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16 May 2024

Shells from the Coast mistaking—

Shells from the Coast mistaking—
I cherished them for All—
Happening in After Ages
To entertain a Pearl—

Wherefore so late—I murmured—
My need of Thee—be done—
Therefore—the Pearl responded—
My Period begin

    -F716, J693, fascicle 35, 1863

The syntax of this poem is a bit tricky, but perhaps if it were easier to follow, we’d miss the pearl. There's something about the process of working to understand a poem that makes it more clear.

The sense of the poem, as I read it, goes like this:

I mistook the shells from the coast.
I cherished them as if they were everything.

It so happened that ages later
I was entertaining a pearl.

Why are you so late, I murmured,
My need for thee is over.

Since your need for me is over, the Pearl responded,
My time can begin.

The shells on the coast are not the same as the pearl. They are just the shells that once protected the pearl. The pearl would not be found on the coast, anyway, but in the ocean. They are hidden at certain depths. You must dive for them. 

The shells on the shore might symbolically represent any means of protection that is no longer needed. At first you might mistake the means of protection as the thing itself. Aren’t we all a little like walking shells sometimes? All we can see, it seems, are each other’s defense mechanisms. We so rarely dive deep for the pearl. 

In the second stanza we find out that it’s not until we no longer need the pearl that it begins to form, or already has. Where is it found then? Deep within. 

The pearl might represent many things. Perhaps to Dickinson it referred to Sue Dickinson, the pearl of F451. Or perhaps the pearl is a reference to poetry, as it is in F282. (That might help account for that word "period," which is a word tied to art, as in her "late period.") Or maybe it is a spiritual reference, like the “pearl of a great price” in Matthew 13:46. It could have any number of referents. But suffice to say that whatever the thing of “great price” is for you, it cannot be found in the shells littering the shore, and, furthermore, Dickinson intimates, it is only when we have no more desire for the pearl that it truly becomes apparent to us. 

    -/)dam Wade I)eGraff

1 comment:

  1. The word “pearl” occurs 29 times in ED’s 1789 poems, mostly as a metaphor for cherished things: friendship, love of all kinds, Susan Gilbert Dickinson (Sue), Charles Wadsworth (CW), a particular poem, poetry in general. The word “pearl” first appears in F16 (1858), ’The feet of people walking home’ and last in F1012 (1865), ‘Best Things dwell out of Sight’.
    Oddly, the word “pearl” doesn’t occur in any of the 777 poems written during the last 20 years of her life, 1866 – 1886.

    ED tried twice to establish permanent relationships with lovers, but both attempts failed because of impossible impediments, financial security for Sue and solid long-standing marriage/family ties for CW. By 1863, ED had abandoned dreams of lifelong stability from loving relationships and, instead, committed her life to poetry, the pearl she knew she could trust for the duration.

    In this poem “wherefore” probably means “for what reason”. The word dates from before 1200 AD and is now rarely used (0.9 occurrences per million words, OED).

    An interpretation of ‘Shells from the Coast mistaking’ (F716):

    Stanza 1:

    When I was young, I thought all shells from the coast were pearls
    When I grew older, I still cherished shells
    Because they reminded me of Pearls
    I have loved [Sue and CW].

    Stanza 2:

    Why has it taken me so long - I murmured -
    Before my need of Thee [CW] - be done? -
    Therefore - the Pearl [Poetry] responded -
    My Time begin[s]