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17 June 2012

Rearrange a "Wife's" Affection!

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 Fastness –
Blush, my unacknowledged clay –
Seven years of troth have taught thee
More than Wifehood every may!

Love that never leaped its socket –
Trust entrenched in narrow pain –
Constancy thro' fire – awarded –
Anguish – bare of anodyne!

Burden – borne so far triumphant –
None suspect me of the crown,
For I wear the "Thorns" till Sunset –
Then – my Diadem put on.

Big my Secret but it's bandaged –
It will never get away
Till the Day its Weary Keeper
Leads it through the Grave to thee.
                                                            F267 (1861)  1737

Imagine going through life with a steadfast love for someone – your soul mate – but the love must be kept secret. That’s what this poem talks about.
            The first stanza is blunt, almost explosive. The poet begins from the point of view of a wife. Tamper with her love and affection? No way! They would have to first take out her brain and cut off her breasts. They’d have to make her a man to do it. Each of the four lines in the first stanza end in exclamation marks. Could Dickinson have been any more emphatic?
            The second stanza tackles her virginity. The poet compliments her spirit for steadfastness and gives a tip of the hat to her “unacknowledged clay” – her unfulfilled body. Both body and spirit can blush with wifely pride for seven years of pledged love have taught her more than if she had actually married.
Lover's Letter Box
George Baxter 1856
            She then becomes more detailed in praising her spirit and her clay. Her love never wavered. Her trust was “entrenched” and confined; there was pain involved. Dickinson may have been thinking of a man like Samuel Bowles or Charles Wadsworth as she wrote this: married men, both. That would account for the confines and also for the “fire” through which she remained constant. It might account as well for the “Anguish” she suffered without anything to soothe the pain and lessen the hurt.
            The last two stanzas, though, reveal the poet as not despairing because she believes in a marriage after death. Not a “Corpse Bride,” of course, but a true spiritual union. The poet has born the burden of her secret and difficult love in secret. No one suspects. She refers to her crown of thorns by way of reinforcing her suffering: she, like Jesus, wears a painful crown until death. Then she can put on her true, beautiful crown.
            This secret love is a big secret. No doubt there would be plenty of scandal and embarrassment should it be discovered. Consequently, the poet has “bandaged” it. The bandage covers and hides the secret. It also binds it to her until she dies and can lead it “through the Grave” to her waiting soulmate.
            The last line implies the soul mate might already be dead, that the poet has been keeping her love alive for seven years trusting in a heavenly consummation.  
            Part of the strength of the poem comes from the expulsive “b” sounds in the first six lines: Brain, Bosom, bearded, Blush, Blush. They underscore the intensity of the love. In later lines we see the love as Burdened, the secret as Big and Bandaged. All strong words.


  1. It's been a while since I looked at this poem, but I believe it's Emily Dickinson's response to the marriage of her long-time friend Susan Gilbert to Emily's brother. Without getting into the gender restrictions on women in the 19th century, it's safe to say that an open declaration of female-for-female love would not have been possible back then, though this poem comes pretty near that. The poem's tight structure attempts to contain the speaker's sense of desolation and loss, but the pain of being crucified for love's sake seeps through. It's not an accident that the last word is "thee."

  2. I interpreted it as she wants to be/is a boy but can't tell anyone
    (harder to phrase that cuz IDK how gender was conceptualized back then)
    I thought she wore the diadem in secret instead of in death
    the poem seems both painful and kind of joyful for me.
    Love that never leaped its socket –
    Trust entrenched in narrow pain –
    Constancy thro' fire – awarded –
    Anguish – bare of anodyne!
    she's working so hard to hide and all she gets for it is pain. it is a pain a somewhat triumphant pain but a pain but also a secret crown and all that she could have been but isn't is "blushing"
    just my interpretation

    1. Thank you -- re-reading the poem I can see your reading of it -- that is, until the last couple of lines. There is a critical "thee" there that must be taken into account, too. Those lines you quoted are just wonderful.

  3. I wonder if the poem could also be read as a kind of confession of/musing on a loss of virginity before (and perhaps ultimately without) marriage. That "bandaged" in italics; it seems a bigger secret than just a secret crush. I also wonder if this poem is connected in that theme with "the wife--without the sign!" which also seems potentially to be about being a mistress. Sexual consummation was seen as making a man and a woman "husband and wife"--so in having sex, a woman would in essence be a wife, but without the sign of the "Mrs." or all the other stuff that goes with it--rings, ceremony, etc. I'm not sure if this reading can be made to fit the lines about "Love that never leapt its socket"--etc.--except that perhaps the lover remained chaste for seven years, but now possesses the "crown" of which none suspect her, and the secret which she has to "bandage" (even the body which remains in a sense "unacknowledged" either through celibate years, or after a moment of losing virginity and becoming a wife, through "trust" in narrow pain, and "constancy thro' fire rewarded"--these images seem too filled with pain, phsyciality, and intensity of feeling to be just internal anguish over unrequited love; the secret seems something more weighty and perhaps a triumph AND humiliation at once, to the speaker, to be kept secret until the grave.

    1. I am tempted to read it that way, and others have; but I find the "unacknowledged clay" to mean she remains virginal. The "crown" I take to be the crown of thorns she refers to -- the suffering in silence during life when consummation with her love is not possible. After death she trades the thorns for the real crown -- the real love. But you make a good case.