Tuesday, February 05, 2008

A poem for Super Tuesday

Here in the U.S., we've begun the process of selecting our next President. And today, nearly half of the states in the country will be holding primary elections, in which members of political parties (and sometimes independents, as well) select the candidate they'd most like to represent their party when the general election rolls around in November.

I thought it fitting to mark the day with a poem by Emily Dickinson. Emily didn't give her poems titles (or numbers), but they have been collected up and assigned numbers, and are traditionally called by their first line. Here, then, is number 73, "Who never lost, are unprepared":

Who never lost, are unprepared
A Coronet to find!
Who never thirsted
Flagon, and Cooling Tamarind!

Who never climbed the weary league —
Can such a foot explore
The purple territories
On Pizarro's shore?

How many Legions overcome —
The Emperor will say?
How many Colors taken
On Revolution Day?

How many Bullets bearest?
Hast Thou the Royal scar?
Angels! Write "Promoted"
On this Soldier's brow!

History and some analysis:

The above poem was written circa 1859, and was first published in 1891. Dickinson was a proponent of the idea that experiencing negative things (e.g., loss, thirst) made appreciation of the positive things (e.g., success, something to drink) possible, and/or richer. It can be read as meaning that one can still triumph after loss, or that one can ultimately triumph after death. Perhaps the "Soldier" is simply a person leading a good life. Perhaps this poem is just one more of Emily's works that asks or seeks to answer the questions "is there meaning to suffering and death? is there the possibility of transcendence?"

But I think it not only possible, but likely, that Emily's poem has something to do with the events of 1859, and with John Brown's actions at Harper's Ferry. In October of 1859, John Brown, an abolitionist, led a group of men to seize the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry. His long-term goal was to distribute the weapons to freed and escaped slaves throughout the Appalachians, and to set up a revolutionary force ready to declare war on the slave states of the American South.

Brown and his men managed to hold off the local militia at first through their taking of hostages and use of weapons. When the U.S. military arrived (under the command of General Robert E. Lee), they punched holes through the armory walls and fired. Brown lost two of his sons, with eye witnesses saying that he felt the dying pulse of one of his sons with one hand while weilding a rifle in the other, all the while commanding his men. Brown was captured and, later, hanged. He remains one of the most controversial figures of the 19th century — hero to some, "misguided fanatic" (or so President Lincoln called him), or villain to others.

I'm not saying that Emily was an abolitionist, per se, but that she seems to have disliked slavery, and she is certainly known to have friends among the abolitionist movement (although it is likely that she was opposed to extremes within the movement). Only a few years later, Emily became a lifelong friend and correspondent with Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a reformer whose sermons she had read before she ever met him. Higginson, a minister, was one of the Secret Six who plotted John Brown's actions at Harper's Ferry; he later volunteered to fight in the Civil War, and eventually commanded the first troop of African-American soldiers.

Thus, it's likely that Emily is commenting on the plight of people like John Brown's sons, who died in pursuit of a noble cause. She's looking for purpose and reason for their deaths, and for transcendence for them as well. Then again, I could be wrong.

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