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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 –
                                                            Fr675 (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 façade 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


  1. Welcome back, Susan! I have missed the way that your posts help me to read and better understand Ms. Dickinson.

  2. I was so pleased to see the prowling Bee in my email! And then, I had to research the Emily Dickinson Lexicon for Plush! Maybe a caterpillar? or even the fuzz on a bee....

    1. Thanks - I looked it up, too, and the image of assaulting a fat caterpillar made me laugh. I just couldn't work it in...

  3. It's great to see you back, Susan! And what a great poem to get your thoughts on. This one always struck me as an uncharacteristic piece from Dickinson with its withering ridicule of the gentlewomen she encounters. But that's not to say it isn't a great poem, either. In fact, it's pretty powerful, and shows how Dickinson had the resources to be a much different kind of poet (more 18th-century witty-satirical than 19th-century Romantic-visionary). It's a great reminder that Dickinson has many sides and can't be contained in the categories readers often want to apply to her.

    Love the point, too, about the feminine endings. My favorite kind of analysis.

  4. So glad to find your recent posts, Susan :-)

  5. Welcome back! I have just discovered your more recent posts and look forward to catching up!

  6. ‘What Soft – Cherubic Creatures –’ sounds defensive given ED said in several poems she has freckles, e.g.,

    “Themself are all I have
    Myself a freckled – be - . . . .”

    (F1054, about 1865)

    And those last two lines are judgmental, no other way to say it:

    “Redemption – Brittle Lady –
    Be so – ashamed of Thee –"

    Makes one wonder how ED got the bee in her bonnet.