Let us return to the genius of Emily Dickinson, as we have regularly here at this Project. As I look to her work over the years, I find that Dickinson has several modes. In one mode, her approach is charming, a just-between-slightly-weird-friends sharing of concrete observations of people and the physical world. Even when that Emily speaks of death and eternity, it takes as its conveyance and destination a horse-drawn fate and a well-made bed/grave. Another mode, not as well represented in her “greatest hits,” can be puzzlingly condensed and abstract, as if shorthand notes taken from her own mind of states of thought or insight that come upon her.
One aspect of genius is that it can get away with things that us more craft-assigned poets cannot. To be abstract and nearly impenetrable at any length tires out readers even as her other poems draw us in. If one reads Dickinson as an entire collection, these modes are interspersed. We might think, “Oh, there’s our friend Emily in one of her private moments we cannot join — moments we accept with partial-at-best understanding because we’ve come to love the other parts of her poetry.”
Today’s short Emily Dickinson poem bridges those two modes. It opens as arrestingly as any poem could with the striking statement “I am afraid to own a body.” As I did with our last Dickinson performance here, I wonder at that line and immediately relate it to body dysphoria, something that portions of our current society experiences and is more free to express.
The poem then moves on to an allied and contrasting statement nearly as striking: “I am afraid to own a soul.” The soul is by definition incorporeal, but by linking it with the body in the first line we may palpate it none-the-less. As the quatrain finishes these two connected things, body and soul, are described as valuable, and despite our fears, inescapably present. The poem might be too short if it ended there, but I’d recognize it as a complete koan of enlightenment — but it doesn’t end.
1st stanza draws us in. 2nd one confounds. You & I may not be able to get away with such writing, but let us trust in the genius of Emily Dickinson.
In the second quatrain we are off in the abstract Emily. I often seek to remind readers here that Emily lived in a house devoted to law with a father, grandfather, and brother who practiced law.* I think there’s passion and emotion in this second and final stanza, but if we are to follow it we must think as if we’re reading a contract or one of those user agreements we so often click “accept” on without reading. This stanza as saying that both body and soul are willed to us, like a “conditions attached” bequest in a will — and then after the stanza’s second em-dash, what? Who’s the “Duke?” Since rural mid-19th century Massachusetts was not supplied with titled nobility, I suspect this is connected to something Dickinson read. I’m going to take a flying leap of wild assumption here, one that you shouldn’t “take to the bank” any more than my “what if?” wondering that the mouldering man who died for truth in this other Dickinson poem could be John Brown, and a link much less certain than the idea that the kept in quotes “hope” bird was a reference to Emily Brontë. Could this poem’s Duke be Robert Browning’s monologuing one who speaks of “My Last Duchess?” I know Dickinson read Elizabeth Barrett Browning, so it’s not an impossible leap to think she read EBB’s spouse too.
If our Duke is exhibiting his deathless painting of his now dead (likely on his own orders) “last Duchess,” Dickinson is perhaps (in a very obscure and condensed way) mentioning drawbacks to our existence as a body** and as a questing soul.*** What then to make of the final line? I’m not sure. Is God the bequeather of the soul and body in the bargain our speaker is afraid of? Is God as cruel and exacting as Browning’s Duke? What’s the closing “Frontier?” The course of our lifetimes not yet mapped out? A “light out for the territory” escape? I’m not sure.
I’ll be honest, I recorded my performance of this second stanza not having figured out even these potentially wrong readings of it. What did I rely on then? There is some worthwhile word-music — and poetry using that tactic can give pleasure and connection before understanding. I trusted the mystery of the words might convey some mystery to the listener even if I had not opened the packet containing their meaning. My hope: that I could be, however imperfect and limited, one who carries Emily Dickinson’s genius to you.
You can hear my performance of Emily Dickinson’s “I Am Afraid to Own a Body” with the player gadget below. If you don’t see the player, there’s this highlighted link that will play it too. Speaking of links, there are other hyperlinks in the post above to some other Parlando Project Dickinson pieces that you might want to read.
*Have other better-known and credentialed scholars made much of Emily Dickinson’s connection to the law? I think the last time I searched I didn’t find much of anything. There’s a thesis topic for some young reincarnation of Wallace Stevens.
**Not much of a leap to a feminist reading of a female body here.
***One of my observations on reading my first full-length biography of Dickinson many decades ago was how remarkably determined she was to resist the pull of declaring herself as “saved” during her time and place’s Christian religious revival. Schoolmates, family, and community all declared, and she steadfastly refused.