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09 February 2013

Your Riches — taught me — Poverty

Your Riches — taught me — Poverty.
Myself — a Millionaire
In little Wealths, as Girls could boast
Till broad as Buenos Ayre —

You drifted your Dominions —
A Different Peru —
And I esteemed all Poverty
For Life's Estate with you —

Of Mines, I little know, myself —
But just the names, of Gems —
The Colors of the Commonest —
And scarce of Diadems —

So much, that did I meet the Queen —
Her Glory I should know —
But this, must be a different Wealth —
To miss it — beggars so —

I'm sure 'tis India — all Day —
To those who look on You —
Without a stint — without a blame,
Might I — but be the Jew —

I'm sure it is Golconda —
Beyond my power to deem —
To have a smile for Mine — each Day,
How better, than a Gem!

At least, it solaces to know
That there exists — a Gold —
Altho' I prove it, just in time
Its distance — to behold —

Its far — far Treasure to surmise —
And estimate the Pearl —
That slipped my simple fingers through —
While just a Girl at School.

                                                                                    F418 (1862)  J299

If, like me, you were ever the shy bookworm in your grammar school days, you may remember the dazzling new girl (or boy) whose presence afforded the sudden knowledge of greater, more glamorous places in the world. This poem is a nostalgic tribute to such an experience. Dickinson sent a copy of this poem to her beloved childhood friend – and her sister-in-law – Sue, along with a note:

Dear Sue –
You see I remember –
    Emily.

Dickinson may be saying her girlhood feelings still hold power over her; she may also, according to Dickinson biographer Richard Sewall (p. 163-5), be reminding Sue of the relationship between Alice and Cecilia in Longfellow’s 1849 novel Kavanagh (a book both girls had almost certainly read). Alice is “thoughtful, silent, susceptible; often sad, often in tears, often lost in reveries”; Cecilia is beautiful, confident, outgoing, and very popular with the young gentlemen. Emily and Sue would likely have recognized themselves in that description. They would also have recognized themselves in Longfellow's description of the girls' relationship:

“They walked together after school; they told each other their manifold secrets; they wrote long and impassioned letters to each other in the evening; in a word, they were in love with each other.”
Lovely, exotic tropical splendor – of Sue

We see the love in the sweet melancholy of the poem. It begins when the poet meets the new girl (or Sue). Until that day, she had been “a Millionaire / In little Wealths” – the sort of things that girls enjoy. But then Sue “drifted” in, as vast in attraction and wealth as Buenos Aires. She drifted her “Dominions” over her classmates, as exotic and lovely as far-away Peru. The poet suddenly felt that everything in her life was “Poverty” compared to being with Sue.
        The poet continues in this modest vein: she doesn’t know anything about mining for precious gems; only the names and colors of “the commonest.” She only knows enough of crowns, or “Diadems,” to recognize a Queen if she saw one. But this limited knowledge, however, is enough for her to recognize that Sue’s “Wealth” is of a different order. Having been around her, the poet realizes that she would be beggared without her.
        It’s India all day for those lucky souls who can “look on You” all the time and without blame. “India” stands here for riches: diamonds, spices, silks, etc. The poet wishes she might look at Sue all the time, too, but that is not possible. If she could, she’d be like the (19th Century stereotyped) Jew and hoard Sue. Just to have a daily smile from her would be “Golconda,” where the world’s most legendary gems were mined (the Hope Diamond, Koh-ki-Noor, Darya-k-Noor, for a few). 
        The poem ends with the melancholy reflection that this wonderful girl, Sue, if you will, slipped through the poet’s fingers when they were just schoolgirls. The knowledge of this “Gold,” however, is a source of comfort through the years, even though she can only watch Sue from afar.

And in case there was any doubt that earlier (and later) pearl poems might be referring to Dickinson’s feelings for Sue, she names Sue at the end as “the Pearl – / That slipped my simple fingers through.”

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