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Remarks on Emily Dickinson’s "My Triumph lasted till the Drums" (1227)

“My Triumph lasted till the Drums…” (1227)
Emily Dickinson

My Triumph lasted till the Drums
Had left the Dead alone
And then I dropped my Victory
And chastened stole along
To where the finished Faces
Conclusion turned on me
And then I hated Glory
And wished myself were They.

What is to be is best descried
When it has also been —
Could Prospect taste of Retrospect
The tyrannies of Men
Were Tenderer — diviner
The transitive toward.
A Bayonet’s contrition
Is nothing to the Dead.

Comment:

“Descried” in the first line of the second stanza is a peculiar word. It is from the same word as “decry:” the Old French “descrier.””To observe” (descry) is linked with “to cry”/”to condemn” (decry), all in one word. The future is seen best in the most terrible past.

We have to wonder if there is any redemption in this poem. The “Drums” leaving the dead alone could be two things, at least: 1) the immediate conclusion of the battle, with fallen bodies everywhere or 2) the parades and funerals finishing well after the battle. That ambiguity means “finished Faces” could also be two things: either the faces of the dead upon the actual battlefield (or faceless, only tombstones at a cemetery), staring at our speaker and making her wish she were dead, or the remaining living who are “finished” in the sense of being “polished.” Those latter know how to get on with their lives: they have already moved on, perhaps having seen how false Glory is.

Our speaker had a personal Victory before – “my Victory” – but now has dropped it. We cannot be sure everyone else has dropped “their” Victory. There is separation between the speaker and the rest of the living and the dead, despite the attempted conflation (note how the “conclusion turned” on the speaker). The second stanza provides the clue when discussing the general tendencies of humanity and their amelioration. “The tyrannies of Men” would be “tenderer,” at the least, if every future hope (prospect) were tempered with the deepest reflection (retrospect). “Retrospect” does mean “to look back at,” but “look back at” what? It could either be the faces of the dead or the living being contemplated, given the first stanza: it is experience as a totality, as a recollection, not some quick and dirty life lesson that is being invoked.

I think we have to keep the question from the first stanza – “Is she talking about confronting her experience with the dead or the living?” – open in order to understand “diviner the transitive toward.” “Transitive” does mean actions carried from subject to object. So how would “the tyrannies of men” act otherwise, if not “diviner”? There are, again, two possibilities: the dead could “tyrannize” over the living, as they are a perpetual reminder that Victory must be had at any cost, that “freedom” is conditional. That tragic teaching can keep life from ever approaching happiness. And the living can require things so as to produce the dead: their “finished Faces” have concluded what must be done, and will send all into the fire if need be without hesitation or self-chastening.

But that is all only one possibility, when truly thought through. “Transitive” implies that given a first and a second thing with the same relation as the second and third thing, the first and third thing relate the same way also. “Transitive toward” implies a movement – perhaps the relation between that first and third thing will change as the third thing is realized. We have considered the “dead” and the “living,” but have not really considered the “divine.” The living with their polished faces resemble a bayonet, and cannot truly do justice to the dead. The mere possibility of the divine, of some relief from using our brothers as cannon fodder, of giving a tribute that is lasting and not contingent on drumbeats, is present in “the transitive toward:” being holding sway between what “is to be” and what “has been.”

5 Comments

  1. Addendum: I just checked the OED b/c I wasn’t sure – still am not sure – of my discussion of “transitive.” The math/logic property use, that describing when relations are the same between items, is in use as of 1856. So I don’t know how many academic mathematical publications Dickinson was reading around then (the bulk of her poetry is written during the Civil War). The grammatical use is much older, so that part of the commentary holds.

    A rare use of the word “transitive” has it defined as “passing.” I think I can mention that here and not change anything in the above remarks: its significance is obvious.

  2. This is interesting. Thanks for your research.

  3. A Bayonet’s contrition
    Is nothing to the Dead
    You can’t stop a thing that has happened..

  4. I love this poem, and your comments on it are very illuminating indeed. When I first read this, in the Sixth Form at school, “descried” was a new word to me – and I’m not sure I’ve seen it often, since!

  5. Also noted the lack of the divine, as in “afterlife.” She seems rooted in present and past earth events. I liked your comments in the 4th paragraph. Death poems always spark my interest.
    .-= Alice Shapiro´s last blog ..Poster for Borders Books poetry reading =-.

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