Claim the rank

One dignity delays for all,
One mitred afternoon.
None can avoid this purple,
None evade this crown.

Coach it insures, and footmen, 5
Chamber and state and throng;
Bells, also, in the village,
As we ride grand along.

What dignified attendants,
What service when we pause! 10
How loyally at parting
Their hundred hats they raise!

How pomp surpassing ermine,
When simple you and I
Present our meek escutcheon, 15
And claim the rank to die!

~Emily Dickinson

In looking back over my notes, I see I’d planned to pair this one with Robert Burns’s poem “For a’ That.” As I’ve now done that at least once already, though (maybe twice??), I guess I should give Robert Burns a rest. But I still think the comparison is apt. Though Dickinson is talking about death (because when, really, is she not?), death in this poem is the great equalizer. In death we are all on the same footing, regardless of our status in life.

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.