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02 September 2012

He put the Belt around my life—

He put the Belt around my life—
I heard the Buckle snap—
And turned away, imperial,
My Lifetime folding up—
Deliberate, as a Duke would do
A Kingdom's Title Deed—
Henceforth—a Dedicated sort—
A Member of the Cloud—

Yet not too far to come at call—
And do the little Toils
That make the Circuit of the Rest—
And deal occasional smiles
To lives that stoop to notice mine—
And kindly ask it in—
Whose invitation, know you not
For Whom I must decline?
                                                                                          F330 (1862)  273

It’s not uncommon to hear of someone dedicating their life to God, or of someone being “called” by God for a particular purpose or ministry. Emily Dickinson, as usual, gives this an unusual twist at once irreverent and absolutely submissive. God in this poem behaves as an imperious Duke who deliberately (slowly, unhurriedly) folds up the title to a kingdom he has just claimed. In this case, the kingdom is one poet and what is folded up is her “Lifetime.”
Women in Dickinson's era wore
their belts quite tight!
            The poem begins in an almost shocking image: God putting a belt around a woman and then snapping it tight. This is an overt act of domination. We put a collar on a dog and snap it to a leash. But unlike many dog owners who bend down to pat the dog and give it an “atta boy” encouragement, God then turns away, “imperial.”
            Almost as an afterthought to the first stanza, Dickinson adds that she would now be “a Dedicated sort.” She avoids any language hinting at a conversion or a nun-like life. “Sort” is intentionally vague. There may not be other people like her. She might not have volunteered her life, but she must become somehow “Dedicated.” There is a note of disdain not only in the “Dedicated sort” but also in her new status as “A Member of the Cloud.” While that places her clearly on the side of angels and divinity, Dickinson is certainly not overawed by the experience. But then again, she was forced into her dedication. “Belt” in the context of this poem is not that far from “Handcuffed.”
            I find a little bit of spunk in Dickinson’s appropriating the image of a kingdom for herself. God didn’t belt a little village. No, it was a royal territory that he claimed.
            In the second stanza the poet shifts to her day-to-day life. She seems to be keeping up a pretense of normality. Her father or mother might want her and so she “come[s] at call.” She performs her “Circuit” of “little Toils—Dickinson was nothing if not a dutiful daughter and sister. But then, in a bit of imperiousness herself, she says she “deal[s] occasional smiles” to those who care about her. Note that she isn’t smiling spontaneously but rather dealing the occasional smile. It’s an act. The real Dickinson is up there on the cloud somewhere being dedicated.
            The last lines are perhaps an apology—or at least an explanation—for her increasing unwillingness to accept any invitation or, eventually, to leave the homestead. It’s not that I don’t want to, she seems to be saying. I “must decline” because of You Know Who. There’s a bit of false modesty in the way she refers to those who might give her invitations into their lives or perhaps just to visit. “Lives that stoop to notice mine,” she writes, as if she weren’t part of the “Cloud” now. She might still perform her “little Toils,” but she will withhold intimacy and, beyond her circuit of chores and the occasional smile, do little else.
            She is belted. Snapped tight. She lives in a different world, for better or worse.


  1. I'm surprised there are not any comments on this poem. In Johnson this is 273, and I see it so related to our last poem in Johnson - 272 - "I breathed enough to take the Trick..." You are right, Emily is leaving the outside world, as a necessity and a choice, and in these two poems she is in her way explaining why. At least that's what I'm seeing.

    1. No comments on this powerful poem is strange indeed! There are all kinds of things to mine in it.
      Thank you for the Trick poem reference. The two enrich each other and deliver a lot of ED insight.

    2. Maybe the absence of comments can be explained by the different perception of the contemporary reader. I’ve seen many comments in other places written in the standardized jargon of this day and age, with words like ‘masochism’, ‘gender’, ‘master’, and even ‘colonization’ being instrumental to that analysis. I guess a fundamental perception shift prevents most contemporary readers to understand the deep meaning of sacrifice in a transcendent sense, with no immediate practical purpose

    3. Interesting. Thanks for the comment

  2. I find this poem chilling. "I heard the buckle snap". She heard it metaphysically? What was she thinking of when she wrote that line? What "snap"? Who is this He who is so imperious, and why does Emily eschew the world she loves so much for this "Master". I can appreciate the "cloud" and what it means to dedicate your life to it, even while doing your earthly duties, but those opening lines seem to me to carry resentment, which makes me wonder.

  3. I think this poem is about religion.
    Once she was part of Infinity. Then she was seperated from it by God who gave her life. (he put the belt around it) and he left and became a member of the cloud (heaven) to be dedicated.
    But he didn’t turn away too far to come at call and deal occasional smiles to the circuit of the rest (conventional religious people) who invite her to share their rigid religion.
    An invitation wich, of course, she must refuse.

  4. This is a tough nut to crack. Is it about God or some mere mortal? Here’s an interpretation:

    Wadsworth put a belt around my life, snapped the buckle tight, and turned away. He folded up my life deliberately, as a Duke would fold a title deed to a kingdom. From now on, I’ll pretend to be a dedicated member of his worshippers, a face in his crowd.

    I’ll stay close enough for him to call, and do the little toils like making rounds of visits to others, dealing occasional smiles to those who stoop to notice my life and kindly invite me into theirs, which invitation, don’t you know, I must decline.