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08 February 2019

Smiling back from Coronation

Smiling back from Coronation
May be Luxury —
On the Heads that started with us —
Being's Peasantry —

Recognizing in Procession
Ones We former knew —
When Ourselves were also dusty —
Centuries ago —

Had the Triumph no Conviction
Of how many be —
Stimulated — by the Contrast —
Unto Misery —

                                                            J385,  Fr651 (1863)

This poem might be grouped with others where either Dickinson claims and celebrates her calling as a Poet or else among those where she recounts a transcendent experience. But while both of those poem groups reflect an almost ecstatic confidence, the current poem seems quite breezy, even condescending, by comparison. The speaker would like to smile after her Coronation, but decides it would be a luxury – and tacky, really –  because in the Procession she would see folks she knew from the distant past, people who "started" with her, and many others – all of whom would be "Stimulated … Unto Misery" by contrasting themselves to her. At least some of those in the Procession, those who began with the speaker, are dismissed as "Being's Peasantry".  Ouch.
St. John sees the crowned saints

Some scholars have suggested that passages in the biblical book of Revelations are the basis of the poem. Cristanne Miller, for example, writes that the poem "probably refers to passages in Revelation such as 2:10, 'be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life,' and 20:4, 'And I saw thrones, and they sat upon them … and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years'" (Emily Dickinson's Poems As She Preserved Them, n. 276, p. 763). Sadly, those people who did not make that first cut must wait in the grave until the second Resurrection where they stand before God for judgment (Revelation 20:12-13). In this reading, the speaker would be figuratively counting herself among the crowned martyrs.
        This may be a sort of triumph fantasy where the person considered by others to be a spiritual risk has found her way to salvation or at least experiencing the mixed emotions when after experiencing an epiphany or transcendent spiritual experience one rejoins quotidean human existence.

It is likely, however, that Dickinson is using biblical language to celebrate the internal coronation she has come to feel as a poet. In “For this—accepted Breath” (J195, Fr230), for example, Dickinson claims an immortal crown because of her calling as a Poet – and a great one – and calls on the archangel Gabriel and the Saints to proclaim it.
        But it is her paean to poets, "This was a Poet" (J448, Fr446), two hundred poems ago, that seems most like the current poem. The notion of immortality is front and center there. The Poet, she asserts, is "Exterior – to Time." The Poet "Entitles Us – by Contrast – to ceaseless Poverty –". Likewise in the current poem, the poet, still bedazzled by that mixture of epiphany and confidence whereby she experienced a personal "Coronation" crowning her poetic calling, looks at those around her, those who are dusty, just as she was "Centuries ago." The dustiness is that of the earth, for without the divine spark, we are but flesh and blood. These are "Being's Peasantry" – those tied to life's appetites, achievements and failures, just as a peasant is tied to a parcel of land.

Poetically, nothing tingles or surprises. But I do appreciate the rhyming pair of "Luxury" and Peasantry.

I would be very interested in readers' opinions. What have I missed?


  1. I agree with your analysis.

    I don't like this poem. The projection of other benighted fellow travelers who have not the "conviction" of "triumph" and whose "heads" don't wear the crown is arrogant. And this is atypical of some other of ED's poems. Contrast this poem with "I would not paint -- a picture --" -- an amazing poem that also speaks of artistic power -- but with humility -- taking the view that a listener can rejoice in Art, "Enamoured -- impotent -- content --" -- without jealousy or poverty.

  2. I like the idea that Dickinson is borrowing biblical and religious language to celebrate a great “triumph,” and I agree that this is probably poetic rather than spiritual since that seems more aligned with her other poems (such as the ones you already point out). That said, I also like the idea she is talking about a spiritual triumph only because of the deep irony, as you suggest, that the “elected” saints are really the damned peasants while the speaker, perhaps inclined to be religiously skeptical, is really the saved one.

    There’s more than one way of reading the final lines, though. If we read the poem as one long sentence, which I would agree is the primary reading, then it reads as you read it here: “I could smile if my triumph wouldn’t stimulate others’ misery.” But if we put a full stop at the end of stanza two (and the dash allows us to enjamb or stop), then the last stanza could be read as something like, “If only my triumph didn’t have the ‘conviction’ that it was stimulated by the contrast to others’ misery.” In other words, the speaker can’t smile because she knows her bliss is created, or at least amplified, by its sharp difference with others. Lots of Dickinson’s poems make similar points about the necessity of one thing (like bliss or riches) depending on its opposite (pain or poverty), so this seems consistent.

    If we’re looking for a sense of humility, I suppose we get some humility this way. But I disagree that the poem loses something if it lacks humility or is arrogant. As many readers have pointed out, Dickinson was more interested in describing how she experienced reality than what she wanted reality to be. She wanted death to open up into heaven, and sometimes her speakers show a faith that heaven awaits. But sometimes they lack faith, and Dickinson faithfully records what a lack of faith feels like. Similarly, we might wish that our “triumphs” don’t depend on feelings of superiority over others, but they often do. (The etymology of “triumph” is revealing all by itself on this: the Roman triumphs depended on the humiliation of others, particularly enemies.) I think Dickinson is recording a real human experience (at least one I can relate to). If all of her poems were arrogant, of course, I might tire of them, but since Dickinson wrote so many self-questioning and “humble” poems, I like that she had moments like this. In fact, good for her! :)

    One more note (yes, I’m still writing, sorry!). This poem reminds me a lot of Prince Hal and Falstaff in the second part of Henry IV, where Hal publically disowns Falstaff while celebrating his own “Coronation.” That scene, like this poem, can be read both ways. Falstaff fans (I would guess the majority of modern readers) argue Hal is cruel by turning away his old friend. But others argue quite reasonably that Hal can only become the great king he aspires to be when he distinguishes himself from “rabble” like Falstaff. Dickinson thought a lot about fame and greatness. She certainly understood that fame, like kingdoms, could only be given to a select few. Almost by definition, greatness depends on the not-so-great peasants. The speaker seems like she doesn't want this to be the case, but she recognizes it all the same.

    As always, thanks for such a stimulating discussion!

    1. Thank you -- I'm glad you wrote so much! With the permission of your insight I too have found some delight in ED allowing herself a bit of imagined schadenfreude. And I agree, for her to write at the extent of her power she would need to reject the inner and outer Falstaffs. What a great image!

  3. I also appreciate Bleaneys' reply. Thanks you!

  4. I don’t see the arrogance. The first stanza says those who are coronated “started with us - Being’s Peasantry”. Stanza two seems a hypothetical imagining of what it must be like to be in procession, admitting that it would be grand if it weren’t for the realization that there were those who were miserably jealous. It is rather encouraging to even consider that a king would be worried about those people, rather than forgetting about them in his ascent. That would be the typical Romantic picture of a monarch.

  5. My take on this incredibly obscure poem is one of sadness and misery. What the poet thought her royal coronation (spiritual marriage to Charles Wadsworth, F613, ‘The Day that I was crowned’) turned out to cause lifelong misery:

    Smiling back from my Coronation
    May be a luxury.
    I see people who started life with me,
    Life’s peasantry-

    I recognize in the coronation procession
    People I used to know -
    When I was uncoronated
    What seems like centuries ago.

    If only my triumph had happened without my being certain
    Of how many of my friends
    Are startled by the contrast of my former self
    And the miserable creature I am now.