What does it mean to be brave? Emily Dickinson gets right to the heart of things with her focus on true heroes. My comments follow.
To fight aloud, is very brave –
But gallanter, I know
Who charge within the bosom
The Cavalry of Woe –
Who win, and nations do not see –
Who fall – and none observe –
Whose dying eyes, no Country
Regards with patriot love –
We trust, in plumed procession
For such, the Angels go –
Rank after Rank, with even feet –
And Uniforms of Snow.
Emily Dickinson Poems, Edited by Brenda Hillman
Shambhala Pocket Classics, Shambhala 1995
The USA is besotted with romantic notions of Bravery. Captivated by monuments to those who fell to ‘ensure our freedom.’ Memorials to those who displayed Bravery in the face of overwhelming odds.
We pause to honor those who stood or fell on our behalf. And yet….Who are the true heroes among us?
Emily’s poem is a slow, pensive hymn of remembrance for individuals who fought and fight battles, unseen and unacknowledged. Women, men, girls and boys more gallant than national heroes. In their hearts they charge daily against The Cavalry of Woe that would take them down in misery, sorrow, despair, pain, agony and defeat.
The poem, written in about 1859, brought to mind Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade,” along with paintings that memorialize tragedies.
Emily’s poem could also be a eulogy for uncounted heroes and heroines who bravely fought their internal enemies. Few, if any, know their names or the stories of their gallant deeds. Unseen and unsung, they remain hidden. Small bits of unexplored or never remembered history.
Does anyone notice or care? Emily does. She is one of these more gallant souls. Her poems remind us of her internal battles, though we don’t know what each was about.
Emily’s final stanza lifts up internal bravery for our respect, perhaps also for her personal comfort. She sees more than one Angel per warrior. Imagine it: unnumbered ranks of Angels process reverently in soft, snowy plumes. Their uniforms drop blankets of snow around and over uncounted heroes and heroines. Snowy flags of honor drape each unsung warrior who charged bravely ahead against all odds.
Angels also recognize the bravery of patriotic heroes, though not because of visible service. No one gets a pass when dealing with the internal Cavalry of Woe threatening daily to undo us.
My heart has been an unseen battlefield most of my life. It’s littered with spoils of war—war I’ve waged against my Cavalry of Woe. I fought much of it silently, assuming I was a loser. The woes weren’t strange or unusual, but common and everyday. Things like Fear of Harsh Punishment, Getting through Harsh Punishment, Perfectionism, Depression, Self-loathing, Self-doubt, Fear of Abandonment, Fear of Speaking in My Own Voice.
Whether we believe we’re gallant or not, Emily invites us to trust the cloud of Angel witnesses passing by, clothed in snow-white plumes. Reverently and respectfully they accompany us in life and in death. Honoring us as patriots who fought and still fight gallantly on behalf of our true selves.
© Elouise Renich Fraser, 28 Sept 2016, edited and reposted 8 Oct 2020
Painting by Richard Caton Woodville, Jr.,
found at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charge_of_the_Light_Brigade