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24 December 2011

“Sown in dishonor”

“Sown in dishonor”!
Ah! Indeed!
May this "dishonor" be?
If I were half so fine myself
I'd notice nobody!

"Sown in corruption"!
Not so fast!
Apostle is askew!
Corinthians 1. 15. narrates
A circumstance or two!
                                                                  - F153 (1860)  62

Dickinson takes on the Apostle Paul! He is “askew” – not straight, off the mark. “Not so fast,” big boy. The Bible chapter in question is Paul’s analogy of wheat seeds growing into wheat compared to our earthly (corrupt) bodies, “Sown in dishonor,” that ‘grow’ into heavenly, spiritual bodies. Dickinson’s tone of frank sarcasm is pretty bold for a nice lass of Amherst, 1860, especially one raised in a conservative Christian household.
            Dickinson addressed this poem to Sue, her best friend and sister in law. I suspect there may have been a picture or article of some sort enclosed, indicated by the italicized “this” in the third line. Maybe it was a picture of Sue herself: if Dickinson were “half so fine” she wouldn’t give a fig what anybody thought.  Or perhaps it was an article about some noble act or about some selfless person.
            Here are some pertinent verses from 1 Corinthians 15:
St. Paul
37 And that which thou sowest, thou sowest not that body that shall be, but bare grain, it may chance of wheat, or of some other grain:
40 There are also celestial bodies, and bodies terrestrial: but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another.
 41 There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars: for one star differeth from another star in glory.
 42 So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption:
 43 It is sown in dishonour; it is raised in glory: it is sown in weakness; it is raised in power:
 44 It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body.
So what “circumstance or two” is the poet referring to in the last line of the poem? Perhaps she is implying that the moon and the stars do not represent corruption or dishonor relative to the sun, or the earth relative to the heavens. Likewise, our earthly bodies are not born in dishonor (a very modern idea, really) and can be quite wonderful. In other poems Dickinson refers to her reluctance to leave this world with its birds and bees and flowers for the next, no  matter how gloriously spiritual it might be.
            The first two lines of both stanzas are really separated tetrameter lines that begin with the trochee of “Sown in.” The lines are separated to emphasize the scoffing of “Ah! Indeed!” and “Not so fast!”  The “Apostle is askew!” line is a great one. By leaving off the article “the,” Dickinson achieves a very fun iambic assonance – and it’s just a darn good line, anyway.


  1. I believe the second stanza to strongly support LGBTQ issues as the poet knew them and how they might've affected her life. The circumstances suggest different paths to holiness.

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    1. EDITED (slightly)
      The entire meaning of #62 hinges on "this," especially considering ED's emphasis on the word. I suspect "this" may refer to the love, perhaps even sexually, between ED and Sue. Consider this idiomatic definition for the verb "to sow": To indulge in sexually promiscuous or dissolute behavior, especially as a young adult. She is questioning Apostle's judgment of their relationship: is this SO bad as all that?! Dishonorable!? P'shaw!

      The following line also poses a challenge of interpretation. It hinges on the adjective "fine." To what is ED comparing herself, and in what context? Corinthians 1:15 42-45 may be interpreted as exalting the purified, exalted body and life everlasting promised by the apostle. If read thusly, ED seems to have anticipated the passage as it was interpreted in the New King James Version (published more than 120 later), which reads, "The body is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption. It is dishonor, it is raised in glory." That is, the earthly, carnal, sexual body, its corruptness, is purified by Christ's resurrection, by faith. ED may be disputing the Apostle's conception of the primal body as a corrupt shell to be purified by the death and resurrection, which reading supports your contention that the poem's sentiment would have been scandalous, perhaps even blasphemous in its time. Certainly!!! As for that critical adjective "fine," I suspect ED is relying upon the word's function to express "purity," that is, a lack of sin, or of carnal attachment. She is, in a rather brilliant guise, lampooning the Apostle's haughtiness and pride, as if to say, "Were my soul half so virgin and pure as the Apostle's, nothing would matter, least of all such petty things as other human beings, least of all you (i.e. Sue)."

      As for the "Circumstance or two" narrated, I believe ED is referencing the numerous instances in the poem where the Apostle is wrong in his opinion, instances where he is "askew." She's clearly pointed out two instances of the Apostle being "askew," obviously that the body is "sown in dishonor" and in "corruption." All in all, she seems to have taken extreme exception to this Biblical passage and its disdainful judgments.

      Certainly, it is a most subtle and quiet poem, masking fiery emotions, among them love, anger, and frustration at the strict religious culture governing the times.

    2. I like the notion that 'fine' plays back on the apostle. It not only seems right in its stanza but ties the poem together nicely. Thanks for commenting!

  3. I felt she was comparing (“if I were”) with Jesus rather than Paul.

    Still puzzled by the second stanza. I thought she is pointing out a contradiction Paul makes between I:15 (“ so no one can say that you were baptized in my name” ) and 15:43 (“sown in dishonor ..”).

    1. I'm going with commenter Benjamin, above, on the 'if I were' interpretation. Either that or reference to an enclosure of some sort -- a picture or news clipping of someone.

  4. For three generations, the locally prominent Dickinson family had worshiped at Amherst’s First Congregational Church. Imagine the pious outrage of its congregation had ED published this poem when she wrote it. Line 7 in her original Variant A, written in pencil and sent to Sue, blandly read “By no means!”. Variant B, which she stitched into a fascicle for posterity, deliberately added punch power to her irreverent jab at St. Paul, substituting “Not so fast!” in its place.

    Vendler (2010) coined a phrase to describe ED’s attitude toward Christianity: “defiant critique”. So much for the meek-little-daisy part ED loved to play. Imagine our warped understanding of ED had she published contemporaneous, politically correct poems. Had living expenses been a problem for her, The Prowling Bee would likely not exist.