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Emily Dickinson's "Color – Caste – Denomination"

Emily Dickinson's poems remain a vital part of my poet worldview. They dramatize the human spirit via deep attention to life's details.

Emily Dickinson - circa age 17

Emily Dickinson - circa age 17

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 sex.

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 –

To view Emily Dickinson's hand-written copy of this poem, please visit the Emily Dickinson Archive.

Commentary

This speaker is demonstrating the futility of humanity’s self-classification 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 sex and/or sexual orientation.

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 sex. These "tenets" are abandoned and the sleeper, if he dreams, may dream himself a different race, class, religion, or sex, 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 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 sex. Death knows this, the speaker again emphasizes. Even the tiniest inference that the human mind makes regarding that futile act of classifying will remain "unplausible."

Sources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on November 13, 2018:

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.

Raj Lally Batala from Chicago ,USA on November 13, 2018:

great article

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