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13 February 2012

A Wife – at daybreak – I shall be –

A Wife – at daybreak – I shall be –
Sunrise – Hast thou a Flag for me?
At Midnight – I am but a Maid –
How short it takes to make a Bride –
Then – Midnight – I have passed from thee –
Unto the East –  and Victory –

Midnight – Good Night! – I hear them call –
The Angels bustle in the Hall –
Softly – my Future climbs the Stair –
I fumble at my Childhood's prayer –
So soon to be a Child – no more –
Eternity, I'm coming – Sir –
Master – I've seen the face – before – 
                                                                                              - F185 (1861)  461 

This evocative poem relies on metaphors  too ambiguous to make a  precise interpretation of it possible.  Dickinson’s poetry consistently uses sunrise as a symbol of new life in paradise, of awe and wonder, and also of love. The East is used in similar ways as a stand-in for paradise, but she has also used it to stand for victory and for passion. She explicitly links the East here with Victory, but the nature of the victory is uncertain. Will she be surrendering to a lover? Dying and going to Heaven? The stairway that the Future climbs can figure as easily as a sexual metaphor as a heavenly one. So let’s just work through the poem and see what we find.
            Second stanza: At midnight the speaker goes to bed in her upstairs bedroom. People wish her good night as she retires and she can hear “Angels bustle in the Hall.” She stops to contemplate her situation – and this goes back to the first stanza when she thinks about the magnitude of the change she is about to undergo from midnight to dawn. Midnight – the darkest mystery, is usually set in opposition to the fullness of noon. Here it represents the moment of change: on one side maidenhood; on the other, Bride. The time between is surprisingly short. Again, whether she contemplates her own death or her loss of virginity, is uncertain.
Dickinson Home - Emily's room lit; 
waiting for her 
"Future" to climb the stairs?
            Her imagery is positive, however. “A Wife” is clearly superior to being “but a Maid” whether she be bride of Christ or bride of a highly-desired lover.  The passing of one state to another represents victory and to complete the image, she wonders if she will get the victor’s flag at daybreak. The “Future” climbs her stair “Softly” and bears a familiar face. Certainly whatever or whoever is coming for her is not fearsome and means no harm. We would know that already, though, by the Angels’ presence making all ready the way nurses bustle about preparing things for the doctor.
            The poem builds in suspense and tension, particularly as the poet fumbles at her “Childhood’s prayer.” The footsteps approach! The moment is at hand – the transformation from “Child” to … what? The last two lines of the poem at first seem to resolve meaning, only to dissolve into more uncertainty. The Future has climbed the stairs and the speaker finishes her prayers. She then addresses the “Future” as “Eternity” – and this indicates that it has, indeed, been Death that she expects to occur after midnight. She addresses Eternity through the representative, “Sir,” and “Master.” She has seen the face of this representative before. So just as we were tempted to say, “Ah, Jesus has come for her to usher her from death into everlasting life,” we must then wonder if she isn’t looking at a dear earthly beloved face and likening it to the coming of Christ to take her to Him. This interpretation is bolstered by her use of “Master,” for as we know she referred to several beloved men as “Master,” and even had a series of frankly passionate letters addressed to “Master.”
            It seems most likely, though, that Dickinson is making the final Mystery as mysterious as possible. Just as young virgins don’t truly know what love’s consummation will be like on their wedding nights, so too we don’t really know what death will be like. We hope it will wear a familiar and beloved face. 


  1. thank you. I appreciate the enterpretation, and it brought me views I wouldn't have seen myself.

    1. Thank you -- that's the best compliment I could receive!

  2. I find HD's poems wonderful and frequently bemusing. But here the mystery for me is "Master" in the last line. My edition has "Saviour", but I've seen another analysis where "master" is obviously the word in the poem. I went to the Amherst manuscript and there the word is definitely Saviour. Is there another variant manuscript? Any help on this would be very appreciated.

    1. I see that the Archive manuscript pages show 'Saviour' in Franklin's A and B versions, but 'Master' in the C. I have the Franklin reader which has 'Master'. Christanne Miller's highly-respected book 'Emily Dickinson's Poems as She Preserved Them' also has Master. There is probably more to dig up as to why Master was preferred, and if you do so -- please let me know! Thanks for the comment and question.

    2. I think I'll spend a bit of time on this and let you know

  3. For evidence that religion, sex, and creativity are close psychological relatives, look no further than this poem. Generally, ED is the queen of ambiguity, but ‘A Wife – at daybreak – I shall be’ screams unfulfilled longings. As Susan has said elsewhere, such needs fuel poetic productivity, in this case a Niagara of poems waiting to be born.

  4. Line 4 of Franklin’s published text reads “How short it takes to make a Bride”. All manuscript variants in ED’s handwriting clearly read “How short it takes to make it Bride”. The word “it” occurs twice in Line 4, and in all three variants ED’s script of “it” is identical for the two words. Clearly, ED did not intend the word “a”.

    Franklin used editorial privilege to correct ED’s obvious spelling idiosyncrasies, for example, changing “opon” to “upon”, but changing “it” to “a” is not a spelling correction. The “it” is a pronoun searching for a logical preceding noun, its grammatical antecedent being “Maid”, but a maid is a “her”, not an “it”. It’s anybody’s guess what ED intended, but, given the context of the line, my money is on either a Freudian slip or a deliberate reference to the Maid’s hymen. In either case, we can infer where ED’s mind was when she wrote this poem.

    1. I completely agree that the word should be "it" as ED clearly intended. Your post got me thinking about the meaning of this passage again and I now think that "it" makes wonderfully good sense if it relates back to "maid" as a word, therefore an "it", I would paraphrase the line this way: "How little time it takes to turn the word 'maid' into 'bride'"

  5. ED probably fantasized about marrying Sam Bowles. He was charming, witty, and editor of a leading newspaper when they first met in 1858 at Evergreens. He was also married and had two children. If ‘A Wife – at daybreak – I shall be’ is a fantasy poem about Bowles, I can see another explanation for the odd “it” in Line 3-4:

    “At Midnight – my name is Dickinson –
    How short it takes to make it Bowles”

    Who Knows?

  6. Find a word in the second stanza that means "daybreak" or "sunrise