Color Caste Denomination Analysis: The Inequalities We Create.

cover image for color caste denomination analysis

Emily Dickinson is known for injecting complex ideas, philosophies, and views wrapped around with a beautiful, velvety layer of poetry. Color Caste Denomination is one such poem that delivers so much of her philosophical beliefs in meters and patterns that does not resemble a poem, yet it feels like a beautiful one. This is the analysis of Color Caste Denomination, to further explore the intricacies of a poem that has a timeless lesson.

Most of the poems that Dickinson wrote were never meant to be published. Hence, she never bothered about the rules and practices of authors and poets who title their work. So like with most of her poems, the name comes from the first line of the first stanza. Here’s the poem for reference:

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

This article will look into the analysis of Color Caste Denomination along with its meaning, literary devices used, the structure of the poem, etc. But let’s not limit it into that, let’s dive deeper. 

What was Emily Dickinson’s views regarding the increased variation in the inhabitants of the US in her time? As she explains in the poem, shattering the malady of discrimination, birthed by the human mind, what opinions did she have regarding the racial diversification of the country? Let’s find out. 

Color Caste Denomination analysis

Color – Caste – Denomination –

These – are Time’s Affair –

Death’s diviner Classifying

Does not know they are –

The four lines of the first stanza are establishing the roles of two forces of life; one that begins life and the other that ends it. The poet says that the ideas of color, caste, religion, race, politics, etc are all time’s creation. They only are valid until the human time is valid. 

Death has a diviner, purer and egalitarian method of classifying. Death does not even know what time’s criteria are.

As in sleep – all Hue forgotten –

Tenets – put behind –

Death’s large – Democratic fingers

Rub away the Brand –

Sleep has been used here as a reminder of death. Sleep is like an “almost death” where we’re unable to do anything. The sense of time is lost, the presence of anything human-made fades away. We travel into some unknown darkness, coming back to life as we wake, with a vague memory of what happened before.

This stanza tells how sleep gives a similar experience of forgetting all the tenets and concepts time teaches. The line that divides everyone into multiple domains vanishes. 

The first line is about forgetting the hue, or the color. The division based on color is removed. Tenets represent our denomination. The things taught to use by religion and culture. The tenets that we hold so closely and firmly. All lost in sleep and eventually, in death

Democratic fingers represent death’s ability to remove the division of caste and creed. It is an egalitarian selector, the highest and purest form of democracy. So death rubs of the brand, or your acquired identity, given, accepted, or earned.

If Circassian – He is careless –

If He put away

Chrysalis of Blonde – or Umber –

Equal Butterfly –

This stanza sees the explicit personification of death. Dickinson refers to death as him, as most people do for God.  The Circassian here refers to the people of Circassia who were the victim of genocide. 

The Circassian genocide was executed by the Russians, who invaded their lands. This was a part of their “ethnic cleansing” so the division created by humans is the reason for the deaths.
The Circassian genocide started in 1864 when Dickinson was 34 years old. This must-have left a deep impact on her mindset and compelled her to write this poem.

The last two lines are of crucial importance. Chrysalis of Blonde or Umber – Equal Butterfly. To death, the colored cover that is alive just because of what’s inside does not hold any importance. It is the butterfly inside the cocoon that Death is concerned about. 

This refers to our body with varied colors. Be it blond or brown, black or red, inside of everybody is an equal butterfly. The soul of everyone’s the same, it is the body that makes us different. And Death is concerned about the soul, the body is Time’s affair.

They emerge from His Obscuring –

What Death – knows so well –

Our minuter intuitions –

Deem unplausible

The soul is what death looks at, every other form of distinctions made by humans is implausible. The division of humans based on these ephemeral, insignificant factors fails to convince death that they are important. 

The broader distinction that death knows is that humans have two parts; a chrysalis or the human body and the butterfly, which is the human soul. That is all death sees.

The minute intuitions that we have, our sense of placing people in different categories based on race, religion, etc is insignificant for death. 

cluster of dots of different color representing crowd of people belonging to difference races
Colored Crowd by Wordsrum

The meaning of Color Caste Denomination 

The poem’s overall meaning can be understood with just one, quick read. The title gives the theme of the poem. Color Caste Denomination is the three common criteria of division. These are the three sections where we categorize people. And Dickinson says how frail and phantasmic this concept is. 

The poem presents a contrast between what we, as a society, use to classify people and what death uses. In the poem, “we” have been shown in the form of time or culture and ideas. Death has been personified whose methods of classifying is far more diviner than times. 

The ideas and philosophies that Emily has presented do not vary too much, meaning that the poem talks about one central idea with very minimal deviation from it.

With further analysis, one could say that this poem is about the difference in perception of life and death. When humans live, we create these imaginary divisions fueled by culture and society and put people in it. Everything changes with death. 

When death’s looming, democratic finger takes us, it does not care for which class, creed, religion, or color of skin the person has. What death looks at is the soul and if someone wears a soul inside their body, It will come and take it.

Another contrast that has been drawn here is the preference of the two driving forces of classifiers. Time. or being alive takes the human body and its physical qualities. The whole segregation is based on the color of the body, the familial connection of the body, and the belief the body’s owner has about its maker. 

The end of time or death is a concern about what’s inside the body, uncaring about the cover that holds it. Death comes to take the soul and the soul is not divided on any such basis. It serves equally to all, regardless of the color, caste, or religion. 

Literary devices used in Color Caste Denomination 

Emily Dickinson is known for having her poetry writing style. This poem is no different. Let’s take a look at the literary devices used here. 

Personification: With lines such as Death’s large – Democratic fingers, What Death – knows so well – They emerge from His Obscuring -, it is clear that death has been personified, made to look like a person whose job is to classify humans based on their souls. 

Metaphors: Metaphors are said to be one of the most powerful tools of poets. For those who don’t know, metaphors are ways of describing someone by drawing a parallel between something unrelated. So if I said “Joe fretted here and there like a clock’s pendulum”, it is a metaphor.

Examples of metaphors used in this poem include this entire second stanza;

As in sleep – all Hue forgotten –

Tenets – put behind –

Death’s large – Democratic fingers

Rub away the Brand –

Other examples include “Chrysalis of Blonde – or Umber – Equal Butterfly -” which is used to represent body and soul.

Alliteration: Alliteration is the repetition of the first consonant of the word (or the sound) adjacently or with a short gap. A green garden that looks great is an example of alliteration. 

Dickinson’s decision of using alliteration is questionable because it does not look like she deliberately put it there. But looking at the structure and rhyming scheme, she did not bother much about the formalities of writing poetry. 

Some examples are These – are Time’s Affair –, Death’s diviner Classifying, Death’s large – Democratic fingers. 

More on Emily Dickinson:

The structure and rhyming

The uses of pauses and dashes are the idiosyncratic style of Emily Dickinson. All of her poems were written with no purpose in publishing them. So her disregard for the rules of publishable poetry and her tendency for expressing herself purely is evident in her poems’ structure.

One thing you’ll notice in this poem is there is no rhyming pattern. Nothing rhymes, and yet it is a beautiful poem. The poem’s meaning outweighs its structure.

There is no reason for this disarray. The poem is just a written form of Dickinson’s thoughts, like a diary page of a girl. Only the girl is one of the most proficient poets of all time. It’s just Emily writing her thoughts in her poetry collection. But what about her personal views? There are some controversies regarding her take on immigrants and blacks. Let’s take a look. 

Another thing you’ll notice is the capitalization of few words. Dickinson and many other poets have used this way of capitalizing some words to add heft to them. Death, Democratic, Caste, Time, Affair, etc are all capitalized to show their importance in the context of the poem. These aren’t just mere words that represent what they mean, there is a metaphorical element in them.

Emily Dickinson’s views on immigrants

The Irish immigration in the United States raised a few eye-brows, especially of the Protestant Christian, which Dickinson was. She was also very vocal about her religious belief. So, what did Dickinson think about these immigrants? Take a look:

 . . Vinnie and I say masses for poor Irish boys souls. So far as I am concerned I should like to have you kill some ̶ there are so many now, there is no room for Americans,… 

– Emily Dickinson

This was written for her brother Austin and in no way, I am projecting it as something to be taken on face value. This was said jokingly. But I have seen papers where these comments (this was the only comment by her with the strongest antipathy). You can read more about her antipathy here.

My goal is not to do a character sketch about Dickinson or her personal life and views. It is evident from her biography that the arrival of an Irish maid in her home changed her view about Irish people. What the topic of this article and the point I am trying to make is there should not be any correlation between her comments taken from a thin slice of her lifetime and her poetry. 

Color Caste and Denomination is about the distinction humans make based on arbitrary qualities. Death is an equalizer for all and does not look at the skin color or which God you pray to; it comes for all. This is what Dickinson wanted to convey with her poetry. Connecting it with her views extracted from one or two personal comments and saying that she was a hypocrite for writing such poems is wrong in so many senses. 

This poem is not about the divisions created by people, although that point is in the poem. The theme of the poem is about the distinction between life and death. How time has different measures of evaluating people, being preferential for some, not for others.

Death does not discriminate. It takes everyone. Irrespective of what Dickinson thought, the cruelties of these man-made distinctions or labeling these distinctions wrong was not her motive. In summary, Color Caste Denomination is about the division of humans on the basis of either the soul or minor differences either created or only perceived by humans. Death just looks for a soul, nothing else at all.

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