The Clara Barton Museum Blog

“It Feels A Shame To Be Alive”

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It feels a shame to be Alive—
When Men so brave—are dead—
One envies the Distinguished Dust—
Permitted—such a Head—

The Stone—that tells defending Whom
This Spartan put away
What little of Him we—possessed
In Pawn for Liberty—

The price is great—Sublimely paid—
Do we deserve—a Thing—
That lives—like Dollars—must be piled
Before we may obtain?

Are we that wait—sufficient worth—
That such Enormous Pearl
As life—dissolved be—for Us—
In Battle’s—horrid Bowl?

It may be—a Renown to live—
I think the Man who die—
Those unsustained—Saviors—
Present Divinity—

An army graveyard (Library of Congress)

Emily Dickinson, one of the greatest poets of the nineteenth century, wrote this poem in 1863 as the Civil War raged. The poem discusses themes of guilt, battlefield death, and the sacrifice of those who went South to fight for the Union cause during the conflict.

While Dickinson had never seen the battlefields of the war personally, her words illustrate the weight placed upon those on the Northern home front and how they visualized those who “bore the battle,” as Abraham Lincoln put it.

Interested in learning more about Emily Dickinson? Check out this wonderful biography from the Poetry Foundation.

Jake Wynn is the Program Coordinator at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine and Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office Museum. He also writes independently at the Wynning History blog.

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