Poem 225: Sound and Society

Dickinson’s poem that is numbered 225 in the Franklin edition has always been a favorite of mine because of the interplay of sound. I think that the poem offers several possible readings  but one that fascinates me is the reading of the poem as an examination of the way class structures in the mid to late nineteenth century pressured many girls into marriage. The lines, ” This being comfort-then/that other kind-was pain-“(9-10) support this reading. The notion that becoming a “wife” would be “comfort” is influenced by the societal pressures and financial hardships that an unmarried woman would face during this time period. While Dickinson was lucky enough to be a member of a well-to-do family that afforded her the luxury of never marrying for necessity, her friendship with Sue and the pressures that Sue faced seems a likely inspiration for this poem.

This poem is arresting in the way that Dickinson uses language to capture the two worlds of this poem. The out of focus, softer world of girlhood and the sharp reality of being a “wife” and”woman”. The first two stanzas offer a startling contrast in sound. When Dickinson begins she can only refer to her past life as “…that/that other state-” the concentration of hard consonant sounds in these four words suggest a great deal of emotion but also suggest that this “state” is as cold, harsh, and resistant as the ‘t’ sounds hitting the reader’s eardrum. The use of the word “czar” to describe the speaker’s authority only enhances the grating effect of these sounds. The world is strong, monosyllabic, and cuts through the air with the ‘z’ sound. In juxtaposition to the second stanza these opening lines are unpleasant and jarring which seems to mirror the speaker’s attitude to her new life. In contrast the second stanza is brimming with soft vowel sounds like “odd”, “soft Eclipse” , and “folks”. The rounded ‘o’ sounds are soothing, and the consonants cluck and lisp rather than ending harshly. Dickinson undermines the speaker’s authority with her use of sounds in this way. While the speaker calls womanhood “comfort”, Dickinson characterizes it as harsh and cold in contrast with the softer, peacefulness of girlhood.