Skip to main content

Enough of Your Yankee Bloodshed

Emily Dickinson’s Victory comes late— first appears in a letter (absent any contents but the poem) sent to Samuel Bowles, editor of the Springfield Republican, in late 1861 or, at the latest, early 1862:

Victory comes late—
And is held low to freezing lips—
Too rapt with frost
To take it—
How sweet it would have tasted—
Just a Drop—
Was God so economical?
His Table’s spread too high for Us—
Unless We dine on tiptoe—
Crumbs—fit such little mouths—
Cherries—suit Robins—
The Eagle’s Golden Breakfast strangles—Them
God keep His Oath to Sparrows—
Who of Little Love—know how to starve—[1]

Appearing within a year of the Civil War’s beginning, it is difficult not to read Victory comes late— as a response both to the war and to the national and religious ideologies which underlay both sides’ (but of particular importance for Dickinson, the North’s) efforts in that war.

While the Civil War did, of course, lead to the Emancipation Proclamation (legally freeing slaves nearly twenty months after the war began) and the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment (outlawing slavery, some seventy-eight years after the Constitutional Convention), it almost goes without saying that the war was commenced not with the abolishment of slavery as its primary aim, but quite simply in order to “preserve the Union”—to, that is, prevent the South from successfully seceding.  Furthermore, the conflict was made nigh ineluctable by the “Republic’s” founding structure, and, despite some hopes to the contrary, legal slavery remained profitable and in the South’s economic interests up to the shots fired on Fort Sumter; wage labor was more congenial to the profitability and development of the North’s economy (both sides did have this in common, of course: each had Christian theology as a strong strand of its “national” culture).

Only the most vulgar teleological argument, therefore, will not allow for a high degree of cynicism when it comes to a consideration of the multi-faceted monstrosity known as the Civil War.  Though two important national ends were belatedly achieved,[2] it is difficult to stand on either side of the Mason-Dixon Line without casting a jaundiced eye on the old Union and old Confederacy alike.

And, while we may believe, of course, that, once underway, it is well that the North prevailed over the South, we may also, as contemporary citizens of the preserved Union, lament the fact that what has been made hallow in our national culture is the eloquent and melancholy but also sporadically dubious and quasi-religious paean to martyrdom uttered by Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg in late 1863 rather than the words of Robert E. Lee—“It is well,” said Lee, “that war is so terrible, [else] we should grow too fond of it.”[3]—which have gone unheeded, if not altogether unremembered.

Against this background (whatever else we don’t know about Dickinson, we do know she was aware of the Civil War and of Christian theology), Victory comes late— operates iconoclastically on two distinct, but sometimes difficult to distinguish, levels: the political and the religious.  On the religious plane, Dickinson subverts, distorts, and overturns the Christian theology with which both sides of the nation identified, replacing the New Testament’s God with something different and horrible.

On the more explicitly political plane, Dickinson in one sense anticipates and responds to precisely the sort of speech Lincoln gave at Gettysburg.  By this I, of course, do not mean to suggest that Victory comes late— is, somehow, anachronistically, a direct response to the Gettysburg address, nor do I mean to suggest that it is a prescient response to the sort of rhetoric that would be used by Lincoln at Gettysburg.  Rather, it is my suggestion that Lincoln’s speech at Gettysburg, for all of its rhetorical and inspirational brilliance, drew on a pool of already available cultural discourse full of national mythology and religious images of sacrifice and martyrdom.  And it is this cultural discourse, already existing at the time of Victory comes late—’s composition, that Dickinson’s poem also draws upon—and responds to; forcefully, bitterly, ironically. [4]

Dickinson’s poem, with its dubious take on war in general, and its continually recurring (indeed, almost continuously contiguous) images of hunger which productively intersect with passages from the book of Matthew, manifests itself as a rhetorical shrapnel shell that punctures, with admirable economy, the religio-political cultural conception of the war that obtained in the wartime North’s popular discourse.

Victory comes late—

That is, victory comes too late.  Within the context of the Civil War (or any war, for that matter), victory comes late—too late for dead soldiers, too late for wounded soldiers, too late for families who lose members while soldiers are away, too late for a populace that has to endure the trauma of being at war.  A war is, and war is, following Lee’s definition, “terrible”—and as soon as one begins, the victory that ends it will come late; too late for many.  Too late for most.  A war, once begun, is always already behind schedule in ending; the victory that ends it, assuming victory ends it, is always too late, because what is preserved by not being at war is always lost the moment war begins. So it was with the Civil War, and so it is with any war. [5]

And is held low to freezing lips—
Too rapt with frost
To take it—

Remember the poem was sent in late 1861 or early 1862, sometime in the fall or winter.  This image evokes dead and dying soldiers in the aftermath of a frosty battle, being attended to by, say, battlefield nurses, who are perhaps lowering canteens of water to their lips.  But, of course, it is too late.  The soldiers are already dead, or too near death to ingest anything.  Their lips are frozen.  Victory, if it has come, if the battle has even been won, has come too late for these soldiers.

How sweet it would have tasted—
Just a Drop—

But like the pagan figure Tantalus, so much as a drop is denied them.  And, in fact, there can really be no taste of victory, because the victory anticipated in war is always different than the victory achieved.  Too much of the “terrible” separates the beginning of a war from its end.  Here the image of Tantalus is inadequate; the water always eludes Tantalus, but the properties of the water surrounding him do not change.  Victory, on the other hand, transmogrifies from the anticipated to the actual victory (assuming that even comes), and the disparity between those two makes the drop of victory that cannot be tasted doubly insufficient—wanting not only because it cannot be tasted, but also because, even if it were tasted, it would not taste as sweet as the victory that was promised.  Victory comes late, indeed.  And the nature of victory, once achieved, has always lately changed.

Was God so economical?

Here the first appearance of God.  A parsimonious, hoarding God.

His Table’s spread too high for Us—

We, like children, cannot reach it.  Unless:

Unless We dine on tiptoe—

Dine on tiptoe, that is, like children.  Or, perhaps to carry it further, dine on hind legs, like dogs.

Crumbs—fit such little mouths—

God’s crumbs fit children’s mouths.  If he will spare them.  But will he spare them?  Consider this passage from the book of Matthew:

Then Jesus went thence, and departed into the coasts of Tyre and Sidon.
And, behold, a woman of Cannan came out of the same coasts, and cried unto him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil.
But he answered her not a word.  And his disciples came and besought him, saying, Send her away for she crieth after us.
But he answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
Then came she and worshipped him, saying, Lord, help me.
But he answered and said, It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to the dogs.
And she said, Truth, Lord; yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’s table.
Then Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt.  And her daughter was made whole from that very hour.  (Matthew 15:21-28) [6] [my emphasis]

The New Testament’s God will spare them; he will spare the crumbs that fall from his table.  Further, vis-à-vis children evoked by Dickinson’s images of a table “spread to high for Us”; “din[ing] on tiptoe,” and “little mouths,” consider this more general echo in Matthew:

Then were brought unto him little children, that he should put his hands on them, and pray: and the disciples rebuked them,
But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for such is the kingdom of heaven.
And he laid his hands on them, and departed thence.  (Matthew 19:13-15)

But such is not the case in Victory comes late—:


Was God so economical?
His Table’s spread too high for Us—
Unless We dine on tiptoe—

God remains stingy as his children starve. God does not suffer little children, and forbids them to come unto him: for such is his kingdom.  God the master whose dogs do not eat of the crumbs which fall from their master’s table.

Crumbs—fit such little mouths—
Cherries—suit Robins—
The Eagle’s Golden Breakfast strangles—Them

God the master whose dogs cannot eat of the crumbs which fall from their master’s table, since these very crumbs will strangle them.  This, the Christian God of the Christian Nation at war with itself.  This, the Christian God of the Christian Nations at war with one another.

The appearance of the national symbol in the last line quoted above is, of course, unmistakable.  Also worth noting is that the Eagle momentarily assumes the place of feasting deity previously occupied by God, a god whose breakfast, were it shared, would, as has been noted, be far too much for smaller birds, is too much for smaller birds.

God keep His Oath to Sparrows—

Another allusion to the book of Matthew:

Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. (Matthew 10:29-31)

But only half of the oath is kept in Dickinson’s explosive response.  The sparrows fall, but without notice:

Who of little Love—know how to starve.

And these final two lines serve as an equally incendiary, if more general, response to this passage from Matthew:

Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them.  Are ye not much better than they? (Matthew 6:26)

God keep His Oath to Sparrows—
Who of little Love—know how to starve—

Behold the fowls of the air!  Your heavenly father feedeth them?

Again, one fowl does eat, of course, and that is the Eagle deity.  But this national deity’s meal cannot be shared.  Victory comes late—’s final two lines obliterate the two latter images adduced above from the book of Matthew of God the Father as caring and involved in the fates of his smaller creatures.  This has the double effect of inverting Christian theology and of condemning the Eagle deity[7] who makes an appearance at God’s table, as God, whose gluttonous breakfast is murderous to every creature but himself.  Behold the fowls of the air!  Your heavenly father feedeth them?  Perhaps so, but they are strangled by his miserly munificence.  Are we not much better than they?  Perhaps not.  Or perhaps we are they.  The mixing, through allusion (or nearly explicit citation), of images of us, we, the populace, the nation, as God’s children who are not suffered to come unto him; of God’s fowl, who starve; of God’s dogs who do not eat the scraps from their master’s table; of, au fond, God’s children, who, it is strongly implied, are not much better than God’s fowl or God’s dogs points up the many ways in which victory comes late—or what’s worse, doesn’t really come at all.

Consider now the Gettysburg address[8] in light of the above consideration of Dickinson’s poem.  Lincoln and Dickinson, inhabiting the same cultural moment, drew upon the same pool of available cultural discourse to produce their respective texts.[9]  Allen Grossman makes this point in greater detail, but also, unfortunately, a bit more opaquely, in an essay comparing the language used by Lincoln and that used by Walt Whitman:


Insofar as the actuality of both policy and poetry require sentences a [person] can speak, the material upon which poetry works and the material upon which policy works are identical because of the ubiquity of language, and present the same resistances.  The reasons that one cannot make just any poem, or just any policy, good are the same.  An entailment of any style a person speaks is the structure of a social world that can receive it—a political formation and its kind of conscious life.[10]

In other words, a poem, or the articulation of policy, must make use of language that already exists (no matter how much an artist, say, may subvert or distort it) in the social world to which the poem or articulation of policy is addressed.  This seems to be a relatively simple truth, especially when it is formulated less abstrusely than Grossman’s construction, and is of particular interest—as Grossman seems to say in his essay—when both poet and policymaker are addressing the same issue.  And so, whereas Dickinson threw a jaundiced eye on the wartime discourse of her cultural moment in order to distort and invert it and use it against itself—in order to argue against war—Lincoln marshaled it with rhetorical sincerity (or, if one likes, the rhetoric of sincerity) to further the cause of his war.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.  We are met on a great battle-field of that war.  We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives, that that nation might live.  It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

Here a very familiar image of Christian martyrdom.  To take a liberty with John 3:16 (“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”) by melding it with Dickinson’s poem and using the discursive hybrid to shed light on what both Lincoln and Dickinson are getting at, one might read the words thus: “For the Nation-God (the Eagle) so loved the world, that he gave his sparrows, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”  That would be Lincoln’s version of John 3:16 using Victory comes late—’s imagery.  Dickinson’s version of John 3:16 in her Victory comes late— mode seems to be “For the Nation-God (the Eagle) so loved the world, that he gave his sparrows, that he should not perish, but himself have everlasting life.”

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate – we can not hallow – this ground.  The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.  The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.

This the sop to the “everlasting life” of the soldiers, although, of course, as it happens, what are remembered far more than the soldiers who fought and died, or even what the purpose or result of the Battle of Gettysburg, are the words of Lincoln in the midst of the national crisis.  What are remembered are the words of the embodiment of the national deity—the Eagle, if you will—and not the actions or the names or the lives of the fallen, strangled, starved sparrows.  Not their freezing lips.

It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here, have, thus far, so nobly advanced.

Dedicated, that is, to the unfinished work of achieving victory, whose meaning Dickinson investigates before Lincoln gets to Gettysburg.  How sweet it will taste, says Lincoln in 1863.  How sweet it would have tasted were one ever able to taste it, says Dickinson in 1861 or 1862.

It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—

That we, that is, in our holy war, act even more devoutly, inspired by the devotional sacrifices of our martyrs.

that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—

That this nation shall be revived, shall be born again!

and that, government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

(One might, cynically but accurately, say that Lincoln might have been more precise in saying “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall actually appear on the earth,” but this is a secondary point.)

That the nation, that is, shall be eternal.  Again, to imagine a Dickinson reformulation in terms of John 3:16 and Victory comes late— of Lincoln’s speech at Gettysburg, “For the Nation-God (the eagle) so loved his world, that he gave his sparrows, that he should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

The position I maintain is immanent in Victory comes late— was not the only “stance” Dickinson took towards the war.  Indeed, as Faith Barrett has shown,[11] Dickinson was sympathetic to, and personally invested in, a rapid resolution to the war in favor of the North.

But the power of Victory comes late­—’s stance remains.[12]  Victory comes late— was not published in Dickinson’s lifetime, and so did not speak publicly to her cultural and political moment.  In print for some time now, it is hard to miss its relevance to our own.  Consider these words uttered on Memorial Day of 2007:


Now this hallowed ground receives a new generation of heroes—men and women who gave their lives in places such as Kabul and Kandahar, Baghdad and Ramadi. Like those who came before them, they did not want war—but they answered the call when it came. They believed in something larger than themselves. They fought for our country, and our country unites to mourn them as one.


With us are other children and families mourning moms and dads and sons and daughters. Nothing said today will ease your pain. But each of you need to know that your country thanks you, and we embrace you, and we will never forget the terrible loss you have suffered. I hope you find comfort in knowing that your loved ones rest in a place even more peaceful than the fields that surround us here.


Those who serve are not fatalists or cynics. They know that one day this war will end— as all wars do. Our duty is to ensure that its outcome justifies the sacrifices made by those who fought and died in it. From their deaths must come a world where the cruel dreams of tyrants and terrorists are frustrated and foiled—where our nation is more secure from attack, and where the gift of liberty is secured for millions who have never known it.

This is our country’s calling. It’s our country’s destiny. Americans set off on that voyage more than two centuries ago, confident that this future was within our reach—even though the shore was distant, and even though the journey may be long. And through generations, our course has been secured by those who wear a uniform, secured by people who man their posts, and do their duty. They have helped us grow stronger with each new sunrise. [13]

[1] Dickinson, Emily.  The Letters of Emily Dickinson: Volume II.  Ed. Thomas H. Johnson, Assoc. Ed. Theodora Ward.  Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1958.  399-400.

The poem as it appears in this article is taken from American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century, Vol. 2.  Ed. John Hollander.  New York: Library of America, 1993.  286.  I prefer how Victory Comes Late— is edited in the latter volume, which is why I have chosen to use it over the version of the poem that appears in the volume of letters.

[2] Legal slavery succeeded in the southern United States, of course, by its little brother, share-cropping.

[3] Thomas, Emory M.  Robert E. LeeA Biography.  New York: Norton, 1995.  271.

[4] For a general consideration of the sort of discourse available to both Lincoln and Dickinson, see, for example, Gary Wills’ Under God:

“The idea that America should serve as God’s pattern for the rest of the world has been given less overtly theological expression in later versions of America’s mission.  But when wartime calls for sacrifice, American duty becomes again a divine imperative.  The military note returns.  That was true even in the skeptical eighteenth century.  It would be more fiercely evident in the Civil War.


“As the crisis over slavery raveled out normal party politics, Abraham Lincoln, who regularly used biblical language, turned to Revelation.  That book speaks, in one of its psychedelic images, of robes washed white in the blood of the Lamb (7.14).  Lincoln, in 1854, told an audience in Springfield:

“Our republican robe is soiled, and trailed in the dust.  Let us repurify it.  Let us turn and wash it white, in the spirit, if not the blood, of the Revelation.

“Lincoln was already dispensed to see the nation’s ordeal as a purification rite.  Earlier yet, in 1838, he had written:

“Let it [federal law] become the political religion of the nation, and let the old and young, the rich and poor, the grave and gay, of all senses and tongues, and colors and conditions, sacrifice unceasingly upon its altars.

“When war actually began, there was an outbreak of apocalyptic imagery that gave Union rhetoric the accents of John Brown.  The best-known example of this eruption is Ohlia Ward Howe’s biblical paean, written hastily in an army encampment, that actually used the tune of “John Brown’s Body,” but set it to verse drawn from Revelation.  Though Mrs. Howe was descended from Cromwellian warriors, her evangelical background had not mattered to her much until war renewed her childhood memories of biblical crisis:

“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is tramping out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored…”

Wills, Gary.  Under God. Reissue edition. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007.  208-09.  [Brackets and emphasis in original.]  On the “variety of stances [Dickinson assumed] in responding to the war” and her use of this pool of discourse available for her to draw upon, consider Faith Barrett’s essay, Drums Off the Phantom Battlements: Dickinson’s War Poems in Discursive Context, especially its opening sentences:

“‘War feels to me an oblique place,’ Emily Dickinson writes in a letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson in February of 1863, three months after Higginson traveled to South Carolina to take command of a black regiment (JL 280).  Scholars who examine Dickinson’s poetry often cite this passage as an example of Dickinson’s vexed and ambivalent writerly relationship towards the Civil War in particular and towards expressing political commitments more generally.  The assumption is that Dickinson, one of the first American modernists, positions herself at a skeptical and oblique angle in relation to the war and its ideologies.  In this same letter, however, Dickinson also offers a far more conventional statement about the war and its risks: echoing the concerns of many on the homefront writing to friends and relatives in the military, she worries aloud about Higginson’s safety and says that she prays for him and for other soldiers in church: ‘though not reared to prayer – when service is had in Church, for Our Arms, I include yourself’ (JL 280).  In her Civil War writing, Dickinson offers both skeptical commentary on the war and expressions of concern or grief about friends who are in peril or who have lost their lives, expressions that sometimes echo popular depictions of soldiers as Christian heroes or of young soldiers rejoining their dead mothers in the afterlife.”  Barret, Faith.  “Drums off the Phantom Battlements: Dickinson’s War Poems in Discursive Context.”  A Companion to Emily Dickinson.  Smith, Martha Nell and Mary Loeffelholz, eds.  Boston: Wiley-Blackwell.  Forthcoming.  [My emphasis]

[5] Too late on a human level, then.  But, also, importantly, and obversely, rarely too late for those who are “fond of war”; rarely too late for the designers of war who are also, most often, the least directly affected by war.  Rarely too late for the unhuman, god-like Eagle at his Golden Breakfast.

[6] All Biblical quotations are from the King James version.

[7] It has been pointed out to me that the eagle as God is also associatively evocative of Jove’s eagle, in which case the national God who inverts Christian theology further displaces the New Testament’s God by also making him share the stage not only with the national deity but also with an image from pagan mythology.  It was, of course, pagan mythology against which incipient Christianity partially defined itself.

[8] Reproduced in Goodwin, Doris Kearns.  Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005.  580.

[9] See note 5.

[10] Grossman, David.  “The Poetics of Union in Whitman and Lincoln,” in Walt Whitman Leaves of Grass and Other Writings.  Ed. Michael Moon.  New York: Norton, 2002.  874.

[11] See Barrett section of note 4.

[12] As Katherine A. Monteiro, who sees in Victory comes late— Dickinson “show[ing] her vision on the tragedy of war and of the revivalist religion,” writes:

“In a country at war, the word [‘victory’] carries profound emotion.  When the people believe the war necessary, not only to secure the nation and her principles, but to further the cause of Christ and morality, victory is charged with even more intensity.  Dickinson quickly shatters the intense joy with the rest of line one [‘comes late.’].  The hoped for victory comes too late and only after great suffering, so late in fact that it means nothing to the victor.  Victory comes to those who cannot even taste its sweetness through ‘freezing lips,’ just as it comes too late for soldiers who give their lives on the battlefield.  No matter who wins the battle or the war, the victory means nothing to the dead.”  Monteiro, Katherine A.  “Dickinson’s ‘Victory Comes Late’.”  The Explicator 44:2 (1986): 30-32.

[13] Bush, George W. “President Bush Commemorates Memorial Day at Arlington National Cemetery.” 28 May 2007. The White House.

+ posts

Leave a Reply