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24 July 2021

What Soft – Cherubic Creatures –

What Soft – Cherubic Creatures –
These Gentlewomen are —
One would as soon assault a Plush –
Or violate a Star —

Such Dimity Convictions –
A Horror so refined
Of freckled Human Nature –
Of Deity – ashamed –

It's such a common – Glory –
A Fisherman's – Degree –
Redemption – Brittle Lady –
Be so – ashamed of Thee –
                                                            Fr657 (1863)  J401

Gentlewomen take a hit in this oft-quoted poem. But, um, Dickinson herself would be considered among the gentlewomen of Amherst. But I think the poet’s aim is directed at a certain kind of overly fastidious gentlewoman. She presents herself as ‘Soft’, Cherubic’, and pure as a star, someone to be protected and indulged. Yet beneath and perhaps explaining her carefully maintained fa├žade of gentile respectability lies her ‘Horror’ of ‘freckled Human Nature’ and her repugnance toward any lower socioeconomic class.    

This explains her being ‘ashamed’ of Deity, of Jesus who was born in a manger and, along with his ragtag fishermen disciples, performed his ministry among the poor, the diseased, and the sinners. His gruesome execution was a blood sacrifice for human redemption. Yet, to snobbish ladies, Dickinson claims, this is but a ‘common’ Glory, something regrettably low-class. 

Dickinson takes another jab by calling the Christian beliefs of these gentlewomen ‘Dimity Convictions’.Dimity is a soft, light-weight cotton fabric popular for summer dresses. Floral and other designs are typically printed upon the surface of the cloth – not woven into it. Likewise, the religious convictions of the Gentlewomen are superficial. Beneath a veneer of Christian love and mercy, is the base weave of superiority. The ‘Glory’ of Redemption is ‘common’, is only Fisherman class.

In the last stanza we have the infantilized and selfish creatures addressed as a singular ‘Brittle Lady.’ Propped up by corsets and status during life, she cannot stand alone when her time comes for judgment. Dickinson takes a righteous tone, almost calling for her doom: Just as you were ashamed of the Fisherman, so may he be ashamed of you. 

Poetically, Dickinson underscores the ultimate weakness of these ladies by using quite a few of what are called feminine or falling endings – that is to say, a line of poetry, typically iambic, that ends in an unaccented syllable. In this poem, Dickinson ends five of the twelve lines in this way: Creatures, Convictions, Nature, Glory, Lady.


Dimity fabric with flowers printed