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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.

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