"Which obtain the Day"?
"General, the British" — "Easy"
Answered Wolfe "to die"
Montcalm, his opposing Spirit
Rendered with a smile
"Sweet" said he "my own Surrender
F482 (1862) J678
On 13 September 1759, two years into the French and Indian War (the Seven Year War: British and Americans against the French, Canadians, and various Native American fighters), English Major General James Wolfe defeated the French Marquis de Montcalm and troops in the crucial battle for Quebec. Wolfe died at the end of the battle itself, although it took three bullets to bring him down. Historians claim Wolfe rejected medical attention, preferring to concentrate on the progress of the battle. Someone called out, "See them run!" "Who?" Wolfe asked. When he was told it was the French in retreat, he gave a further order and then died.
|Death of Montcalm|
|Death of Wolfe|
Montcalm was also shot and was taken off the field during the French retreat. He died the next morning. According to historian Francis Parkman, when Montcalm was told he would not survive, he said, "So much the better. I am happy that I shall not live to see the surrender of Quebec."
Dickinson provides a brief sketch of the two deaths in parallel stanzas. The first stanza is Wolfe's who dies with ease, knowing his troops were victorious and his efforts not in vain. He must have also been aware of the importance of the battle. Once Quebec was taken by the British, Canadian days as a French colony were numbered.
The second stanza is Montcalm's. He also finds it easy to die. His "Liberty" is death; it beguiles him and he surrenders himself to it – relieved, perhaps, to not have to personally surrender his army and the city.
I'm not sure what it signifies, but Wolfe's stanza is full of "d" sounds: demanded, during, dying, day, and die. Montcalm's, on the other hand, is dominated by "s" sounds: Spirit, smile, sweet, surrender. The "d"s are more bold and maybe manly, perhaps, while the "s"s are more soothing. Wolfe goes out a warrior, while Montcalm, a man seeking his peace.
This is not one of Dickinson's top-tier poems. The concision – truncated grammar and elisions – don't lead the reader anywhere. I think she was simply interested in the two deaths and how they might be succinctly characterized.