I—feared the Sea—too much
Praying that I might be
The Swarthy fellow swam—
And bore my Jewel—Home—
Home to the Hut! What lot
Had I—the Jewel—got—
Borne on a Dusky Breast—
I had not deemed a Vest
The Negro never knew
To gain, or be undone—
Alike to Him—One—
F451 (1862) 452
This poem is typically read as based on the love triangle of Emily Dickinson, her brother Austin, and the woman Emily loved and encouraged her brother to marry – Susan (Sue) Huntington Gilbert. Once Sue and Austin were married it became apparent to Emily that her relationship with Sue was much diminished; further, that Austin’s love for Sue was probably not as great as Emily’s. This is an over-simplification of course, but there books galore for interested readers (Judith Farr’s The Passion of Emily Dickinson, for one).
The poem centers on the differences between the opportunistic but indiscriminate “Dusky” Malay (Austin) and the Hamlet-ish and now embittered Earl (Dickinson herself). Dickinson’s role here is not that of an arrogant earl, however, but a highly sensitive one. His reluctance to venture into the sea wasn’t because he didn’t want to get wet or because he didn’t long for the pearl, but because he was “unsanctified” to touch it. Instead he waited, praying that he “might be worthy” of the sea’s great prize.
There is an ambiguity here about which is unsanctified, the sea or the earl. But in either case the sea is not polluted or unclean: either the earl does not consider himself good enough, or else the sea is forbidden him on canonical grounds. If we think about the sea as sexual engulfment – a rather conventional association and one that Dickinson herself used – and the pearl as the product of that sea, then what the narrator is avoiding is the sea of female sexuality. Such a Sapphic sea in 1862 was unsanctioned for another woman while a man could dive in and take the pearl. We sense the conflicted Earl watching, deeply stricken.
As much as Dickinson loved her brother, his depiction here as a “Malay” is surprisingly negative – and racist. He is Swarthy, Dusky, Negro. The Vest that bears the pearl is “Amber” and not “fit” for a pearl. (The amber vest is a restatement of “Dusky Breast.”) This contrasts, of course, to the white Pearl (and the assumedly white earl) and plays to the imagery and stereotypes of the day where white was good and pure, while dark and black were sinister, crude, and impure. (Although Melville turns this on its head in Moby Dick  in his apostrophe chapter, “The Whiteness of the Whale.”)
Dickinson even takes a dig at The Evergreens, the beautiful mansion her father built for Austin and Sue, calling it “the Hut!” As an aside, however, she mutters to herself, “What lot / Had I.” What could Emily Dickinson, a dependent of her father, offer Sue? The bitterest lines, however, are the last two. The Malay, now “The Negro,” did not even value the pearl. Whether or not he gained the prize or not was all the same to him. It would have been everything to the narrator, though.
|The Evergreens, |
where Sue and Austin lived
There is a bit of context for the Malay imagery. Judith Farr suggests that the Malay figure springs from Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater, a book Dickinson herself obtained for the family library. A Malay appears in dreams to subject the author to harrowing experiences as punishment for some terrible deed. He was buried alive, drowned, and given “cancerous kisses, by crocodiles” among the reeds and mud of the Nile. If the Malay does indeed represent Dickinson’s beloved brother Austin, what does that say about her estimation of the wedding night?
Also, Dickinson used the imagery of pearl diving in earlier poems. In F417, “Removed from Accident of Loss”, the narrator muses that she had been as “unconscious” of her riches “As is the Brown Malay / Of Pearls in Eastern Waters”. It isn’t, then, that the brother is a cad as much as, being a man – and a wealthy, highly respected one at that – he might have had any number of pearls. The sea was his to explore. He represented the “Destiny” of the pearl, unlike the narrator for whom such treasure was unsanctified.
In another poem, F121, “Her breast is fit for pearls,” Dickinson writes that “I was not a ‘Diver” and consequently she must build her “perennial nest” inside her beloved’s heart, like a humble little sparrow. It is ironic to think that Dickinson, who plumbed the depths in sometimes almost feverish intensity, considered herself not a diver.
I find this poem compelling, with or without the biographical interpretation. The sea is dangerous, particularly to the fearful and to those who think too much. The pearl is the essence of the sea but gives itself up to even the most blasé diver. Those who would love must be prepared to risk the sea or be resigned to disappointment. Yes, universal themes that are enriched by Jungian, mythical, and literary analyses.
Dickinson’s rhyme scheme is AABB – a variant for her as she typically used the ABCB of common ballad or hymn style. The pattern allows the second line of each stanza to emphasize the first because of the rhyme. For example, the opening line is quite strong: “The Malay – took the Pearl.” It is the opening to a story with character and action. We await a motive and a consequence. The second line, “Not – I – the Earl,” adds an opposing character who thereby is revealed as the poem’s narrator. The rhyme of Pearl with Earl adds irony, if not bitterness. We expect pearls and earls to go together as easily as they rhyme. That the Malay took the pearl, and “took” is a very active verb, becomes a bit shocking. The concluding couplets have the shadow of Shakespearean tragedy.