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25 February 2012

Title divine, is mine

Title divine,  is mine.
The Wife  without the Sign  –
Acute Degree conferred on me  –
Empress of Calvary  –
Royal, all but the Crown  –
Betrothed, without the Swoon
God gives us Women –
When You hold  Garnet to Garnet  –
Gold  –  to Gold  –
Born  –  Bridalled  –  Shrouded  –
In a Day -
Tri Victory  –
"My Husband"  –  Women say -
Stroking the Melody  –
Is this  –  the way –
                                                            - F194  (1861)  1072

Dickinson sent this remarkable poem to Samuel Bowles in 1861 with the following message:
Here’s – what I had to ‘tell you’ – You will tell no other? Honor – is its own pawn – ”

Actually,  the poem she sent Bowles  in 1861 is a little differrent than the one above – which she sent Sue  in 1865. There is a greater urgency in the earlier letter (below) indicated by exclamation marks and by the italics and question  mark in the last line:
Title divine  –  is mine!
The Wife  – without the Sign!
Acute Degree  – conferred on me  –
Empress of Calvary!
Royal  –  all but the Crown!
Betrothed  – without the swoon
God sends us Women –
When you hold  – Garnet to Garnet  –
Gold  –  to Gold  –
Born  –  Bridalled  –  Shrouded  –
In a Day -
"My Husband"  –  women say  –
Stroking the Melody  –
Is this  –  the way?

What are we to make of this poem? What message is she sending Bowles? There are two parallel interpretations of what the poet is saying: one, that she has a heavenly title: “Empress of Calvary.” It’s a “Title divine” that was “conferred” by God. The title was granted through marriage, for she is a “Wife” (though “without the [earthly] Sign”) and she was “Bridalled” and has a “Husband” or at least someone standing for a husband. Since Jesus died on the cross under a sign naming him “King of the Jews,” it seems logical to assume she has become, as nuns do, the bride of Christ. She upgrades the union, however, from Queen (to go with "King") to Empress—a strange upgrade on what was, anyway, a mocking title conferred on Jesus by Pilate. Further, there was a moment of salvation: she was “Born – Bridalled – Shrouded” in just one day. The “Shrouded” is mysterious, signifying, as it does, Death. However, if one has been born anew, saved, one might at the same time be dead to this worldor at least to sin.  So she may be telling Bowles that she has indeed had her day of salvation, despite her famous refusal to take the salvation pledge that most of her village and family had taken at about this time.
            The second interpretation would be an announcement of love between herself and an earthly man (Bowles himself?). Although Dickinson is unable to actually marry (the men she loved at this time, including Bowles, were already married), there is some evidence she believes in a spiritual and even heavenly union. The poet, through the excited tone and punctuation (of the earlier poem), indicates that this spiritual “marriage” is as exciting as an earthly one. She has the “Title divine,” which is surely worth  more than a certificate. It comes with a steep cost, however. She had to be crucified in some way as part of the deal. “Calvary” is the name of the hill where Jesus was executed. The poet indicates some super-duper crucifixion for she is “Empress” of that place. She has suffered for this love, this non-marriage marriage. She will never be able to say "My Husband."
Dickinson would
never have this
In this special relationship she also misses out on “the swoon” that “God gives [“sends” in the earlier version] us Women.” This may mean a sexual swoon or girlish swoon of emotion or, more likely, both. In the intensity of this swoonless love, she is born, married, and perished, figuratively, in one day. Some day!
The last three lines have an exquisite sadness. Ordinary women might speak casually of their husbands, but they have a special way of saying it. “My husband” might be said nonchalantly, but there would be a bit of pride, maybe, and affection in the word. To Dickinson’s ear the words are like music and the women stroke the notes with their voices. “Is this – the way,” she asks wistfully, and we are to imagine her saying the words with a caress.
                It is tempting, however, to read the poem as an exalted account of making love for the first and probably last time to the love of one’s life. Having had a meeting of the bodies and souls, the poet is more truly Wife than whomever holds the paper or wears the ring or other “Sign.” She had suffered profoundly until this glorious moment. The “Degree” itself was “Acute,” or sharp and intense. Feeling far from soiled and fallen, the poet feels “Royal” – and who needs the Crown anyway? She looks back, though, again wistfully, at the wedding ceremony she will never have, the paired gold and garnet rings that are exchanged, the “swoon” of ceremony and moment when the clergyman pronounces the couple man and wife.


  1. What about the line that comes first, "God sends us (US!!) women --"
    "garnet to garnet -- " (same to same)
    "gold -- to gold -- " (same to same)

  2. Good point. She did send this poem to Sue eventually. But a wedding ceremony between man and woman would indeed have two wedding rings (although I'm not sure a man's ring at that time would have a garnet or other jewel).
    Dickinson's relationship with Sue was strongest years earlier and continued – with breaks and strains – until Dickinson's death. This poem reads so breathlessly that it seems to refer to something that was experienced (or at least vividly imagined) just prior to its composition. I don't think (but don't know) that it reflects Sue and Emily's relationship at the time.
    But thank you for pointing this out. I hadn't thought of the poem in this way -- it's a provocative reading that adds another layer of Dickinsonian allusion.

  3. I don't believe men commonly wore wedding rings in the 19th cent., did they?