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28 August 2013

To offer brave assistance

To offer brave assistance
To Lives that stand alone —
When One has failed to stop them —
Is Human — but Divine

To lend an Ample Sinew

Unto a Nameless Man —
Whose Homely Benediction
No other — stopped to earn —
                                                                            F492 (1862)  J767

Perhaps there is one in every family or circle of acquaintances. One individual goes his or her own way, standing, ultimately, alone. We might have tried to reason with this individual or offer persuasions to join the norm, but that doesn't mean that we won't go to great lengths to offer assistance when it is needed. We feel a bit committed to someone we have been involved with to such an extent. We can't just watch them suffer or get into trouble. It's human to try to help.

        That's the first stanza. In the second, Dickinson presents a different scenario. Here there is a "Nameless Man," whom apparently no one knows. When this poor soul needs some help most people just pass by. While it is human to help the "Lives that stand alone," it is "Divine" to help the nameless and unknown. I think Dickinson means "Divine" in the sense of inspired and with great spiritual qualities (this is similar to Pope's usage in "To err is human; to forgive, divine").

Now for a different reading:

       In the first stanza the assistance offered is "brave." I don't think this means "daring" or "valiant" so much as the old-fashioned meaning of "loud" and "flashy." Read with that connotation, the rest of the stanza becomes tinged with cynical irony. Perhaps we are happy to help those who ventured out despite our efforts – because we can then feel both a rightness about our earlier actions and a righteousness about helping them.
William Ramirez Valenzuela
     But the second man? He needs some physical help, some "Ample Sinew." No one is lining up to earn his humble thanks, though. That would take a Jesus or Buddha or … a Good Samaritan. That's where I think Dickinson is taking us in this poem – to the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). In that parable (used by Jesus to exemplify the concept of "neighbor" to a lawyer), the only person to help a man beaten and left for dead is a Samaritan, a despised outsider to the Jews of the day. A priest and his assistant  crossed the road and passed by, giving the poor man a wide berth. No doubt they were concerned about a trick and an ambush, or about ritual purity (should the man be dead).

       It is not religion, not the pius, not most of us who will minister to the poor when they need it most, but people without regard for their status – other outcasts, perhaps; Samaritans. (Odd that we really only know of Samaritans by this parable and so they are always "Good."

I think Dickinson was thinking about these lessons as she wrote the poems in this fascicle. In the previous poem she wrote about a dying soldier, ending it with

Mine be the Ministry
When thy Thirst comes —
Dews of Thessaly, to fetch —
And Hybla Balms —

She, humble in her own way as a retiring spinster, can nonetheless imagine herself freely giving of herself to help the dying and downtrodden. The poem challenges us to do likewise.  


1 comment:

  1. ED walked the talk in her interplay with an “Indian Woman with . . . a dazzling Baby, at the kitchen door” (L653 to Higginson August 1880):

    “I was touchingly reminded of your little Louisa this Morning by an Indian Woman with gay Baskets and a dazzling Baby, at the Kitchen Door . . . . I asked her what the Baby liked, and she said "to step”. The Prairie before the Door was gay with Flowers of Hay, and I led her in [the baby, into the gay Flowers]. She argued with the Birds — she leaned on Clover Walls and they fell, and dropped her — With jargon sweeter than a Bell, she grappled Buttercups-and they sank together, the Buttercups the heaviest — What sweetest use of Days!"