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30 March 2012

I'm "wife" – I've finished that –

I'm "wife" – I've finished that – 
That other state – 
I'm Czar – I'm "Woman" now –

It's safer so – 

How odd the Girl's life looks
Behind this soft Eclipse – 
I think that Earth feels so
To folks in Heaven – now – 

This being comfort – then
That other kind – was pain – 
But why compare?
I'm "Wife"! Stop there!
                                                            F225 (1861)  199

In a society that values marriage highly and spinsterhood not at all, the creative spinster finds outlets in work, art, or else just thumbs her nose at society. Sometimes she is profoundly lonely. Emily Dickinson took joy in her poetry, her baking, her nephews and family, her garden – and in love. In this poem she imagines what it would feel like to put girlhood and spinsterhood behind. By the time this poem was written she would certainly have been considered a spinster.
            The frustration she has with her current status comes through loud and clear when she calls it “That other state.” In comparison, to be a “wife” is to be a “Czar” and a “’Woman.’” The change is put in cosmic terms: it’s an “Eclipse.” As a wife she is able to view life from the sunny side and look back on the Girl who on the far side sees only a dark disk hiding the sun. But it is a “soft” eclipse as if in one step a girl goes from the dark to the light. The transformation seen from the bright, wife side she likens to life after death. The “folks in Heaven” look back on earthly people and see them as “odd,” not fully aware. That’s how the “Girl’s life looks” to a married woman.
People felt sorry for the poor
spinster who must stay in
perpetual girlhood.
            But not only odd: the poet says “It’s safer” to be a wife. The 19th-century girl and spinster must worry about protection, income, and their place in society. Women didn’t yet have the vote, couldn’t hold many jobs except low paying ones. Think of what it might mean in a fundamentalist country today to be a woman: you are considered inferior to a man, you are considered easy prey by the unscrupulous. But we needn’t go that far. Dickinson wouldn’t have been in real danger as she had a strong and caring father and brother. She came from an educated and affluent family. And in actuality, Massachusetts had more unmarried women than other states, many of whom announced their rejection of marriage on principal or because they wanted the freedom. But several of Dickinson's other poems talk about being adrift or lost, and many talk about loneliness and pain. Perhaps she meant it would be safer to have an anchor and a soul mate.
            The state of marriage she consequently calls “comfort” while the other is “pain.” But then in a flippant ending, as if to quash any challenges and questions – from her own mind as well as from others – she says, “I’m ‘Wife’! Stop there!” ‘Nuff said, in other words. The ending ties in nicely with the first line where she says “I’ve finished that.” The dreamy and thoughtful second stanza contrasts with the abrupt conviction of the first and last. The lines are longer, too.
            The rhyme scheme is AABBCCDDEEFF – all of them slant rhymes: that/state; now/so; looks/Eclipse; so/now; then/pain; compare/Stop there. One nice touch is the repeated “that” in the first and second lines. It gives an almost stuttering effect: that…that…other state. The effect underscores the belittlement of spinsterhood. Not long ago we still called unmarried women 'old maids' – so we can't feel too smug.

There is a very interesting article about unmarried women in New England in the 1800s here.


  1. thanks for this analysis. very helpful

  2. Your blog is awesome!

  3. Very useful analysis! I was a little lost but you helped wring out the meaning for me :)

  4. Wow. Your blog is amazing

  5. Your blog is glorious! I'm taking an Emily Dickinson class right now, which has proved to be very intimidating, but your blog is helping me through it. I don't know how many of your posts I've read--probably at least thirty. Every time I come across a confusing poem I turn to Google in hopes that you've analyzed it already. So I'd like to say thank you and that you're awesome. :)

    1. Thank you! I remember searching for poetry analyses as a student -- and how much I learned from them about poetry and how to write about it.

  6. Would it be possible to expand your definition of "other state" to include that of the other woman? It is entirely speculative, of course. Also, is a soft eclipse caused by a shadow from another planet and is that a significant distinction?

    1. I don't see another woman in the poem -- can you explain your thinking there? I've never heard of a 'soft eclipse' as a real astronomical term -- and I don't think Dickinson means to be 'science-y' here. In thinking about it, though, I suppose a lunar eclipse is softer than a solar. But I think she is using 'soft' here as a way to distinguish the transition between unmarried and married. It comes softly like the creeping shadow of the earth across the moon.

  7. When/Who published this piece by her? and what year? thanks xx

  8. I'm still a little bit confused about the last line and the meaning of it, but it was very helpful in general. Appreciate it!

  9. What about the possible interpretation that she is actually being sarcastic in the poem and is acting like society forces "girls" to need to grow up and get married to become "safe". It's almost like in the last line she is a married woman having second thoughts and looking back on her single life/childhood and her husband shouts, "stop there"!

    1. Maybe so. The 'stop there' might be reflecting some women's change from a single woman to a smug and safely married one. 'No -- let's not scrutinize it -- I'm Czar!' Perhaps she is making a veiled reference to a dear friend who married and whose interactions with Dickinson immediately tailed off.

      Anyway, I hadn't thought of reading the poem this way, so thanks for the comment. I think it's definitely worth considering!

  10. It is not clear to me what she means when she says "I'm Wife." The fact that she uses quotes would seem to me she is making a reference to some other well known information about wifehood. Emily was never married, so why declare that she is wife? In what sense does she mean this?
    Czar/Woman seems to indicate some feminist ideology before the time that it became a societal movement.
    We know that there is "no marriage in heaven," so perhaps she is saying that our marriage relationships here on earth look strange from the viewpoint of heavenly citizens.
    I also think she is saying that it is safer to be a Czar, not the other way around. Perhaps this is because she has been hurt when she had relied on another person in a prior relationship. Now, there is no one to dissapoint her.

  11. I find this to be a rather patriarchal reading of the poem. I mean, if we look at it from a feminist perspective, the woman mentions nothing that points towards the interpretation you mentioned. What is your take on the matter.

    1. I agree about the patriarchal reading. I think my explication explains how I arrived at it. An earlier responder suggested there was a note of sarcasm, and I do think the poem is written ironically (which is not in my explication but rather a later conclusion). I would like it very much if you could share your reading from a feminist perspective. It would be a valuable addition to the discussion here and to a deeper understanding.

  12. I think another Dickinson’s poem (F857), begain as “ She rose to his requirement, dropped The playthings of her life”, would help to get a better understanding of this one.
    To me, it is sarcastic in the core. Here, ED mirrored the mind of a wife, who probably yield to the social pressure to get married and then immediately felt safer, for she would not be viewed as a freak (or an oddity) who refuse to fulfill the duty of being a woman anymore. But she must have gradually realized there was something wonderful lost in this fulfillment; therefore she could not help to make a comparison. That is, if she were completely content with the current wife-state, she would not bother to make such a comparison. And as the comparison going on, it seemed to become bitter, so she had to stop there.
    This explication of mine is drawn from the confessions of many of my married female friends. It is very sad to me that as girls living in 21 century China, we still have to take the burdens as 19th-century girls had.

    1. Thank you for this commentary. I was coming around to this reading and your comments helped cement it. I do think now that she is adopting a persona -- perhaps the persona of a woman she knows and whose life path she regrets.

      I, too, find it sad, as a 2nd wave feminist, that here in the USA women still bear most family burdens (and I won't get into stiletto heels... at risk of sounding old and cranky). 19th-C female burdens in modern China does sound sad. What a world.

  13. In all of ED’s poems, she uses the word “wife” only six times; three of the six times are in quotation marks (twice in this poem, F225). She uses the word “girl” 12 times, none in quotation marks, and the word “woman” 12 times, only once in quotation marks (in this poem).

    In all cases where ED uses a word without quotation marks, she clearly means the common definition of the word, as in “Title divine - is mine! / The Wife without the Sign!” (F194), “I prayed, at first, a little Girl, / Because they told me to-” (F546), and “A solemn thing - it was - I said - / A woman - white - to be-” (F307). ,

    In each case where she uses quotation marks around a word, she does not mean the common definition, as in ‘We - Bee and I live by the quaffing' (F244): “Do we "get drunk"? / Ask the jolly Clovers! / Do we "beat" our "Wife"? / I - never wed - / Bee-pledges his-in minute Flagons / Dainty as the tress - on her deft Head -”.

    All other cases of “wife” and “woman” in quotations are in this poem, twice and once, respectively (F225), and neither of these words means its common definition.

    (Stay tuned)

  14. Stanza 1:

    I am a wife, I’ve finished that,
    That other state of girlhood -
    I’m Czar, ruler of my own life – I am a Woman now, an adult in control of my decisions
    It's safer so – No money worries, family wealth under my control; no pregnancy with its high mortality.

    Stanza 2 (First definition of Eclipse in ED Lexicon: “Intervention or intercession”.

    How odd the Girl's life looks – From the perspective of an independent woman
    Behind this soft Eclipse – , the intervening transition to adulthood
    I think that Earth feels so - Mortal life and immortal life
    To folks in Heaven – now – With death separating the two

    Stanza 3

    This being comfort – then, This adulthood is comfortable,
    That other kind – was pain –, Girlhood was painful -
    But why compare? Comparisons are odious, why not let that lie?
    I'm "Wife"! Stop there!, I am married to poetry! I’m committed to this marriage!