A common reading of this poem is that she is suing God for bringing an early frost to her garden, and this may have been her initial inspiration, however, what is more interesting going on is she is speaking up for the working person who is wronged by their employer but has no recourse for damages, a ruling set forth in Shaw’s Farwell v. Boston & Worcester Railroad decision in 1842.
The Fellow-Servant Rule was a legal term in United States’ labor law that said an employee cannot sue an employer for damages when they are injured by a co-worker: a fellow servant. The law said the victim should go after the co-worker for compensation but they cannot pursue “Action” against their employer. In Farwell v. Boston and Worcester Rail Road a worker lost their hand due to the negligence of a coworker but was ultimately unsuccessful in suing the Boston and Worcester Rail Road company because of Lemuel “Shaw” who was the Massachusetts Supreme Court Justice who wrote the decision saying that only the responsible coworker can be blamed and that the company they both worked for was immune to liability. This employer friendly view on workplace injury would last for nearly a century until Workplace Compensation was enacted in every US state in 1949.
So what does this have to do with Emily’s poem?
In the final line of the poem she writes ‘I retain “Shaw”‘ which has two meanings. First she is referencing Lemuel Shaw mentioned above, but she is also making a reference to one of her family’s day laborers, Henry Shaw. Thus “Shaw” refers to both the employer (Lemuel Shaw being the stand-in for en employer since it was his legal decision that gave immunity to employers) and the employee who is at greatest risk from injury but is unable to sue for damages.
Thus the whole poem can be read from two different points of view, the point of view of the laborer who has been injured and wants to sue their employer, or it can be read from the point of view of the employer who does not believe they are responsible for the actions of their employees. For example, the first line of the poem is “I had some things that I called mine” could refer to the poor laborer who only has “some things” (e.g. is poor and has very few things) or it could refer to the employer who has “some things that I called mine”, meaning they are the owners. The second line strengthens this tension between two parties who oppose each other by introducing “God”, however it is left intentionally unclear if “God” is the plaintiff or the defendant in this “rival claim” between parties who, up until recently, had been amicable (“amities”).
In the second stanza Emily describes the workplace as “The property, my garden” in which the work of sowing there has been done “with care”. Again, she does not state who is the true owner here, it could be her “garden” or it could be God’s garden; she is deliberately being ambiguous as to who the employer is here. Granted, it would feel like common sense to say that “God” is the employer, he did force us out of the Garden of Eden to a mortal life of hard labor after all, but that would be selling the poem short because she is making a case for her own authority and for what she believes she has a right to. The poem is far more interesting when we consider she could also be arguing that “God” is her servant and that she wants to sue him for damages. Of course we know this is a futile case, even a little comical, but who has never felt that the universe was being unfair to them and thus wanted some sort of retribution for a wrong done to them, even if it’s a case they know they can’t win?
The second line of the second stanza is worth looking at closer, specifically how the work that has gone on in this garden as been done “with care”. Emily is saying that either the workers have been working carefully and that what happened is the fault of the employer (who is not careful) or she is saying that the employer has made sure that everything that goes on in this “garden” has been done with care and that anyone acting dangerously is thus liable for their own actions.
The final two lines of the second stanza are also ambiguous lines in that the action of claiming “the pretty acre” could be from the point of view of the employer who is claiming ‘Hey, I own the garden’ or from the point of view of the injured employee who is claiming that they have a claim on that property in the form of monetary compensation (such as a lean on a property in which one party claims the property of another). Finally, a “Bailiff” (the law / the police) is sent in to preside over this “rival claim”, but it’s unclear who sent the “Bailiff” because Emily’s use of a dash after “acre” could mean either she has sent the “Bailiff” or “God” has sent the “Bailiff”.
The first two lines of the third stanza talks about the “station” or the social position of the people involved in this case and how because of their “station” they can’t be held responsible under the law. In other words, if she is on the side of the employer then this “station” is referring to how the employer is not responsible for the negligent actions of their employees, however if she is on the side of the employee these lines could be read as their “station” being such that as employees only they are responsible for each other and thus can only sue each other and not the employer. Thus either they are rich and can’t be held accountable, or they are poor and thus the case between employer and employee must be thrown out.
However, the last two lines of the third stanza reveals the motivation behind each party’s claim to a lawsuit by saying that just because one party has “Arms” (weapons) or has a certain “pedigree” (either they are rich, or a poor laborer), “Justice is sublimer” than either of these things and that the court case will proceed, perhaps all the way to the Massachusetts Supreme Court. She is saying everyone is equal under the power of the law, but she’s saying that ironically because of course a person can’t sue “God” and so He can do whatever he wants, just as an employer can do whatever they want or, in terms of the Fellow-Servant Law, poor laborers can do whatever they want too since their employer won’t be held responsible. In other words, the law is not equal for all.
The first two lines of the final stanza could once again be read one of two ways: either she is the employer of the “garden” who will ‘institute an “Action” in court to protect herself from her negligent employees, or she is the employee who is suing their employer for negligent activity.
The final line of the poem completes this wonderful poem’s ability to play both sides of the coin with the use of “Shaw” either being her retaining the services of Lemuel Shaw who will side with the employer, or she is siding with the poor laborer, Henry Shaw, and is thus on the side of the working person.
So why doesn’t she ever take a side in this poem? It would seem that taking the side of the injured worker would be the moral choice, but notice how she has set this legal case up to be the poor worker in the “garden” against “God”. How can a person have the right to sue “God”? It’s absurd, right? Especially when “God” is also the judge and so how can we possibly expect that we could get a fair hearing when “God” is the judge, jury, and executioner? Of course for someone who is one of God’s faithful they will say that God is perfect and would not make an errors in judgment, but our own courts and laws are made up of imperfect people and imperfect laws that must be decided as impartially as possible. Thus I believe she wrote this poem to remain ambiguous as to allow we, the reader, to make up our own mind, to allow us to play “God” for a moment and thus experience how difficult it would be to rule in a case where both parties have an equal claim and neither are actually guilty even though there is an injured party. This is an impossible case to adjudicate, yet a decision must be reached regardless and she leaves us to argue the case on our own.
This is a remarkable poem, especially since it probably stemmed from her just wanting to complain about an early frost in her garden that might have injured her flowers. The poem also expresses her willfulness against authority which we’ve seen in the poems she wrote complaining to her father about being woken up too early, such as in “Where bells no more affright the morn” and “Sleep is supposed to be“.