Emily Dickinson, “Color – Caste – Denomination” (970)

Color – Caste – Denomination (970)
Emily Dickinson

Color — Caste — Denomination —
These — are Time’s Affair —
Death’s diviner Classifying
Does not know they are —

As in sleep — All Hue forgotten —
Tenets — put behind —
Death’s large — Democratic fingers
Rub away the Brand —

If Circassian — He is careless —
If He put away
Chrysalis of Blonde — or Umber —
Equal Butterfly —

They emerge from His Obscuring —
What Death — knows so well —
Our minuter intuitions —
Deem unplausible —


Saw “Death’s large – Democratic fingers,” chuckled, said to myself I’m writing on this. I’m going to take this stanza by stanza strictly because I don’t know where it’s going yet.

So the first stanza starts simply enough. Racial, social/technical and religious distinctions are merely “Time’s Affair.” Which is a backhanded way of asserting their awful strength: we have to deal with these things, after all. In the face of death, they’re meaningless, but the speaker doesn’t say “death.” She says “Death’s diviner Classifying / does not know they are.” What is “Death’s diviner Classifying?” And what does it mean for such a thing to “know” our classifications?

“Death’s diviner Classifying” may have something to do with how we “divine” death. “As in sleep” brings up this question: who exactly is making the comparison? We’re the ones who think that just as hues are forgotten in sleep, death does not care about color. Similarly, we wonder if death will throw all our tenets aside as it establishes the ultimate democracy. Things burned into us don’t matter six feet under.

There’s hint of a critique that involves something like religion by second stanza’s end. We think we know death. We have our tenets and believe we have been tried by fire. But what we really have is a jumble of contradictions. Death is absolute in our minds and destroys our individuality and classification, except when it doesn’t. There are beliefs and assumptions we’re holding on to. At times, we’re even using the general idea of death to lay waste to other beliefs and assumptions while still clinging on to our own ideas, the only thing we feel we have in life. The “equality” of the first stanza is a joke; you can’t dissolve all distinctions among mankind by saying “we’re all going to die.” But the poem is going to move away from this theme somewhat and let us figure out mutual respect for each other on our own.

The third stanza talks about how “Death’s diviner Classifying” is careless of growth and change. It pays no heed to “Circassian,” things from the Caucasus – exotic and to be wondered at. The word refers to tulips. It’s like our assumptions about death “put away” a cocoon, completely ignoring what it can produce. We’re busy obscuring everything with “it’s all for naught,” yet change is happening right in front of us. The really interesting thought by Dickinson is the suggestion that our ignorance is causal (“obscuring”). On the one hand, this could be read cynically. I’ve always wanted to go to a certain group of people and say “I’m no genius, it’s just that you’re all idiots.” Similarly, an “equal butterfly” emerges from the darkness. Butterflies are equal, but we don’t really know that. Our focus has been on something else entirely.

On the other hand, Dickinson started two lines of the third stanza with “if.” Our ignorance causes us to do certain things that don’t merely reverberate later. When contradicted, they force us to see life and beauty, they force us to see nature. The case that we’re wrong is not just right in front of us: we caused it, too. We purposely ignored the tulips and shelved the cocoon. The tulips were dismissed as of a foreign land, the cocoon itself suggests that our obscuring things hid some kind of truth from us.

What does Death know well? Our minds gravitate toward “certainty,” but that describes death for us. What Death itself really knows is change. It knows life. This is what we’re rebelling against (“our minuter intuitions”) in assuming we know Death simply. We don’t like admitting that we change on terms not our own. Going back to the issue of equality at the beginning of the poem, we find that some small part of us doesn’t like that our consciences develop as time goes on.

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