By Accident of Gain
Befalling not my simple Days—
Myself had just to earn—
Of Riches—as unconscious
As is the Brown Malay
Of Pearls in Eastern Waters,
Marked His—What Holiday
Would stir his slow conception—
Had he the power to dream
That put the Dower's fraction—
F417 (1862) J424
Reader, this is one difficult poem. I’m just going to plow through it and see what turns up.
It seems the poem’s narrator is comparing her lack of good fortune to a man who has good luck in spades but doesn’t appreciate it. She begins with language of the market, accidents of loss and gain. At first we think she had a gain, but then in line three we see the negative: It has not befallen the speaker that some gain has wiped out her loss.
Consequently, the speaker has had to “earn” whatever she got. The second stanza begins with “Of Riches,” which is logically what the speaker must earn. It also does double duty as a transition to the contrast to the lucky man. He is “as unconscious” of his riches as is the Malaysian of the pearls in the South China Sea. I don’t think Dickinson is saying that the Malaysian doesn’t know about the pearls – a historical trade item there; only that he doesn’t value them as highly as the folks from pearl-less locations.
|Many Asian divers were actually young women|
The narrator, on the other hand, understands perfectly just what the man is gaining and she losing. In an earlier poem, “I’ll clutch – and clutch,” she refers to poems as pearls that she dives deeply for – at risk to her life. In another poem, F121, Dickinson writes that “Her breast is fit for pearls, / But I was not a "Diver.” Instead, she must build a little nest inside her lover’s heart as a sparrow would: twig by twig, very carefully.
These two other poems about pearls suggest alternate readings for this poem. The first, that she labours over her poetry and would also have to labour over her place as a poet. In this reading she would be thinking of a particular male poet with an easy gift and easy fame – but who doesn’t realize the greater pearl that could be his if he stirred himself to strive for it.
The other reading would be that of a love triangle. There is a woman, beloved of the narrator, who is not fully appreciated by the man. Although the beloved woman will be his by rights (perhaps as Dickinson’s beloved friend Sue became her brother Austen’s wife), he doesn’t see her as a precious pearl; he isn’t capable of recognizing her “Dower.”
I find Dickinson’s use of the [male] language of law and capital intriguing. The pearl is feminine, as are the oyster-rich waters. But the loss and gain accidents, the earning of riches, the reckoning of a woman’s value by dowery are straight out of a lawyer’s office. Perhaps that is fitting, for both Dickinson’s father and brother were lawyers.