Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 441
There are no easy answers in life. Unlike, for instance, Shakespeare's Sonnet 18, "Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day," which neatly ties up the question of mortality in its final couplet, Dickinson's poem is jagged and raw, ending on a note of profound uncertainty. The poem is ambiguous, its meaning eluding one's grasp, and at the end, it breaks off with a question, asking if a "husband"—be it "husband" as Christ or a physical mate—is the answer to life's problems. Her final line leaves us uncertain, without resolution: "Is this—the way?" The poem seems to presage the aching questions of post-World War I modernism. And yet by not offering easy answers, Dickinson invites us to join us in her doubts and inner explorations.
Religion and sexuality are connected. Dickinson leaves the reader uncertain as to whether she is discussing a religious experience, a sexual experience, or both, but there is no question from her language that she connects the two. If this poem primarily describes a religious experience, it is one cast in terms of marriage: Dickinson uses words such as "bride," "betrothed," "bridled," and "husband." "Garnet" was a popular engagement ring stone in the nineteenth century, and "gold" would suggest wedding bands. Conversely, if this a poem about sex/marriage, it is cast in religious terms: "divine," "God," and "Empress of Calvary" are all terms with strong spiritual associations. Dickinson makes no clear distinction between the carnal and spiritual realms, leaving us as readers to ponder the connection. The implication is that spiritual and sexual experiences in their purity are ecstatic/intense (indicated by exclamation points), while the institutional manifestations of the two raise doubts in the speaker's mind. For instance, marriage being "bridled"—a term itself that suggests a horse being bridled or tamed and master—is juxtaposed to the word "shrouded," meaning dead.
Pain and joy are connected. Both pain and joy are implied in the opening lines. What we can be sure of, from the series of exclamation points, is that the speaker experiences deep emotions, but the imagery suggests these emotions combine conflicting feelings: "title divine" would appear ecstatic, but this is undercut by "Empress of Calvary." Calvary is the place of torture and pain where Christ was crucified. "Title divine" and "Empress of Calvary" are linked by the ambiguous words "Acute degree"—of what? Pain, joy, both? Further, the triad of birth, marriage, and death are described as a "Tri-Victory," a term that may or may not be ironic, given the speaker's uncertainty that marriage is the way. Dickinson connects pain and joy but leaves us to work out the implications.