She dealt her pretty words like Blades —
How glittering they shone —
And every One unbared a Nerve
Or wantoned with a Bone —
She never deemed — she hurt —
That — is not Steel's Affair —
A vulgar grimace in the Flesh —
How ill the Creatures bear —
To Ache is human — not polite —
The Film upon the eye
Mortality's old Custom —
Just locking up — to Die.
F458 (1862) J479
The stoical narrator of this poem suffers verbal assaults from a woman without showing how deeply she is hurt. Instead, like a janitor making the rounds at the end of the day, she just begins “locking up” her damaged life in readiness for a figurative (I presume) death.
The powerful first stanza uses two images to show how deadly cruel the subject’s “pretty words” were. The first is of a person wielding a “glittering” knife as she sets upon the narrator. Her words are polished and fine on the surface, but they cut deeply. This woman is no innocent: she deals the words purposely “like Blades.” I picture a decorative knife such as a letter opener: a seemingly harmless bauble but capable of great harm.
Dickinson doesn’t just portray the cutting or stabbing pain of a blade, however. Her overlain image is one of rape. The blade unbares a nerve the way a rapist might strip off his victim’s clothes. It then “wantoned with a Bone” sensuously enjoying fileting the victim. I feel the force of the cruelty every time I read this stanza.
The victim excuses the woman: she didn’t know how sharp her words were; didn’t mean for them to “hurt.” But such niceties don’t matter to the blade. It doesn’t care if the wielder believes it capable of murder or not. The knife’s “Affair” is to cut – quickly and smoothly. I don’t find the poet convincing in her feeble defense of the attacker, nor do I think she meant to be. Someone who “dealt” their words like blades would know something of their power.
For whatever reason, the victim never lets on. It would be “vulgar” to wince from the pain. It would be in poor taste, a sign of weakness, if “the Creatures” bear the pain “ill.” Further, it isn’t “polite” to have tears of pain welling up. Much better to just follow the old (feminine) way of keeping silent – and dying inside.
Biographer Richard Sewall, as well as other scholars, believes Dickinson was writing about her friend and sister-in-law Sue Dickinson. This would have been about the time the two’s friendship hit a low point and Emily avoided going to Sue’s house (one hundred yards away) for nearly fifteen years. People who knew Sue mentioned her sharp tongue, and Emily’s sister Vinnie was firmly convinced that Sue’s behaviour to Emily had shortened the poet’s life considerably.
Be that as it may, the poem succeeds with or without a biographical reading. Was it Rumpole who said of his wife, “She has a sharp wit and wields it like an axe”?