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02 August 2012

A solemn thing—it was—I said—

A solemn thing—it was—I said—
A woman—white—to be—
And wear—if God should count me fit—
Her blameless mystery—

A hallowed thing—to drop a life
Into the purple well—
Too plummetless—that it return—

I pondered how the bliss would look—
And would it feel as big—
When I could take it in my hand—
As hovering—seen—through fog—

And then—the size of this "small" life—
The Sages—call it small—
Swelled—like Horizons—in my vest—
And I sneered—softly—"small"!
                                                           F 307 (1862)  271

At about the time of this poem, Emily Dickinson was beginning to withdraw from the society she once enjoyed, wear a simple white dress, and concentrate on her poetry.  In an earlier poem, “For this—accepted Breath,” she declared her calling and passion to be a poet. In this current poem she frames the calling in religious terms.
            Nuns, prior to the end of the 1800s, wore white, the color of purity. Dickinson here says she, too, will wear the consecrated white—“if God should count me fit” to enter into a nun’s “blameless mystery.” Nuns, as brides of Christ, found their special marital bliss is without carnal relations. That’s where the “blameless mystery” comes in. Dickinson is taking on the nun’s white as a metaphor for her consecration to a poet's introspective life. She, too, will be married to that which she serves.
            The second stanza continues the religious analogy. The poet stands at the edge of the “purple well” of inspiration and considers submerging herself in it. That would be “A hallowed thing,” she muses, to drop her life into that well. So deep is it (“plummetless,” or beyond all means of calculation),  that she would never emerge until coming out the other side into “Eternity.”  Dropping her life into this deep well would be to truly consecrate herself.
            As she waits, contemplating the well, the poet wonders about the “bliss” she senses at the other side.  She had been writing about the numinous and the liminal in such recent poems as “It’s like the Light” and “The Love a Life can show Below.” In those poems Dickinson describes a “fashionless Delight” and a “diviner thing” that “enchants” us. Now that she is about to drop her life into the well where this “bliss” might be encountered, she wonders if it will seem as “big” there as when she can only see it “hovering—seen—through fog.” She imagines being able to take this elusive quality in her hand as if it might be tangible from inside the well. Making the abstract tangible is part of what makes Dickinson such a startling poet, so I think she succeeded.
Whistler painted "The White Girl"
a year before Dickinson wrote this poem
This book was serialized in 1859. Women in white 
were on people's minds…
            The poem ends in a sardonic, almost sarcastic, note. Some big shot, a “sage,” must have said something about her life, or perhaps women’s lives in general, being “small.” Perhaps it was a comment made to contrast a woman’s home-centered life with that of a man’s: baking, gardening, and nurturing might seem small to some compared to soldiering, earning a wage, and voting (which women were prohibited from doing). But Dickinson reports that she “sneered” at that idea. Far from her life being small, she felt it expanding like the world itself, stretching from one side of the sky to the other.
            Dickinson develops that idea further in “The Brain is wider than the Sky,” a poem she wrote the following year:
The Brain—is wider than the Sky—

For—put them side by side—

The one the other will contain

With ease—and You—beside—


  1. I know you are right , but just read the same poem thinking "a woman , white to be " as a woman who is gonna die. Then it almost sounds like a final words with different meaning.
    Anyway thanks for the explanation

  2. This poem made me smile. I love this mystic side of ED. (alternative word for "purple" here is "mystic".) It gives me a new take on ED's wearing of white, that it a symbol of "blameless". She was purifying herself to be as large as those horizons, eternal. And we swell (a nice slant rhyme from "small") right up with her. The purpling of the "white" in that well is quite something to think about too. I LOVE your illustrations here, and how they contextualize the poem.

  3. 1. I vowed to live as if married to poetry and wear, God willing, mysterious white, symbol of fidelity.

    2. A hallowed thing to pledge myself to pen and ink, poetry too deep to fathom until it’s resurrected in Eternity!

    3. I wonder how fame will feel and whether it will seem as big when I can take in my hand what now seems hovering in fog.

    4. Then my small life (the sages call it small) will have huge horizons in my heart.

    (And I'll sneer, softly, “small”!)