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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.

    1. And she pokes Paul as being 'askew'. Love it.