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04 August 2011

By such and such an offering

By such and such an offering
To Mr. So and so –
The web of life is woven –
So martyrs albums show!

                                                   - F 47 (1858)

This little poem may be read at both the universal and personal level. The key word is 'martyrs'. Foxe's Book of Martyrs, a catalog of Christian martyrs from the first century C.E. through the Protestant Reformation, was a staple in New England Puritan homes and Dickinson without a doubt was familiar with it. The martyrs' lives exemplify the sublime to the cruel, the miraculous to the toil of daily kindness. Do their offerings underpin the web of life (i.e., Western civilization and culture)? Surely their deaths advanced Christianity, and within Christianity the Reformation, and so wove the fabric of life as Amherst and other Protestant towns would have known it.
3 women burned as heretics
     Read this way first two lines may be read as ironically offhand. The martyrs each offer their lives to God, aka Mr. So and so – which is a pretty novel way of referring to the Alpha and Omega, the "I Am Who I Am." If I think about it closely, however, I see "So and so" as another way of saying "Apha and Omega".
     However, the offerings might be the daily work and toil and sacrifices given by a martyr to the people, characterized here as "Mr. So and so" – John Doe, if you will. All this effort is what gets them into trouble! Each bit of work for the Cause weaves the ultimate outcome of their lives a little more tightly, eventually leading to martyrdom.
     Following this line of thought we come to the individual level. Let's skip right to Dickinson herself. She offered many poems to several men, one of whom was Charles Wadsworth whose acquaintance she had made just two or three years before writing this poem. Many scholars believe Wadsworth was the "Master" to whom Dickinson addressed several very passionate letters in 1860.
     On the most personal level, then, this poem can be read as a wry comment to someone like Charles Wadsworth. She has given him poems and letters (and maybe more!), and this weaves him into her life. She then implies that she is a martyr, Wadworth is married after all, but with a playful exclamation point that removes the sting. "Mr. So and so" is a clever way of pointing out the need for his anonymity.


  1. Although the Dickinson Museum’s list of books in the Homestead and Evergreen Libraries doesn’t include Fox’s (or Foxe’s) Book of Martyrs, that list may be incomplete. However, given Edward Dickinson’s refusal to take communion until 1850, a history of Christian martyrs published in 1563 would probably have been way down on his reading list. We also don’t know whether ED was familiar with the book, but given its tediousness, it seems unlikely.

    If "By such and such an offering" was one of at least 250 that ED sent Susan D, hoping for comments or at least acknowledgements, it’s not hard to imagine ED’s feelings of abandonment in 1858. During Susan's first two years of marriage, she probably struggled with her own sexual proclivities and her relationship with Austin: it was five years before their first child was born. In addition, during the house-warming years in their elegant new home, Susan and Austin entertained lavishly, a time-consuming task. Eventually, their marriage settled into a consenting 'ménage à quatre', with ED and Austin’s mistress, Mabel Loomis Todd, as third and fourth partners.

    It's hard to imagine a more ambiguous poem than 'By such and such an offering'. Is it a serious comment on life or a sarcastic complaint about a delinquent recipient of ED’s “offerings” of poetry? Given ED’s famously droll sense of humor, my money is on the latter. To unmask the recipient of this quatrain, switch the masculine addressee to feminine and the first two lines become “By such and such an offering / to Mrs. So and so”, which sounds sarcastic to me. The third and fourth lines of a sarcastic-complaint scenario might translate as “I hope my gifts of poetry weave webs that bind us in a life of love / If not, my poems become mere pastings in albums of my martyred life.”

  2. This one is inspired, Larry and you’ve made sense of a very opaque poem. There is a school of thought which demands that a poem must stand alone in its art, that no biographical inferences are acceptable or warranted. But with Emily, I think that is half the fun!