Dorothy Livesay’s The Three Emilys explores the contrary roles of an artist and a mother. Livesay compares the poem’s persona, presumably herself, to the Emily’s, a synecdoche for Bronte, Dickinson, Carr and other female poets who forsook the domestic life. While Livesay initially sees the Emily’s lack of domesticity as pitiful, she eventually comes to envy their creative freedom.
The Three Emilys is written in the first person, from the perspective of Livesay. It is vitally important to understand that the Emily’s in the poem are an extension of Livesay. The first line of the poem stresses this, “These women crying in my head” (Livesay 1). The Emily’s are denied any speech. They are not real; they exist only in relation to Livesay. As a result of this, the Emily’s change and evolve as Livesay changes and evolves.
Hence, in the beginning, because Livesay pities their lack of motherhood, the Emily’s are “crying in my head” and “cry to be set free” (Livesay 1, 4). Given this context, it would appear that the Emily’s are crying to be free of their art to pursue domesticity. Yet there is a second interpretation that becomes evident as the poem progresses: the Emily’s are crying to be free from Livesay.
Indeed, contradicting herself, Livesay quickly exclaims the freedom the Emily’s experience, “Yet they had liberty!” (7).Livesay elaborates on the creative powers of the Emily’s in the Romantic fashion. It is at this point that Livesay realizes the freedom offered by art. This affects the Emily’s. “And still they cry to me / As in reproach” (Livesay 15-16). It is clear now that the Emily’s are not crying because they envy Livesay, but ironically because they pity her.
Understanding this, Livesay begins to delve into her own identity as a mother, justifying that “I yet possess another kingdom, barred / To them, these three, this Emily” (19-20).Despite this, Livesay cannot help but compare herself to the Emily’s. Thus far, the Emily’s have been an extension of Livesay. This marks a reversal of that role: Livesay briefly becomes “an Emily on mountain snows” (26). Interestingly, the contrast between the “brief span” of being an Emily and the “immemorial way” of being a mother nonetheless favors the artist. It is this transformation that allows her proper insight into the role of the artist, destroying her previous notions of the superiority of domesticity to creativity.
Livesay comes to her epiphany, that “the whole that I possess / Is still much less” (28-29).Finally, the Emily’s are free to escape Emily’s head now that Livesay has gleaned some truth and no longer traps the Emily’s in her pity. “They move triumphant through my head” (Livesay 30). The preposition “through” is vitally important for conveying a sense of exiting the head, as opposed to, for example, “in”.
It is with this exodus of the Emily’s that the depths of Livesay’s alienation is revealed. In clear comparison to the Emily’s, “these three”, Livesay is “the one”. By using enjambment to split the sentence “I am the one uncomforted” into two lines, “I am the one / Uncomforted”, Livesay is able to doubly emphasize her separation (31-32). The Three Emilys end with the uneasy acknowledgement by Livesay that the freedom of the artist is superior to the comfort of the mother.