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Emily Dickinson's "A Day! Help! Help! Another Day!"

Emily Dickinson's poems inform my own worldview as a poet and scholar. They dramatize the human spirit via deep attention to life's details.

This daguerreotype is likely the only extant authentic image of the poet.

This daguerreotype is likely the only extant authentic image of the poet.

Introduction and Text of "A Day! Help! Help! Another Day!"

The speaker of Emily Dickinson's "A Day! Help! Help! Another Day!" opens with an effusion, calling for assistance—another day is here and dire need, calamity, and trials and tribulations are on the horizon.

This speaker has opened her heart and mind to the material level of reality and is reacting to the cant and cacophony that that level brings the sensitive individual.

After offering a broad scope for consideration of national and worldly events, the speaker concludes with the same heartfelt level of awareness that leads the speaker and her environment of sensitivities back to her garden of soul reality. The soul triumphs despite upsetting—even disastrous—worldly or national events.

This soul is capable of "stand[ing] unshaken amid the crash of breaking worlds."

A Day! Help! Help! Another Day!

A Day! Help! Help! Another Day!
Your prayers, oh Passer by!
From such a common ball as this
Might date a Victory!
From marshallings as simple
The flags of nations swang.
Steady — my soul: What issues
Upon thine arrow hang!

Reading of "A Day! Help! Help! Another Day!"

Commentary

The speaker offers a contrasting movement from effusion at possible impending calamity to revelation of steadfast, complete endurance in the face of all consternation.

First Movement: A Cry of Consternation

A Day! Help! Help! Another Day!
Your prayers, oh Passer by!

The speaker stations herself in some likely etherial location from which she can contemplate and consider the vicissitudes of life. Upon awakening to the breaking of "Another Day!" she offers a prayerful command to those who "pass[ ] by" her vision, imploring them for "Prayers."

At this point, the speaker has offered only a nebulous environment from which she can view activities, contemplate events, and make judgments about them.

The speaker’s opening cry that another day has opened, and then her subsequent cry for "Help! Help!" alerts those around her that all is not well, or at least, not likely to remain so; something must be out of order or some circumstance which eludes her control prompts her to command assistance—all for the simple act of another day arriving.

At first blush, such drama may seem melodramatic, but as the speaker continues, all events, thoughts, and feelings take their appropriate place upon the horizon.

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Second Movement: The Potential for Winning

From such a common ball as this
Might date a Victory!

The speaker continues to remain somewhat vague, yet at the same time she refers to the planet upon which she takes her breaths and pulses her blood. Calling Earth a "common ball" she adds that despite her opening call for help, such a place may offer the scope and time allotment for great winning.

The "Victory" upon which the speaker may stand remains at this point a forethought, perhaps even an illusion. She has not yet revealed any specific reason for her opening effusive cry or for implying that some victorious event may occur.

As she continues to riddle and minimize, she yet opens her toolkit of ideas, images, and emotions to a vast array of pairs of opposites, such as the trope of winning and losing, and then to opening and closing, weakness and strength, close and far, life and death.

Third Movement: A Pride of Being

From marshallings as simple
The flags of nations swang.

The speaker then alludes to national pride—the allowing to swing the banners of nations; thus, she indicates that the country has accrued some level of success in some undertaking. Such prideful acts could include war, treaties with potential enemies, or creating a national harmony that permits citizens to crave out better, more prosperous lives.

The speaker still has not delineated any specifics, for her purpose remains to make a general statement, a simple remark in passing regarding the nature of reality and how actions and events accrue to yield any given result.

The speaker has, thus far, opened the day with a concerning cry, but then yielded to the possibility of victory—which at the same time yields the possibility of utter failure.

Now by referring to "flags," the speaker has opened her discourse to the likelihood that she wishes to make a generalized statement about events that in no way remain in the private or personal sphere of reality.

The speaker now has only one way to continue this observation—she must bring events into her own sphere, else she will have to abandon any hope making a sensible observation.

Fourth Movement: The Soul’s Victory

Steady — my soul: What issues
Upon thine arrow hang!

The speaker then abruptly addresses her own soul, admonishing it to be "Steady." She has touched, even if lightly, on activities, events, and possibilities at worldly and national levels. She has implied that these activities, events, and possibilities may have a detrimental effect on her as an individual.

Such detriment would rattle the hearts and minds of any individual, perhaps even to soul level. Thus, the speaker now closes her investigation on those outside possibilities, concentrates on the purely personal, and discovers that she must calm her heart and mind in other for her soul to become once again "Steady."

The speaker’s final effusion is the simple remark that profundity clings to the sharp point of soul clarity. Metaphorically likening the soul to an "arrow" allows her to demonstrate that the soul is the only weapon that can discharge and conquer the "issues" that fluster, confuses, and cause pain and anguish in the hearts and minds of individuals.

Obsolete Usage: "Swang"

The term, "swang," is the obsolete irregular simple past tense form of "swing," which apparently was still in use in the Dickinsonian century; current usage requires "swung," the same form as the past participle "swung." Similar verb forms such as "sting," "sling," and "fling" have all lost their simple past tense form of "stang," "slang," and "flang."

The verb, "ring," however retains its irregular simple past tense form of "rang."

The terms, "ding," which has a similar meaning to "ring," and "bring" both have different simple past and participle forms: "ding" follows the regular verb formation by merely adding the suffix "-ed" to the present tense form, while "bring" has the irregular form of "brought" in both simple past and past participle forms.

A close study of the etymology of these terms would reveal the trajectory of those changes, and they would likely be perfectly sensible, even though a mere glance seems that this change in language usage has no rime or reason.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

© 2021 Linda Sue Grimes

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