Not my favorite

What soft, cherubic creatures
These gentlewomen are!
One would as soon assault a plush
Or violate a star.

Such dimity convictions,
A horror so refined
Of freckled human nature,
Of Deity ashamed,—

It’s such a common glory,
A fisherman’s degree!
Redemption, brittle lady,
Be so, ashamed of thee.

~Emily Dickinson

Oh, Emily. I’m trying to appreciate this one, but it’s hard.

Dickinson is attacking fashionable ladies, and it’s true, there’s not nothing there to critique. It bothers me, though, that she’s specifically going after other women. There’s something that feels very Jane Austen about this, and not in a pretty way. Dickinson isn’t exactly at the bottom of the social hierarchy, and she’s sniping at those above her. It’s a natural human tendency, I suppose, but there’s something disturbing to me about a woman bound by the conventions of her society attacking other women who are similarly bound–in some ways more so.

It’s pretty scathing to end the way she does. Redemption is ashamed of such “brittle” ladies? I think it’s the sweeping nature of the criticism here that troubles me most. Dickinson paints “gentlewomen” with a broad brush, without acknowledging the constraints that society has place upon them to make them the “soft cherubic creatures” they are. It sounds as if everything is the gentlewomen’s fault, and this just irks me.

I wonder what was going on in Dickinson’s head when she wrote this. It feels like a too-easy jab. She’s usually a little more nuanced, a little more subversive than this. Did something happen to make her particularly tetchy with gentlewomen? There’s no way to know. But I’m going to have to put this one down in the books as “not my favorite” and move on.

The soul

The soul unto itself
Is an imperial friend,—
Or the most agonizing spy
An enemy could send.

Secure against its own,
No treason it can fear;
Itself its sovereign, of itself
The soul should stand in awe.

~Emily Dickinson

Oh, Emily. So few words, yet so much to unpack. The soul is “imperial,” sovereign–each of us ultimately has final authority over our own selves. Yet the soul is both “an imperial friend” and “the most agonizing spy.” We are our own worst enemies. This rings true on both the individual and societal levels. The first stanza feels pretty straightforward.

It’s in the second that things get interesting. She’s just said that the sovereign soul is also its own worst enemy, but now she describes it as “Secure against its own,” and says that it cannot fear any treason. Wha??

Maybe the first two lines of the second stanza aren’t meant to describe how the soul actually is, but how it perceives itself. It feels “secure against its own,” and it is incapable of fearing treason–but this doesn’t mean that treason is impossible. After all, it’s when we’re most comfortable that we let our guard down. And if the ultimate enemy is yourself, then your enemy is always closer than you think.

I like the typically Dickinsonian religious rebellion implied here, too. The soul is its own sovereign–not any external power. Each person’s soul is responsible for itself. There’s a sort of blasphemy mixed with New England Puritan emphasis on responsibility here, and somehow it works.

I wonder how often any of us “stand in awe” of our own souls and the power they wield. If we made a regular practice of this, I imagine the world might be a very different place.

“Pale sustenance”

I cannot live with You –
It would be Life –
And Life is over there –
Behind the Shelf


The Sexton keeps the Key to –
Putting up
Our Life – His Porcelain –
Like a Cup –


Discarded of the Housewife –
Quaint – or Broke –
A newer Sevres pleases –
Old Ones crack –


I could not die – with You –
For One must wait
To shut the Other’s Gaze down –
You – could not –


And I – could I stand by
And see You – freeze –
Without my Right of Frost –
Death’s privilege?


Nor could I rise – with You –
Because Your Face
Would put out Jesus’ –
That New Grace


Glow plain – and foreign
On my homesick Eye –
Except that You than He
Shone closer by –


They’d judge Us – How –
For You – served Heaven – You know,
Or sought to –
I could not –


Because You saturated Sight –
And I had no more Eyes
For sordid excellence
As Paradise


And were You lost, I would be –
Though My Name
Rang loudest
On the Heavenly fame –


And were You – saved –
And I – condemned to be
Where You were not –
That self – were Hell to Me –


So We must meet apart –
You there – I – here –
With just the Door ajar
That Oceans are – and Prayer –
And that White Sustenance –
Despair –

~Emily Dickinson

The only way this poem could be more Emily Dickinson would be if it had a bird and some flowers in it. Otherwise, it seems to hit all of what I am coming to think of as the Dickinson notes: pathos, unanswered questions, metaphors galore, paradox, passion depicted in terms of cold rather than heat, and a healthy helping of blasphemy.

This poem devastates from the first line–“I cannot live with you”–and then piles on the sorrow. Life is behind a locked shelf, but “our” life, her life, is locked in that shelf. Despite being locked in, it is old, weak, unpleasing. The beloved could not wait for her, and the speaker could not rise with the beloved–this just gets more and more tragic, in that quiet, Dickinsonian way.

This brings us to the really fun part. The reason the speaker cannot rise with the beloved is that, to her, Jesus would pale in comparison. The beloved served heaven–or tried to, she qualifies–but she could not. She even suggests that she would cast off heaven to follow him into hell. She takes this a step further to say that she would become hell to herself if not near him after death.

Then comes the paradox–“So we must meet apart”–with only a door ajar between them, a space wide as oceans. After all the blaspheming, she then suggests that prayer connects them, and finally ends, in peak Emily style, on the word “despair.”

It’s a gut-wrenching poem, but also meticulously executed. There’s much to examine here, and I’ve only touched on a few of the points that fascinate me. Of the poems we’ve read so far this year, this one strikes me as perhaps the most emblematic of Dickinson’s brave and passionate style. What do you think?