Emily Dickinson, “Embarrassment of one another” (662)

Embarrassment of one another (662)
Emily Dickinson

Embarrassment of one another
And God
Is Revelation’s limit,
Is nothing that is chief,
But still,
Divinity dwells under a seal.


1. Let’s start with the first three lines. “Revelation’s limit:” the limit both defines Revelation and irks it. Shame is necessary for piety; one (the?) problem of Socrates is that he is shameless. Shame comes from the orders we construct and recognize. “Embarrassment of one another” as defining Revelation makes some sense.

But “Embarrassment of… God?” I’m tempted to say “God” can substitute for the entire phrase “Embarrassment of one another” – in this case, God is a construct like piety, dependent on shame. That seems way too cynical for starting a poem, though it might be half-right when all is said and done. Better to say that there is some way we embarrass God – there certainly is. We don’t live morally or up to expectations and we feel guilt at failing higher purpose. This “irking” makes a Revelation known to us, a self-revelation.

2. That self-revelation displaces both our conventions and a conventional God. I don’t think it’s a coincidence “aloud” slant rhymes with “God” and stands central in the poem, alone. What is said and has been said publicly does not matter. This includes everything from declarations about the type of person we are (“who could do such a thing?”) to our own declarations about ourselves (“I can do better next time”). Something dwells underneath speech.

Is it nature? There are many thinkers who would say “divine nature,” but Dickinson is not one from what I’ve seen. Here, I think “nature” has already been dismissed in the first line. There are natural bonds (mixed with conventions) which might cause us to feel shame (i.e. family). The crucial thing is that we feel shame and it seems to be revealing something to us.

That’s an ultimate strangeness. One can’t quite articulate what shame is driving at. It feels like we’re wiser, but “divinity dwells under a seal.” We’ll rightfully shrug off any statements about what put us in this position or could remedy it, including our own statements. But that doesn’t give us access to any easy truth. One would have to know exactly who one was and how the universe worked and how one fit into it – yes, all three – to get certain, effective, immediately practical self-knowledge. What’s left in us might as well be sealed divinity. We’re going to have to make do with our speech, our loudness, and see what other revelations we get.

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