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.

Gossip?

The leaves, like women, interchange
Sagacious confidence;
Somewhat of nods, and somewhat of
Portentous inference,

The parties in both cases
Enjoining secrecy,—
Inviolable compact
To notoriety.

~Emily Dickinson

In my edition of Dickinson’s poems, this one has been titled “Gossip.” It’s interesting how a title can interpret and shift the meaning of a poem. Is Dickinson really talking about gossip? Does she mean to imply all that that loaded word conveys?

I’m not sure what to do with this poem, and it’s possibly at least in part because of that superimposed title. We’ve all been taught that gossip is bad. But what about “sagacious confidence”? That doesn’t sound bad. Is Dickinson being facetious? What does she mean by this?

It seems significant that the simile here is between women and leaves, a part of the natural world that, in “whispering” in the breeze, are doing exactly what leaves are supposed to do. No judgment there. Yet human gossip is a bad thing–and an activity stereotypically linked to women.

If the leaves are part of nature, aren’t the women part of it as well? Maybe the focus isn’t so much on what they’re saying as why they’re saying it in this way. I wonder how much of women’s whispered gossip has historically been subversive. Women in Western cultures have traditionally been silenced, left to whisper amongst themselves, their “sagacious confidence” dismissed as “gossip,” painted as petty and harmful.

Whose is the notoriety here? That of the people being talked about, or the women themselves? I have so many questions about this small poem, but I feel like Dickinson wouldn’t just go for the obvious–oh, look gossipy women, bad!! I feel like there’s more to her words than appears on the surface–I’m just not exactly sure what that is.