On Choosing the Poems
As we looked over the many poems Dickinson wrote about marriage, we noticed a trend. Several poems about the desire to be a wife are dated to 1861, while some of the great poems of renunciation of love, such as “There came a day at summer’s full” (F325C, J322), are dated to 1862, after Dickinson experienced what she called a “terror” in September of 1861. To illustrate this trend, we have included a few poems from the 1861 group that express an earlier attitude to love and marriage, and others from 1862 that revise and complicate the earlier vision, including a poem that queers heterosexual marriage altogether!
Having flirted with these biographical possibilities, we want to downplay them and resist constructing a biographical narrative about Dickinson and marriage. Such readings exist, however, and we should note them. For example, in 1983 William Shurr “recovered” a thinly-veiled story of Dickinson’s love, marriage, sex, possible abortion, and separation through reading the poems as Dickinson grouped them in the fascicles. Other readers, like Joanne Dobson, work from a historical rather than strictly biographical perspective, understanding that in the world in which Dickinson matured, marriage was the only means by which females could leave the insulation of girlhood and become responsible people.
Biographer Cynthia Wolff argues more broadly that, though unmarried, Dickinson adopted what she calls
the voice of the “Wife” for her verse, a Voice of maturity – and intimate with pain.
Despite different interpretations, it’s clear that marriage was an important theme as well as a potent metaphor in Dickinson’s work. Janet McCann finds that Dickinson uses marriage to signify
a state of being that involves a true merging of identity.
She describes a “mystic marriage” in which the bridegroom “seems to be God or Death or both.” Much religious poetry explores this trope, but Dickinson
took the unusual perspective of having the human relationship outshine the divine.
Other readers, like Susan Harris, argue that Dickinson works through various facets of the marriage metaphor until she arrives at a poem like “Title divine is mine!” (F194, J1072, 1861), where the speaker identifies herself as a “Wife without the sign,” and undergoes
an earthbound apotheosis, a solitary espousal, and takes up her own mission,
entitled to cultural authority without the earthly symbols of ring, husband, or domestic cage.
Harris, Susan. “Illuminating the Eclipse: Dickinson’s ‘Representative’ and
the Marriage Narrative.” The Emily Dickinson Journal, Volume 4, Number 2, Fall 1995, pp. 44-61.
McCann, Janet. “Marriage.” An Emily Dickinson Encyclopedia. Ed. Jane Donahue Eberwein. Westport, CT.: Greenwood Press, 1998, 190-91.
Shurr, William. The Marriage of Emily Dickinson : A Study of the Fascicles. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1983.
Wolff, Cynthia. Emily Dickinson. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., Inc. 1988, 200.
Forever at His side to walk –
The smaller of the two!
Brain of His Brain –
Blood of His Blood –
Two lives – One Being – now –
Forever of His fate to taste –
If grief – the largest part –
If joy – to put my
For that beloved Heart –
All life – to know each
Whom we can never learn –
And bye and bye – a
Called Heaven –
Rapt neighborhoods of men –
Just finding out – what
puzzled us –
Without the lexicon!
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet VIII, Fascicle 11, Houghton Library – (36c). Includes 20 poems, written in ink, ca. 1861. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. First published in Further Poems (1929), 148, as four stanzas of 5, 4, 4, and 4 lines; in later collections as three stanzas of 4, 4, and 6 lines.
This poem, from 1861, articulates the cultural expectations of Dickinson’s era for women’s desires as regards marriage and for their legal status: to be the “smaller” of the two, to merge with the husband and “taste … His fate.” But even in this seeming acceptance of the status quo, Dickinson suggests some characteristic divergences.
One divergence is that the wife could be a “brain,” a thinking being, and more so, “Brain of [the man’s] Brain,” not just the “Angel in the House” as Coventry Patmore described the ideal Victorian woman in a poem about his wife, written in 1854 and expanded in 1862. Another divergence is that husband and wife cannot, in fact, “know each other,” but remain puzzles up until death, when, in Heaven, the riddle of otherness may be unravelled. Not needing a “lexicon” in Heaven suggests we need one on earth, and that the solution to otherness lies partly with language.
For Virginia Woolf, the repressive ideal of women represented by Patmore's “Angel in the House” was still so potent that she said, in a speech she gave to the Women’s Service League on “Professions for Women” in 1931,
Killing the Angel in the House was part of the occupation of a woman writer.
Patmore, Coventry. The Angel in the House. Cassell & Company, Limited: London, 1891.
Woolf, Virginia. “Professions for Women.” The Death of the Moth, and other Essays. eBooks@Adelaide. The University of Adelaide Library: University of Adelaide South Australia 5005.
I'm "wife" – I've finished that –
That other state –
I'm Czar – I'm "Woman" now –
It's safer so –
How odd the Girl's life looks
Behind this soft Eclipse –
I think that Earth feels so
To folks in Heaven – now –
This being comfort – then
That other kind – was pain –
But Why compare?
I'm "Wife"! Stop there!
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet XV, Fascicle 9-21, Houghton Library – (83d, e). Includes 29 poems, written in ink, ca. 1862. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. First published in Poems (1890), 63.
In this poem, Dickinson rehearses the major elements of the marriage narrative: the state of incomplete girlhood that the speaker has to overcome, and the state of “wife” that she has to achieve in order to become “safe,” a “woman,” a completed female person. Her use of quotation marks around these salient terms calls attention to their special or artificial, because rhetorical, status.
What leaps out are the words “Czar” and “Eclipse.” The first is the title of the emperor of Russia and illustrates the motif of royalty that accompanies the marriage trope. But why Russia– because it is a distant and cold region? And why the male version of this title (there were czarinas)? One speculation is that Dickinson understood femaleness to be, in her culture, an inferior and subordinate category, and when she imagined full personhood, she imagined it as masculine. “Eclipse” is her term for a failed God. In her second letter to Higginson on April 25, she said of her family:
They are religious – except me–and address an Eclipse every morning – whom they call their “Father” (L261).
But as several commentators note, this poem has the feeling of failure. Susan Harris observes:
Confident though the voice may be, it does not in fact accomplish its purpose, because its simple declaration fails to create an adequate vision of the new state of being.
Dickinson will have to push beyond the conventional terms to describe the state of authority she seeks.
Harris, Susan. “Illuminating the Eclipse: Dickinson's ‘Representative’ and
the Marriage Narrative.” The Emily Dickinson Journal 4, 2 (Fall 1995) . 44-61, 48.
A Wife – at Daybreak -
I shall be –
Sunrise – Hast Thou a
Flag for me?
At Midnight – I am
yet a Maid –
How short it takes to
make it Bride –
Then – Midnight – I have
passed from Thee –
Unto the East – and Victory.
Midnight – Good night -
I hear them Call –
The Angels bustle in the Hall –
Softly – my Future climbs the
I fumble at my Childhood's Prayer –
So soon to be a Child – no more –
Eternity – I'm coming – Sir –
Master – I've seen the Face – before –
Link to EDA manuscript. Versions A and B: Amherst Manuscript # 826- asc:8740 – p. 1. Courtesy of Amherst College, Amherst, MA. Version C: Poems: Packet XL, Fascicle 32. Includes 21 poems, written in ink, ca. 1862, Houghton Library – (219a). Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. First published in Atlantic Monthly, 143 (March 1929), 332, and Further Poems (1929), 190, from the fascicle (C), with line 7 as two lines.
This poem, ostensibly about a girl’s almost magical transition into a “wife” on the day of her wedding, reveals the mobile character of Dickinson’s representation of marriage. Many elements – the darkness of Midnight, the East and “victory,” and the “Angels” in the Hall – hint that this “wedding” is not merely an earthly union but a spiritual transition.
EDA’s notes on the manuscript confirm there are
three variants, about 1861, 1862, and 1863. The earliest was written in pencil about spring 1861 on the verso of a leaf of stationery (a 826) whose recto carries an abandoned letter (to "Dear Friends," the text consisting of four words: "I bring you so"). The second alternative appears to have been intended for line 13. Somewhat later, about 1862, ED revised the poem, canceling line 12 and marking the alternative as its successor.
We reproduce version 3, the fascicle version, here. Furthermore, the EDA continues:
About summer 1862, ED made an ink fair copy, incorporating into it the changes on the pencil draft (they apparently originated at this time). She also introduced stanza division and two variant readings (lines 3 and 13). Although the earlier alternative had been underscored, she did not adopt it. Both copies were retained in her possession; the one in ink, prepared as if for sending, remained unfolded, unaddressed, and unsigned (a116).
The first version, F185A, ends:
So soon to be a Child – no more –
The Vision flutters in the door –
Master – I've seen the face before – (variant: Eternity – I’m coming sir –).
The second version, F185B, ends:
So soon to be a Child no more –
Eternity, I'm coming - Sir,
Savior – I've seen the face – before!
The third version, F185C, ends:
So soon to be a Child – no more –
Eternity – I'm coming – Sir –
Master – I've seen the Face – before –
The first ending stays in the human realm though the variant suggests that the entire scenario can be read in spiritual terms: the “girl” as a figure for spiritual immaturity. The second version identifies the face of the bridegroom as “Savior” or Christ, making this a “mystical marriage.” The third version combines the two readings in which “Master” is an earthly figure for a heavenly power.
Leiter, Sharon. Critical Companion to Emily Dickinson: A Literary Reference to her Life and Work. New York: Facts on File, 2007, 52-54.
Rearrange a "Wife's" Affection!
When they dislocate my Brain!
Amputate my freckled Bosom!
Make me bearded like a man!
Blush, my spirit, in thy
Blush, my unacknowledged
Seven years of troth have
More than Wifehood ever may!
Love that never leaped its socket –
Trust entrenched in narrow
Constancy thro' fire – awarded –
Anguish – bare of anodyne!
Burden – borne so far
None suspect me of the crown,
For I wear the "Thorns" till Sunset –
Then – my Diadem put on.
Big my Secret but it's
It will never get away
Till the Day its Weary Keeper
Leads it through the Grave
Link to EDA manuscript About late 1861, in Fascicle 11-6 but now lost (part of h 37). The text derives from a transcript by Harriet Graves, corrected by Mabel Todd (a tr26). Todd’s 1891 notebook, in which she recorded unpublished poems and their locations, places the missing manuscript in this fascicle. First published in Bolts of Melody (1945), 149-50, from the Graves transcript of A.
In this poem, also dated to 1861, Dickinson describes a symbolic or secret relationship, for “seven years a troth,” or betrothal, though some readers interpret this as a figure of speech and an allusion to the Biblical story of Jacob, who was engaged to Leah, but worked for her father for seven years to be able to marry Rachel, Leah’s younger sister and his true beloved. The speaker/“wife” feels that her “affections” for her husband are somehow threatened, or she is being asked to give them up. It is perhaps revealing that Dickinson’s family declined to publish this poem after her death and destroyed the original, though not before Mabel Loomis Todd, who was editing Dickinson’s poems, made a copy of it. Did they think it revealed the existence of a secret “marriage” or illicit affair?
Without getting too much into the biographical weeds, we should note how extreme, even grotesque some of the imagery is. This love is linked with pain, secrecy, and impossibility; the only reward the speaker has is knowledge of her “constancy.” The last two stanzas use the imagery of royalty, but it is a “crown of thorns,” a sign of the degradation and suffering Jesus wore at his crucifixion. The speaker must wear this ironic crown all day but when she is alone at night, she can revel in her secret status, her “diadem,” a private space also associated with her poetry. The image of the “big … bandaged … secret” has occasioned much interpretation. Sandra Gilbert links it to the white dress Dickinson began wearing to symbolize her retreat from the world into her private realm of language.
Gilbert, Sandra. “The Wayward Nun beneath the Hill: Emily Dickinson and the Mysteries of Womanhood.” Emily Dickinson: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Judith Farr. Upper Saddle River N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1996: 20-39.
There came a day -
at Summer's full –
Entirely for me –
I thought that such
were for the Saints –
Where Resurrections – be –
The Sun – as common -
went abroad –
The Flowers – accustomed -
As if no soul – that
solstice passed –
all things – new –
The time was scarce
profaned – by speech –
The falling of a word
Was needless – as at
The Wardrobe – of
Each was to
each – the sealed
Permitted to commune -
this time –
Lest we too awkward
At supper of "the Lamb."
The hours slid
fast – as hours will –
Clutched tight – by
greedy hands –
So – faces on two Decks -
look back –
Bound to opposing – lands.
And so when
all the time had leaked –
Without external sound –
Each bound the
other's Crucifix –
We gave no other
Sufficient Troth – that we shall
Deposed – at length
the Grave –
To that new – Marriage –
Justified – through
Calvaries – of
Dickinson included this duly famous poem in her second letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson on April 25, 1862 and we discuss its complicated provenance in that post. It is a definitive description of a supreme love that, for some undisclosed reason, must be renounced. It includes an expression of a hope that the lovers will be reunited in Heaven, reprising the sentiment at the end of “Rearrange a “wife’s” affections.” It is noteworthy, and different from that earlier poem, for its assured tone of achieved calm and forbearance. It also refuses to use the gendered terms of marriage: husband and wife. Rather, these lovers are equal, undifferentiated by sex or gender. Furthermore, the struggle is over, this poem implies; we met at the height of summer, the season of fullness; we bid a last farewell; and we put our hopes in the future of “that new Marriage.”
What that “new” version of marriage might be is up for debate. The poem speaks of love and marriage in religious terms. The speaker compares the lovers’ tryst to the “sacrament” of “The Lord’s Supper,” a ritual that celebrates the union of human and divine. However, the imagery in the final stanza is not celebratory but evokes Jesus’ very human suffering on the cross: the lovers bind each other to Crucifixes and are “justified,” a Puritan term referring to salvation, “through Calvaries – of Love.” This love is inextricable from suffering of the most agonizing kind: being abandoned by God. And yet, this finale has about it the golden afterglow of a glorious summer day.
Ourselves were wed one
summer – dear –
Your Vision – was in June –
And when Your little Lifetime
I wearied – too – of mine –
And overtaken in the Dark –
Where You had put me down –
By Some one carrying a Light –
I – too – received the Sign –
'Tis true – Our Futures different
Your Cottage – faced the sun –
While Oceans – and the North must be –
On every side of mine
'Tis true, Your Garden led the
For mine – in Frosts – was sown –
And yet, one Summer, we
were Queens –
But You – were crowned in June –
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Amherst Manuscript #fascicle 84 – asc:1468 – p. 5. Courtesy of Amherst College, Amherst, MA. First published in Bolts of Melody (1945), 108-9, with the alternative for line 11 adopted.
Although this poem was not sent to Susan Dickinson, most scholars interpret it as addressed to her as the speaker’s first love, who throws her over for a man, presumably Austin, Dickinson’s brother. Meanwhile, the speaker then also “receives the sign” of marriage from “Some one carrying a Light,” whom Judith Farr interprets as “Master.” But the women in the poem have different fates: the beloved (Sue) can bask in the sun of a public marriage and a garden of children, while the speaker faces “Oceans – and the North … and Frosts” of illicit, childless love.
While this reading is certainly plausible, Dickinson’s ambiguous syntax casts any definitive interpretation into doubt. The opening declaration suggests both that the women were “wed” to each other one summer but also, possibly, to others. The first reading asks us to rethink “There came a day at summer’s full” as referring to a union between women. The powerful emotion and climax of the poem falls on the speaker’s recollection of the summer “we were Queens.” That is, the season they achieved royalty, authority, entitlement together through their love. The last line, however, implies that they were Queens without crowns, since the beloved was crowned—married to another, a man—in June. However we read this poem, it affirms that for Dickinson, marriage was not merely heterosexual.
Farr, Judith. The Passion of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1992, 110-11.
For a reconsideration of Dickinson's marriage poems through a lesbian lens, see Martha Nell Smith, Rowing in Eden: Rereading Emily Dickinson. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992.