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25 January 2013

Mine—by the Right of the White Election!

Mine—by the Right of the White Election!
Mine—by the Royal Seal!
Mine—by the sign in the Scarlet prison—
Bars—cannot conceal!

Mine—here—in Vision—and in Veto!
Mine—by the Grave's Repeal—
Delirious Charter!
Mine—long as Ages steal!
                                                             F411 (1862)  J528

In discussing this poem, I'd like to introduce the thoughts of two Dickinson scholars. First, though, I think the tone here shows one edge of Dickinson's range. Sometimes tentative and exploratory, sometimes sly and ironic, occasionally passionate, often tormented, Dickinson's poetry reflects an incredible diversity of mood and tone. This one is among the most triumphantly proud and assertive. Look at how many times she writes "Mine": the word practically shouts itself at the beginning of six out of eight lines. The rest of the poem exists to justify the "Mine" and to celebrate whatever it is that is "Mine." She lists her rights to it as by "White Election," "the Royal Seal," "the sign," and by the "Repeal" of the grave). Her right has been "Titled" and "Confirmed"; she has the "Delirious Charter" to prove it.
          The question is, of course, what is it that the poet so proudly and unequivocally claims as hers? Elizabeth Phillips, in Emily Dickinson: Personae and Performance, argues that Dickinson is giving voice to Hester Prynne, Hawthorne's famous adulteress in The Scarlet Letter (1850). Phillips:
Having accepted the consequences of love, the grief, the hardships and injustice she suffered, she refuses to acknowledge guilt but pleads for the trust she has earned and the vision of life denied her. Her rage is hardly muted (114-15).

In this reading, the "Scarlet prison" is the scarlet letter "A," the mark of shame Hester must wear to forever mark her as an adulteress and outcast. Her refusal to be destroyed or even diminished by this status eventually develops into a saint-like service and austerity. Dickinson gives Hester a speech here "in the language of Puritan theology and politics, [that] passionately affirms her independence, her rightful beatitude, 'long as Ages steal'" (115).
          This language would come naturally to Dickinson whose Puritan ancestors came to New England in the 1630s. Amherst, and most of the Connecticut River Valley, maintained a conservative Puritan / Calvinist strain even in Dickinson's time. In fact Amherst had experienced a succession of revivals during Dickinson's youth.
          Sharon Leiter in Critical Companion to Emily Dickinson: A Literary Reference to Her Life and Work claims that although Dickinson "rejected the Puritan concept of predestined, unconditional grace, which only god could bestow, she had her own concept of a 'white election,' related to her sense of chosenness in the kingdom of poetry, which occupied the most exalted position in her spiritual hierarchy" (378).
          Whether the poem speaks for the self-redeemed individual, the saved soul, or the crowning of a poet, one still wonders just who the poet is trying to convince. If she is speaking here for Hester Prynne, than perhaps she is aiming at arbitrary Puritans and their doctrines. She is speaking to them – or perhaps she is challenging God. The doubleness of the last word of the poem, "steal," would be appropriate here: no one, perhaps not even God, can steal her ultimate salvation and glory.
          If not Prynne speaking, than who is the poet's audience? Herself? Does she need a bit of bucking up? Is she arguing with God? Or is she writing in the privacy of her room to answer the efforts of some around her who would press their own views on her?


  1. I can see her thumping her chest and proclaiming her sovereignty. This poem is akin to the masculine public brag, but spoken to the mirror of silence.

  2. I think it's about owning someone, and being owned, by right of passion alone.

  3. Triumphantly proud and assertive, this poem puts me in mind of Maya Angelou's Still I Rise. Both celebrate the transcendent human spirit of the poet and say, Here I am, Hineni.

  4. Thanks for your blog, Susan. Maybe this poem was inspired (or provoked) by a particular person or situation, but it seems best read as a universal assertion of the sovereignty of one's own soul - against everything the world throws at it. The phrase "by the Grave's Repeal" seems key. As in, all of the outward compromises we're forced to accept in life are repealed by the grave.

    1. Yes, I agree. The Scarlet Letter reference caught my fancy at the time (still does). Just reading it now, the line "Delirious Charter!" jumps out at me. And I am newly curious about the "in Vision–and in Veto!"

    2. ...or only death can take it away.

    3. Magna Carta, Chartist disturbances . . .

  5. Hello Ms. Kornfeld,

    I have looked at several of your posts and have found them to be endlessly helpful. A junior English major, I find myself interested in pushing my arguments further; your posts help me to do just that. Thank you for your insight!

  6. in 527, Johnson, ED refers to the "scarlet way" in reference "to putting this world down like a bundle": so, tying 528 to Hester seems a limitation based on a suspect decision to read that as an allusion (& if scarlet, why couldn't it be Arthur, who had one on his breast also). 528 has 6 "mine"s--& all of the extending references are drawn from legal and political 'codexes' thus, why not read this as a thought-experiment about the legal & politcal codes (the "White Elections" required for someone like ED to assert possession in the first place?

    1. I'm not sure I fully understand your point, but I agree with your dismissal of the Hester reading. It appealed to me at the time as rather interesting. But in J527,I think the 'scarlet way' means a bloody way, the way of Jesus and martyrs who did not die in their beds. And certainly 'White Election'would add 'religious' to your comment on 'legal and political "codexes"' -- a formulation I think is clarifying, btw. Thanks!

  7. Without an understanding of New Testament theology, it would be difficult to understand this poem. Dickinson is echoing the theology of election by God, with the blood of Christ freeing us from sin. She may rant and rave about God and Christianity elsewhere, but at this point, she seems to confirm her faith.

  8. The poet often ends lines with dashes. Just run your eyes down the right side of a few pages of the poems in 1862. But here she ends six lines (out of nine) with exclamation marks. Where else has she done that? So the poem can fairly be read as one long exclamation … but about what? Is it necessarily celebratory, or even affirmative? Scarlet prison doesn’t sound so nice, whatever it is. And the White Election: what is that? Perhaps renunciation, or defiance, or reserve, or indifference? We have a Royal Seal, and a sign in a prison that bars can't conceal, and a Grave’s Repeal, and a final steal. It’s all a bit self-consciously mysterious. I read the mood as defiant resignation, an acceptance that makes a fate into a sort of liberation.The image in my mind is of a certain sort of woman going into a nunnery, but then the interesting question is this: what is metaphor (ascetic devotion to art?) and what a literal expression of religious devotion? Both were often in her mind.

  9. We have heard the imperial tone, legal language, exclamations, ownership claim, and five shared words before:

    Title divine – is mine!
    The Wife – without the Sign!
    Acute Degree – conferred on me –
    Empress of Calvary!
    Royal – all but the Crown!
    Betrothed – without the swoon
    God sends us Women –
    When you hold – Garnet to Garnet –
    Gold – to Gold –
    Born – Bridalled – Shrouded –
    In a Day -
    "My Husband" – women say –
    Stroking the Melody –
    Is this – the way?

    Shared , similar, or derived words: title, mine, sign, royal, confirmed/conferred.

    F194, Variant A, 1861

  10. Definitions from the ED Lexicon, ED’s 1844 Webster Dictionary, or inferred:

    1. “White Election”: sanctification; justification by holy/divine vote.
    2. “Prison”: body.
    3. “Scarlet prison”: body of Christ.
    4. “Royal”: Ordained; hallowed.
    5. “Seal”: Token; emblem; symbol of a covenant.
    6. “Sign”: Seal; stamp; certification.
    7. “Here”: In this world.
    8. “Vision”: mental concept.
    9. “Veto”: the right to divorce, say no.
    10. “Grave’s repeal”: Death’s removal from earthly limits.
    11. “Titled—Confirmed”: Signed or promised, marriage certificate.
    12. “Delirious Charter”: exalting contract.
    13. “Long as Ages steal”: eternity.

    This poem (F411) reaffirms ED’s first proclamation (F194) of her marriage-in-Heaven to Reverend Charles Wadsworth.

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  12. An interpretation:

    Charles Wadsworth will be “My Husband” by Right of Divine Election!
    My Husband — by his Regal Promise!
    My Husband by the Love in my Heart,
    Which ribs cannot conceal!

    My Husband on Earth—in my Dreams—by my Revocable Choice!
    My Husband in Heaven—When Death Repeals our Earthly Promises—
    Queen of Calvary—Confirmed—
    Exalting Contract!
    Mine Forever!