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17 June 2012

Rearrange a "Wife's" Affection!

Rearrange a "Wife's" Affection!
When they dislocate my Brain!
Amputate my freckled Bosom!
Make me bearded like a man!

Blush, my spirit, in thy Fastness –
Blush, my unacknowledged clay –
Seven years of troth have taught thee
More than Wifehood every may!

Love that never leaped its socket –
Trust entrenched in narrow pain –
Constancy thro' fire – awarded –
Anguish – bare of anodyne!

Burden – borne so far triumphant –
None suspect me of the crown,
For I wear the "Thorns" till Sunset –
Then – my Diadem put on.

Big my Secret but it's bandaged –
It will never get away
Till the Day its Weary Keeper
Leads it through the Grave to thee.
                                                            F267 (1861)  1737

Imagine going through life with a steadfast love for someone – your soul mate – but the love must be kept secret. That’s what this poem talks about.
            The first stanza is blunt, almost explosive. The poet begins from the point of view of a wife. Tamper with her love and affection? No way! They would have to first take out her brain and cut off her breasts. They’d have to make her a man to do it. Each of the four lines in the first stanza end in exclamation marks. Could Dickinson have been any more emphatic?
            The second stanza tackles her virginity. The poet compliments her spirit for steadfastness and gives a tip of the hat to her “unacknowledged clay” – her unfulfilled body. Both body and spirit can blush with wifely pride for seven years of pledged love have taught her more than if she had actually married.
Lover's Letter Box
George Baxter 1856
            She then becomes more detailed in praising her spirit and her clay. Her love never wavered. Her trust was “entrenched” and confined; there was pain involved. Dickinson may have been thinking of a man like Samuel Bowles or Charles Wadsworth as she wrote this: married men, both. That would account for the confines and also for the “fire” through which she remained constant. It might account as well for the “Anguish” she suffered without anything to soothe the pain and lessen the hurt.
            The last two stanzas, though, reveal the poet as not despairing because she believes in a marriage after death. Not a “Corpse Bride,” of course, but a true spiritual union. The poet has born the burden of her secret and difficult love in secret. No one suspects. She refers to her crown of thorns by way of reinforcing her suffering: she, like Jesus, wears a painful crown until death. Then she can put on her true, beautiful crown.
            This secret love is a big secret. No doubt there would be plenty of scandal and embarrassment should it be discovered. Consequently, the poet has “bandaged” it. The bandage covers and hides the secret. It also binds it to her until she dies and can lead it “through the Grave” to her waiting soulmate.
            The last line implies the soul mate might already be dead, that the poet has been keeping her love alive for seven years trusting in a heavenly consummation.  
            Part of the strength of the poem comes from the expulsive “b” sounds in the first six lines: Brain, Bosom, bearded, Blush, Blush. They underscore the intensity of the love. In later lines we see the love as Burdened, the secret as Big and Bandaged. All strong words.


  1. It's been a while since I looked at this poem, but I believe it's Emily Dickinson's response to the marriage of her long-time friend Susan Gilbert to Emily's brother. Without getting into the gender restrictions on women in the 19th century, it's safe to say that an open declaration of female-for-female love would not have been possible back then, though this poem comes pretty near that. The poem's tight structure attempts to contain the speaker's sense of desolation and loss, but the pain of being crucified for love's sake seeps through. It's not an accident that the last word is "thee."

  2. I interpreted it as she wants to be/is a boy but can't tell anyone
    (harder to phrase that cuz IDK how gender was conceptualized back then)
    I thought she wore the diadem in secret instead of in death
    the poem seems both painful and kind of joyful for me.
    Love that never leaped its socket –
    Trust entrenched in narrow pain –
    Constancy thro' fire – awarded –
    Anguish – bare of anodyne!
    she's working so hard to hide and all she gets for it is pain. it is a pain a somewhat triumphant pain but a pain but also a secret crown and all that she could have been but isn't is "blushing"
    just my interpretation

    1. Thank you -- re-reading the poem I can see your reading of it -- that is, until the last couple of lines. There is a critical "thee" there that must be taken into account, too. Those lines you quoted are just wonderful.

  3. I wonder if the poem could also be read as a kind of confession of/musing on a loss of virginity before (and perhaps ultimately without) marriage. That "bandaged" in italics; it seems a bigger secret than just a secret crush. I also wonder if this poem is connected in that theme with "the wife--without the sign!" which also seems potentially to be about being a mistress. Sexual consummation was seen as making a man and a woman "husband and wife"--so in having sex, a woman would in essence be a wife, but without the sign of the "Mrs." or all the other stuff that goes with it--rings, ceremony, etc. I'm not sure if this reading can be made to fit the lines about "Love that never leapt its socket"--etc.--except that perhaps the lover remained chaste for seven years, but now possesses the "crown" of which none suspect her, and the secret which she has to "bandage" (even the body which remains in a sense "unacknowledged" either through celibate years, or after a moment of losing virginity and becoming a wife, through "trust" in narrow pain, and "constancy thro' fire rewarded"--these images seem too filled with pain, phsyciality, and intensity of feeling to be just internal anguish over unrequited love; the secret seems something more weighty and perhaps a triumph AND humiliation at once, to the speaker, to be kept secret until the grave.

    1. I am tempted to read it that way, and others have; but I find the "unacknowledged clay" to mean she remains virginal. The "crown" I take to be the crown of thorns she refers to -- the suffering in silence during life when consummation with her love is not possible. After death she trades the thorns for the real crown -- the real love. But you make a good case.

  4. I have read a few of your interpretations here now and have debated whether or not to bring this up but I read Dickinson's "wife poems" much more darkly than most readers seem to here. I am persuaded by theories that she was a victim of sexual assault, possibly incest, and was literally trying to save her own soul/sanity through her writing. I first had this thought when I read "The first day's Night had come" and then tried to find scholarship to confirm my hunch. Subsequently reading poems like "She rose to his Requirement," "A bee his burnished Carriage," "I live with Him- I see His face-," and this one, "Rearrange a 'Wife's affection!" have convinced me the theory has merit. This one, perhaps more than all the others, smacks of the pain, shame, and betrayal of intrafamilial abuse. I think "Wife" is in quotes because she was compelled to play the sexual role of a wife without actually being one; I think the use of violent words like dislocate and amputate, and the wish to be bearded like man, speak of the violence of rape and the wish to be in power rather than powerless; she repeats "Blush" twice because of shame, and her unacknowledged clay is her flesh being used without anyone knowing the torment of it and with no hope of reward; "Trust entrenched in narrow pain" is the family dynamic of being betrayed and abused by someone she knows; her constancy (compliance?) is rewarded with hellish pain ("fire") and with no hope of relief ("bare of anodyne"); "None suspect me of the crown" because such victims often feel they can tell no one; her crown is the martyr's crown of thorns till she has to put on the diadem of duty at night; her secret is "big" but "bandaged" - it has to remain under wraps, and it contains secret pain, and she'll take it to her grave. And so she did; we'll never know what really happened to her - and whether the "terror" she alluded to in her April 1862 letter to Wiggins - the same year she wrote many of these tormented poems - has anything to do with rape or incest. But I cannot read the poems I've mentioned here without retroactively worrying about her and aching for her, if that makes any sense. I think something traumatic, something very bad, happened to her, and her poetry was her only way "out."

    1. Sorry I meant Higginson, not Wiggins.

    2. Thank you for this thoughtful reading. If I squint I can see it as you. But despite some of the strong and even negative verbiage and imagery, that first stanza seems a statement of steadfast devotion. That 'wife' is in quotes means she is something other than a wife -- but someone with steadfast loyalty nonetheless. Her affection can only be lost if her central identity is completely changed. Her burden of hidden love is triumphant despite the pain of secrecy and seemingly public denial.

      I can see that the anguish you are talking about would also need to be masked, but in my reading her anguish is from love not from shame and degradation. But as you suggest, other poems lend context to your reading. -- so thank you!

    3. Hi again, Susan - thanks for responding. For "other poems [that] lend context" to my reading, might I also draw your attention to another "wife poem," poem 1072 ("Title divine - is mine!"), poem 508 ("I'm ceded - I've stopped being Theirs"), and poem 506 ("He touched me, so I live to know"). In poem 1072, she writes her title is that of wife "without the sign," betrothed "without the swoon" (i.e. the exhilaration of being engaged), a title she likens to being "Empress of Calvary." Empress of Calvary is NOT a happy title - it is a miserable one. She invokes Christ's crucifixion frequently enough in her poetry in comparison to her own to support the idea that she was suffering a trauma she could barely describe. She refers to this in fact in 506, where she speaks of a "Crucifixal sign." Perhaps one of the saddest of what I call the "trauma poems" is 508, where she admits, "I'm ceded - I've stopped being Theirs," meaning her parents' child. They baptized her, but now they must put away her childhood identity along with her Dolls because they expect her to fulfill another role, the "crowned" role (she uses the euphemism often) of the wife, a "second rank" as half-unconscious Queen. Almost ALL of these trauma poems were dated to 1862, the year she wrote Higginson about the "terror." Something traumatic happened that she couldn't shake and that she had to write about. 52 poems in 1858, but 366 in 1862? She exploded almost compulsively as a writer while retreating into extreme solitude at the same time. Her poetry was her attempt to save her own soul, her self-preservation, the only medicine for her PTSD. The context of her body of work makes poem 193 all the more moving: "I shall know why - when Time is over - / And I have ceased to wonder why - / Christ will explain each separate anguish / In the fair schoolroom of the sky / / He will tell me what "Peter" promised - / And I - for wonder at his woe - / I shall forget the drop of Anguish / That scalds me now - that scalds me now!" I am convinced she was traumatized, and that her writing was her power of redemption.

    4. When I read your post I was nearly convinced. But when I re-read the poems I saw in them what I saw when writing the explications. There is great pride and choice in "I'm ceded". 'Crowned' is indeed used in various poems, but, for example, in "For this–accepted Breath–", her crown is an honor, a great thing. I find the "I shall know why" poem much more in line with your reading. That and a few other anguish poems do point to either a trauma, mental or physical. And I agree about the redemptive quality of her poetry -- to herself and to others.

  5. Three more I'll leave in support of my readings:

    Another 1862 trauma poem (that year was replete with them):
    It might be lonelier
    Without the Loneliness—
    I'm so accustomed to my Fate—
    Perhaps the Other—Peace—

    Would interrupt the Dark—
    And crowd the little Room—
    Too scant—by Cubits—to contain
    The Sacrament—of Him—

    I am not used to Hope—
    It might intrude upon—
    Its sweet parade—blaspheme the place—
    Ordained to Suffering—

    It might be easier
    To fail—with Land in Sight—
    Than gain—My Blue Peninsula—
    To perish—of Delight— 

    I believe of course that the "place Ordained to Suffering" was either her room or her home, which she also describes thus:

    How soft this Prison is
    How sweet these sullen bars
    No Despot but the King of Down
    Invented this repose

    Of Fate if this is All
    Has he no added Realm
    A Dungeon but a Kinsman is
    Incarceration – Home.

    And, after her father died in 1874, she (of course) wrote to Thomas Wentworth Higginson and sent him this:

    A Death blow is a Life blow to Some
    Who till they died, did not alive become –
    Who had they lived, had died but when
    They died, Vitality begun.

    Free at last.

    I've just ordered a copy of Norbert Hirschhorn's paper on this subject; will let you know if he highlights other poems in support of these more tragic readings.

  6. What if this really IS about her own sexual orientation? The timetable for Sue and Austin’s marriage would about fit -

  7. I'm pretty sure this poem was about Emily's love for Susan. It was such a burden for her to keep that beautiful love secret because if it ever came to be known, she would be killed.

    1. I'm not sure why I didn't mention this interpretation in my own explication. I, too, think Susan might have been the beloved in this poem -- but I also think the married men might have been, too.

  8. Line 8 (above) reads "More than Wifehood every may!".

    Johnson's 1950 edition of ED's poems reads "More than Wifehood ever may!"

    My vote goes to Johnson's version.

  9. Habegger (2001) points out that "Franklin puts “Rearrange a ‘wife’s’ affection” in late 1861. If we move it to early 1862 and take the seven years literally—two big ifs—the originating event (heavily fantasized) could be assigned to March 1855, when Dickinson was in Philadelphia." [and attended a sermon preached by Reverend Charles Wadsworth.]

    Habegger, Alfred. My Wars Are Laid Away in Books (p. 500). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

    1. Just occurred to me that ED might have considered March 1855 to late 1861 seven years, or at least seven summers. For ED, when summer ended, the New England year might as well be over too.

  10. ED’s first love was Susan Gilbert. She had dreamed that the two of them could sail away from Amherst to some quiet harbor in the west (F3). That “bubble burst” (L17) in late March 1853 when Susan told ED she was engaged to Austin. In 1854 ED was trying to come to terms with that cold fact and look at the bright side when she wrote ‘I have a Robin’ (F4). In March 1855 ED was still in pain from her loss, and then she heard Reverend Charles Wadsworth preach in Philadelphia. His sermon and charisma captured her heart, call it rebound if you will. The rest of their story is history, immortalized in many poems, including this one, ‘Rearrange a "Wife's" Affection!’ (F267).