I don't understand the second stanza of I am afraid to own a Body— by Emily Dickinson.

Double Estate—entailed at pleasure
Upon an unsuspecting Heir—
Duke in a moment of Deathlessness
And God, for a Frontier.

My current understanding:

Women are born with a soul and a body that they own (Double Estate). Being brought to this world is not anybody's fault (unsuspecting Heir).

I have read this analysis of the poem, but it does not clear up the last two verses of Emily's writing to me.

To what duke and to what frontier does Emily refer here?

4 Answers 4


To make sense of the last lines, it might be proper to put them in thematic context of the first lines. This somewhat cryptic poem manages to succinctly weave together three different themes: women’s rights; slavery; and (in terms of Christian theology) the doctrine of man. Some external evidence would be the time period in which Dickinson lived (1830-1886) in which we have the parallel struggles of Abolition and the Women’s rights movement (and/or Women’s Suffrage) couched in the predominantly Judeo-Christian culture in which core values were largely sustained by belief in the Bible as the “Word of God.”

The line afraid to “own a body” possibly alludes to the repulsive notion of slavery—that no one should own someone else’s body. On that same note—bearing in mind Women’s Rights—women are likewise no one’s property. This idea challenges “old school” notions of women (historically) being chattel and, in some ways, were not much better off than slaves. They were not even allowed to own property in a world “ruled by men."

The next line “own a Soul” turns the theme of the poem from mere challenges of distinctiveness and freedom into Christian theology (while not negating the values of the first line). Biblical, Judeo-Christian theology seems to teach that human beings are comprised of at least two parts: body and soul—(some might say body, soul, and spirit—see I Thessalonians 5:23)—but at least body and soul. Both body and soul (and spirit) are the property of God and therefore “precarious Property” (line 3) denoting our body and souls belong to no one but God. In terms of abolition and women’s rights, this signifies that human beings are free agents—to be “owned” by no one as “possession [is] not optional.”

The language of property continues with the words “Double Estate” (line 5) denoting the dual nature of humans (body and soul) that is “entailed at pleasure” (line 5)—which is to say bestowed upon us all (us “unsuspecting Heirs” (line 6)) presumably by the will of God. What are we “Heirs” of then? According to the Bible, “heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ” (of the Kingdom of God)(Romans 8:17, KJV). Christians as “heirs” is a major theme in the New Testament; (see also: Rm 4:14; Ga 3:29; Titus 3:7; He 1:14; etc.).

The vernacular of property continues with “Duke” (line 7) notably a male title of a property owner as opposed to “duchess”—(again denoting a predominantly male society in which Dickinson lives)—and in context serves to resonate a sardonic tone; perhaps from a person who has good reason to be critical of her society. In any case, the Duke presides over his property for this “moment of Deathlessness”—which is to say life is short and any property one might own will not be his (or hers) for long.

The syntactically challenging enjambment of the last line “And God, for a frontier” denotes that in the end, it is God to whom we all belong and ultimately to his “frontier” (line 8). Again, Dickinson employs the vernacular of land to describe, presumably, the afterlife as a “frontier”—arguably imagery of early America—denoting vastness, wild, and free—unowned by anyone (save God)—where we will all be free.


Kupsh, Charlotte. “The Uncomfortable Self: Emily Dickinson’s Reflections on Consciousness.” Criterion: A Journal of Literary Criticism, Volume 11 Issue 1 Volume 11, Issue 1, Winter 2018, pp. 49-61.

The Holy Bible, Authorized King James Version, Thomas Nelson, 1972.

  • 1
    Great answer. Is Dickinson known to have been theologically adept and/or to have supported abolitionist causes?
    – verbose
    Commented Mar 19, 2021 at 3:00
  • 1
    I cannot speak to her "expertise" in theological matters; but I think it is safe to say most people of her time were biblically literate even if they did not attend church "regularly." If she was a transcendentalist, as some assume she was, then she would have been an abolitionist as well--as the two groups were definitely linked.
    – user10067
    Commented Mar 19, 2021 at 3:42
  • 1
    She went to Amherst Academy (college) where one article describes her studies "like virtually all schools of the period, grounded its educational mission in “morality, piety, and religion” as its papers of incorporation affirm, but from the beginning the curriculum was broad and ambitious..."
    – user10067
    Commented Mar 19, 2021 at 3:51
  • 'again denoting a predominantly male society in which Dickinson lives' any thoughts about why she would reference a royal or noble title when she lived in a Republic? She explicitly didn't live in a society replete with Dukes and Dukedoms.
    – Spagirl
    Commented Feb 7, 2022 at 14:55

A duke was (and is) normally the owner of large estates, and thus this indicates both the body and soul are valuable properties.

The frontier is what would appear at the boundary of the estate -- hence, beyond the body and soul there is God, immediately.


Perhaps the key to understanding the second stanza rests on knowing that Dickinson's father was an attorney so the poet would be well-versed in the meaning of the legal doctrine of "entailment." Property had to be passed down to certain people rather than dispersed to all heirs in order to protect and consolidate wealth and property. She could be talking about slavery and, simultaneously, be meditating on self-determination-- both "ownerships" limited (Duke) in life and limitless (God) in the eternal beyond the boundaries of life.


She is talking about being a mother. Having a child. “Owning a soul” a duke in a moment of deathlessness (birth) a double estate being responsible for you and the child (your soul and theirs) profound precarious property (children are profound and precarious) they are your “property”. “Possession not optional” than she takes about how it’s thrown upon a “unsuspecting heir” (mother father son) in a moment of pleasure… (making a baby) and God a frontier after these quick moments of pleasure bringing a baby into the world you only have the eternal to look forward too. I guess you would have to be a mother to understand. I think she reflected on this often. The duty’s of a wife and mom which she didn’t want, and never became. It has nothing to do with slavery. It’s a methaphor the drudges of mother hood.

  • 2
    Hi Sarah, welcome to Literature Stack Exchange. Since you are new to this site, may I suggest that you take the tour and review at least "How do I write a good answer?" in the help center? As currently written, your answer sounds very informal and has several syntactical issues. Could you please edit your answer to improve it?
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Nov 12, 2021 at 14:04

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