The smallest Gamboge Hand
With Fingers — where the Toes should be —
Would more affront the sand —
Than this Quaint Creature's Boot —
Adjusted by a stem —
Without a Button — I could vouch —
Unto a Velvet Limb —
You'll know Her — by Her Vest —
Tight fitting — Orange — Brown —
Inside a Jacket duller —
She wore when she was born —
Her Cap is small — and snug —
Constructed for the Winds —
She'd pass for Barehead — short way off —
But as she closer stands —
So finer 'tis than Wool —
You cannot feel the seam —
Nor is it clasped unto of Band —
Nor held upon — of Brim —
You'll know Her — by Her Voice —
At first — a doubtful Tone —
A sweet endeavor — but as March
To April — hurries on —
She squanders on your Head
Such Arguments of Pearl —
You beg the Robin in your Brain
To keep the other — still —
F604 (1863) J634
Victorians by all accounts enjoyed puzzles. Dickinson enjoyed them, too, and wrote several fine puzzle poems. This one carries on as a puzzle until the very end when it is made explicit that the "Quaint Creature" is a robin.
The first clue is a description of the foot. "Gamboge" is a saffron yellow pigment made from the resin of the gamboge tree, indigenous to Southeast Asia. It can also simply mean "yellow" or "golden". In the rather curious imagery of the second and third lines, I imagine Dickinson thinking about Chinese writing. She might be imagining a delicate golden hand writing delicate characters in the sand – and deem them larger and clumsier than the dainty tracks of a robin.
Dickinson continues with the foot, next casting it as a boot connected by a stem to a "Velvet Limb". A ladies' Victorian boot would typically be fastened by buttons, but the poet is ready to "vouch" that this creature's boot has no such thing. It's as if Dickinson had camped out on her lawn inspecting robins as they passed. The soft tibial feathers on the birds' thighs would be the "Velvet" of the limb.
|American robin, female|
photo by Colin Talcroft
Three stanzas are given to the bird's "Cap": it fits so snugly you wouldn't know she wears one – until you are quite close. Then you can see the demarcation of head from body that makes the cap. Still, as the boot has no button, this cap has no brim or band.
The point of the poem, though, isn't the puzzle but in the robin's song; all the other little details are but preparatory. The first robins of spring have but a "doubtful Tone" – although Dickinson graciously grants that it is a "sweet endeavor". But by the end of April the bird has come into such eloquent abundance of song that she "squanders" them on the listener. They are "Arguments of Pearl", but at last it is too much. The listener wants to enjoy the songs in her head for a while, let the inner robin sing – and hopefully drown out the exuberant real bird.
I can't help but think that Dickinson is writing a bit tongue-in-cheek about herself throughout the poem. In one of her first letters to her "Preceptor", Thomas Wentworth Higginson, she describes herself as birdlike and with hair the same reddish brown as the female robin: " small, like the wren; and my hair is bold, like the chestnut bur". As to the Gamboge hand, Higginson once likened her handwriting to bird tracks. The opening line of the poem, "You'll know Her – by Her Foot – " may well be a reference to Higginson's comment that her meter, her poetic foot, was "spasmodic".
But as I said earlier, the point is the song. Dickinson may be assessing her development as a poet. She begins conventionally and sweetly enough, but as the years went by she began producing pages and pages of poetry, her "Arguments of Pearl". To a reader familiar with the Bible, and Emily Dickinson was very familiar with it, this recalls Matthew's warning about casting "your pearls before swine" (Matthew 7:6). It's a lighthearted comment, one teasing herself as much as ruing her lack of appreciative audience. Perhaps she was thinking of Higginson here, too, imagining that she was squandering poems on him while he was still trying to digest earlier once.
More than that, though, I suspect that "the Robin in your Brain" is her own songs. Don't drown them out, Robin, she admonishes, with your beautiful singing. I have my own to sing.