How does Emily Dickinson portray the body and soul in 'I'm afraid to own a Body -' (1090)?

Dickinson recurrently uses property and material spaces as metaphors for the body to frame the societal pressures that women faced, effectively transmuting the body into ownable and controllable property. We see this transformation enacted through the alliteration of the third and fourth lines of (1090), Dickinson reverses the transition from “body” to “soul” in the first two lines and proceeds to portray the instability of the female ownership of a body and soul. Beginning with “Profound”, the most intangible term of the alliterated P’s, she repeatedly alliterates with words that have progressively more tangible and material associations. “Profound” is destabilised by the medial caesura dash and the word “precarious”, which is immediately followed by “Property”, portraying the instability of the immaterial soul in relation to the material body. “precarious” in this usage enacts its definition, it is itself destabilising the spirit. The word “precarious” is uncapitalized in comparison with “Profound” and “Property” which provides support for the idea that the “Profound” and “Property” are symbolic representatives of the soul and body respectively. If we read the external body as the “precarious Property” - which contains no partitions of punctuation allowing the reader to group it into a single unit – the body is the “precarious Property” and therefore plays an integral role in the soul’s destabilisation.
Describing the body as a “precarious Property” is multi-layered in ostensible meaning, the word “Property” confluently applies to both the individual’s ownership of their own body whilst simultaneously alluding to a body being owned as another individual’s property. This anxiety regarding the ownership of the body continues through the next line, Dickinson includes a terminal caesura in “Property-“, separating it from “Possession” which is reminiscent of the speaker’s associative afterthought. The transition in connotation from “Property-“to “Possession” provides a diminution between the terms and a distinction between the more plural implications of “Property” and the typically singular “Possession”. Dickinson is ostensibly alluding to women and their bodies on a macroscopic scale being the universal property of the patriarchal society. Conversely on a microscopic scale, the “possession” of a single woman by a single husband or father. Dickinson breaks the chain from immaterial to material with the “not”, which sharply contrasts the alliterative flow of before with a negative preposition followed by “optional”. The use of “optional” is particularly interesting to conclude the alliterative lines as it also contains a “P”. The alliteration has transitioned from the original “Profound” (immaterial spirit), to “Property” and “Possession” (material body), until the “P” is been entirely encapsulated within the uncapitalized “optional-“. Dickinson has slowly disempowered the “Profound[ness]” of the soul, devaluing its relationship with the body by transforming it into ownable property. She enacts this relationship as she breaks the alliterative chain with “not optional-“; the word entirely swallows the aforementioned alliterative “P” in a term that’s definition characterises the absolute lack of choice that women have over the bodies. The lack of capitalisation also indicates the lack of power that women have in comparison to men, the profound “P”, is impotent and inevitably smothered. The soul is imprisoned in the female body and is thus ownable and controllable by its patriarchal oppressors, explaining the double anxiety over body and soul ownership at the beginning of the poem. 

Answered by William B. English tutor


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