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Emily Dickinson's "Color-Caste-Denomination"

Updated on April 15, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

Poetry became my passion, after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962.

Emily Dickinson

Source

Introduction and Text of "Color - Caste - Denomination"

The speaker in Emily Dickinson's "Color - Caste - Denomination -" (#970 in Thomas H. Johnson's Complete Poems) demonstrates a profound understanding about the futility of human classifications based on race, class, religion, and gender.

The theme of this poem is likely influenced by Galatians 3: 28: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus."

Color - Caste - Denomination

Color - Caste - Denomination -
These - are Time’s Affair -
Death’s diviner Classifying
Does not know they are -

As in sleep - all Hue forgotten -
Tenets - put behind -
Death’s large - Democratic fingers
Rub away the Brand -

If Circassian - He is careless -
If He put away
Chrysalis of Blonde - or Umber -
Equal Butterfly -

They emerge from His Obscuring -
What Death - knows so well -
Our minuter intuitions -
Deem unplausible -

Emily Dickinson, circa age 17

Source

Commentary

This speaker is demonstrating a profound truth about humanity that is still today widely and tragically misconstrued.

First Stanza: The Delusion of Classification

Color - Caste - Denomination -
These - are Time’s Affair -
Death’s diviner Classifying
Does not know they are -

The perspicacious speaker begins with an audacious claim: the human soul possesses no ordinary identities associated with race, class, or religion. By extension, one would realize that if those common classes are null, so is the classification by gender and/or sexual orientation, the latter two which are so important to the political left contemporarily.

This speaker perceives that those classifications are merely delusion resulting from the mayic realm of the operative pairs of opposites which have their being under time's sway: "These - are Time's Affair."

The fact that these classifications vanish after death demonstrates that they are merely delusive tools, useful only, if useful at all, to the material level of existence. The soul is "Death's diviner Classifying," and Death cannot classify the living. When Death attempts to classify the soul, it finds that the soul's purity lacks those limiting qualities that humanity assigns itself.

Second Stanza: A Dreamer's Awareness

As in sleep - all Hue forgotten -
Tenets - put behind -
Death’s large - Democratic fingers
Rub away the Brand -

The speaker, desiring to further clarify her claim, then compares "death" to "sleep"—in sleep, the human being forgets his race, class, religion, and gender. These "tenets" are abandoned and the sleeper, if he dreams, may dream himself a different race, class, religion, or gender, and as long as he dreams those classes will seem to be reality.

Sleep, like Death, has "large - Democratic fingers" that are capable of erasing the marks of human classifications that circumscribe the individual in ordinary, waking consciousness. The dreamer understands his images and relates to them exactly as he does while awake.

Third Stanza: The Unclassifiable Soul

If Circassian - He is careless -
If He put away
Chrysalis of Blonde - or Umber -
Equal Butterfly -

The Circassians comprised a civilization in Diaspora, routed by the Russians and the Ottoman Empire. Their classifications would be tenuous at best; thus their ability to classify themselves would be quite difficult, as many other civilizations have experienced.

Peoples who live in contiguity to other conquering peoples have found it difficult to maintain a unified identity; such has also been the lot of the Jewish people. But even the "Circassian" who attempts to identity his classification would find that like a butterfly, whether it be "Blonde - or Umber," he would still remain "Equal Butterfly."

The usefulness of names on the material plane can never taint the soul. The soul remains perfectly unclassifiable by mayic limitations. This speaker finds solace in this awareness, and only those steeped in identity politics finds it abhorrent even unto and into the twenty-first century.

Fourth Stanza: Delusive Limitations of Race, Class, Religion, and Gender

They emerge from His Obscuring -
What Death - knows so well -
Our minuter intuitions -
Deem unplausible -

Each human soul is not "obscured" by any attempt to classify it by the delusive limitations of race, class, religion, or gender. Death knows this, the speaker again emphasizes. Even the tiniest inferences the human mind makes regarding that futile act of classifying will remain "unplausible."


Dickinson's Titles

Emily Dickinson did not provide titles to her 1,775 poems; therefore, each poem's first line becomes the title. According to the MLA Style Manuel:

"When the first line of a poem serves as the title of the poem, reproduce the line exactly as it appears in the text."

APA does not address this issue.

Life Sketch of Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson remains one of the most fascinating and widely researched poets in America. Much speculation abounds regarding some of the most known facts about her. For example, after the age of seventeen, she remained fairly cloistered in her father's home, rarely moving from the house beyond the front gate. Yet she produced some of the wisest, deepest poetry ever created anywhere at any time.

Regardless of Emily's personal reasons for living nun-like, readers have found much to admire, enjoy, and appreciate about her poems. Though they often baffle upon first encounter, they reward readers mightily who stay with each poem and dig out the nuggets of golden wisdom.

New England Family

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born December 10, 1830, in Amherst, MA, to Edward Dickinson and Emily Norcross Dickinson. Emily was the second child of three: Austin, her older brother who was born April 16, 1829, and Lavinia, her younger sister, born February 28, 1833. Emily died on May 15, 1886.

Emily's New England heritage was strong and included her paternal grandfather, Samuel Dickinson, who was one of the founders of Amherst College. Emily's father was a lawyer and also was elected to and served one term in the state legislature (1837-1839); later between 1852 and 1855, he served one term in the U.S. House of Representative as a representative of Massachusetts.

Education

Emily attended the primary grades in a one room school until being sent to Amherst Academy, which became Amherst College. The school took pride in offering college level course in the sciences from astronomy to zoology. Emily enjoyed school, and her poems testify to the skill with which she mastered her academic lessons.

After her seven year stint at Amherst Academy, Emily then entered Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in the fall of 1847. Emily remained at the seminary for only one year. Much speculation has been offered regarding Emily's early departure from formal education, from the atmosphere of religiosity of the school to the simple fact that the seminary offered nothing new for the sharp minded Emily to learn. She seemed quite content to leave in order to stay home. Likely her reclusiveness was beginning, and she felt the need to control her own learning and schedule her own life activities.

As a stay-at-home daughter in 19th century New England, Emily was expected to take on her share of domestic duties, including housework, likely to help prepare said daughters for handling their own homes after marriage. Possibly, Emily was convinced that her life would not be the traditional one of wife, mother, and householder; she has even stated as much: God keep me from what they call households.

In this householder-in-training position, Emily especially disdained the role a host to the many guests that her father's community service required of his family. She found such entertaining mind-boggling, and all that time spent with others meant less time for her own creative efforts. By this time in her life, Emily was discovering the joy of soul-discovery through her art.

Although many have speculated that her dismissal of the current religious metaphor landed her in the atheist camp, Emily's poems testify to a deep spiritual awareness that far exceeds the religious rhetoric of the period. In fact, Emily was likely discovering that her intuition about all things spiritual demonstrated an intellect that far exceeded any of her family's and compatriots' intelligence. Her focus became her poetry—her main interest in life.

Publication

Very few of Emily's poems appeared in print during her lifetime. And it was only after her death the her sister Vinnie discovered the bundles of poems, called fascicles, in Emily's room. A total of 1775 individual poems have made their way to publication. The first publicans of her works to appear, gathered and edited by Mabel Loomis Todd, a supposed paramour of Emily's brother, and the editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson had been altered to the point of changing the meanings of her poems. The regularization of her technical achievements with grammar and punctuation obliterated the high achievement that the poet had so creatively accomplished.

Readers can thank Thomas H. Johnson, who in the mid 1950s went to work at restoring Emily's poems to their, at least near, original. His doing so restored her many dashes, spacings, and other grammar/mechanical features that earlier editors had "corrected" for the poet—corrections that ultimately resulted in obliteration of the poetic achievement reached by Emily's mystically brilliant talent.

Thomas H. Johnson's The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson


The text I use for commentaries
The text I use for commentaries | Source

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

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  • Maya Shedd Temple profile imageAUTHOR

    Linda Sue Grimes 

    4 weeks ago from U.S.A.

    Thank you, Raj--

    Dickinson's poetry always offers such profundity as well as entertaining turns of phrase that one cannot help but come away with a new thought and a smile or two. She surprises as often as she teaches as she reminds the heart and mind of their own dear experiences. And, of course, that what all truly great poetry does for its readers.

  • chicagoguy profile image

    Raj Lally Batala 

    4 weeks ago from Chicago ,USA

    great article

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