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05 July 2013

To make One's Toilette — after Death

To make One's Toilette — after Death
Has made the Toilette cool
Of only Taste we cared to please
Is difficult, and still —

That's easier — than Braid the Hair —
And make the Bodice gay —
When eyes that fondled it are wrenched
By Decalogues — away —

                                                                                                              F471 (1862)  J485

There's no point getting all dolled up once you're in the grave. There's nothing going on (unless you're chatting with Truth through the walls of a crypt), and dressing up just to please yourself can become a real hassle. Still, it would be preferable to fixing yourself up when your lover has been "wrenched" away by one of the Ten Commandments – no doubt number seven: "Thou shalt not commit adultery."

That's how I read this poem, anyway. Although it's awfully clever, it doesn't seem particularly relevant except out of biographical interest. Was Dickinson saying that some object of her own desire, probably a married man, had been fondling her Bodice (let's admit it, bosom) with his eyes? I think this little poem was written as a letter – a very droll and sophisticated one! And it need not have been meant for anyone in particular. I think Dickinson imagined herself in all kinds of guises, identities, predicaments, triumphs and affaires de couer.

Speaking of imagination, I hope neither of the dresses pictured below represent Dickinson's best efforts in what she referred to as "mak[ing] the Bodice  gay."

The famous daily white dress
The teenage portrait dress (which
doesn't look that different from the one
pictured in the recently-revealed portrait
from a year or two before this poem)


  1. A less Gothic interpretation of the first stanza would see the woman's would-be lover, not the woman herself, in the tomb. Then the living woman would be questioning the worth of making herself pretty for a man who is dead. Maybe the ambiguity points to the extreme difficulty of either possibility: "It is as hard for me when he is dead as it would be if I were dead."

    There is a similar ambiguity in the second stanza: whose concern for "decalogues" has ended the flirtation, the man's or the woman's? Either is possible, but there is a sense of lingering desire in the woman's words that suggests her quietly lamenting the religious qualms of the man, which she suffers from but doesn't share. In any case, whoever has put an end to the flirtation seems to correspond to the one who is in the grave in the first stanza.

    These religious qualms may seem less relevant today, as you suggest. But there will always be analogous barriers in the way of desire.

    By the way, I love your blog. Thank you.

    1. Re-reading that first stanza I can see your gloss -- and in fact it makes more sense in the poem. It's hard to get past the elisions, though, to get the lover in the grave.

      Also, I take your point about relevance. I'm not sure what I was thinking, except that I don't find the poem particularly interesting -- and that, of course, is different from it being relevant.

  2. 1. Based on ED’s handwriting and internal chronological evidence, Franklin estimates that ED copied this poem into Fascicle 22 “about late 1862” and numbers it as the 199th poem of 227 copied into fascicles that year.

    2. The “Death” in Line 1 is likely emotional, not physical. The love of her life, Reverend Charles Wadsworth (and his family) sailed from New York for San Francisco on May 1, 1862. ED had no reason to think she would ever see him again and felt a part of her had died.

    3. About late 1862 ED began dressing only in white. No one knows why, but perhaps she felt Reverend Wadsworth, the “only Taste [she] cared to please”, preferred white. Wearing white may have been “difficult” because it reminded her of him, but that was easier than pretending nothing had changed in her life:

    “That's easier — than Braid the Hair —
    And make the Bodice gay —
    When eyes that fondled it are wrenched
    By Decalogues [and deca-leagues]— away —”

    4. How does a biographical reading lessen in any way the value of this poem, or of ED as a poet and a person? The power of the poem is universal.

  3. Perhaps it would be more accurate to edit the second paragraph of my comment above:

    “The (male) love of her life, Reverend Charles Wadsworth . . . .”

    The female love of her life, as the previous poem (F470) implied, was Susan Gilbert Dickinson. Yes, this inference makes ED one of those LGBTQs.