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20 February 2014

When I was small, a Woman died —

When I was small, a Woman died —
Today — her Only Boy
Went up from the Potomac —
His face all Victory

To look at her — How slowly
The Seasons must have turned
Till Bullets clipt an Angle
And He passed quickly round —

If pride shall be in Paradise —
Ourself cannot decide —
Of their imperial Conduct —
No person testified —

But, proud in Apparition —
That Woman and her Boy
Pass back and forth, before my Brain
As even in the sky —

I'm confident, that Bravoes —
Perpetual break abroad
For Braveries, remote as this
In yonder Maryland —
                      F518 (1863)  J597

This poem was long thought to be about Francis H. Dickinson, an Amherst man who was killed in a Civil War battle on the Maryland border (Ball's Bluff, Virginia). Some scholars disagree, saying that while Francis died in 1861, the poem was written in 1863, belying the "Today" of the soldier's death. Franklin suggests in his New Variorum that Dickinson may not be writing about any real people at all.
Death of Col. Edward D. Baker at the
Battle of Ball's Bluff, by Currier and Ives
It's a poem of comfort, no matter who it is or isn't about. The death of a woman followed by the war death of her beloved son seems like a grim topic for a poem, but Dickinson pulls out all the stops to provide something both sentimental and positive. In marvelous economy, the first stanza tells the story of what happened. The poet knew the woman who died and seemingly knew her son – or at least knew of him. The son died in a battle by the Potomac River, and in death his face was "all Victory".
        Dickinson imagines the reunited mother and son walking back and forth together as she gazes on the evening sky. And although she cannot decide whether or not pride has a place in paradise, Dickinson imagines that the pair is proud, particularly in regards to the son's heroism in battle. She goes so far as to suppose that the heavenly throng cheers for such bravery – even if it took place in "remote" Maryland. 
        In an earlier version of the poem, Dickinson used "scarlet" in place of "yonder" – a substitution that changes the poem quite a bit. "Scarlet" focuses the poem on bloody battles, while "yonder" serves to contrast earthly strife with the eternal and superior heavenly abode.

I'm not particularly keen on this poem, but I do like the bullets that "clipt an Angle" through the revolving seasons of the motherless boy's life. It's like a shortcut card on a board game.


  1. In other poems you repeat the first line in the text. Here, you record the first line only in the title.

    It seems to me, if only for consistency that it is better to repreat the line.

    1. Thanks. Must have cut and pasted instead of copy and paste.

    2. Franklin shows a comma after “I’m confident” which would seem to set apart the idea of her confidence in a subtle way. Could that indicate irony in her tone?

    3. Thanks, Pp, for catching the missing comma. I think the key word in your thought is 'subtle'.
      The word does draw a bit of attention to the confidence and perhaps that opportunity for the reader to think about how confident one can be in such a surmise was part of Dickinson's poetic decisions here.

  2. Even in a (seemingly) minor poem such as this there is still so much attention paid to sound. That string of "PR" sounds leading into that almost over the top string of "BR" sounds is notable in this poem. Why those sounds I wonder? And what IS it that ED is saying here? Beyond a kind of meditation of her wavering confidence in what happens after death here (love PP's take on the comma after confidence) perhaps the motherly part of her is standing in for the mother who died young, and she just wanted to recognize the boy. The bravoes for bravery breaking perpetually abroad are happening, if no where else, in this poem.

  3. "Some scholars disagree, saying that while Francis died in 1861, the poem was written in 1863, belying the "Today" of the soldier's death."

    Franklin reminded us that his “chronological” order was based on ED’s handwriting when she first copied a manuscript that still survives.

    'When I was small, a Woman died' (F518) could have been written in 1861, copied into its currently existing manuscript in 1863, and previous manuscripts discarded.

  4. More recent scholarship paints a picture unlike Dickinson’s poem and Johnson/Franklin accounts:

    “Because this poem dates from early on in the conflict — Ball's Bluff was fought in October 1861 and the poem was probably written soon after Thanksgiving — the stance it enacts indicates that Dickinson began the war open to the task of supporting it poetically. Not that the poem has any overt political content. But because Ball's Bluff was an early military failure, indeed a military catastrophe, the very fact that she wrote in a celebratory mode makes her poem patriotic.”

    “Reading her poem in ignorance of what actually transpired in "Scarlet" Maryland (as a variant for the poem's final line has it), we would never guess that the battle had been a disastrous loss or that the fallen soldier had suffered a monstrous death. According to official records, both of his legs were blown off-quite possibly while he was beating a hasty retreat. Gestures toward the historical event notwithstanding, Dickinson's aim in this poem might better be described as mythological.”

    Benjamin Friedlander.2009.Emily Dickinson and the Battle of Ball's Bluff. PMLA. 124 (5): 1582-1599.

  5. “Among the calamities of war may be justly numbered the diminution of the love of truth, by the falsehoods which interest dictates and credulity encourages.”

    (Samuel Johnson, 1758, The Idler, No. 30, 11 November 1758)

    Common lore misattributes paraphrases of Johnson to Aeschylus.