The opening image of this poem is hard not to read in the 21st century as it being almost violent, as if the gift God has given her (to write poetry) isn’t just a simple “Belt” she wears, but is almost a form of oppression. She equates “He” with royalty and power and she wears that same belt they do and so she is both victim of oppression and a practitioner, too.
John Ruskin writes in On Modern Landscapes about how modern art, unlike medieval art, focuses on “things which momentarily change or fade” (V3, Ch16), such as how modern artists depict clouds in great detail, unlike the medieval artists whose art depicted a world of “stability, definiteness, and luminousness”. Much attention is paid to “the service of the clouds” and thus modern artists are quite unlike Aristophanes who saw clouds as “great goddesses to idle men” and “that they are mistresses of disputings, and logic, and monstrosities, and noisy chattering”.
What Ruskin (perhaps inadvertently) illuminates is an embedded sexism. Aristophanes describes clouds as female and employs the tired tropes of women who argue, lack the capacity for logic, gossip, and turn men idle. Ruskin also seems concerned with our modern penchant for “speaking ingeniously concerning smoke” and that we are preoccupied with our “ignorance respecting all stable facts”. And so what Emily is doing in this poem is addressing these issues by taking them head on.
Emily has been accepted (in this poem) as “A Member of the Cloud”, she sees herself as part of that great tradition of artists and perhaps even philosophers who try to understand and appreciate the fleeting beauty of life. Yet she is also beholden to the powers that be – men – and nobody is more male than God, but she is also referring, perhaps, to the publishing world which in her time was overwhelmingly male. And so she exists in a weird transition phase in which she is modern in her desire to consider the clouds, but also attached to the old, medieval worldview of rendering all things in exactness because God is stable and therefore so must the universe and all of human experience be stable (somehow) too.
In Emily’s time she was expected to “do the little Toils” which were considered ‘woman’s work’, a life of domestic servitude in which the best a woman could hope for was to get married, something she explores in “I’m “wife” – I’ve finished that“. Yet Emily has been gifted the talent to create art, to contemplate the clouds and see in the most fleeting and insignificant corners of the universe the forms of beauty. And she doesn’t want to be stuck having to perform “little Toils” because, like a member of royalty, she’s better than that, unlike those of the rest of us “That make the Circuit of the Rest” (of us commoners). Our days may be dull, but her’s are filled with a beauty only she can see in the clouds while we still hold onto the medieval thinking in which the clouds are just the road to idleness.
Thus Emily is not content to “deal occasional smiles” like a good girl who is expected to do the housework for a man, she “must decline” the authority of the stable world and live for the clouds because God himself has accepted her into the ranks. Though the irony that only God (a man) could grant this to her is probably not lost on her either.