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11 October 2011

I had some things that I called mine –

I had some things that I called mine—
And God, that he called his –
Till, recently a rival Claim
Disturbed these amities.

The property, my garden,
Which having sown with care –
He claims the pretty acre –
And sends a Bailiff there.

The station of the parties
Forbids publicity,
But Justice is sublimer
Than arms, or pedigree.

I'll institute an "Action"—
I'll vindicate the law—
Jove! Choose your counsel—
I retain "Shaw"!
                                                   - F 101 (1859)  116

So God has his natural woods with natural processes and the poet has her garden that she sows and tends, and all is well with the world. But then it seems as if God encroaches, sending winter – snow, frost, or some such – and claims her “pretty acre.” The snow or wintry frost would be God’s Bailiff, hustling off the garden. Since we’re dealing with the Most High, there can’t be any publicity about it. Fortunately, however, “Justice” is more sublime – has greater scope – than God. His “pedigree” doesn’t count for anything before the U.S. “justice-is-blind” system. The poet, drawing on Dickinson’s family’s legal expertise (her father and, I think, her brother, were lawyers), institutes an “Action”, expecting that her faith in the law will be vindicated. “Jove” (and we’re happy to see that she isn’t suing the Christian God, for that would border on the blasphemous) is warned to get counsel and the poet retains, according to David Preest, “Lemuel Shaw, the Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court.”
            It’s all very droll, the idea of challenging God in court over encroaching on her garden plans. It’s all of a piece with her to-date playful way of addressing and referring to God. Not for this poet the grim Calvanistic necessities of piety and seriousness. The short lines and legal jargon help deliver the lighthearted touch.


  1. Hmmm. . . I came puzzled about “Shaw.” Thanks for the clarification. Now I wonder about “Bailiff.” Initially I read, and I think still read, the poem differently. I grew this garden, but then God intervened and it became so rich and glorious he sent his bailiff to manage it, provide care beyond anything I could give, and gather the profits, which goodness knows are beyond anything I ought to expect. Still I will fight at law for my rightful claim!! Though, sublime as Justice may be, what is an earthly court (even with Chief Justice Shaw at my side) against the wonder presented here!

  2. And what am I doing calling the garden mine, anyway!

  3. F101, ‘I had some things’, seems a fitting follow up to F67, ‘Delayed till she had ceased to know’ and F79, ‘New feet within my garden go’ (cf. comments after these poems in The Prowling Bee, TPB).

    Late winter and early spring of 1859 in Amherst were unusually warm; farmers and gardeners plowed in March and planted potatoes early. By the end of May, three weeks after average last frost, corn was two weeks ahead of schedule, and ED’s annuals promised early bouquets. During the night of June 11, a light frost did little harm. Without reliable forecasts, Amherst gardeners could not know that the night of June 12 would freeze the top half inch of tilled soil and convert ED’s promising flower garden into a cemetery decorated with hoarfrost (“a vest of snow” in F67).

    ED was so angry, she threatened to sue God.

    PS. As David Preest pointed out, ED choose as her lawyer Lemuel Shaw, the sitting Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court. Ironically, Herman Melville had married Shaw’s daughter, Elizabeth, in 1847, and in 1859, the year of this poem, the Melvilles lived 30 miles west of Amherst. Eight years earlier, Melville had published ‘Moby Dick’, which today is an American classic but in 1859 an instant failure, selling fewer than 300 copies. Melville died forgotten in New York City in 1891, as did ED in Amherst in 1886. Dickinson and Melville, arguably the two greatest 19th-century American writers, never met.

  4. Wendy K. Perriman uses an internationally recognized checklist designed by E. Sue Blume (Secret Survivors: Uncovering Incest and Its Aftereffects in Women) and argues that out of a potential 37 incest survivor aftereffects, Emily Dickinson displays a staggering 33 characteristics. Perriman interprets Fr 101 from this perspective, for me, very convincingly:

    The opening lines define a Puritan sense of self: “I had some things that I called mine-“ (her body), “And God, that he called his” (her soul). But then a “rival Claim,” made by an unidentified outside agent “Disturbed these amities.” It is interesting that in her quest for answers Dickinson employs a variety of legal metaphors (“Claim,” “Bailiff,” “Justice,” “Action,” “Counsel,” and so forth which subtly suggest the “rival” intruder may have been a lawyer, like the poet’s own father.In the second verse the “Claim” made against “The property, my garden” has strong sexual overtones. It vibrates with hidden knowledge of how her secret space, “the pretty acre,” was appropriated by someone who “having sewn [it] with care” now “claims” it for himself like a “Bailiff” (an authority figure) who has come to collect the payment he feels is due. The third stanza explains her predicament because “The station of the parties / Forbids publicity,” and strongly suggests that the speaker cannot tell anyone about the crime committed against her because of family ties. “But Justice is sublimer / Than arms, or pedigree”, so she is going to take her case up with God by instituting “An Action_” to “vindicate the law-“ She instructs God to “Choose your counsel_” in preparation for the trial, because she is going to “retain Shaw!” – seemingly a reference to Lemuel Shaw, the Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Courts form 1830 -1860. Shaw redefined the property liability law, and established the concept of “blameworthiness” which are part of the poet’s concerns if the speaker is questioning why she was sexually abused, and who is to be held accountable: her father, herself, or God?
    (Wendy K. Perriman: A Wounded Deer. The Effects of Incest on the Life and Poetry of Emily Dickinson)