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Read against the earlier poems, it is clear that Dickinson meant "Title divine" to be about her mature identity as woman, an identity she assumed sometime in late 1861 or early 1862 and was apparently eager to share with Samuel Bowles. While she acknowledges that she has assumed this identity at real cost, it is also, as she underscores in the 1866 version of the poem sent to Sue, a "Tri Victory." For in becoming a "Wife--without the Sign" that is, a wife without an actual husband and therefore, also without the "swoon" or loss of self that real marriage involved--Dickinson had at last found the way out of the personal and social dilemma that had plagued her from adolescence on. In "marrying"-without-marrying the Master, she could, albeit by a sophistical twist, free herself permanently both from her social obligation to marry and from the childhood she had sought so long to escape. By becoming a bride, as it were, in perpetua, she remained woman on the point of transformation, a woman who had renounced both the life that had been, childhood, and the life that in her society was meant to be, marriage. And thus she achieved a new ontological status: woman-without-being-wife.

It is this definition of self as woman on the point of transformation or bride in perpetua which, I believe, became the basis for Dickinson's new poetic voice after 1861. It was a voice that obtained its power from the fact that the person behind it had experienced in her poetry, if not in her life, all the stages of a woman's life, from childhood through ecstasy and marriage to, finally, martyrdom and death. This person could, therefore, speak with all the authority that Dickinson's poetry had hitherto lacked. By using her poetry to become a bride in perpetua or "Wife--without the Sign," Dickinson was able to make her role as poet and her role as woman one. It was a piece of linguistic legerdemain to be sure, but for Dickinson it worked. If she could not be a woman in real life without marrying, then she could marry and be a real woman in her art. Symbol-maker that she was, for Dickinson this "Victory" was more than adequate. It gave her both the security and the freedom she required to explore the powers lodged within herself. She was a poet and a woman at last.

A number of different factors made becoming a "Wife--without the Sign" or bride in perpetua a perfect means to Dickinson's new status as woman poet or queen. To begin with, in the nineteenth century a woman's bridal was the mid-point between the two great, unalterable mysteries in her life: birth and death. Upon these three occasions, at birth (symbolized by baptism), at death, and when she got married, a woman wore white and approached most closely the "blameless mystery" of God. Insofar as a bride took a new name or "Title," she was moreover both dead and reborn during the ceremony, dying to her old life and baptized into her new one.

As the midpoint in a woman's life, the marriage ceremony was also, equally important, her apex or "Acute Degree," the moment conferred upon her by God when she experienced her greatest rapture or joy in living.

And it was the moment in which she was translated from one state of being into another, receiving not only a new name, but a new status, power, and identity.


From My Life a Loaded Gun: Dickinson, Plath, Rich, and Female Creativity. Copyright © 1986 by Paula Bennett. Reprinted with the permission of the author.