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Victory Comes Late

May 15, 2017

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 tip-toe.
Crumbs fit such little mouths,
Cherries suit robins;
The eagle’s golden breakfast
Strangles them.
God keeps his oath to sparrows,
Who of little love
Know how to starve!

–Emily Dickinson, 1861

COMMENTARY: Emily Dickinson is not often thought of as a “war poet.” Living in Amherst her entire life, never making it much father south than Philadelphia, she lived out her days in extreme physical isolation. Nevertheless, she would have read about the Civil War in the papers every day and, to someone of her imaginative depth, the war must have been a vivid reality. This poem, written just at the start of the Civil War, contrasts two images: someone (presumably a soldier) dying of frostbite just after a victory, and various birds gathering around “God’s table.”

The second image is an ironic allusion to several Biblical passages: the Phoenician woman’s saying to Jesus, “The dogs eat the crumbs falling from the master’s table,” the line from the sermon on the mount “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father” and, from the same passage, “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.”

Dickinson’s treatment of these Biblical images is aloof and sardonic. It’s easy for God to keep “his oath to sparrows,” because they eat so little. They know how to starve. In making this point it is interesting how Dickinson starts with the smallest morsel and works her way up. Crumbs for “such little mouths,” cherries for robins and a golden breakfast for an eagle. The implication is that a man-sized hunger (and a hunger for things, like victory, that aren’t strictly physical) requires a God-sized largess. But this hunger, as in the case of the dying soldier for whom victory comes to late, is not satisfied by the drops and hints that fall from the “too economical” table of the world.

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