Emily Dickinson's Poems By Emily Dickinson The Poems Friendship, Love, and Society

In an enigmatic four-line poem beginning "That Love is all there is" (1765), Emily Dickinson implies that love is impossible to define and that it transcends the need for definition. She seems to be suggesting that we can recognize love either because it fits our souls perfectly or because we can endure the suffering which it brings. She does not present these alternatives; rather, her lines make these alternate interpretations possible. Such ambiguity permeates her love poems, in which fulfillment is often accompanied by loss. With the exception of the Master letters, whose intended recipient we cannot identify, and her later letters to judge Otis P. Lord, we have nothing by Dickinson which we could call love letters. However, her early correspondence with Susan Gilbert reveals an awareness that the fulfillment of love might be disappointing. Later in life, Emily Dickinson wrote to Samuel Bowles: "My Friends are my 'estate,' " and still later she declared that letters feel to her like immortality because they contain the mind "without corporeal friend." These statements reinforce our sense that perhaps she preferred an imagined consummation of love to any physical reality, and that she sometimes treasured friendship held at a distance more than the actual presence of friends. However, such psychological speculation should be used carefully in interpreting her poems.

There is a blend of love and friendship in a few of Dickinson's poems. Many of her elegies for family members and friends express love and yet do not lament lost loves. Several poems which are addressed to girlfriends have a romantic tinge, but these are not very good. However, there are some poems about dear people who seem to be regarded more as beloved friends than as objects of romantic ardor. In Dickinson's love poems proper, it is possible to distinguish between romantically passionate poems and poems in which there is a curious physical detachment. In this second type, the beloved person sometimes seems so exalted that it is difficult for the reader to see the beloved as an object of desire to the poem's speaker. But the bulk of Dickinson's love poems are certainly not cold, detached, and ethereal. Circumstances and fears may have kept her from physical fulfillment, but the images and actions of many of her love poems are determinedly passionate.

Three popular Dickinson poems about lost friends are similar in length and style. These are "My life closed twice before its close" (1732), I never lost as much but twice" (49), and "Elysium is as far as to" (1760). Like the first two of Dickinson's poems about poetry that we examined in the preceding section, the first two of these poems are petulant and urgent in tone. "My life closed twice" is less colloquial and concrete than the other two, but equally witty. This poem exists only in a transcript, so we have no idea when it was written. Although heaven and hell are mentioned, and although some critics see the parting as deaths, the parting is probably not the result of death. Probably the subject is the departure of dear friends who are expected to be long lost or forever absent. The reference to life's closing shows Dickinson's turning a statement about a death-like feeling into a metaphor. Something closing before the final close suggests both an overwhelming extinction of the senses and a general collapse, as if the speaker could feel nothing but her ecstasy and grief. She seems to be folding up like a flower. The immortality that may reveal another experience as inexpressible as these two emotions lies beyond death. Life can bring to her no more profound an experience, and her tone is exultant at having encountered something ultimate in life. The description of parting as being both "heaven" and "hell' is brilliantly witty; parting increases the value of the departing person because parting makes us suffer terribly. The idea that suffering and friendship produce an experience almost more rewarding than we can hope to find in heaven parallels Dickinson's celebration of art.

"I never lost as much but twice" (49) is a fine example of Dickinson's jocular blasphemy combined with a quite serious theme. We could place this poem under the headings of death and religion as easily as under friendship. The fact that earlier losses were in (literally to) the sod surely refers to the death of friends. The contrast of such losses to a present loss by the use of "but . . . that" indicates that this loss is not to death, but it is just as bad and perhaps harder to explain and accept. The descending angels must have brought new friends. The reference to these friends as "store" suggests that they are a treasure and prepares us for the outburst against God as being both a burglar and a banker. The witty placing of "Father!" after these terms strengthens the accusation that God is playing by unfair rules, and the last line shows an abrupt and stubborn resentment against God's cheating. The manuscript of this poem can be dated at about 1858, a number of years after the deaths of Leonard Humphrey and Benjamin Newton, and yet it is possible that Dickinson is looking back at their deaths and comparing them to the present departure or faithlessness of a friend or a beloved man.

"Elysium is as far as to" (1760), evidently written quite late in Dickinson's life, is a more general poem than the two just discussed, but, rather curiously, it has a stronger sense of physical scene and of the presence of people than either of them. It is true that neither a specific room nor people are described, and that the room may be a symbol of a condition of life, but possibly the very generality of the situation has allowed Dickinson to create more of a scene than she usually attempts. This poem is more complicated than it may at first appear, and it echoes themes from "My life closed twice." "Elysium" is a Latin word for heaven. The heaven described is a state of emotional elevation resulting from anticipation of a friend's achieving great happiness, a happiness intensified by the risk of doom. The fortitude of soul may belong to the speaker of the poem as well as to the friend. If this is true, Dickinson is being made happy both by her admiration of her friend's fortitude and by the joy of sharing such endurance with her friend. Similarly, the anticipated arrival may refer to the friend's awaiting his or her fate, or to the speaker's awaiting the arrival and the fate of the friend. The fine restraint of the poem's conclusion, which reinforces the sense of a hushed atmosphere, implies a favorable outcome for the situation, but it is difficult to tell if it directs our attention more to the friend or to the speaker. The combination of such Latinate terms as Elysium and fortitude with such Anglo-Saxon words as doom and door, a striking trait of Dickinson's style, adds to the forcefulness and verbal music of this poem.

Fears of love that Emily Dickinson may have felt do not make her much different from the rest of us. Exactly what combination of character and circumstances kept her from a romantic union we will never know. Many of her poems relating to passion and love reflect intense anxiety, but we should not stress their possible abnormality any further than the clarification of these poems requires. This allows us to recognize the unusual in her feelings and possible experiences while still being able to relate them to our own feelings. First, we will consider her poems that are burdened with anxiety, next go on to those in which anxiety is mixed with renunciation, and finally look at those in which the choice of love creates some kind of spiritual union or faith, either on earth or in heaven. But we should remember that these categories often overlap.

"In Winter in my Room" (1670) is surely Dickinson's most explicit treatment of her fear and mixed feelings about love and sex — if we dare to call a poem so purely symbolic a fantasy explicit. The poem exists only in a transcript, and so it cannot be assigned even approximately to a period of Dickinson's life, but it very possibly is a product of her earlier mature years, her early thirties. There do not seem to be reasonable alternatives to the view that the worm-turned-snake is the male sexual organ moving toward a state of excitement and making a claim on the sexuality and life of the speaker. Psychoanalytic theory and speculation about the sexual knowledge of reclusive virgins are no more helpful than is common sense in making this interpretation. Traditionally, snakes are symbols of evil invading an Eden, and snakes in Emily Dickinson's poems sometimes represent a puzzling fearfulness in nature, just as Eden often represents a pure innocence which might be spoiled by the intrusion of a lover. Such symbolism does not contradict the sexual symbolism. Rather, viewing the snake as a symbol of evil, in addition to seeing it as a sexual symbol, helps us to see how ambivalent is the speaker's attitude toward the snake — to see how she relates to it with a mixture of feelings, with mingled fear, attraction, and revulsion. In the first stanza, the speaker appears almost childlike, and the worm-snake is a minor threat that she can control. In the second stanza, the creature appears in a changed and terrifying guise. The transformation seems unexpected, but the snake bears a sign (the old string) that he is the creature that she once tried to control. In the third stanza, she admits to the fear and insincerity that make her call the snake "fair." But her attraction cannot be denied. The statement that the snake fathomed her thoughts implies admiration for its power, and the description of its rhythmic movements reveals more admiration than repulsion. The rhythmic projection of the snake may refer even to the speaker's mental processes, as well as to the snake's actual motion. The last stanza clearly distinguishes between her two encounters with the worm-snake. At the second meeting, she gives no thought to controlling or pacifying him; she runs until she evades him, but the fact that she had hoped to hold him off by her staring somehow mutes the terror, possibly by implying an unconscious recognition of what the snake stands for and of how valid are its claims. It is difficult to say just why the concluding statement, "this was a dream," seems essential to the poem. Without it, we would easily recognize the fantasy element. Certainly the next-to-the-last line — "I set me down" — is too unassertive for a conclusion. Possibly the last line is both an acknowledgment of the unconscious source of the fantasy and an insistence on its being taken very seriously. Perhaps Dickinson is saying here that dreams can't lie.

The much debated poem "I started Early — Took my Dog" (520) has been more popular than "In Winter in my Room." Many critics take it to be about death or about threatening nature, but we prefer to side with those who think it is about fearful anticipations of love or passion. The coy tone of the poet suggests that she may be taking refuge from a symbolic experience involving combined sexual attraction and threat by adopting a child-like attitude. In the first two stanzas, the speaker visits the sea of experience, accompanied by her protective dog. Dogs in Dickinson's poems are often symbols of the self, partly stemming from her many years of companionship with her setter, Carlo. The mermaids in their mysterious beauty may symbolize the repression of the speaker's femininity, in which case the more helpful frigates may represent an urge to accept herself as she is. The speaker's calling herself "Mouse" reveals her timidity. In the third stanza, the threatening sea merges with the threat of a man who may be able to move her emotionally and, hence, prepares her for flight. The climbing of the sea up over her protective clothing (apron, belt, and bodice are particularly domestic) becomes almost explicitly sexual when linked with the image of dew being eaten. A drop of dew which becomes part of the sea would lose its identity. This image recalls images of pleasurable engulfment in other Dickinson poems, but here it is clearly threatening. The speaker flees and the man-sea pursues. Silver heel and shoe filled with pearl add aesthetic charm to the sexual threat. The last stanza shows the pursuing sea-lover disregarding the social surroundings. The town is probably a symbol of the social conventions that reinforced Dickinson's own timidity and gave her something to fall back on when she was overwhelmed by fears. The mighty look of the sea resembles the explicitly acknowledged power of the snake in "In Winter in my Room"; and, as in that poem, this one ends with a kind of stand-off, as if the threatening world of love and passion were recognized by the poet and carefully distanced. As we have noted, other interpretations of this poem are quite arguable, partly because the tone of the poem is so ambivalent. But the mixture of fear and attraction with a defensive playfulness seems to support our view. The poem is built with great care, but its artifice may make its effect less powerful and revealing than the effect obtained from the starker symbolism of "In Winter in my Room."

Dickinson's poems about the renunciation of a proffered love tempt readers and critics to seek biographical interpretations. Many early critics took these poems too literally; they assumed them to be reports of scenes in which Emily Dickinson refused the love offers of a married man, while offering him assurances of her peculiar faith and her hope for reunion after death. Such interpretations probably do not reflect the reality behind these poems. In all likelihood the poems present fantasies which would have emotionally satisfied Dickinson more than her actual lonely renunciation did. These fantasies provide dramatic plots for cathartic poems.

"I cannot live with You" (640) is probably her most popular poem of this kind. This painful and tense poem is grammatically difficult and deserves more space than we can give it. Careful study of its images, progression, and grammar would be a valuable exercise in understanding Dickinson's poetic techniques. The speaker addresses a beloved man from whom she is permanently separated in life. To live with him would be life, she says, implying that she is dead without him. Paradoxically, the only life together possible for them will be when they are in the grave. Two stanzas representing the dead as broken chinaware poignantly and reluctantly praise death over the apparent wholeness of life. In the third stanza, the speaker imagines death scenes in which she would prefer to comfort her dying lover rather than to die with him. She is also reluctant to die with him because that would give her the horrible shock of seeing her lover eclipse Jesus and dim heaven itself. The lover is like God, and love is superior to heaven Oust as Dickinson can find the artist's heaven superior to God's). For two stanzas, beginning with "They'd judge Us — How," the speaker's attention moves to the unconventional nature of her love. People, perhaps representing God, would condemn the lovers for breaking some social or ethical tradition. Perhaps the lover is married, a minister, or both, or perhaps the service of heaven is a more general stewardship. The speaker's desperation now threatens the poem's coherence. The fact that the lover saturates her sight (echoing the eclipse of Jesus' face) makes her not care about heaven and its values. Furthermore (perhaps), his being lost (damned) would make her glad to give up her salvation in order to share his fate, and were he saved, any possible separation would be, for her, the same thing as hell. The last stanza does not connect logically to what precedes it. The poem seems to return to the world of the living, and it seems to be saying that the lovers' complicated prospects and perhaps their shocking unconventionality make the future so uncertain that they can depend on only the small sustenance of their present narrow communication and tortured hopes. The short lines and abruptly rocking movement of the poem echo their struggles.

"My Life had stood — a Loaded Gun" (754) is an even more difficult poem, ending with what is probably the most difficult stanza in any of Dickinson's major poems. Defiantly joyous in tone — at least on the surface — until its almost tragic final stanza, this poem presents an allegory about the pursuit of personal identity and fulfillment through love, and yet it is quite possible that the joy of the poem conceals a satire directed back against the speaker, a satire which may be the chief clue to the meaning of the last stanza. The life of the person as a loaded gun probably stands for all of her potential as a person, perhaps creatively as well as sexually. Her being claimed by the owner suggests subservience to a lover as the only way to achieve selfhood — a stereotype of woman's position in society. Her powers are released by the owner-lover, and the landscape of the world rewards her by acknowledging her expression of his power. The Vesuvian face suggests the speaker's sexual release being read into the landscape, and perhaps also the joy on the face of the lover, who remains curiously uncharacterized throughout the poem. The nighttime scene in which the speaker-as-gun takes more pleasure in protecting the owner than in sleeping with him (the grammar makes it possible to conclude that she has not slept with him, or to conclude that she enjoys protecting him more than sharing his bed) gives to the sexual element a strange ambiguity, because she seems equally joyous at resuming her daytime role of releasing destruction. just what she kills is difficult to say, but the yellow eye and emphatic thumb are sinister enough to suggest that the speaker is aware of something demeaning in her dependent, destructive, and self-denigrating role. The poem's joy, or pretended joy, dissolves in the last stanza. The speaker thinks that she may outlive the owner-lover, but she knows that in some sense she cannot. These lines appear to contradict one another completely. The qualification that the speaker-gun has "but the power to kill" undercuts the earlier celebration of her power.

Evidently her celebrating that power as something good is a delusion. The power to kill, then, does not give identity, and its satisfactions are misleading. The last line presents an absolute paradox. The speaker-gun's inability to die will make the owner-lover outlive her. The paradox can be resolved by assuming that die may have a special meaning. Quite possibly to die means to realize some kind of consummation or identity, including the sexual — to achieve the self by a discharge of energy more real than the act of totally serving another. If this is the case, the speaker-gun has never really lived and so the owner-lover must outlive her. Of course the specific fantasies that lie behind the poem are unrecoverable. The poem has been interpreted as a comment on the speaker's relationship with God or on her activity as a poet. Individual beliefs about psychological and sexual motives and symbols can influence the interpretation of this poem. Our interpretation of "In Winter in my Room" and "I started Early — took my Dog" may reinforce our view of this poem.

Although "There came a Day at Summer's full" (322) contains some painful elements, the kinds of fantasies that we have just examined receive a much more gentle, exuberant, and joyful treatment in it. The resignation seen in "I cannot live with You" here turns into a prelude to a triumph beyond death for a love that could not succeed on earth. This poem presents a more visual scene than both "I cannot live with You" and "My Life had stood — a Loaded Gun," but it is still clearly an allegorical scene, and there is no reason to assume that Emily Dickinson ever had an experience like the one it presents. The action occurs on the day of the summer solstice, usually June 21st, the longest day of the year, when the promise of spring, symbolically, if not literally, becomes the fullness of summer. The first two stanzas stress the spiritual triumph of this day for the speaker, which overshadows the fullness of nature and places her and her lover in a world entirely apart from it. She seems to be expressing surprise that nature carries on in its usual way without paying any attention to her great experience. Love is so intrinsic to their companionship that speaking of their love would be a kind of profanation, just as the idea that priestly garbs are essential to sacraments is a profanation. (Nature is brushed aside, and love substitutes both for it and for religion.) The lovers, excluding the world, become their own church and hold their own communion, an act which will prepare them for heaven. However, they are destined to part, but their parting will intensify their relationship. Still maintaining silence, they exchange crucifixes, which seem to substitute for wedding rings, perhaps guaranteeing union through suffering. Their betrothal — depending on how we interpret the grammar of the last stanza — will overcome the grave and give them a marriage in heaven. Probably these lines are saying that their suffering is the sufficient troth that will ensure their marriage. The last line can be read as modifying "marriage," or as describing their general troth and suffering. In this poem, the element of conflict and suffering is held in balance with, or made subservient to, the triumphs of love. The lovers' rapt attention to each other and their disregard of the world contribute to the poem's tone of affirmation. The conflicts dramatized in this poem lack the ambiguity of "I started Early — Took my Dog" and "My Life had stood — a Loaded Gun," where the sexual elements probably puzzled even the author-speaker. Dickinson seems to confront her longings more straightforwardly when she sees them as simple matters of separation.

In "If you were coming in the Fall" (511), Dickinson treats love-separation and hope for earthly or heavenly reunion in an even more straightforward manner. The poem's domestic images show Dickinson using the everyday and trivial to describe strong emotions, but these images also serve to suggest that the speaker is used to her situation. It is a part of her daily life, and she is able to take a detached, but not quite flippant, attitude towards it. The stress on geography implies a physical separation — she never sees the beloved. The image of a fly and the image of time as balls of yarn — these show that she is occupied by routine tasks while she is thinking about the beloved. In the third and fourth stanzas, she grows extravagant, imagining how easy it would be to wait out centuries, or to pass through death, if either would bring her the lover. The counting by hand and the tossed rind (which represents the act of dying) continue the domestic images, not only unifying the poem but reducing the vastness of time and death to something controllable. The last stanza says that since she has no idea how long she must wait for him, she is goaded like a person around whom a bee hovers. The goblin nature of the bee lends mystery and ambivalence to whatever she must suffer to be with her lover. The poem employs four parallel stanzas before its concluding fifth stanza, but rather than creating monotony these build up a pleasant suspense that is given a concentrated expression in the end, where one also senses a concentration of restiveness. This effective conclusion is quite different from the endings of the poems just discussed, and it helps to demonstrate that Dickinson uses a variety of tones and methods in her treatment of similar material.

We move now to a number of love poems in which the reality of consummation, in addition to the choice of a beloved, is more explicit and emphatic, but we should remember that disappointment, renunciation, and irony against the self may always lurk beneath the surface. "Mine — by the Right of the White Election!" (528), which is very popular with readers and anthologists, almost seems a concentration of the conclusions of her love poems. Gaining extraordinary emphasis from its lack of a main verb (which would logically appear in an implied statement such as "He is . . ."), its insistent parallelism, and its concentrated metaphors, this poem declares that a beloved person is the speaker's possession, although he is now physically absent and will be closer — if that is possible — only after death. "White Election" may refer to Emily Dickinson's typically white garb and to her sexual innocence. The prison is her isolation that cannot hide her dedication. "Vision" and "Veto," which critics sometimes use as caption descriptions of Dickinson's view of love, or even of her poetry as a whole, suggest the presence of love in the spirit intensified by the forbidding of its physical presence. Only the "grave's repeal" will give permanent confirmation to what she already somehow possesses. Although this poem has considerable appeal because of its exuberance and technical virtuosity, its somewhat hysterical tone may lessen its effectiveness. The poet's frenetic attitude may influence even our perception of the poem's central purpose, which is to celebrate the possession of a beloved person, by leading us to suspect that considerable doubt may lie behind its overly emphatic affirmation. The poem can also be interpreted as an affirmation of the speaker's assurance of God's choice of her for salvation ("white election"). We prefer our interpretation largely because the phrase "Vision and . . . Veto" echoes Dickinson's sense of an enforced separation from a beloved person.

Possession of an infinitely worshipped person is presented in a different manner in "Of all the Souls that stand create" (664). The subterfuge of life which we put behind at death may refer to the physical elusiveness of the beloved person, to the artificiality of social life, or to both. The notion of separating the before and the after, and the description of life as a process of shifting sands, suggest the greater reality and stability of the afterlife. The concentrated last four lines show an overlapping of the physical and the spiritual. Life is presented as being mistlike in that it obscures real values. One beloved person, a mere atom in all creation, will stand out from every other human being, but will be visible only as a spirit. The speaker rejoices in her preference as if it were an indication of her own superiority. Unlike many of her religiously oriented love poems, this one does no violence to Christian doctrine in its view of life, death, and love. This conventional set of mind contributes to the poem's detachment, for although other of her love poems insist that reunion will occur only in heaven, they still reflect a strong sense of concrete physical presence. Because this poem is so detached, as a result of its being intellectually demonstrative rather than personally dramatic, some readers may find the beloved figure somewhat vague and fatherly.

That Dickinson's hopes for becoming close to a lover fluctuated dramatically at times can be demonstrated by moving from "Of all the Souls that stand create" to two such different poems as "Wild Nights — Wild Nights!" (249) and "The Soul selects her own Society" (303), both among her best and most popular poems. In "Wild Nights — Wild Nights!" Dickinson expresses passionate longing for a loving physical intimacy with the specific person she is addressing. The scene is presented metaphorically and its water images remind us of details in "I started Early — Took my Dog" and "There came a Day at Summer's full." In "Wild Nights — Wild Nights!" she desires a fulfillment that in those poems is feared or looked forward to only after death. Here, the first stanza anticipates nights to be spent with a beloved. Both wildness and luxury are part of a shared, overflowing passion. In the second stanza, these nights become a reality, and the concentrated imagery shows that the wildness stands both for passion and for the threat to it from the socially forbidding world. She imagines herself, at the same time, at sea with love and in a protective harbor, and no longer does she need to traverse the sea of separation and prohibition. Sea and port paradoxically seem to merge. In the final stanza, this merging is suggested by "rowing in Eden," where the combination of sea and port corresponds to the physical reality of harbors, except for their exclusion of storms, and where "Eden" implies the attainment of paradise in this world, rather than after death. At this point, the sea as a place for mooring represents the beloved. The last line acknowledges again that Dickinson is describing a fantasy, not a reality, but in it there is a sigh of relief — assisted by the rhyme that echoes back to the first stanza rather than a cry of desperation. The speaker as a mooring ship suggests a woman nestling against the body of a man and into his life. It is also a fitting symbol for the end of a quest. The suggestions of masculinity in this poem's speaker may reveal in Dickinson an urge to be active in creating a situation that she usually anticipates more passively.

The rarely anthologized but magnificent poem, "I had not minded — Walls" (398), which was added as an appendix to Final Harvest after its first edition, makes yet another interesting contrast to "Wild Nights — Wild Nights!" In this poem the emphasis is on the inaccessibility of a beloved person held at an impossible distance by the laws of society, which laws make a barrier that the speaker says she would find easy to penetrate if it were merely physical and as large as the universe. Perhaps in Dickinson's mind this was the same distance that her imagination joyously traversed in "Wild Nights — Wild Nights!"

"The Soul selects her own Society" (303) is a difficult poem that has been variously interpreted. It seems to stand midway between the yearning of "There came a Day at Summer's full," where fulfillment is hoped for in heaven, and the scene of almost-fulfilled desires in "Wild Nights." Here, Dickinson appears to assert that in some special and mysterious way she is always in the company of one person whom her soul has chosen as its only needed companion. The poem is written not in the usual first person of her love poems, but in a detached and meditative third person, until the last stanza where the speaker appears and comments on the third person figure of the first two stanzas. The "Soul" of the first line may at first appear to represent any person, but close examination shows that it is Dickinson herself, or the speaker of the poem, seen from a distance. Also "Society" at first may appear to be a large group of people, but in reality it is one person. "Divine Majority" paradoxically implies that one person or better yet — two people — have become more important than anyone else. The third line is probably a declaration that no others are present, but since Dickinson proposed the word "obtrude" as an alternative to "present," the line may be an imperative telling other people to stay away. In the second stanza, the soul, or essential self, sees people arriving in chariots, an elevated way of describing carriages (perhaps hinting at heavenly as well as at kingly status), but she indicates that she would not be moved even if an emperor asked for her attention. These figures may stand for people in general or for prospective suitors. In the last stanza, the switch to first person shows Dickinson quietly reveling in the strength of her renunciation. The ample nation is everyone available to her. The chosen one is the beloved whose spirit she lives with or has perhaps taken into herself by the power of imagination. "Valves of her attention" gives the soul the power of concentration. The soul has almost denied everything else in life to lock itself into its strange relationship with the chosen "one." "Stone" represents its complete rejection of the rest of the world. The alternating short-long lengths of the poem's lines, culminating in the two-syllable lines of the last stanza, parallels this closing down of attention and strengthens our sense of a painful but glorious triumph in the concluding lines. Unusually rich in sound effects, including alliteration, rhyme, and modulation of vowels, this is one of Dickinson's greatest successes in poetic technique. Some critics believe that the subject of this poem is the union of the soul with the muse or with God, rather than with a lover.

The idea of a spiritual union with a beloved person is more explicit in several other Dickinson poems, but none is as brilliant as "The Soul selects." Because in several of these poems Dickinson, or her speaker, refers to herself as wife or bride, these poems are sometimes called "the marriage group." However, they are not necessarily any more joyous than "The Soul selects." Probably "I'm 'wife' — I've finished that" (199) is the most revealing of these "marriage " poems. (We did not include "There came a Day" and "Mine — by the Right" here because they are about an anticipated rather than a fulfilled union.) This slow-paced poem has an eerie and detached tone. The placing of quotation marks around "wife" and "woman" suggests that these are chiefly social concepts related to status, or it may indicate that the speaker is changing the meaning of those concepts to suit herself. She regards her earlier pre-marriage state with scorn, implying that she has found her own safety without having gone through a conventional marriage. The soft eclipse of her imagined or spiritual marriage blurs the harsh light of what preceded it, although "eclipse" may also refer to the loss of individuality. The use of "folks" in her contrast between heaven and earth implies that her accomplishment has been easy to will or that it resembles the wish-fulfillment of a dream. Having exchanged pain for comfort, she seems astonished that it could be willed so easily. The paired question and assertion of the last two lines suggests a certain numbness reinforcing the implication that the whole process has been painful and reinforcing the poem's aura of unreality. The poet's attitude toward her triumph is ambiguous; she seems uncertain about its nature, and yet she is reluctant to explore her state further, as if through further questioning she might lose everything.

We find an even more intense mixture of feelings in another marriage" poem, "Title divine — is mine!" (1072), one of Dickinson's most complex and ambiguous poems. Like other poems that we assign to the category of love, this one has also been interpreted as being about God, or poetry, or the achievement of selfhood. In our view, this poem, like "The Soul selects" and "I'm 'wife' — I've finished that," deals primarily with the fantasy of a spiritual marriage to a man from whom the speaker is physically separated. This time, however, she seems quite aware that the suffering is greater than the rewards, and that, in fact, the whole thing is a bitter delusion. The title of wife is divine for two reasons — because society considers it to be, and because it brings elevation. Possibly "divine" also indicates that this marriage exists only spiritually. The missing sign refers to the physical and social reality of marriage. "Acute degree" and "Empress of Calvary" are both paradoxical. The acuteness is the sharp angle of pain. "Calvary" is an elevating suffering, but still the worst suffering imaginable. She has gone through this marriage without the fearfully ecstatic loss of self that other women experience, but her loss is more terrible. In one day she has been born through love, has been made bride, and therefore been bridled like a horse, and has been shrouded, in the sense that her peculiar marriage is a kind of living death. Such a victory is triply ironic. She tries to pronounce the words of love and elevation proper to a real wife, but asks if her way — probably referring to her whole bitter poem — has caught the right tone. On the biographical level, perhaps this poem shows Dickinson's combination of doubts and affirmations about real marriage as much as it shows her anguish over her own ambivalent idea of a spiritual marriage.

Two lesser marriage poems, "She rose to His Requirement" (732) and "A Wife — at Daybreak I shall be" (461) are harder to interpret within the pattern of Dickinson's love poems. "She rose to His Requirement" (732) appears to describe an actual marriage in which a woman gives up the casual play of girlhood for the honorable status of wife. This new state, however, seems to be a considerable disappointment. The woman perhaps has not found the riches of fulfillment that she had expected. However, she allows herself no mention of her disappointments. The comparison of what she does not mention to both pearl and weed suggests that in the depths of the woman's soul there are both secret rewards and secret sufferings. Knowledge of these depths is assigned to the sea rather than to the woman, but the sea seems to be a symbol for part of the woman. This symbolic splitting of woman and sea implies that the woman has detached herself from her husband, and reaps, or faces, special rewards and punishments by herself. Very probably an attempt to look objectively at the rewards and losses of those real-life marriages in which Dickinson did not share, this poem may also contain parallels to her own condition as imagined wife and as poet.

"A Wife — at Daybreak I shall be" (461) places an anxious and almost desperate emphasis on that split between girlhood and the married state that has been a subject of other poems that we have discussed. The chronology here is somewhat overlapping, suggesting an anxious thrust towards a fulfilling future. The speaker alternates between expecting to move from girlhood to marriage and asserting that she has done so. In the second stanza, she repeats the pattern, this time rushing up the stairs of childhood towards her marriage. Now, however, the marriage seems to be in eternity or heaven. The poem may represent a suicidal impulse, or a blending of the idea of spiritual marriage with the idea of a union in heaven. In any case, the poem's repetitive method does not create the complexity of feeling of Dickinson's better and more dramatic poems about an imagined or future marriage.

The infrequently anthologized "I'm ceded — I've stopped being Theirs" (508) makes an interesting connection between the marriage poems and the poems about growth and personal identity. Here, there is no mention of marriage, but the speaker's progression from shallow girlhood, where she gained identity from her family and their values, to her fully realized potentiality in which she hears her true and self-given name, reveals striking parallels to the marriage poems. Her whole existence becomes full, and she is crowned. She has moved from a low rank to the highest imaginable rank. The implied doubts of "I'm 'wife,' I've finished that," the isolation of "The Soul selects," and the irony of "Title divine" are entirely absent from this poem. Probably the condition of a crowned queen here represents that being a poet gives her the feeling that she is a whole person. Thus we see illustrated one of the many thematic overlappings between her love poems and her poems on other subjects.

We have grouped Emily Dickinson's poems on social themes with her love poems partly because both types of her poetry stress her evaluation of people whom she observed. For many poets, society provides a context for their treatment of love, or perhaps a clear delineation of a world from which they withdraw into love. Dickinson's social satire criticizes all kinds of shallowness from which she fled to thoughts of love. Although early critics of Dickinson emphasized her neglect of the social scene, later critics have scrutinized her work to find every conceivable treatment of social themes. We confine ourselves here to mostly a few widely anthologized poems relating to society.

The very popular "I'm Nobody! Who are you!" (288), on the surface, may seem a slight performance, but it is not a superficial poem. On the biographical level, the poem perhaps reflects Dickinson's resentment of shallow writers who gain undeserved attention. Or she may be satirizing the character and situation of people who loom large in the eyes of society — people whom we call "somebodys." Taking assurance from the company of a fellow nobody, the speaker pretends to be worried that they will be held up to public shame for their failure to compete for attention. However, the sudden transition to a denunciation of "somebodys" suggests that if one gains notice as a nobody, it makes one into a kind of somebody. Clearly she prefers a position of invisibility, where she can take her own measure. The somebodys sit in the middle of bogs, a nasty representation of society, and the somebodys bellow to people who will admire them for their names alone. The poet seems to be mildly congratulating herself that unlike the vulgar and pretentious somebodys, she is shy and sensitive. The poem is jocular, amusing, and surely a bit defensive, and its psychology and satire are keen.

Turning her attention more critically to a more specific human type in "What Soft — Cherubic Creatures" (401), Dickinson produces one of her most popular and admired poems, although its unusual compression and its concentrated biblical allusions create difficulties for many readers. The poem is a portrait of excessively genteel women whose claims to status are based entirely on the externals of behavior, dress, and manners. Irony pervades the poem. The softness and cherubic nature of the ladies represents their pretended gentleness and false sweetness (with perhaps a hint at obesity). But the third and fourth lines show us that these women are detached from the real world around them and perhaps they even revel in this detachment. "Plush" describes the softness of upholstery material. The word is an adjective here converted into a noun for a cloth substance too soft to provoke anyone to assault it. Dimity is a dainty white cotton cloth and "dimity convictions" transfers the frailness and pretended innocence of the women's clothing to the women's beliefs. Perhaps we are to see them displaying their false values at religious services or in condescending acts of charity. Their convictions seem limited to a refined horror of ordinary human nature, perhaps in themselves as well as in others. The poem extends this shame about human nature to a shame about Christ, who was quite willing to put on human flesh. The antecedent of "It's" is human nature. The fisherman's degree, we think, refers not, as some critics suggest, to Peter, Christ's disciple, who was a fisherman, but to Christ himself, who, when He associated with fishermen, was a fisher of men. The last two lines state that the women's attitudes would make redemption (the Redeemer) ashamed of them and presumably deny them salvation. The switch from "soft" to "brittle" in reference to the women, that has troubled some critics, is easily explained as a shift from social demeanor to frail values, but also both of these adjectives suggest values that will not endure.

In "She dealt her pretty words like Blades" (479), Dickinson turns her attention to a single lady — perhaps one whom we can imagine imitating the softness of cherubic creatures until the lady has sufficient privacy to reveal a vindictive cutting edge. (Or it may be that she is a different but equally shallow human type.) The aggression here seems the reverse of the repression in some gentlewomen. Probably Dickinson wrote this poem with her sister-in-law, Susan, in mind. The pretty and glittering words suggest the pleasure which a clever woman takes in her speech while being at least partly aware of how much her words hurt those whom she is addressing. The poem's claim that the woman does not believe that she hurts must describe a rationalization in the woman. Since the woman proudly sees herself as being like steel, she judges what she says to people as being properly corrective. Despite her implied denial, she realizes quite well the hurt she gives, but she adds to her original attack by scorning her victims for not exhibiting pain gracefully. The poem is very cleverly built. The first stanza is spoken in detached anger by an observer or a victim. The second stanza imitates the viewpoint of the vicious woman. The third stanza passes a cool judgment on the whole affair, first defending the victim's sensitivity and painful response, and then describing those defenses which finally lead hurt people to withdraw into a protective death-like state. The tone of the last two lines is somewhat jocular. In them, the speaker, drawing upon her own experience, claims a knowledge of suffering so keen that it is like death — a suffering which the attacker refuses to see.

The very popular "Much Madness is divinest Sense" (435) expresses just such a strong feeling of personal suffering, and it leaves the picture and nature of the cruel behavior which it attacks so generalized that one may not immediately notice its social satire. If we wish to make a biographical interpretation, we can note the relationship of its ideas of divinity and a majority to those of "The Soul selects her own Society," where a divine majority of two requires the shutting out of the ordinary majority. In this poem, the discerning eye represents the person who sees that going her own way and choosing her own values may lead to the intensest life, whereas choosing what the world calls sense may produce emptiness, or waste, or pretension, all of which are madness to a sensitive person. The fourth and fifth lines protest against the majority's dictating standards for personal values and conduct, as well as for the rest of society's organization. As she moves from personal situation to social dictatorship, the poet expresses an increasingly mocking anger. The last three lines imply the instruments, social ostracism or even the asylum or prison, which the majority uses to hold people in line. The last line confirms our earlier sense that the concealed speaker feels imprisoned. The poem is brilliantly constructed, with the first three lines illustrating the daring of independent souls, the last three lines showing how they are restricted, and the middle two lines providing the transition from the personal to the social level. This poem ritualizes the internalization of social bondage.

There are three interesting and brief glances at social situations in the poems, "The Popular Heart is a Cannon first" (1226), "The Show is not the Show" (1206), and "This quiet Dust was Gentlemen and Ladies" (813). "The Popular Heart is a Cannon first" seems to describe the celebration of a national holiday, possibly the Fourth of July, when patriotic types fire off cannons, march with drums, and get drunk. It may, however, be chiefly about the drilling of militia soldiers. The second stanza satirizes their sinking into a drunken stupor, and their lying in ditches and jail and ridicules their activities as an improper memorial for historical events.

"The Show is not the Show" (1206) presents more objectively the kind of social criticism shown in "I'm Nobody! Who are You?" Attendance at a public entertainment brings out the showiness or pretense of those who attend more than it reveals anything spectacular in the event. In lines three and four, she seems to be saying that her neighbors are like zoo creatures to her, and the last two lines imply that her view of them is fair because her neighbors are probably making a similar judgment of her.

"This quiet Dust was Gentlemen and Ladies" (813) was a popular Dickinson poem several decades ago, when in the public eye her superficial wit sometimes eclipsed her deeper insights. It makes, perhaps, a gentle companion piece for "What Soft — Cherubic Creatures." Here, the poem looks back at both young and old who were socially pretentious and given to shallow pursuits. Instead of the shocking contrast of dead people and continuing nature that we find in many Dickinson poems on death, this one attributes a certain superficiality or pointlessness to the cycle of nature. The poem itself expresses comic relief, perhaps as if the speaker were glad not to be troubled about either social pursuits or death, It is also possible that the poet in a neutral or slightly elegiac tone is saying not much more than that the cycle of nature resembles the cycle of man.

What may be Dickinson's most popular poem on a social theme, "I like to see it lap the Miles" (585), is devoid of both people and an explicit social scene. However, its satirical treatment of the invasion of her quarter of the world by a mechanical monster that seems to have delighted everyone else but her can be seen as a satire on the advance of industrial society. The poem domesticates a railroad train by presenting it as a horse. The idea of speed is satirized by making the train into a licking animal, while the impersonality of the train's fueling is converted into feeding. In the second and third stanzas, the train-as-horse takes on somewhat disagreeable human qualities as it enjoys its conquest of the landscape while making a racket that the speaker finds horrid. In the last stanza it reaches its goal, and the conjunction of "docile and omnipotent" shows it as both under man's control and potentially breaking loose — or perhaps lending its omnipotence to the humans who have created it. The speaker seems to sigh with relief at the end, perhaps reflecting Dickinson's difficulty in dealing with social subjects.

Quite possibly, Dickinson could not apply her talents to social subjects with much force because they did not arouse in her the kinds of emotion which she struggles to express and control in her best love poems. However, such triumphs of satire as "What Soft Cherubic Creatures" and "She dealt her pretty words like Blades" are partly inspired by angers that resemble the tensions in her love poems.

Back to Top

Take the Quiz

Dickinson considered the speaker in her poems to be




Quiz