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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?

  4. With “bridalled”, ED coined a new word, not found in Oxford English Dictionary. Its homonym, “bridled”, applies to horses and brides, but not grooms: restrained, regulated; restricted, curbed, controlled. Surely, this clever pun was not an accident.

  5. The following comment is long because I concur with Habegger (2001, My Wars Are Laid Away in Books) that Charles Wadsworth, a Presbyterian minister, was probably the intended recipient of ED’s three Master Letters and ED’s imagined groom in ‘Title divine, is mine’. He visited ED at her home in Amherst in March 1860 and again in 1880, two years before his death.

    In March, 1855, "Emily and Vinnie visited their friend and second cousin, Eliza Coleman, in Philadelphia for at least two weeks. During that visit ED probably met and attended a sermon by the Reverend Charles Wadsworth, the most famous of Philadelphia’s ministers. He made such an impression on her she later solicited his counsel and thus initiated one of her most vital friendships. It is certain the poet corresponded with him before he moved to San Francisco in 1862 to serve as a minister there. He returned to Philadelphia in 1869, continued to minister, and died there in 1882. At his death ED variously typed him as “my Philadelphia,” “my Clergyman,” “my dearest earthly friend,” “my Shepherd from ‘Little Girl’hood.” The relationship was obviously a central one for her.” (Habegger 2001, p. 376).

    Continued next comment

    Habegger continues, “Judging from contemporary reports, Wadsworth’s deep bass tones, reserved emotional power, and luminous language, combined with his original exposition of Old School Presbyterian thought, produced an unforgettable effect. He impressed believers and unbelievers alike, including Mark Twain, who heard him in San Francisco and liked his humorous glare. Extremely reclusive, he avoided the members of his congregation and even fellow pastors, letting himself be known only through his preaching, which seemed to emerge from dark internal sources he simultaneously protected and pointed to. “You feel,” wrote an admiring colleague, “that behind all he says there must be lying years of conflict and agony, of trials and sorrows, of deep gloom and despondency, of strong cries and tears.”

    “Strong, tragic, unknowable: this was how he impressed Dickinson, who, characterizing him decades later as “a ‘Man of sorrow,’” recalled this curious scene: “once when he seemed almost overpowered by a spasm of gloom, I said ‘You are troubled.’ Shivering as he spoke, ‘My Life is full of dark secrets,’ he said. He never spoke of himself, and encroachment I know would have slain him.” According to his eulogist, Wadsworth produced the effect of “a messenger from another world.” After his death, reading something by or about him, Dickinson said, “I have had a Letter from another World.” (Habegger 2001, p. 377).

    “The next summer [1880] Wadsworth came to Amherst [from Northampton where he was visiting a friend, a ride of eight miles,] and saw her for the second and last time. She was tending her flowers when he rang, evidently assuming he would not be turned away. Vinnie heard him speaking to Maggie [the Irish maid] and said, “the Gentleman with the deep voice wants to see you, Emily.” In her “glad surprise,” she asked why he hadn’t notified her in advance, to which he replied that he had come on impulse, “stepped from my Pulpit to the Train.” The answer, an odd one, suggests that a partial recovery of his powers of speech may have influenced his decision to come and see her. In her two accounts of the visit, nothing is said about a vocal impediment. (Habegger 2001, p. 699)

  6. “But he gave her to understand he was “liable at any time to die.” Two years later, having contracted pneumonia, the minister was advised that his condition was terminal and he should prepare for death. “I have no preparations to make,” was the reply; “they have been made.” He died early in the morning on April 1, 1882.

    “The last words of Wadsworth’s sermon the previous Sunday—“going home, going home”—were publicized in an article that evidently reached Dickinson. In April 1886, a few weeks before her own death, as she wrote her last known letter mentioning the minister, she twice repeated these words, placing them in quotation marks. The recipient was one of his closest friends. “Excuse me for the Voice, this moment immortal,” her letter concludes.” (Habegger 2001, p. 699).

  7. It seems increasingly likely to me that throughout her life ED’s only real romantic love was “Dollie”, Susan Gilbert Dickinson. She enjoyed Bowles’ sometimes risqué repartee and maybe even flirted for fun, but she had no serious romantic interest. And though her mysterious “Master” was probably Charles Wadsworth, she knew she could only imagine marriage with him, possibly in Heaven. Judge Lord came much later, outside my current purview.

    Given ED’s 1861 comment in this poem, it’s doubtful that she had ever experienced heterosexual sex, or even knew that men also “swoon”. (CAPS 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

  8. Actually, ED sent Variant A to Bowles in 1862 (Franklin 1998). As SK says, there is a greater sense of urgency in Variant A than in Variant B, as indicated by exclamation marks and by the italicized “this” and question mark in the last line. Variant A tells us how ED felt about Wadsworth in 1862 versus 1865, when she had calmed down a bit, and for that reason I prefer it over Variant B.

    Unfortunately, Bowles was unwell and harried when he received this poem and ignored ED’s imperative command “You will tell no other”. In a January 1863 letter to Austin, Sam let slip:

    “to the Queen Recluse my especial sympathy—that she has “overcome the world in heaven—ask her; and are dandelions, asphodels, or Maiden’s vows the standard flowers of the ethereal?”

    “This irreverent treatment of Dickinson’s queenly withdrawal and obsession with heaven would not have upset someone with her keen humor, but there was an unforgettable shock in that emphatic—and public—“Maiden’s vows.” [E]arlier she had sent Bowles an ecstatic announcement of her excruciating “marriage”—“Title divine – is mine!/The Wife – without the Sign!” Insisting the matter be regarded as strictly confidential, she added, “You will tell no other? Honor – is its own pawn”. Now, playing with her trust, he all but dangled the great secret in front of the brother whose sympathetic understanding she no longer took for granted. That scoffing “Maiden’s vows” carried the suggestion that her fervent and private attachment to Wadsworth was some sort of virgin fancy, a product of inexperience.”

    “[T]he relationship had been irreparably damaged, · · · · initiating a twelve-year hiatus [1862-1874] in friendship.”

    Habegger, Alfred. 2002. My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson (pp. 537-538). Kindle Edition.