Search This Blog

14 November 2012

Is Bliss then, such Abyss

Is Bliss then, such Abyss,
I must not put my foot amiss
For fear I spoil my shoe?

I'd rather suit my foot
Than save my Boot—
For yet to buy another Pair
Is possible,
At any store—

But Bliss, is sold just once.
The Patent lost
None buy it any more—
Say, Foot, decide the point—
The Lady cross, or not?
Verdict for Boot!
                                                                                          F371 (1862)  340

My first reading of this poem finds it considering the pros and cons of virginity. On the one hand the poet expects that making love with her beloved would be blissful. It would certainly please her body, represented here by the foot. On the other hand, for an unmarried woman (in 1860s New England) to have extra-marital sex would be for her to step into the “Abyss” of a blackened reputation. The social regard, the woman’s reputation, are the shoe that protect the foot.
                  I’m not convinced of this interpretation, however. Boots can be bought “At any store,” and this isn’t quite true of reputations. If you ruin your reputation you can’t just trot out and get another, although over time reputations can be repaired. Sins can be forgiven. And maybe churches are what’s meant by “store.” The woman who indulges her bliss can indeed go to church and have her ‘sin’ forgiven.
Verdict for Boot!
1868 Victorian boots
                  What she cannot do, however, is have her virginity back. That “Bliss, is sold just once.” In a bit of a dig towards conventional values and marriage, Dickinson adds that no one would “buy it any more,” suggesting that no one would marry a deflowered woman.
                  Ultimately, the speaker leaves it up to her body / foot. “Decide the point,” she demands of it. “Cross, or not?” The foot decides in favor of the boot, despite the bliss that awaits it.
                  It’s a sensible choice, one mirroring Dickinson’s withdrawal from the world. With every bliss there is an abyss (and how handy that the two polar opposites rhyme!), and if you aim to devote your life to poetry, to writing for hours in your room; and also to caring for mother and father, garden and dog, then perhaps even the foot will defer to the boot.
                  The tone of the poem is cheerfully pragmatic. What’s amazing to me is the wide range of tones over the last ten poems: Gothic romantic horror, cute description of a cat, love poetry, theological questionings, riddles, bitterness, and cockiness. What a year!


  1. Hah! Great interpretation, the feminist ED, say, foot, decide the point: my body MY body will decide. What sovereignty!

  2. What's your (anyone's) understanding of what the Lady of 2nd last line refers to? Lady Virtue? The seller of the first boot?

    1. The speaker herself. It sounds a lot better in the poem, is a bit more droll and vernacular, than if it were written, "Should I cross or not".

  3. Indeed, and thanks. Between asking my ? and checking back I read the poem aloud and saw what you say immediately.


  4. This one is a puzzler. I saw one interpretation online, a full paper, arguing for foot as female penis and boot as vagina!

    Well, just to attempt a more literal interpretation. I want to take this to mean the general idea of "getting your feet dirty" for the joy of going out in the rain on a muddy day, or something like that. The abyss is mud. We find out in last stanza that there is a "a crossing over" perhaps to a lover, to bliss. It is a messy business. (Maybe this was an invite to Sue to cross over from the Evergreens on a rainy, muddy day, or a self-directive to the poet to cross TO the Evergreens?) Why not make the trek, it seems to ask. You can buy more boots, but you can't buy more bliss. (Go out into the mud!)

    The verdict for boot is hard to parse. It seems to me to be a reversal of the conclusion that boots are cheap and plentiful, but bliss is rare and you can only have it once in the singular moment (I love that the patent has been lost.) So I think verdict for the boot has some sarcasm in it. Like, you silly people (silly Sue? silly Emily? silly reader?) who are making the judgement to keep your boots clean, you are missing the chance to jump in mud puddles like a free and wild child.

    Your idea of the foot deferring to not ruin the boot by staying in has validity too I think. Maybe the "getting dirty" is not what the poet wants. She wants to stay clear of bliss and messiness. She wants to stay clean.

    I think it more likely that Emily is chastising herself (or the reader) for not taking the risk, and that last line is meant to chide. Because at the heart of the poem the boots are replaceable and the bliss is rare.

  5. Also worth pointing out I think that feet, both metrical and actual, are a feature of the poem following this one in the fascicle. "After Great pain a formal feeling comes"..."The feet mechanical go round". Metrical and human feet are synonymous.

    In this one there might be some playing around with this idea too.

    It's pretty "messy" in it's metrical structure, the feet all over the place.

    3/4/3 3/2/4/2/2 3/2/3/4/3/2 with some heavy Spondee and Dactyl action thrown into the iambs.

  6. By 1862, ED’s lesbian days with Sue were fond memories (or in hiatus, stay tuned, all things are possible). By this date, ED has betrothed herself to poetry, though in 1877 her chastity was vigorously tested by an offer/proposal from retired and recently widowed, Massachusetts Supreme Court Judge, Otis Phillips Lord. She decided to spare the boots and turned him down. If Charles Wadsworth had stayed on the East Coast, her decision might have been different, but that dilemma never happened.