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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.