Welcome to Nebo Literature.

No. 83: “I gave myself to him” Emily Dickinson

 This is a poem about belonging as a commitment; how seductive physical intimacy can be at first appearance but also how daily routine can erode the romance. It could be a fantasy or dream Dickinson expresses.   There is no evidence that Dickinson had a consummated relationship with anyone- she never married.  She did have a number of male friends, but the relationships appear platonic.

"Life is full of fanciful illusions conjured from thin air; dreams that are hostile to reality, that dwell in possibilities"        – Dickinson

The poem can be read literally about a submissive wife derived from a biblical source:

22 Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Saviour of the body. 24 But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything.  Ephesians 5, 22

Context and Background

Dickinson, renowned for her eccentric independence, individualism and isolation from society, here reveals a covert intimate yearning for association through the surrendering of self to another.  The poem reveals a desire for consummation and sacrifice of self to another, aware that such a submission runs the risk of loss of self. Emily’s family and the State of Massachusetts followed the Puritan traditions practicing the piety of the Calvinists who believed all men were evil and only a few would be “saved” by being “born again” through a confession of faith.  Emily rebels against this scare-mongering evangelical approach and eventually defies her teacher, a Miss Lyon refusing to “be saved” and leaves college without graduating perhaps due to her rebellious nature and non-compliance.

Perhaps it was this act of self assertion – rebellion that provoked her unorthodoxy or non-conformism to conventional wisdom. Emily was left with a sense of exclusion from the established religion, and these sentiments inform much of her poetry. There is frequent reference to “being shut out of heaven”. Yet despite this rejection of the orthodox religion, there is much in her poetry which reveals a profoundly religious temperament. For Emily religious experience was not a simple intellectual statement of belief; it could be more accurately reflected in the beauty of nature, and the experiences of ecstatic joy.

 Analysis of I gave myself to Him

The poem is complicated by the richness of its language, apparent contradictions and analogies to other forms of commitment and belonging.  As all good poetry it can be read at many levels and communicates implicitly, holistically but subtly – by a cumulation of sound patterns, symbols, metaphor, images, nuances…..  It is full of ambiguity, suggestions and enigma.  As long as you don’t fully understand it, great literature can intrigue you forever.  Oscar Wilde observed that “as soon as you understand a great work of art, it dies for you.

There is a strong sense of both disappointment and inadequacy in the poem, the persona fears disillusionment and discontent – the loss of passion due to mundane routine, reality and familiarity:

The Wealth might disappoint/ Myself a poorer prove

The Daily Own-of Love/ Depreciate the Vision-

Sweet Debt of Life-Each Night to owe/ - Insolvent-every Noon-

Passion and ardour, powerful at night, cools and diminishes in the light of pedestrian day to day living.   The persona appears fatalistically resigned and stoically accepting of a dependant servile position in the hierarchical situation.

Religious overtones are limited to two nuanced words; “solemn” and “vision”.  These are undercut by language that is not only secular but also demotive and suggestive of variant readings. The juxtaposition of solemn with contract highlights the duality of the marriage vows – spiritual and legal.  A distinct possibility is that “Him” refers to God and Emily feels her unworthiness in serving him.  This is countered by other nuanced language.

Economic commodification  becomes obvious with terminology like took Himself, for Pay,  contract, Wealth, Purchaser, Depreciation, Merchant buy, cargo, Mutual Risk/Gain,  Debt and insolvency”  all point to a commercial transaction of a buyer for chattel or property. Even their love is portrayed in possessive terms of “And took Himself, for Pay,” and “The Daily Own-of Love”.   Her conjugal submission is nothing more than a debt to pay each night, but by noon a new Sisyphean1 debt becomes due.  However she is compensated by being with him.  Marriage has often been merely a commercial venture. When the passion fades , at least you have your creature comforts to enjoy.

1 Sisyphus  Ancient King of Corinth –Condemned in Tartarus to an eternity of rolling a boulder uphill then watching it roll back down again. Next day Sisyphus had to repeat his ordeal.

The choice of “ratified” lends a political dimension to the marriage ceremony.

Some analysts have found parallels between marriage and slavery. While these are possible, I feel they are tenuous and unsustainable.  While the wife’s surrender may be equated to the servility of a slave, there appears little evidence of coercion in the poem.  On the contrary, the submission is consensual and mutual, “I gave myself to Him- And took Himself, for Pay,”   and later the dutiful consummation:

 At least-'tis Mutual-Risk-
Some-found it-Mutual Gain-
Sweet Debt of Life-Each Night to owe-

It is the oxymoron of “Sweet Debt” and the repetition of “Mutual” that suggests an ambivalence - hardly the plight of a slave’s relationship to their master even if it involves submissive s*x.   

Despite all their detrimental aspects, surrender, commitment and belonging have their compensations.  The s*xual act is one of abandonment of self to another in trust.  It can involve a degree of degradation or submission.  One of the euphemisms for adultery is that a couple were discovered “in a compromising position”.  If this submission is consensual, it can be edifying,  uplifting and humanising in an affirmation of the primal forces of life.  If this submission is imposed through coercion or force, it can have a degrading, demeaning and traumatising effect.

"Sexual pleasure in a woman is a kind of magic spell" according to Simone de Beauvoir, it commands complete abandon; if the moment opposes the magic of caresses the spell is broken."  

Nikki Gemmell continues:  "How easy it is to dissolve that spell.  The female path to organism is such a fragile, delicate one, so easily lost. Our organisms are shy little things to coax out, insisting on concentration and focus and then of course complete abandonment; such a tricky combination.  

As Alice Munro said,  "Sex seems to me all surrender - not the woman's to the man, but to the person - to the body."  It takes time to surrender; to enter the sacred, exhilarating zone when we're jolted into life, combusted into light.  The best sex involves a sense of connecting on the deepest level, with two people who are utterly in the moment.  

All good sex aids self-esteem for both parties.

Good experiences can enhance our self-esteem but exploitive, manipulative or coercive experiences can lead to self loathing.  Coming to accept our s*xuality can be the most humanising experience we encounter.

This poem is much more lucid than many of her other ones, but the richness of its meaning arises from the diction; the choice of loaded words which have multiple implications through word associations.  Like many of her other poems, there is an underlying tone of hunger or yearning for acceptance or belonging here. 

Dickinson displays an intimate neediness through blunt, direct self-expression – she enjoys her solitude, her individuality but reveals a suffocated sensitive feeler.  Inside there was a churning — a desire for acknowledgement if not acceptance.


[Go Back A Page] [Top Of Page]