They dropped like Flakes –
They dropped like stars –
Like Petals from a Rose –
When suddenly across the June
A Wind with fingers – goes –
They perished in the seamless Grass –
No eye could find the place –
But God can summon every face
On his Repealless – List.
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Fascicle 28 (1863). First published in Further Poems edited by Martha Dickinson Bianchi and Alfred Leete Hampson in 1929. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.
This is one of the most famous Dickinson poems about the Civil War. Dickinson’s first editors, Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, recognized its subject and included it in the first collection of Dickinson’s poems published in 1890 under the title “The Battle-Field.” To get a sense of the public conversation about the War, we can turn to the coverage of the Battle of Gettysburg, one of the bloodiest battles of the War, which took place on July 1-3, 1863. On July 8, 1863, Samuel Bowles, an important friend of Dickinson’s and editor of the Springfield Republican, wrote this about the battle:
Our soldiers credit the rebels with the most unyielding and fearless courage in the late battles. Torn to pieces as they are, having lost 30,000 or 40,000 men in this last five days, they are not used up. … Their endurance, their desperation, their utter disregard of life is surely worthy of a better cause.
Harper’s Weekly published an anonymous poem monumentalizing the victory, titled “Gettysburg.”
Dickinson’s poem participates in this conversation. It pits religious faith against the facts of nature through the dichotomy between an expected peaceful afterlife supposedly given by God and a strikingly sudden and unceremonious “drop” to death. The poem struggles with this issue in the second stanza especially, characterizing God as a ruthless reaper with a “Repealless – List.” The speaker questions which of the two powers, nature or God, is the truly merciful one, and the answer is up for debate.
Cristanne Miller points out that the poem’s structure is the ballad measure’s four line stanza with 8686 syllables and with the first line split, metrically, a technique Dickinson uses in other poems. She also notes that
Dickinson comes closest to writing in a popular genre of the war in her nature poems that present war in relation to a natural or sacred order, some adopting traditional Christian attitudes and others imagining nature itself overwhelmed by the violence of war.
Shira Wolosky points out that the comparison between death and nature makes nature seem frightening, which is uncharacteristic for Dickinson; nature is usually an intoxicating, ecstatic force of beauty. Faith Barrett sees the poem presenting
war as an inevitable part of nature’s cycle of death and rebirth, [and ] thus seems to endorse wartime ideologies that argue that death in battle is a form of Christian martyrdom, a theological view widely held in both North and South.