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
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.