In "What Soft Cherubic Creatures," what is the idea Emily Dickinson attempts to address and how does she convey this idea?

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Helen Vendler, in a splendid commentary on Emily Dickinson’s poem “What Soft—Cherubic Creatures—” (see link below), has explained the poem's basic premises.  The speaker is in the company of conventional, upper-class women of the nineteenth century. Such refined, sophisticated, cultivated, and pampered women would be ashamed of anything lowly, common, or exposed to the elements (“freckled”). They would therefore be ashamed even of Jesus (the “Deity”), who, after all, spent his time mostly outside, in the company of the lowly and the common. Such women would regard Christ as too “common” (after all, he spent time with fishermen). By the end of the poem the speaker hopes (or perhaps warns) that

Redemption—Brittle Lady— [may]

Be so [perhaps meaning "equally"] —ashamed of Thee—

How does Dickinson use the phrasing of her poem to convey this “message”?

Line 1 at first might be read as complimentary; we might even for a moment assume that the speaker is referring to real or at least imaginary angels. Only by the end of the poem do we realize the irony of the opening line: genuine angels are totally devoted to God, but these “Cherubic Creatures” are mostly devoted to themselves. They are “Creatures” in the sense that they were made by God, even if they are somewhat ashamed of the God who made them.

Line 2 makes clear that the “Creatures” are in fact “Gentlewomen” – that is, women who define themselves (and are defined) less by real gentleness than by their social status. In lines 3-4, the tone of the poem becomes almost comic (although with a latent hint of a desire to harm these women). Yet assaulting or violating these women would be like attacking a pillow (“a Plush”) or attempting to attack a lofty, bright “Star.”

The middle stanza mocks the “Dimity” (cotton fabric, according to Vendler) “Convictions” (principles) of these women, implying that their principles are as thin and weak as cotton. These women are so refined that they are horrified “Of freckled Human Nature,” a line which can refer to people whose skin is damaged by the sun but also to the stained, sinful nature of all human beings (at least according to standard Christian theology). Jesus, of course, had no horror of people who worked in the sun, nor did he have any horror of sinful people, even though he himself was sinless. Instead, he sought out sinners (as these women would never do).

Ironically, of course, these women are “freckled” by the sin of pride. They are so proud of their own social status that they are almost “ashamed” of the “Deity” who came to save them and spent time with common folk and very sinful people in order to redeem mankind. Paradoxically, it is these women themselves who should be “ashamed” of their own pride and condescension.

The first two lines of the final stanzas seem to be spoken, disdainfully, by one of the women. It is as if she can’t bring herself to fully acknowledge or embrace the idea that the Son of God was so dreadfully “common” and that he earned his “Degree” (his full religious status) by associating with the likes of fishermen.  Of course, he was indeed a “fisher of men,” so the language here is especially ironic. The lady is “Brittle” – hard, inflexible, but also easily broken.  The last line implies that people such as she, by being ashamed of God, may find God ultimately ashamed of them, with potentially dire consequences.