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508 (I’m ceded – I’ve stopped being Theirs –)

I’m ceded – I’ve stopped being Theirs – 
The name They dropped upon my face 
With water, in the country church 
Is finished using, now, 
And They can put it with my Dolls, 
My childhood, and the string of spools, 
I’ve finished threading – too – 

Baptized, before, without the choice, 
But this time, consciously, Of Grace – 
Unto supremest name – 
Called to my Full – The Crescent dropped – 
Existence’s whole Arc, filled up, 
With one – small Diadem.

My second Rank – too small the first – 
Crowned – Crowing – on my Father’s breast – 
A half unconscious Queen – 
But this time – Adequate – Erect, 
With Will to choose, or to reject, 
And I choose, just a Crown –

— Emily Dickinson

Diane Seuss reads and discusses Emily Dickinson’s “508 (I’m ceded – I’ve stopped being Theirs –)”

Transcription of Commentary

It’s said that many of Dickinson’s poems begin where most poems end, in the “white heat,” and that is the case here. Rather than finding her way to a radical lift-off at the poem’s conclusion, she begins there—“I’m ceded—”—she declares—"I’ve stopped being Theirs—.” She is ceded, as land is ceded, as property is ceded. In this poem the question of who owns this speaker is suspended and then dramatically revealed in the final stanza.

“I am ceded”—the poem begins in that scorching present tense—and “I’ve stopped being Theirs.” Who is this “They”? we wonder, and we are left to consider Them as we move into the body of the poem. “The name they dropped upon my face with water, in the country church, is finished using now,” she writes, and how nearly-violent, I think, to drop a name upon a face, especially, one imagines, on an infant’s face, and how clever to set this baptism in a country church, an image of quaint innocence that will be supported later by the dolls and string of spools and the conventionally-gendered childhood she is also leaving behind.

The name they dropped upon her face “Is finished using, now.” An odd syntactical move. Is she finished with the name or is it finished using her? Is she booting the name or is the name booting her? Is she ceded by them, or seceding from them? Resonant questions in 1862 when this poem arrived, as America itself was splitting in half, both ceding and seceding, and less than one hundred years from when the nation’s origins were imagined within the very act of shoving off from one reality in order to create another. To self-name, one must first peel oneself away from the given name and step, for a time, into an existential void. That process is what revolution is all about.

In the middle stanza we learn that there has been a second baptism. The speaker had no choice in the matter the first time, but this time she is conscious; she chooses. This is not the last time she will reference consciousness in this short poem. She comes to her “supremest name” via choice, consciousness, and Grace—that holy trinity. Her name is not dropped upon her face by Grace but is of Grace. I take this to mean that Grace is its origin. “Called to my Full,” she writes—full name? Full identity? Yes and yes, and Dickinson uses the metaphor of the moon, that most female of cosmic bodies, rather than the sun to expose that fullness. “The crescent dropped” like a mask, a disguise of partiality lowered to reveal the wholeness that’s been there all along. Existence’s “whole arc” is filled with “one small diadem”—and here I experience Dickinson’s use of smallness as a kind of witticism. Here I am with my tiny diadem filling up the whole arc of Existence. I’m just a girl wearing just a crown.

She completes stanza two with that double-edged smallness, and begins the final stanza with smallness’s other dimension: “My second Rank—too small the first,” she writes, using what was then the male realm of the military to describe her rejection of ascribed identity, itscorseting—dolls, spools, girlhood. In her first birth she was “crowned,” she “crowed” upon her Father’s breast, she was a queen, but “half unconscious.” I don’t put it past her to be playing with the double-meaning of “crowned”—the crowning of the infant in birth—who is crowing, only half-conscious, on her Father’s breast. God the Father? Patriarchal power? The power to baptize and name? Where, in this birth, is Mother? The first birth seems akin to Athena’s, who emerges not from her mother’s body but from her father’s head.

But this time, in this second birth, in this new Rank, post-doll, post-spool, having rejected baptism by Them, our speaker is not only Adequate but Erect—no girliness therea soldier of selfhood, with “Will to choose, or to reject.” Free Will. A very American notion of self-rule.And what does she choose? “Just a crown,” she tells us. That’s all. This poem turns out to be more psychological and political than theological; baptism is metaphor rather than the poem’s ultimate subject. Sylvia Plath, a hundred years later, would write, similarly, in her poem “Stings” from her bee sequence, “I/Have a self to recover, a queen.” Both poets toss off patriarchal signifiers and land at a queendom of one, Plath from a cold, London flat, Dickinson from her father’s house in Amherst. There is no mention, in Dickinson, of the war that raged around her, nor of the human beings whose enslavement distorts and complicates any statement of American self-ownership. If those subjects enter her work, they do so through slanted inference only. There is much unspoken in Dickinson’s white space. Her poems, indeed, emerged from white spaces, from a small white woman wearing a white dress. If one could dissect those Dickinson dashes, what untouched subjects would we discover?

Still, yet, for a woman writing from the middle of the 1800s, a woman who rarely ventured from her father’s house, the self-claiming in this and so many of her poems is extraordinary, and strikes me as quintessentially American, at least as Americans dream themselves to be.

When I was a child I sought salvation at every turn. I was saved in a range of country churches at least seven times. Whatever salvation I was seeking never seemed to take. Unlike Dickinson’s speaker, but like Dickinson herself, I was never baptized. I was afraid to put my head underwater, and our churches demanded full immersion. Like Dickinson’s speaker, at some point I stepped away from that path, and tossed away my dolls, too. The queendom I finally came to was Poetry. That is the realm Emily found, too.

THE POEMS OF EMILY DICKINSON: READING EDITION, edited by Ralph W. Franklin, Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Copyright © 1998, 1999 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Copyright © 1951, 1955 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Copyright © renewed 1979, 1983 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Copyright © 1914, 1918, 1919, 1924, 1929, 1930, 1932, 1935, 1937, 1942 by Martha Dickinson Bianchi.

Copyright © 1952, 1957, 1958, 1963, 1965 by Mary L. Hampson.

Diane Seuss

Diane Seuss

Read “Self-Portrait with Sylvia Plath’s Braid” by Diane Seuss

Diane Seuss (1956- ) was born in Indiana and raised in Michigan. She is the author of four poetry collections, including Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl (2018); Four-Legged Girl (2015),finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; Wolf Lake, White Gown Blown Open (2010), winner of the Juniper Prize for Poetry; and It Blows You Hollow (1998). Seuss was Writer in Residence at Kalamazoo College for many years, where she received the Florence J. Lucasse Fellowship for both teaching and scholarship.

Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) was born in Amherst, Massachusetts. With few exceptions, her nearly 1800 poems remained unpublished until after her death. Dickinson lived much of her life in isolation and rarely left her home, but her work lives on through the efforts of family members who fought to have it published. She is one of the most prolific poets in American history.