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18 October 2012

I'm ceded—I've stopped being Theirs—

I'm ceded—I've stopped being Theirs—
The name They dropped upon my face
With water, in the country church
Is finished using, now,
And They can put it with my Dolls,
My childhood, and the string of spools,
I've finished threading—too—

Baptized, before, without the choice,
But this time, consciously, of Grace—
Unto supremest name—
Called to my Full—The Crescent dropped—
Existence's whole Arc, filled up,
With one—small Diadem—

My second Rank—too small the first—
Crowned—Crowing—on my Father's breast—
A half unconscious Queen—
But this time—Adequate—Erect,
With Will to choose,
or to reject,
And I choose, just a Crown—
                                                            F353 (1862)  508

Starting with the same bold declarative style she showed in “I’m Wife—I’ve finished that,” Dickinson here proclaims her full independence and her break from claims that church and family made upon the child that she once was.
            When she says “I’m ceded—I’ve stopped being Theirs,” the poet is saying that church and family have relinquished their authoritarian claims on her, and also, in a second meaning of “ceded,” that she is liberated. The poem is written with great brio and a pride that struts right up to the border of arrogance or cockiness and stops just short. She speaks dismissively of attempts to mold or own her. As a helpless baby, “Crowing” or crying in her father’s arms, the adults “dropped” a name “upon [her] face” along with the baptismal water. Well, “they” can take that name and put it away with her dolls, her childhood, and the little practice spools by which young girls began learning the wifely and homely arts. The poet is having none of it. Not any more.

            She now asserts her ability to make up her own mind. This time around she takes a higher rank (“too small the first”) and chooses “just a Crown.” What she means by this isn’t completely clear. It may be that Dickinson is celebrating her choice to live life as a dedicated and serious poet rather than as one of the lady poets of her era (writing on flowers and spring and the death of babies), or as a wife or caretaker. This interpretation reminds me of  “For this—accepted Breath” where Dickinson speaks of the “Crown” and glory of being a poet.
            But she may instead (or also) be discussing salvation. Infant baptism may mean little to an adult who must choose her own path. The poet decides in favor of God, the “supremest name.” She does so freely, “With Will to choose, / or to reject.” By proactively choosing the “Crown” of heaven she becomes much more than the “half unconscious Queen” she might have remained. To knowingly ally with God (remembering that in earlier poems she has presented herself as a bride of Christ) is to be gloriously complete. “Existence’s whole Arc” is “filled up” with this small but triumphal “diadem.” Without the active choice (which comes from “Grace”—a religious formulation), she would never have more than an incomplete “Crescent.”
Whatever Dickinson may have had in mind—and I think it likely she purposely threads an ambiguous course—this poem is a clarion call to self-knowledge and independence. Babies and children may be “half unconscious” but adults should be conscious. They should stand “Erect,” “Adequate” to the demands presented them, and exercise their “Will to choose.” Notice that Dickinson places the other half of the equation, “or to reject,” on a separate line. Yes, the choice to reject is a very real and potent one.
In the first two lines Dickinson uses the internal rhyme of “stopped” with “dropped”: She has “stopped being Theirs” which means rejecting, or dropping, the name “They dropped upon [her] face.”  In the second stanza she uses the interesting slant rhyme of “choice” with “Grace.” This suggests Calvinist doctrine in that sinners are called by the grace of God to salvation. Yet the poem is a repudiation of that doctrine’s rejection of choice. Calvinists taught that salvation is predestined for some—and not for others. Dickinson emphatically rejects that. Like Napoleon or Henry IV, she chooses to crown herself.
One theme of the poem is the circle, the full, versus the Crescent, or incomplete. I can’t help but notice that the second and third stanzas are full of “C”s—a letter that visually appears as a crescent. Starting with the first line of the second stanza, Dickinson gives us choice, consciously, Called, Crescent, Crowned, Crowing, choose, choose, and Crown. Could it have been made clear what she chose? The crown itself is a circlet.


  1. This poem's self-assured ness is so strong, I am simply amazed reading it, her credo of autonomy and independence from how her culture both defines her and itself, expresses her mystic knowing with the confidence of a mature seer and visionary. All this secret power packed in a little Amherst recluse who has donned God's crown.

  2. And for all the self-confident proclamation, humble, she chooses just a Crown, as if the I'm ceded in the first line could be read I'm seeded, just the beginning of her new baptism.

  3. Wow. The courage for a person so retiring in some ways to be a declarant, to step out of the cultural milieu, is inspiring. How brilliant she was and here we see a fierceness and determination in her that I don't know I've observed this strongly thus far in my reading of her poems.

  4. Hmmm
    Perhaps it takes courage to read Emily with an open mind, perhaps Her genius is an ability to connect with those of us yet to lay fear aside for an instance or two,
    In the larger communication of things, this poem is a loving, challenge, for each and every name we have been gifted, each construct, obstructing freedom

  5. “...just a crown”. Why the “just”? Minimizing? Circumscribing? Limiting? The symbol without the involvement in the societal structure that created it? It can’t be merely another syllable to make the meter work. Or can it? Is the crown itself “just” a secondary prize to the right to choose?

    1. I am not confident about it. I tend to read it as wry. She chooses her poet's laurels and calls them 'just a crown' -- perhaps.

    2. Perhaps it's similar to 'I had been hungry' in which the poet rejects the "plenty" and settles for the "meagre Crumb" (another "C"!) .

  6. I'm not sure I understand your claim about ED having been 'rejected of God's grace'. Nor do I see feminism -- except, perhaps, the word 'queen'?

  7. Examples of ED’s use of “just” as a wry understatement.

    ‘One Life of so much Consequence!’ (Stanza 2, F248):

    One Pearl — to me — so signal —
    That I would instant dive —
    Although — I knew — to take it —
    Would cost me — just a life!

    You're right — "the way is narrow" —’ (Stanza 2, F249).

    [Admission to Heaven]
    'Tis Costly — So are purples!
    'Tis just the price of Breath —

    And many others.

  8. One might surmise that ED had read Stanza 4 of ‘Invictus’:

    “It matters not how strait the gate,
    How charged with punishments the scroll,
    I am the master of my fate
    I am the captain of my soul.”

    Or the reverse, but ED’s work had not been published in 1875 when Henley composed ‘Invictus’, Latin for ‘Invincible’. The sentiment must have been in the 19th century air.

  9. Similar words and definitions, but ED Lexicon and Oxford English Dictionary define “cede” as abdicate or surrender and “secede” as exit or formally withdraw.

    Apparently, ED consciously or subconsciously decided cede’s sound trumped secede’s sense, and most readers would agree. Or did she simply confuse words?

  10. Just as Wadsworth had been called to minister Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, ED has been “Called to my Full” by “supremest name”. Henceforth, her “one - small Diadem -” will be a diadem of poems.