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26 February 2013

I gave myself to Him —

I gave myself to Him —
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
          The poet recognizes the potential for disappointment. The man might not have as much wealth as expected. The woman might not have that much to offer either. These disappointments, recognized daily, are the “Own – of Love” and “Depreciate” the value of the contract. It’s like investing in the car of your dreams only to find out that it doesn’t corner well and can’t make it over the hill at any speed over 35 miles per hour. You might still love the car, but every day you are reminded of its failings. So, too, with marriage.
         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.


  1. I hope you are just on vacation.

    1. Hey, thanks for noticing! You reminded me that I should post a note about not blogging, and so I did. Short version: we've been moving into a house we recently bought and doing a bunch of stuff to it. Blogging resumes on the 20th. Cheers!

  2. Franklin dates F426 “about autumn 1862”, but his dates, based on ED’s ever-changing handwriting, signify when she copied the finished poem for her fascicle, not the date of composition. If F426 was composed during autumn 1862 AND if the “him” was Charles Wadsworth, then ED sincerely felt their verbal contract of marriage-in-heaven was ironclad despite his move to San Francisco. Her certainty does not mean Wadsworth felt the same, but for her poetry that doesn’t matter.

  3. After sleeping on it, the premise of a contract seems null and void. A valid contract involves a willing seller and a willing buyer, in which case Lines 1 & 2 would read:

    "I sold myself to Him —
    And accepted Himself, for Pay,"

    ED spills her beans with her verbs, "gave" and "took". A gift doesn't require reimbursement, and the giver doesn't "take" anything for payment. The transaction was extortion, recorded for posterity by ED's subconscious sense of entitlement.

    No wonder why, during a 1930's interview, Wadsworth's youngest son, William S. Wadsworth, told ED biographer, George Whicher, that "My father was not one · · · · to be unduly impressed by a hysterical young woman's ravings." (Whicher, GF, 2 July 1949, 'Pursuit of the Overtakeless', The Nation, p. 14).

    William S Wadsworth, MD, was coroner of Philadelphia, 1899 ~1960: "Wadsworth became known as the unimpeachable expert witness in the courts of law. · · · · By the time he had reached his mid80s, Wadsworth had performed 16,000 autopsies and had been involved in almost 5,000 murder cases." (Rhett, SA et al., 1999, 'Vignette in medical history: William S. Wadsworth and the evolution of the medical examiner', The American Surgeon, Vol. 65, pp 794-5).

  4. Gift versus purchase aside, Stanza 4 casts a curious light on ED’s vision of marriage.

    Line 13: The ED Lexicon defines “risk” as “Chance; gamble; hazard; danger; adventure; jeopardy”. EDL editors weren’t omniscient of ED’s mind, but those definitions seem self-evident. However, for what it’s worth, ED Lex also defines “mutual” as “Equal in interchange”, which marriage is not; in fact, marriage is rarely if ever an equal interchange of each of its infinite faces, nor of their sum. Only rank naivete would believe otherwise, and ED was not that naïve, even about marriage.

    Line 14: By “Mutual Gain” ED may mean each partner perceives the positives of marriage outweigh the negatives in the long run, which implies that “Some” partners disagree with that arithmetic; again, self-evident.

    Line 15: Aside from its sexual connotation, which sooner or later obviously ain’t true, perhaps ED meant at the end of each day each partner feels, and hopes the other feels, glad to be married.

    Line 16: This line puzzles me. Susan K suggests “We’ve spent what was paid us the night before, not only in pleasure but in the Daily Own of frictions and annoyances.” “Daily Own” are ED’s words, a modified verb used as a modified noun. The EDL definition that may fit is “acknowledge responsibility for”, which sounds as good as any and much better than some.

    But who really knows what ED was thinking? Only ED. We’ll have to ask her in the great Bye-and-Bye.

    1. Re-reading this poem I'm not sure about what I wrote before but don't have a better response. Thanks for your comments!

  5. "I gave myself to Him —
    And took Himself, for Pay," ED

    "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!" SK

    Both ED and Susan got the marriage "contract / vow" right, and not just for the 19th century. Although there is legal leeway for variation in wording, the courthouse standard vow uses the verb "take":

    "I, ____, take you, ____, to be my wife (or husband), to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part, according to God's holy law, and this is my solemn vow."

    The ED Lexicon has 56 definitions of "take", none of them in the wedding-vow sense. OED quotes the Old English form of the wedding-vow sense from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of 1140 AD, "he toc hire to wiue" (he took her to wife).

    In short, ED gets a free pass to say "And took Himself, for Pay" without my quibbling over its 2023 political incorrectness.

    from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle