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09 December 2012

I'll clutch—and clutch—

I'll clutch—and clutch—
Next—One—Might be the golden touch—
Could take it—
I'm diving—just a little late—
But stars—go slow—for night—

I'll string you—in fine Necklace—
Tiaras—make—of some—
Wear you on Hem—
Loop up a Countess—with you—
Make—a Diadem—and mend my old One—
Count—Hoard—then lose—
And doubt that you are mine—
To have the joy of feeling it—again—

I'll show you at the Court—
Bear you—for Ornament
Where Women breathe—
That every sigh—may lift you
Just as high—as I—

And—when I die—
In meek array—display you—
Still to show—how rich I go—
Lest Skies impeach a wealth so wonderful—
And banish me—

                                                            F385 (1862)  427

 Poems can be as seductive as pearls. Here, Dickinson discusses her greedy delight in poetry through the metaphor of pearls. The speaker begins as if she were a diver in some unnamed sea. She dives down clutching at pearls--she can't get enough of them and keeps diving. She's pushing her luck. It's getting late, but she hopes she'll have "the golden touch" on the next dive, maybe even find a diamond. Despite the lateness of the hour, night hasn't yet fallen. The stars seem to be slow to rise. With the underwater setting and the diving for pearls, Dickinson takes the reader into a submersion in the feminine. What could be more feminine than the sea or than a pearl?
          And yet there is quite a bit of the poet in the imagery. We can imagine the poems lurking in the subconscious, the poet diving down clutching at the imagery and meanings. Perhaps the next one will be the great one. She's burning the midnight oil but time seems to have stopped.
          The second stanza details the variable quality of poems/pearls. One of them is of such high quality it can be strung for a "fine Necklace"; others, more ordinary in quality, can be put in tiaras. They work as a group but don't stand alone. Another one could "Loop up a Countess," while others will simply be hoarded. The poet/diver might even allow the poems/pearls to be lost just to have the joy of finding and feeling them again.
Pearls are the essence of femininity--even in the oyster shell
          The third stanza becomes a bit ambiguous. Rather than poems or pearls, it seems the poet is treating the pearls as a single entity--a beloved woman. This pearl woman is so beautiful and desirable that the poet promises to show her at Court, wear her on her breast, "Where Women breathe," perhaps figuratively as a cameo or a picture in a locket. The dashes and stanza break allow the reader to picture the very sensuous image of the pearl or cameo rising and falling with the poet's breath. The poet is breathing deeply--sighing, in fact, so that the pearl/cameo rises quite high: "Just as high--as I." The speaker's own identity has been subsumed in the poem/pearl.
          The final image shows the poet as resting in her grave, dressed simply and with the pearls "In meek array." This stanza gets a bit difficult. The speaker thinks it important to have the meek array because to show the true riches of the poems/pearls would risk being rejected by heaven. Yet the words of the stanza seem to say that no matter how meekly displayed, the true worth of the poems/pearls will "Still" show "how rich" she is as she dies. Despite the difficulty in parsing these last lines I think it strongly suggests that Dickinson views her poems as having great worth that will be apparent after her death. She "wears" them meekly enough during her life and to the grave, but in her mind they would do a Countess credit and shine like bright stars in the sky. She was right, for her poems surely are more valuable than pearls.
          The poem has a bit of humor woven into its enigmatic imagery: first we have the rather funny word and image of the poet clutching and clutching. "Clutch" rhymes with "touch and that underscores the ironic pairing of a clutch with a golden touch. The second poem addresses the pearls directly as "you" and this calls up the image of a woman holding up pearls and talking to them--and later in the stanza hoarding them as if she were a dragoness with her treasure. The second stanza where she is appraising and sorting the pearls according to where she might use them is also a bit amusing.


  1. Hello Susan--I just discovered your blog, today on Emily's birthday!! What a wonderful blog. Thank you for all this writing. I posted to my FB page one of Emily's poems (my page is Living in the Word). I love Emily's poetry and wrote my senior thesis in undergrad on her images of white. My husband and I visited her house on our honeymoon and I love that we got to be there. All best in your continued writing! And Happy Birthday Emily!

    1. Thanks, Brenda! It's a labor of love, one made worthwhile by readers like you.

  2. Didn't ED request that her poems be burned at her death? Am I remembering this wrong, and once her sister found them worked to get them published? If so, this intent contradicts ED's confidence that her poems would bring her the immortality she could not find in life. Help me out, Susan, I really appreciate your knowledge.

    1. It was her letters rather than her poetry that Dickinson instructed her sister to burn. What a terrible pity.

  3. Thanks for the spot on analysis. Your comment called back for me the poet's use of "meek" in "Safe in their Alabaster Chambers," that ironic notion that the dead may not be in heaven after all. At least the speaker of "I'll clutch" goes into her tomb wearing, in effect, poems she's made and, as SK's distinction between them and her letters (above), intends as part of her array, not "Soundless as Dots/ on a Disc of Snow."

  4. ED personified her poems as "you" seven times in F385, 'I'll clutch—and clutch'. My ED reading-buddy, Eric, says she lived with poetry, "thought in poetry", a different reality than ours.

    Her sister, Vinnie, and friend-maid, Maggie, tell us while ED worked in the kitchen baking or cleaning, she kept a scrap of paper, would stop mid-conversation, jot a line or two. That's how she could compose 522 poems in two years, 1862-63, many of them masterpieces.

    That's why she could boast, "And—when I die— / In meek array—display you— / Still to show—how rich I go—".