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12 August 2011

Bless God, he went as soldiers,

Bless God, he went as soldiers,
His musket on his breast—
Grant God, he charge the bravest
Of all the martial blest!

Please God, might I behold him
In epauletted white—
I should not fear the foe then—
I should not fear the fight!
                                                                           - F 52 (1859)

Here’s a proper fantasy: the heavenly knight, with musket rather than sword, inspiring the poet to battle, um, Evil, I suppose, or maybe death. And it is a proper maiden in whose voice Dickinson writes: she is thankful that her knight died with his musket in his arms. And now she wants him to be top warrior among God’s army. But it would really help if she could just see him. Yeah, I’d like to see him, too! Unfortunately, when Dickinson wrote this, the Civil War was just around the corner. There would be plenty of young heroes dying a death to Bless God for.
However, it is likely that Dickinson does not mean a literal soldier at all. Perhaps she was writing figuratively about a very dear friend, Benjamin Franklin Newton who died of tuberculosis in 1854. His musket might very well have been his pen. Newton was Dickinson’s first Preceptor. After his death she wrote to his pastor, Rev. Hale:
Mr Newton became to me a gentle, yet grave Preceptor, teaching  me what to read, what authors to admire, what was most grand or beautiful in nature, and that sublimer lesson, a faith in things unseen, and in a life again, nobler, and much more blessed--. … He often talked of God, but I do not know certainly if he was his Father in Heaven-- Please Sir, to tell me if he was willing to die, and if you think him at Home, I should love much to know certainly, that he was today in Heaven.
The poem and the letter are quite similar, as if Dickinson reworked the letter into poetry five years after writing it. In the poem she asks God if the man died willingly ("as soldiers") and if she could have confirmation of his having joined the ‘blest’—the same questions she had asked Rev. Hale. Rev. Hale apparently gave her reassurance because she later responds:
 I thank you when you tell me that he was brave, and patient, and that he dared to die. I thought he would not fear,  because his Soul was valiant, but that they met, and fought, and that my Brother conquered, and passed on Triumphing, blessed it is to know, and a full heart of gratitude seems slight indeed to bring you, remembering your kindness.

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