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27 July 2011

I never told the buried gold

I never told the buried gold
Upon the hill—that lies—
I saw the sun—his plunder done
Crouch low to guard his prize.

He stood as near
As stood you here—
A pace had been between—
Did but a snake bisect the brake
My life had forfeit been.

That was a wondrous booty—
I hope 'twas honest gained.
Those were the fairest ingots
That ever kissed the spade!

Whether to keep the secret—
Whether to reveal—
Whether as I ponder
Kidd will sudden sail—

Could a shrewd advise me
We might e'en divide—
Should a shrewd betray me—
Atropos decide! 

                                              - F 38 (1858)

     While Dickinson often employs the sun to represent spiritual or intellectual illumination, or as the Deity, here she at first glance paints the sun as a pirate that plunders during the day then crouches over his 'prize' before sailing away like Captain Kidd. One pictures the slanting light of the sinking sun painting the hillsides in gold, the color at least as vivid as that of ingots uncovered by the shovels of treasure hunters.
This sunset's gold is in both the hill and the water.
photo by author (Mt. Pleasant, New Zealand)
     The first line should be read as meaning, "I never told anyone about the buried gold..."  Simply by the use of 'buried' one intuits that Dickinson had more in mind than just depicting the glories of light. To me it suggests an internal epiphany, a treasured moment when Truth, illumination, seemed so near a snake could have spanned the distance and bitten her. She questions, as we should, whether this 'booty' was 'honest gained' -- or whether it was false, or at least falsely obtained (versus, perhaps, having to toil and labor for insight?). 
     At any rate, the epiphany is within her, a secret for the time being. Should she reveal it? Even as the poet thinks about it, she worries that the truth could flee, as the notorious pirate Captain Kidd escaped from those who hoped to capture him. A poet, however, captures her truth in poetry, and Dickinson does so, although sometimes she scatters clues throughout her poems that are as ambiguous and difficult to pin down as the enigmatic clues on a pirate's treasure  map. 
     In the last stanza she contemplates asking advice from a 'shrewd' or cunning person, and concludes that the shrewd would either advise her to divvy up the precious knowledge or else use it to betray her. The stakes are high. Atropos, whom the poet calls on at the end, is the eldest of the three Fates, the one to whom is granted the power to decide the manner of death and cut the thread of life. Clearly Truth should not be given away lightly. Dickinson, an avid Bible reader, would have had in mind Jesus' words in the Sermon on the Mount: 
     Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast
     ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them
     under their feet, and turn again and rend you. 

         Dickinson would also have been very familiar with New Testament parables where deep lessons are couched in stories and analogies. In later years Dickinson would re-visit truth-telling in her famous poem "Tell the truth but tell it slant". Just so, Dickinson's truths aren't bartered on the street corner in the anodyne verse common in her (and our) day, but rather buried deep within her poems. Legions of scholars and readers like me have been digging through them ever since, looking for that buried gold.


The poem is written in hymn form: quatrains alternating in tetrameter and trimeter--except for the second quatrain where she divides the first tetrameter line into two dimeter lines for emphasis. She draws the reader into the immediacy of the experience by saying the sun was as close to me as you are now. It is a very nice way of including the reader as one who has shared the experience.

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