And took Himself, for Pay,
The solemn contract of a Life
Was ratified, this way —
The Wealth might disappoint —
Myself a poorer prove
Than this great Purchaser suspect,
The Daily Own — of Love
Depreciate the Vision —
But till the Merchant buy —
Still Fable — in the Isles of Spice —
The subtle Cargoes — lie —
At least —'tis Mutual — Risk —
Some — found it — Mutual Gain
Sweet Debt of Life — Each Night to owe —
Insolvent — every Noon —
F426 (1862) J580
It’s always a bit jarring – and then fun – when Dickinson turns to the language of law and commerce in her poetry. Here she tackles the business of marriage. In this business the Merchants “buy” the fabled goods before being able to sample them. It’s a “Mutual – Risk” for both parties to the transaction but at least some folks find “Mutual Gain.”
She begins the poem in the first person as if she herself had married. The woman’s role, or at least the one she took for herself, was to give herself to “Him.” The bridegroom’s role was to provide support, or “Pay.” Now that’s putting the case for marriage in 1800s America succinctly! It was even true in my own girlhood. Young women were all counselled to find a good breadwinner. This agreement of the woman’s life for the man’s support is “ratified” as a lifetime contract – and that is the marriage vows and marriage license.
|Even zombies have marriage contracts
But just as merchants still make the trip all the way to the Spice Islands to buy their fabled spices and silks, so people keep getting married. The merchants know that spices and silks are excellent trade items, but they don’t know exactly what the spices and silks that they buy will sell for – or if they will be cheated in some way. Their “Cargoes” are “subtle” that way. The scent of the spice and the colors of the silk may fade; the islanders may not negotiate in good faith. At least in marriage both partners take a risk.
Dickinson ends the poem with a sly sketch of the happy marriage where there is “Mutual Gain”: the wedded partners join in bed each night, owing each other the “Sweet Debt of Life.” That’s a nice metaphor. I’m wealthy every night because my partner is going to pay me that debt. He, likewise, is expecting his payment. Sweet indeed! But by noon the next day we are both “Insolvent.” We’ve spent what was paid us the night before, not only in pleasure but in the Daily Own of frictions and annoyances. Thankfully, by the next night that Sweet Debt will be paid again.