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.