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01 July 2012

The World – stands – solemner – to me –

The World – stands – solemner – to me –
Since I was wed – to Him –
A modesty – befits the soul
That bears another's – name –
A doubt – if it be fair – indeed –
To wear that perfect – pearl –
The Man – upon the Woman – binds –
To clasp her soul – for all –
A prayer, that it more angel – prove –
A whiter Gift – within –
To that munificence, that chose –
So unadorned – a Queen –
A Gratitude – that such be true –
It had esteemed the Dream –
Too beautiful – for Shape to prove –
Or posture – to redeem!
                                                            F280 (1862)  493

Dickinson wrote several poems imagining marriage or using marriage metaphorically. In F185, “A Wife – at daybreak – I shall be – ” she presents Death as the occasion for becoming a bride. In F194, “Title divine, is mine,” she has become a wife but without the ring or the “swoon,” as if she has made a heavenly or spiritual marriage. F225, “I’m ‘wife’ – I’ve finished that,” she contrasts the “Czar” status of a married woman versus the “pain” of “That other state” – being a spinster. Another poem, F267, “Rearrange a ‘Wife’s’ Affection!”, once more is based on a secret and probably unconsummated love. The “Secret” is “bandaged” until the lovers are united in death. In all of these poems, marriage is a perfected state.
The pearl that binds--popular in Victorian
wedding rings
            Dickinson never married although she had several loves. A couple of the poems mentioned above were sent to Samuel Bowles, a married man. Another love was Judge Lord. After he became a widower in 1877 he proposed to her. She turned him down.
            In this poem, written at least 15 years before that, she explores what it might mean to be a wife. She has somewhat mixed feelings. Because she employs poetic contraction to intensify the feeling, the poem benefits from a bit of unpacking.
            The first two lines summarize the poem: the new wife regards the world as “solemner” now that she is married. That sounds odd – why more solemn rather than more rich or happy or content? The rest of the poem illustrates what the first two lines mean.
            First, the young bride has given up her own name to take that of her husband and this should create a sense of modesty in her soul. She is no longer entire of herself. Second, she entertains a bit of doubt: was it “fair” – that is, wise and good – to take the wedding ring? What should be the “perfect – pearl” (a very popular gemstone for wedding rings in Dickinson’s day) is binding: it “clasps” her soul for always. A pearl was and is thought to represent purity and innocence. Does the poet really want to wear such a gem?
            She then gives a little prayer that the pearl inspire her soul to be more angel-like, that she may offer it as “A whiter Gift” in response to her husband’s generous “munificence.” His choosing to marry her is generous because she is “So unadorned.”
            The poem ends with the new wife expressing her “Gratitude” that he has indeed chosen her for she had thought it impossible – just a “Dream / Too beautiful” to be true.  
            So overall, what is she saying about marriage? If a beloved man clasps a woman’s soul, it behooves her to be grateful and modest. I see Dickinson’s point, and it is a wonderful love poem, but it sounds a bit quaint in these post-Feminist times.


  1. I really appreciate your comments, it's a great job I admire.

  2. Just re-read this poem and found I now have the opposite take on it than when I wrote on it above. It now seems clearly ironic. The "munificence" of the man, his prayer that she reveal "A Whiter Gift" within, and the whole notion that the man's name, binding the woman, is a "perfect – pearl" come across as a parody of the "Angel of the House" thinking.

  3. Agree w/ the ironic interpretation- the last 2 lines give that away - the dream (this lovely picture of marriage) is not what happens in reality, literally too good to be true.

  4. On first reading, the ED I knew vanished into pap. Susan D’s second thought and Pp’s “last 2 lines” came to the rescue, once again reminding, NEVER UNDERESTIMATE ED.

  5. Oooops, make that 'Susan D' 'Susan K'.