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11 January 2013

To put this World down, like a Bundle—

To put this World down, like a Bundle—
And walk steady, away,
Requires Energy—possibly Agony—
'Tis the Scarlet way

Trodden with straight renunciation
By the Son of God—
Later, his faint Confederates
Justify the Road—

Flavors of that old Crucifixion—
Filaments of Bloom, Pontius Pilate sowed—
Strong Clusters, from Barabbas' Tomb—

Sacrament, Saints partook before us—
Patent, every drop,
With the Brand of the Gentile Drinker
Who indorsed the Cup— 

                                                                              F404 (1862)  J527

Dickinson writes here of renunciation and the suffering that follows when one utterly rejects the world.  

          She begins by picturing life in this world—family, profession, woods, conventional religion, and beaches—as a "Bundle" that one might put down and walk away from. To do so, however, requires a huge effort, "possibly Agony," and even bloodshed, for this is "the Scarlet way." The world doesn't understand or treat with much charity those who reject it.
          The second stanza makes this point more clearly. Jesus renounced the world when he rejected fame and fortune and the wisdom of the elders. His bloody death did indeed put him on the scarlet way. His disciples, those "faint Confederates", wrote about their experiences in pieces that became books of the New Testament. This was also their attempt to "Justify the Road".
          Changing the metaphor, Dickinson considers Jesus' death sentence by Pontius Pilate as a sowing of bloody flowers. They retain the "flavors" of the crucifixion as they are "Filaments" of that early flower. Like the "faint Confederates," the later saints are but flavors and filaments of the real thing. The poet has these filaments originating from the tomb of Barabbas, the thief Pilate released in stead of Jesus because the crowd (according to the disciples who wrote the accounts) demanded Jesus be killed. Consequently "Strong Clusters" of flowers emanate from Barabbas' Tomb, for he was the one intended to be buried.
The communion cup
          The last stanza is difficult, primarily because of the "Gentile Drinker". It sounds as if the Drinker should be Jesus, both because it is the essence of his blood that infuses the sacrament, and because it was Jesus who instructed his disciples to eat bread and drink wine in his memory.  "This is my blood," he reportedly said. However, neither Jesus nor any of his apostles were gentiles.
        Paul was the apostle to the gentiles, though, and "Gentile Drinker" might have a double meaning here. His ministry changed Christianity from a jewish religion to a gentile one as he metaphorically drank them in. Or Dickinson might be conflating Paul with his gentile ministry for poetic purposes. That Paul also put his brand, or stamp, on all aspects of Christianity is beyond doubt.
        If Paul is the Drinker whose teachings are "patent" in the communion cup, then the stanza becomes ironic. It introduces an interpreter into the communion sacrament and that introduces an element of doubt. Have the "Flavors" of the crucifixion been altered somehow by the stamp of Paul? Have christians been unwittingly following Paul rather than Jesus in some subtle but profound way that is bound up in the sacrament of communion?

I don't think Dickinson is distancing herself from the "Scarlet way", though. Her admiration of Jesus' "straight renunciation" seems real. If anything, she is making a veiled warning about letting a sacrament take the place of deeply felt personal renunciation, about accepting something with someone else's brand on it for the real thing.


  1. Is ED not talking about her own path and the Bundle of her world she is putting down for the renunciation needed to bury herself in poetry?

    1. Well, I just reread my commentary and changed the last half -- but not along the lines you suggest. But yes, I think she is considering her own life as a basis.

  2. According to the Emily Dickinson Lexicon:

    indorse (-ed): Claim; accept; agree to pay thirty pieces of silver for; take part as a betrayer behind the back as represented in; (see Matthew 26:14-15)

    I think you nailed it when you said, "she is making a veiled warning about letting a sacrament take the place of deeply felt personal renunciation, about accepting something with someone else's brand on it for the real thing." 'Claim' and 'betrayal' are pretty clear.