropped like Flakes
    1121 The Sky is low - the Clouds are mean.
    1304 I saw that the Flake was on it
    1410 The Flake the Wind exasperate
    1665 The farthest Thunder that I heard

  4. “From 1853 - 1869, William Smith Clark (July 31, 1826 – March 9, 1886) and his family lived on the highest part of the hill just 500 feet NW of the Dickinson “Homestead”. He was Professor of Chemistry, Zoology, and Botany at Amherst College from 1852 – 1869.

    Before joining the Union Army, Clark took part in student military drill instruction at Amherst College and successfully recruited a number of students, taking a two-year leave, 1861-1863, to command the 21st Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. In August 1861, he received a commission of major in that regiment, lieutenant colonel in 1862, and colonel from 1862 to 1863. He appointed Lieutenant Frazar Stearns, whom he had recruited at Amherst, as his adjutant.

    Clark led the regiment in the Battle of New Bern, NC, on March 14, 1862. In that action, Clark garnered a reputation for bravery when the regiment charged a Confederate battery and he straddled an enemy cannon, urging his regiment forward. The gun was the first artillery piece captured by the Union Army during that engagement. It was presented by General Burnside to Amherst College in honor of Stearns, who was killed in the first minutes of the first Union charge.

    Union forces took New Bern, which remained in Union control until the end of the war. This victory was not without cost: the 21st lost 19 men during the battle, four of them from Amherst, including two from Amherst College.

    Clark wrote of the opening skirmish, which claimed his student’s life: “[T]he noblest of us all, my brave, efficient, faithful adjutant, First Lieutenant F. A. Stearns, of Company I, fell mortally wounded… As he was cheering on the men to charge upon the enemy across the railroad, he was struck by a ball from an English rifle…He lived about two hours and a half, though nearly unconscious from the loss of blood, and died without a struggle a little before noon.”

    The 21st Massachusetts Infantry participated in several of the largest battles of the Civil War, including the Second Battle of Bull Run, the Battle of Antietam, and the Battle of Fredericksburg. The most devastating engagement of the war for the 21st was the Battle of Chantilly, fought on September 1, 1862, during which the unit suffered 35 percent casualties.

    By April 1863, the numbers of the 21st Massachusetts had been so thinned by what Clark called the "cruel fate of war," that the regiment had virtually ceased to exist and Clark's command was only nominal. He therefore resigned his commission and returned to Massachusetts.

    In late March 1862, ED wrote her cousins, Frances and Louise Norcross (L255),

    “Dear Children,

    “You have done more for me - 'tis least that I can do, to tell you of brave Frazer - "killed at Newbern," darlings. His big heart shot away by a "minie ball."

    “I had read of those - I didn't think that Frazer would carry one to Eden with him. . . . He fell by the side of Professor Clark, his superior officer - lived ten minutes in a solider's [soldier’s] arms, asked twice for water - murmured just, "My God!" and passed! Sanderson, his classmate, made a box of boards in the night, put the brave boy in, covered with a blanket, rowed six miles to reach the boat, - so poor Frazer came [to Amherst]. They tell that Colonel Clark cried like a little child when he missed his pet, and could hardly assume his post.”. . . .

    Love from

    We can safely assume that 'He fought like those Who've nought to lose —' is about Professor/Colonel Clark.

    1. “West Cemetery

      “By The Amherst Historic team [brackets mine, Larry B]

      “Wealthier citizens of Amherst had the option to pay for a substitute to fight in their place. Without this possibility, the death list might have looked quite different. . . . .

      “Even Emily Dickinson’s brother Austin furnished a substitute, and some speculate that his choice not to fight was one of the reasons why Frazar Stearns’s death upset him so much. Paying to avoid military service became a big issue. . . . . This practice meant that ultimately more lower class men are among the buried dead.

      “The West Cemetery is the resting place of many Soldiers from Amherst [who died] in the Civil War:

      Colored Unknown Soldiers -¬‐ One is believed to be Jason Champlin -¬‐ a substitute for Hiram Smith of Amherst. Killed in action at Olvstee, Florida.

      Sanford Jackson -¬‐ Died of wounds received at Fort Wagner, South Carolina
      Edward Stanley -¬‐ Died at Harrisons Landing
      George O. Fitch -¬‐ Died from wounds received at the battle of White Oak Swamp
      Lyman W. Skinner -¬‐ Died by ill-treatment while a prisoner at Andersonville GA.
      Spencer Church Jr -¬‐ Died from disease contracted in the Army
      Samuel White -¬‐ Died at Fredericksburg of wounds received in battle.

      “Also buried here is William S. Clark”

      The population of Amherst, MA, in 1860 was 3,206.


      TPB comments on F480, ‘He fought like those Who've nought to lose’, dated 11 October 2023.,_Massachusetts

    2. Of course, the list of Amherst men killed in the Civil War and buried at West Cemetery also includes Frazar Stearns, who died on March 14, 1862, in the Battle of New Bern, NC.

  5. Franklin estimates ED copied 'He fought like those Who've nought to lose —'’(F480) into Fascicle 23 “about late 1862”. It was the 208th of 226 she copied into fascicles in 1862. Thus, ED likely composed this poem after the Battle of Chantilly, fought on September 1, 1862, in which 35% of the soldiers in the Massachusetts 21st Regiment died. Colonel Clark survived.

    1. Thanks for all this helpful and interesting information, Larry

  6. Yabetcha, as they say in the upper Midwest.

  7. The source that was the clue to the identity of “He” in F480 is an unusual 38-page publication by Ruth Owen Jones, “an independent scholar and historian who lives in Amherst, Massachusetts. She is at work on a chronology and biography of William Smith Clark and can be reached with comments and questions at”

    Her first paragraph caught my attention:

    “Since the 1890s, when Emily Dickinson’s poems and letters became public, there has been constant speculation about the identity of the Master figure. I propose that Emily Dickinson’s Master, the mysterious person she loved when she was about thirty, and for whom she wrote hundreds of poems and the three Master Letters, was William Smith Clark, who lived from 1826 to 1886. In the past Charles Wadsworth, Samuel Bowles, Otis Lord, and Sue Dickinson have been looked at as candidates, but Clark is more likely than any of them to have been Dickinson’s muse and audience from 1857 until 1865.”

    Jones, Ruth Owen. 2002. 'Neighbor -- and friend -- and Bridegroom --: William Smith Clark as Emily Dickinson's Master Figure'. The Emily Dickinson Journal, 11(2):48-85.

    PS: Jones makes a good case, but evidence supporting her hypothesis seems outweighed by evidence pointing to Wadsworth. Only ED really knows and she’s not telling. What matters is we have original ED-annotated manuscripts for almost every poem she ever wrote, sometimes two or three variants. We can thank Lavinia, ED’s sister, and Margaret Mayer, “Maggie”, Homestead’s housekeeper for 30 years (1869-1899), for not burning the poems along with the letters.

    (,Brien%20and%20Margaret%20Maher%20consecutively. )

  8. Psychoanalyst Harold Searles writes about one of his schizophrenic patients

    “She made almost incessant accusations to me and other passers-by, of this kind: 'I know what you're thinking! You're thinking that I shouldn't have drunk that coffee at 2 p.m. yesterday', or 'I know what you're going to say-you're going to say that I should have visited longer with my aunt over the telephone last week.' She would go, actually, into endless detail, and with innumerable variations, quite unwittingly displaying before the public eye the most private areas of her own unconscious, in this projected form. “

    This is an extreme example, but we all project to a greater or lesser extent. Suppose two people watch a soldier fight fiercely. One person says: "He fights like a lion because he wants to avenge his fallen comrades”. The other sees it differently: “He wants to get killed.”

    The soldier in this poem is seen as “One who for a further Life/ Had not a further Use.“ The speaker in F522 „I tie my Hat — I crease my Shawl —„ is in this regard in a similar situation, her life is empty and meaningless. „She continues with "life's labor" as seemingly nothing more than an alternative to suicide,“ writes Susan K in her interpretation. The speaker in „Severer Service of myself“ chooses a similar approach to that depicted in F522 and it doesn’t work. She comes to this conclusion

    „No Drug for Consciousness can be
     Alternative to die
    Is Nature’s only Pharmacy
    For Being’s Malady“

    I think ED identifies with this greedy-to-die soldier.