That feels to her — like Sacrament —
She's busy — with an altered Care —
As just apprenticed to the Air —
She's tearful — if she weep at all —
For blissful Causes — Most of all
That Heaven permit so meek as her —
To such a Fate — to Minister.
F587 (1863) J535
We have Coventry Patmore to thank for the powerful, and thankfully now nearly defunct, Victorian image of "the Angel in the House". Patmore wrote a poem with that name in 1854, and the term came to refer in general to the selflessly devoted wife and mother, one submissive to and protected by her husband. Long before Virginia Woolf and later feminists skewered this notion, Emily Dickinson wrote these two simple but biting stanzas.
Dickinson may have been sketching the stereotype, but she also may have had her dear friend and sister-in-law Susan Dickinson in mind. According to Judith Farr (The Passion of Emily Dickinson, p.154-5), the poem protests the changes Emily observed in Sue a few years after her marriage to Emily's brother Austen. It's a bit of a dig, portraying Sue as having adopted the Victorian woman's guises of meek innocence and devoted self sacrifice. In earlier poems, thought by various scholars to also be about Sue, Dickinson refers to Sue as "my moment of Brocade – / My – drop – of India (F388), or remembers how Sue came to town and "drifted your Dominions – / A Different Peru" (F418).
|Queen Victoria as Angel|
But whether about Sue or about the stereotype of a good wife and mother, the poem gives with one phrase and takes away with the next. The first two lines are about the subject's happiness, but this happiness and contentment ring hollow. Next, she is "busy" but only as an apprentice to the Air. If she becomes "tearful" it is only for "blissful Causes" rather from any real anger or grief. The most blissful cause of all, though, is that she, such a meek woman, was permitted by Heaven "to Minister". Somehow that doesn't sound as sincere as it should. Might the subject have really feared Heaven wouldn't allow her to serve and tend others? I also hear echoes in "Minister" of its rhyming word, "sinister". More deviously, I am reminded that, according to Farr, Sue was in love with a minister: a certain Reverend Samuel Bartlett.
I said earlier that the poem might have been a "bit of a dig" about Sue, but I was understating the quite sharp sarcasm that ruffles the surface of nearly every line. Dickinson adopts a regular iambic tetrameter with an AABB rhyme scheme. The poem is too regular. It lacks poetic surprise, interesting juxtapositions, and the odd grammars that often lend a dynamic quality to Dickinson's work. The triteness of the composition reflects that of its subject.
Beyond form, the words are subtly barbed. The subject's contentment "feels to her" like Sacrament; not only is that a weak sort of conviction, but Sacrament should be entered into with awe and commitment and reverence rather than simple contentment (or even, in Dickinson's play on words, with "new Content"). Her busyness is attended by an "altered Care". She is not doing what once mattered to her. She is keeping busy but it is as if she apprenticed herself to the air. She's taking direction from every passing breeze. Both her contentment and busyness seem insubstantial.
But it is the fake-sounding humility of the last stanza that adds the sharpness, especially if written about Sue, a notably proud and accomplished woman. Emily loved Sue for her passion, her exoticness, and her lively intelligence. But by this time Sue had children, a prominent husband, and an active social life. It may be that Dickinson didn't like the "new Content".