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27 June 2012

Civilization – spurns – the Leopard!

Civilization – spurns – the Leopard!
Was the Leopard – bold?
Deserts – never rebuked her Satin –
Ethiop – her Gold –
Tawny – her Customs –
She was Conscious –
Spotted – her Dun Gown –
This was the Leopard's nature – Signor –
Need – a keeper – frown?

Pity – the Pard – that left her Asia –
Memories – of Palm –
Cannot be stifled – with Narcotic –
Nor suppressed – with Balm –
                                                            276 (1862)  492

Dickinson adopts her Leopard persona again in this poem. We saw it earlier in F201, “With thee, in the Desert,” where only when alone with her beloved can the leopard truly breathe.
Leopard in captivity
            Here, the leopard, or “Pard,” seems to be in a zoo. She has a “keeper,” a “Signor” who is displeased. He frowns at the leopard who in her defense says she is only acting and appearing according to her true nature. We don’t know how the leopard has displeased her keeper, but the poet goes on offense from the beginning: “Civilization—spurns—the Leopard!” she says. Leopards—fierce, predatory, and wild—are intrinsically antithetical to society. Nonetheless, “spurn” is a strong word. To spurn the leopard is to find its qualities worthy of scorn or disgust rather than respect or even admiration.
          In the second line we see that the leopard stands for some persona of the poet. She has her untamable side. She asks with heavy sarcasm if she were too “bold”—a term that in Dickinson’s day was used to describe impudent women or children who didn’t know their place (“Bold girl!”). She contrasts her rejection by civilization with the her acceptance by the uncivilized and wild deserts of Ethiopia. In such wilderness her fur is “Satin” and “Gold.” She was “never rebuked” there for who she was.
            In civilized Massachusetts, however, her satiny, gold fur is a “Spotted … Dun Gown”; her customs, presumably like her coat, are “Tawny.” She is not the lily-white, unspotted maiden that 1862 Amherst society preferred. She is admitting her awareness that she is not completely at home in polite parlors. “Signor” should know this. Does he, she asks with more sarcasm, really need to “frown”?
Dickinson's famous white dress
            Dickinson scholars include this poem with those written to “Master” whom she refers to as her “keeper” here. In one of the letters written to Master she writes, “God made me – Master – I didn’t be – myself. I don’t know how it was done.” Although she dearly wants approval from her keeper, she cannot or will not change her spots for him. The reference here on both “Ethiop” and leopard spots comes from the Bible, Jeremiah 13:23: “Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots?”

            The second stanza drops the indignant sarcasm, appealing instead to the pity or empathy we have for the wild animal in its enclosure. The Leopard has left “her Asia,” her home (never mind the Ethiop referred to earlier – that was in service to the Biblical verse). Her memories of home, of the swaying palm trees, “Cannot be stifled” even by narcotics. It cannot be “suppressed” even by some soothing “Balm.”
            We can assume by the balm and narcotics that Master has tried to induce the poet to conform or otherwise change somehow, but apparently the changes would go too deep. The strength of the phrases “Cannot be stifled … Nor suppressed” affirm that, painful as it is, she truly belongs to another world. Compared to Amherst it is an “Asia” and she longs for it.
            At about the time she was writing this poem, Dickinson was beginning her eventual complete withdrawal from society. People who knew her said that this withdrawal was not because of some trauma but was a very gradual process. One suspects the kingdom of her room and garden allowed her to dwell more often in her interior Asia without concerns about being accepted.

            In F230, “For this – accepted Breath,” Dickinson took a triumphant tone about her difference.  In that poem she was born, “accepted Breath,” to be a poet. This poetic calling is a “Certain June”; it is “No Wilderness,” “No desert Noon.” It is sad, then, to see the price of her calling here: in search of love and acceptance she must be confined leopard dependent on a frowning keeper.


  1. this is pretty sick

    1. I agree, though unless I am upmost mistaken, there seems to be a lack in analysis of structure.

    2. Being a non native speaker. This analysis was very helpful . It made me understand 18th century american themes in a better manner . Thank you 1 :)

  2. I always thought the "narcotics" were religion. It's meant to teach people how to behave. They will be rewarded if they do.

    1. Ah, religion being the opiates of the people. It could work that way or, like 'balm', just refer to a drug.

  3. Comment and speculation:

    ‘Civilization – spurns – the Leopard!’ (F276) packs intense baggage: her “Leopard persona”, her saucy second line echoing ML3 (“Oh, did I offend it”), her rebuke of “Signor/keeper” for frowning on her “nature”, and her spurning of religious “Narcotic” and “Balm”. Those were withering words to send to a conservative Presbyterian minister whom she swooned over in 1855, fantasized in subsequent letters, worshipped when he visited her in 1860, chastised when he criticized her “Leopard’s nature”, and insulted with pejorative “Narcotic” and “Balm” in response to his well-meant Christian advice to a hysterical female poet.

    ED copied the only surviving manuscript of F276 “about early 1862” (Franklin 1998). In late April 1862, Reverend Charles Wadsworth, a legendary Philadelphia minister with a secure future at Arch Street Presbyterian Church, packed up his family and moved to an unstable ministry in San Francisco, where leading church members opposed his appointment. In 1869 he returned to Philadelphia as pastor of the Third Reformed (Dutch) Church.


  4. Vendler (2010) notes that “This [F276] is one of Dickinson's poems to a "Master”, here a "keeper" addressed by the honorific "Signor".” This is also the only time ED mentions “Leopard” and “Signor” in the same poem. She also uses the word “keeper”, which occurs in only two poems, this one and F1754, both times attributed to “Master” by Farr and [by] Vendler.”

    Thus, F276 is (almost) a Rosetta Stone of ED appellations: signor, keeper, (Master?). ED also uses the word “Keeper” in a third poem, F818, but there “Keeper of this Ring” refers to the bride (ED?) of the Holy Trinity (God?).