Pigmy seraphs — gone astray

Vierwaldstätter See, 1852, Alexandre Calame
Background Image: Vierwaldstätter See, 1852, Alexandre Calame

Emily would rather be clothed with the fashion of nature than put on the best that Paris, Venice, or the “Duke of Exeter” has to offer. For her the natural world is enough and to attract a “Bumblebee” is honorable enough work as opposed to putting on airs. She even goes as far as to say that such fashion is “an ambuscade”: a trap that just wastes your time, money, and well being.

Emily begins the poem with the verb “astray” which informs us of her philosophy towards this subject of worldly fashion vs nature. At first this seems a little confusing because it implies that she is saying the “seraphs” (the little / “Pigmy” flowers) have gone astray and are somehow in error, but this isn’t what she means. She’s setting up a complicated image of fallen angels who clothe themselves against their natural nakedness with worldly fashion against the image of these “Pigmy seraphs” who are angels on earth that live as flowers under the roof and shelter of heaven.

She reinforces this duality by going on to describe select societies in the first stanza, the “Velvet people from Vevay” (Switzerland on Lake Geneva which is still a very, very nice neighborhood), “Belles” as in belles of the ball but also another way to describe a flower), and the “Bees” who are part of a “Coterie” or an exclusive society which not only describes actual bees, but can also stand in for people who work and labor. Thus she uses each image to pull double duty: one that represents the good and natural world and one that represents the worldly and mortal world of unnatural fashion.

The first four lines of the second stanza describe the fashion industry of “Paris” and (I assume) some fine makeup products on one’s “cheek” from “Venice”. Yet she says these are false things and are “an ambuscade” and if we recall the image of the “seraphs” who have “gone astray” she recalls the image of the fallen angel (Satan) who, because of the sin of pride, is trapped in his own evil thinking into believing he is worthy enough to be heaven’s heir, not Jesus. Thus she is alluding to all this false fashion as being akin to the sin which caused Satan and his crew to be kicked out of heaven.

In the final stanza she describes what she would “rather wear” as opposed to that of what the rich and royal own. For her, attracting the honest “Bumblebee” wearing only a “briar and leaf” is plenty enough for her than “an Earl” or the “Duke of Exeter” attracting all his little attendants and servants and serfs the way Satan attracted one-third of the host of heaven (according to Milton, anyway).

Yet it is her combining of images to both describe the natural and the worldly that implies that within each of us there is a duality pulling at our souls: we can either live naturally and be like “Pigmy seraphs” who have “gone astray” in that we are like the angles who live like “Roaylty enough” here on earth, or we can really go “astray” and be like the worst of the fallen angels and cover our bodies with false pretenses and false authority in order to reign in hell.