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On 508 ("I’m Ceded–I’ve Stopped Being Theirs") Essay, Research Paper

Adrienne Rich

Now, this poem partakes of the imagery of being

"twice-born" or, in Christian liturgy, "confirmed"–and if this poem

had been written by Christina Rossetti I would be inclined to give more weight to a

theological reading. But it was written by Emily Dickinson, who used the Christian

metaphor far more than she let it use her. This is a poem of great pride–not

pridefulness, but self-confirmation–and it is curious how little Dickinson’s

critics, perhaps misled by her diminutives, have recognized the will and pride in her

poetry. It is a poem of movement from childhood to womanhood, of transcending the

patriarchal condition of bearing her father’s name and "crowing–on my Father’s

breast–." She is now a conscious Queen "Adequate—Erect/ With Will to

choose, or to reject–."

From "Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson," reprinted in On

Lies, Secrets, and Silences (W.W. Norton, 1979)

Albert Gelpi

Poem 508, probably composed a year or so before "My life had stood–a Loaded

Gun–," describes her psychological metamorphosis in terms of two baptisms which

conferred name and identity: the first the sacramental baptism in the patriarchal church

when she was an unknowing and helpless baby; the second a self-baptism into areas of

personality conventionally associated with the masculine, an act of choice and will

undertaken in full consciousness, or, perhaps more accurately, into full consciousness.

Since Emily Dickinson was not a member of the church and had never been baptized as child

or adult, the baptism is a metaphor for marking stages and transitions in self-awareness

and identity. The poem is not a love poem or a religious poem, as its first editors

thought in 1890, but a poem of sexual or psychological politics enacted in the

convolutions of the psyche. . . .

From "Emily Dickinson and the Deerslayer: The Dilemma of the Woman poet in

America." In Shakespeare’s Sisters: Feminist Essays on Women Poets.

Copyright ? 1979 by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar.

Jane Donahue Eberwein

. . . the speaker disavows her infant baptism and the identity conferred with it and

then asserts another baptism enacted by and for herself. Baptism in New England Puritan

churches and their successors served as a child’s introduction to the community and as the

seal of God’s covenant with the saints. Although not conferring full church membership

(dependent upon conversion and certified by eucharistic participation), it indicated the

community’s expectation that God intended the child’s salvation. The baptized child and

young adult could pursue salvation hopefully. Yet full grace was wanting. This speaker has

experienced a narrow "Crescent" or empty "Arc" rather than a complete

circle of faith. Now, as an adult, she rejects the identity imposed on her by other

people’s choices. Perhaps she senses the frustration of those earlier covenantal hopes and

thinks of the sacramental ritual as simply another empty game by which as a child she

experimented with roles she never got to play as an adult. The dolls that she mentions

were given, after all, in anticipation of eventual mothering responsibility; yet Dickinson

never raised a child. And the string of spools prepared little hands either for manual

labor like that performed by women in New England factories (and that Dickinson never for

a moment considered) or for the fancy needlework she apparently despised. She has simply

not matured into the stereotyped woman she assumes her family had anticipated, and she

rejects her baptismal identity as a sign of those false expectations. But ritual

confirmation of the sacredness of her new identity still captures her imagination, so she

conducts her own adult baptism to seal a different sort of election–her own choice of

self-image and its symbol. Not surprisingly, the symbol she chooses is a circular one

indicative of status and plenitude. Instead of the skimpy arc or crescent, she will have a

diadem–a crown. No longer a potential part of someone else’s circle, she draws her own


From Dickinson: Strategies of Limitation. (University of Massachusetts Press,

1985.) Copyright ? 1985 by The University of Massachusetts Press.

Diane Gabrielson Scholl

While such poems as "I’m ceded — I’ve stopped being Their’s –

" (508) use biblical types and language obliquely, they lack a center in a specified

referent or experience, such as a recognizable religious rite; the effect of such poems is

to dramatize and enhance the speaker’s progress toward an exalted status that, while also

contingent on the biblical backdrop, threatens to supersede it:

I’m ceded — I’ve stopped being Their’s —

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 —

Here the speaker describes a transfiguring experience, in some ways

related to her baptism as an infant, yet not precisely a

second baptism. She makes it clear that she is done with the water "in the country

church" and with other tokens of her

childhood. "Baptized, before, without the choice," she undergoes a figurative

baptism this time, "consciously, of Grace — ," in a

transformation of identity that appears to have cosmic significance: "Called to my

Full — The Crescent dropped — / Existence’s

whole Arc, filled up, / With one small Diadem." Her reference to a woman’s diminutive

adornment is clearly ironic in view of the

magnitude of the change described.

The poem contains an implicit contradiction. At first the speaker acknowledges that

"I’m ceded — ," suggesting that she has

been surrendered to a higher authority than the elders who officiated at her baptism. Her

choice of such a word implies her

powerlessness and withdrawal from action, but as the poem moves toward her acquisition of

the "Diadem" and her "second

Rank," she gains in stature and authority. Eventually she makes it clear that her

"Will to choose, or to reject" is the significant

agent in her gaining of a crown. Dickinson uses an association implicit in the Christian

rite of baptism and nearly lets it

overshadow the traditional doctrinal implications of that sacrament: "Baptism was, on

Biblical authority, associated with royalty; Peter conveyed the efficacy of baptismal

unction when he addressed those newly converted as a ‘chosen generation, a royal

priesthood’ (I Peter 2:9)" (Lease 43).

Certainly, one reason that readers have difficulty identifying in concrete terms the

experience recorded here is the lack of

other principals in the drama the speaker relates. After the first stanza any figures

outside the speaker’s consciousness recede,

except for her retrospective reference to her "Father’s breast — ." The poem

might describe a young girl’s conversion to

Calvinist orthodoxy, her acquisition of adult membership in the Church, but in that case

it is singularly lacking any references to

Christ. Like several of Dickinson’s poems, notably "A Wife — at Daybreak I shall be

– " (461), "I’m ceded — " can be

interpreted as descriptive of a "heavenly marriage" in the biblical sense, the

speaker taking the part of the Church as "Bride of

Christ," in the antitypical fulfillment of the type of the Bride from the Canticles;

but in that case the Bridegroom is inexplicably


In fact, the speaker in the poem, though clearly female, most resembles Christ in her

relinquishment of past earthly ties and in

the magnitude and enormity of her choice. Once a "half unconscious Queen — ,"

she is now fully Queen, "Adequate — Erect, /

With Will to choose, or to reject." The speaker’s passive posture as recipient of the

baptismal rite in the first stanza gives way

to her new resplendent self, radiant in transfiguration.

from "From Aaron "Drest" to Dickinson’s "Queen":

Protestant Typology in Herbert and Dickinson" Emily Dickinson Journal Vol

III.1 (1996). Online source: http://www.colorado.edu/EDIS/journal/articles/III.1.Scholl.html

Mary E. Galvin

In "I’m ceded—I’ve stopped being Theirs—" Dickinson makes

an explicit rejection of one of the initiation rituals of patriarchal religion, that is,

baptism. The power of this institution’s control over language and identity is

acknowledged in her specific rejection of "The name They dropped upon my face."

In a typical Dickinsonian move, however, she builds a syntactical ambiguity into the

stanza with the fourth line: "Is finished using, now." Are we to read it as she

is finished using the name now? Or that it (the name) is finished using her now? In

either case, use of the name is done with now, but the ambiguity of agent/object in the

line creates a complexity rich in implications, by the simple omission of a pronoun. For

Dickinson, such clear-cut binary distinctions need to be problematized. Tellingly, her

rejection of the religious rite and its power to name is juxtaposed in this stanza with

her rejection of the female socialization process, indicated by the dolls of childhood and

the women’s work of threading spools. The three systems of social control are mutually

supportive, and Dickinson is well aware of the interconnections among the power of naming,

the dogma of traditional Christianity, and the social construction of


It is interesting to note the role that "They" play in this as well as in

other poems. Although Dickinson is using a seemingly ambiguous pronoun by not providing us

with a proper referent, it soon becomes very clear that "They" are her own

family members. "They" are the ones who name her and have control over the

things of her childhood. The most significant part of her relationship to "Them"

in terms of sexual politics, however, is that "They" have tried to own her, and

it is this possessive power that is the first ground of her rejection: "I’ve stopped

being Theirs—." This resistance implies, again by the use of a political term

(ceded), the definitively political nature of this rejection. Even as we can deduce that

in this poem "They" represent the people who would have the most immediate

control over her life, her family members, the ambiguity of the pronoun serves a further

purpose. In colloquial terms, "They" is often used to represent the power

structures of society itself. "They" are the legislators of life, the unseen yet

fully felt powers that institute an oppressive ideology. It is a given that Dickinson

would have experienced "Their" interdiction even if she had left her close

family circle, whether "They" took the form of a husband, lover, minister,

politician, or editor. In short, "They," when taken as the agents of sexual and

linguistic oppression, are everywhere in the world at large, and the only space where

"They" can be denied the right of occupation is within Dickinson’s own mind.

Throughout the second and third stanzas here, the issue of choice becomes central to

the poem. Denied choice in the original baptism, she is now asserting her own power and

right to choose. As in 613, "They shut me up in Prose—," it is "With

Will to choose, or to reject," that she will overcome the control "They"

have imposed on her being. Now conscious of her ability to choose, Dickinson will choose

the "supremest name," that of a poet, enabled to name herself. In this choice

she is "Called to my Full—" and although the phrasing here is incomplete

(full what? potential? being? name?), it is clear that her choice gives her a sense of

plenitude. Yet this plenitude is marked by irony. For it is the crescent moon, the Arc of

Existence, the incomplete whole that can be "filled up." The sense of plenitude

that Dickinson conveys here is not based on completion and closure, but is born out of

incompletion, potentiality, a sense of plenitude as an ongoing process, as amplitude.

Defiantly crowned and crowing from her "Father’s breast—," literally,

the "heart" of patriarchy and its religious dictates, she will (consciously)

choose to be "A half unconscious Queen—." The oxymoron implied here

indicates to some degree the complexity of Dickinson’s vision. For

consciousness—awareness of her power to choose—involves also an awareness of the

unconscious, and its power to inform both life choices and the powers of poetic vision. If

a poet refuses to acknowledge the power of the unconscious in her life, she will cut

herself off from one of the most important sources of poetic knowledge. It is with this

both/and vision, of living in the space between and beyond the dichotomous distinction

conscious/unconscious without deeming these two states to be mutually exclusive, that she

has full power. In an appropriation of sexual imagery of mate power, she names herself as

"Adequate—Erect," even as she chooses the "Crown" of a

"Queen," a decidedly female image. By blending the genders implied by these

words of power, Dickinson is subverting the distinctions between genders, a move that is

relevant to her choice to be a woman poet. In choosing such a crown, she is choosing her

own laurels, the crown of a poet, once again empowered only by her "Will to choose,

or to reject." In choosing to be such a Queen, she will maintain power over herself

with a self-given name and role, not one bestowed on her by others.

In a final ironic twist to this poem, Dickinson again selects a strange locution to

represent her choice. The last line ends with a dash, implying an indeterminate outcome.

But the phrase preceding this "final" dash "just a Crown—"

creates an indeterminacy of meaning. Does "just" mean "such," as in

"just the crown such as I’ve been discussing?" Or does she mean

"only," as in "I could have chosen a role even more powerful than that of

poet/Queen, but in all my modesty, I will limit myself to choosing ‘just a Crown?"’

True to her strategy of slanting the truth even as she tells it, Dickinson’s line can

sustain either interpretation.

from Queer Poetics: Five Modernist Women Writers. Westport, Conn.: Praeger,

1999. Copyright ? 1999 by Mary C. Galvin

Paul Crumbley

The child speaking in these poems triggers a retroactive appreciation for the limitless

centrifugal potential of prevocal language so frequently at odds with the stabilizing

language of the adult—that voice whose authority depends on conformity within the

social order. The child, not yet constrained by history or identity, defines for the

reader a space within which language and the speaking subject articulate a potential never

fully realized but most evident just prior to the subject’s entering history. For an

instant, the child speaks the language of pure potential. To hear this voice, we must

listen for unencumbered utterances.

Wolff’s comments are again useful in clarifying the proximity of voices that "are

not always entirely distinct from one another: the child’s [v]oice that opens a poem may

yield to the [v]oice of a young woman . . . the diction of the housewife may be conflated

with the sovereign language of the New Jerusalem . . . " (178). Thus, even in a poem

like "I’m ceded—I’ve stopped / being Their’s—" (P 508, MBED

363-64), in which the speaker is determined to sever all bonds to childhood, the advance

into adulthood is not clear. What we see instead is the hierarchic, rule- bound adult

consciousness opposed to the child’s assumption of supreme authority. Dickinson shows us

the tension that complicates and binds these very different discourses as a means of

challenging the notion that the child is subsumed by the adult. Within her formulation,

abstract social codes and the artificial demarcations of class and age are all adult means

of confining the child’s limitlessness. . . . Because the speaker retroactively recalls an

authority she surrendered unknowingly, we can hear the voice of that earlier authority in

her present determination.

When the speaker puts her dolls behind her and proposes for herself a new baptism

("But this time, consciously, / of Grace—"), she founds her achievement on

a historically based perception of self—all sense of accomplishment depends on the

perception that change is possible only if she clings to what she has been in the past

instead of becoming what she hopes to be. Her insistence that there be a new baptism shows

her intent to improve upon what happened "before, without the / choice." The

poem reads as a prelude rather than an entrance into new consciousness; the last line

suggests a state about to be entered and not a presence already achieved. The speaker sees

herself as having been a "half] too unconscious Queen / But this time" things

will be different, this time she possesses the "Will to choose . . . just a

Crown—." And here the poem leaves us: in a place somewhere between the child and

the adult. The speaker’s dismay at having been named and baptized without the knowledge

that she was subscribing to an external authority opens her mind to the infinity of her

experience as a child. An upward-pointing dash after "Crown" counters the

downward-pointing dash after "Queen" as a way of underscoring the speaker’s

overly simplistic belief that she can correct the error of her earlier

"unconscious" station.

Dickinson’s considerable use of visual effects like these dashes alerts readers to

the constructed nature of language that the speaker wades through in an effort to reassert

her independence. Through lineation, in particular, Dickinson further disrupts culturally

determined continuities already undermined by dashes. Separating "being Theirs"

from the first line magnifies the speaker’s detachment from her parents, a violation of

conventional notions of physical, emotional, and spiritual connectedness that is extended

to her face in line 4 and the church in line 6, and concludes with "Crown." The

collective impact of this fragmentation is first an increased awareness of the centrifugal

force that dismantles the ritual of baptism and second a heightened sense of the speaker’s

struggle to make the now disassembled ritual come together and serve her ends.

The first stanza concludes with a powerful visual comment on the unraveling of logic

that is extended through the second stanza and countered in the third. Dashes that frame

"too" at the end of line 12 combine with the misplaced horizontal cross of the

manuscript "t" to effectively reduce the symbolic coherence necessary to see

"too" as a word and not as a meaningless duster of marks (see fig. 3, page 48).

We "read" the word as a cartoon enactment of the speaker’s determination to

cease her "threading" of adult logic; now she will take advantage of her power

to act as she believes adults do by making symbols serve her authority.

This illustration of the way readers must consent to symbolic meaning by making raw

data conform to anticipated patterns sets the tone for the next stanza’s interrogation of

the highly symbolic ritual of baptism. When Dickinson situates three crosses in the spaces

between lines 18 and 20 and then writes in the word "Eye" on line 19, she seems

to be commenting on the way readers actively exercise their eyes to gather all the

physical data that must be processed before discerning meaning. The combination of three

crosses simultaneously suggests a pun on "eye" and "I" that positions

the speaker among three crosses, as if her earlier baptism corresponded to Jesus’

mortification on Golgotha—a humbling experience over which she will ultimately

achieve Christlike triumph. Ironically, the poem so effectively demonstrates the

reader’s role in the construction of meaning that it erodes the speaker’s efforts to

turn ritual authority to her own ends. Though she may not be conscious of what she has

done, her deconstruction of baptism has emptied it of the very power she wishes to employ.

By introducing a speaker who rejects a known past and is about to enter an imagined but

undefined future, the poem establishes a link connecting past and future at the instant

that the speaker’s anticipation of change is greatest. Thanks to visual signals and the

disjunctive power of dashes, we see the speaker’s entrapment in circular reasoning, where

all she imagines of a more liberated future—a future in which she has "stopped /

being Their’s"—is what she has learned from adults. As readers, we see more than

she does: that in order to achieve her aim of discarding all that she now finds burdensome

and oppressive, she must step outside of herself, creating what Kristeva describes as

"an area of chance" that makes possible the discovery of a new semantic and

ideological self: "a localized chance as condition of objective understanding, a

chance to be uncovered in the relationship of the subject of metalanguage to the writing

under study, and/or to the semantic and ideological means of constitution of the

subject" (Desire 98). We contribute to the makeup of this "area" by

reading the poem’s visual commentary on meaning construction and setting it in dialogue

with the expectations we attribute to the speaker.

This participation in the speaker’s desire for change increases our awareness of a

primary instability that de-centers the subject. Our activity as readers parallels that of

Dickinson who, as poet, reads what she has written and responds by creating new text based

on her experience as a reader of her own words. The visual signals built into the poem are

our clearest indication that she wants readers to participate with her on this level. If

the voice that emerges is allowed to register the many shifts in perspective that

inevitably occur as the writer grasps the implications of a particular stance or attitude,

the resulting poem is necessarily made up of many voices, not a single unified voice. As

the poem’s interplay of thought and perception proceeds, each voice is subjected to the

same destabilizing process, and each voice acquires new form as new choices occur to the

writer and the readers. The area of chance defined by the repeated rupturing of logical

sequence feeds a growing realization that the self is far greater than any linguistic

manifestation. In this sense, Dickinson’s child speaker surfaces through a voice that

dissipates once it enters language, making the child the least stab1e of all

Dickinson’s speakers. Listening to the child, therefore, is always a matter of

hearing a voice that mutates in the direction of adulthood even as it speaks. If we as

readers decide that the speaker who claims that she has already "ceded" in the

first line is the same speaker who is in the act of choosing in the last line, we do so as

a matter of choice, not because the poem commands such a reading.

In order to consider the broader dimensions of the poem, as readers we must consider

the poem’s overall coherence. At the outset we know only that the poem inhabits a space

created by the writer, the speaker, and the reader. As we read the poem in its entirety,

we notice shifts from present to past as the speaker aggressively denies the objects and

actions of her past and struggles to define a future she lacks the language to describe in

concrete terms. We can immediately see how concrete and abstract language correlate with

the speaker’s movement from past to present and future tenses. "They

dropped" water on her face in the past, but she is "ceded" now; she was

"Crowned—Crowing—on [her] / Father’s breast" before, but now she

is" Adequate— / Erect."

We can see also that the longest continuous syntactic units occur in the first stanza,

where the greatest attention is given to the past. Dickinson chooses not to use a period

that would close the door on the ordered and concrete past that has taken up so much of

the speaker’s life and dictated so much of the poem’s form. When in the second

stanza we are told that "Existence’s whole Arc" is now "filled up, /

With one small Diadem" we hear a voice mocking the linear progression of historically

grounded sentences. Following visual effects that assert the role of the "Eye"

(and "I") in constructing meaning, the speaker’s words communicate her refusal

to accept as sufficient a diminished perception of self and world: a "small

Diadem" fills "Existence’s whole Arc."

In the final stanza, the speaker dismisses the past, reducing all recollections to

impotent fragments no longer able to impose order on the poem’s form. The "Will

to choose" is finally "will" in the service of a speaker struggling to

assert her power "to choose, / or to reject" and who decides to "choose,

just a / Crown." We are left with a speaker who, by assuming the crown, claims

dominion over time and identity. The inconclusiveness of the last line, as signaled by the

disjunctive dash, reminds readers of the discrepancy between pure potential and the

certainty of limited existence. The poem shows us that the crown symbolizing the

speaker’s achievement of personal authority is incapable of fulfilling the

child’s expectations because its power depends on conformity within established

symbology. Situated at the threshold of a present that is about to unfold, the speaker

approximates as closely as possible the limitless potentiality that characterizes the

child. Our efforts to imagine the experience the speaker seeks to recapture take us back

through heteroglossia to the materiality that predates and surrounds even the most potent


"I’m ceded—I’ve stopped / being Their’s—", demonstrates that the

child’s voice must be thought of in dialogue with other voices. To hear the child is also

to hear the voices that instruct, curse, comfort, and punish an innocent, unformed

consciousness. These voices represent social discourses on parenting and religious belief,

for instance, that enter poems as verbal distillations of the environment readers must

interpret according to their understanding of prevailing conventions. Speaker, writer, and

reader construct meaning through a process of affirming or denying values perpetuated in

these discourses. Consequently, speakers define themselves in terms of voice properties

perceivable within the reader’s horizon of expectation. Because the child trusts adult

authority, the child articulates conventional social expectations in the baldest terms

imaginable and in this way informs the reader’s horizon.

from Inflections of the Pen: Dash and Voice in Emily Dickinson. Copyright ?

1997 by The University Press of Kentucky.

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