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27 July 2011

I never told the buried gold

I never told the buried gold
Upon the hill—that lies—
I saw the sun—his plunder done
Crouch low to guard his prize.

He stood as near
As stood you here—
A pace had been between—
Did but a snake bisect the brake
My life had forfeit been.

That was a wondrous booty—
I hope 'twas honest gained.
Those were the fairest ingots
That ever kissed the spade!

Whether to keep the secret—
Whether to reveal—
Whether as I ponder
Kidd will sudden sail—

Could a shrewd advise me
We might e'en divide—
Should a shrewd betray me—
Atropos decide! 

                                             J11, Fr 38 (1858)

 While Dickinson often employs the sun to represent spiritual or intellectual illumination, or as the Deity, here she at first glance paints the sun as a pirate that plunders during the day then crouches over his 'prize' before sailing away like Captain Kidd. One pictures the slanting light of the sinking sun painting the hillsides in gold, the color at least as vivid as that of ingots uncovered by the shovels of treasure hunters.
This sunset's gold is in both the hill and the water.
photo by author (Mt. Pleasant, New Zealand)
     The first line should be read as meaning, "I never told anyone about the buried gold..."  Simply by the use of 'buried' one intuits that Dickinson had more in mind than just depicting the glories of light. To me it suggests an internal epiphany, a treasured moment when Truth, illumination, seemed so near a snake could have spanned the distance and bitten her. She questions, as we should, whether this 'booty' was 'honest gained' -- or whether it was false, or at least falsely obtained (versus, perhaps, having to toil and labor for insight?). 
     At any rate, the epiphany is within her, a secret for the time being. Should she reveal it? Even as the poet thinks about it, she worries that the truth could flee, as the notorious pirate Captain Kidd escaped from those who hoped to capture him. A poet, however, captures her truth in poetry, and Dickinson does so, although sometimes she scatters clues throughout her poems that are as ambiguous and difficult to pin down as the enigmatic clues on a pirate's treasure  map. 
     In the last stanza she contemplates asking advice from a 'shrewd' or cunning person, and concludes that the shrewd would either advise her to divvy up the precious knowledge or else use it to betray her. The stakes are high. Atropos, whom the poet calls on at the end, is the eldest of the three Fates, the one to whom is granted the power to decide the manner of death and cut the thread of life. Clearly Truth should not be given away lightly. Dickinson, an avid Bible reader, would have had in mind Jesus' words in the Sermon on the Mount: 
     Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast
     ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them
     under their feet, and turn again and rend you. 

         Dickinson would also have been very familiar with New Testament parables where deep lessons are couched in stories and analogies. In later years Dickinson would re-visit truth-telling in her famous poem "Tell the truth but tell it slant". Just so, Dickinson's truths aren't bartered on the street corner in the anodyne verse common in her (and our) day, but rather buried deep within her poems. Legions of scholars and readers like me have been digging through them ever since, looking for that buried gold.

The poem is written in hymn form: quatrains alternating in tetrameter and trimeter--except for the second quatrain where she divides the first tetrameter line into two dimeter lines for emphasis. She draws the reader into the immediacy of the experience by saying the sun was as close to me as you are now. It is a very nice way of including the reader as one who has shared the experience.


  1. This poem may be an encrypted love poem and blunt warning from a 27-year old lesbian, ED, to her married lover, Susan D (both born December 1830). ED gave this poem to Susan D (c. autumn 1858; Miller. 2016.Emily Dickinson’s Poems) probably as Variant 1 (of 3) with uncorrected spelling (

    My translation switches masculine pronouns to feminine to reveal ED’s disguise of Susan, which is documented for other poems given to her (e.g., Susan K’s blog, “He showed me Heights” Fr346, 1862). Also, in Variant 1 the word ‘betray’ in the penultimate line is italicized.


    I never told the buried gold
    Opon the hill that lies -
    I saw the sun, his plunder done -
    Crouch low to guard his prize -

    He stood as near
    As stood you hear -
    A pace had been between -
    Did but a snake bisect the brake
    My life had forfeit been.

    That was a wondrous booty.
    I hope 'twas honest gained -
    Those were the fairest ingots
    That ever kissed the spade.

    Whether to keep the secret -
    Whether to reveal -
    Whether while I ponder
    Kidd may sudden sail -

    Could a shrewd advise me
    We might e'en divide -
    Should a shrewd betray me -
    "Atropos" decide -


    I never revealed our secret
    That lies buried at the mound of Venus
    I saw my Sun, her plunder done
    Crouch low to guard her prize

    She stood as near
    As you, reader, stood here-
    A narrow space between us
    If the Serpent had separated us
    I would have died

    The treasure that she captured
    I hope was gained honestly
    Those were the fairest lips
    That ever kissed the tongue

    Whether to keep our secret
    Whether to come out of the closet
    Whether while I try to decide
    She may leave me emotionally

    If a cunning person could advise me
    We might share life together
    If a cunning person betrays me
    I will kill her

    For her model of what a committed lesbian relationship could be, ED probably used a description by William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878) in his book, “Letters of a Traveler”, published in 1850, one year after his “Collected Poems” (1849). [Continued in next Reply]

  2. The Dickinson family owned a copy of WCB's Collected Poems and ED read the book for two reasons: (1) during ED’s early 20s, WCB was a popular American poet and (2) he was born and raised in Cummington, MA, 20 miles west of Amherst. His father, Peter (1767-1820), was a prominent physician and Massachusetts State legislator. WCB, second of 8 siblings, lived near Cummington until he was 22.

    Although WCB was circumspect with names in his description of the lesbian domestic partners, it would have been common knowledge in Amherst that he was writing about his aunt, Charity Bryant. He first published the description on July 13, 1843, in the New-York Evening Post in a contracted series of travelog letters, “Excursion through Vermont and New Hampshire”. Bryant’s mother, Sarah, accompanied WCB on the trip and they spent several July days in Charity’s home in northwest Vermont.

    “I would briefly give you the singular, and to me most interesting history of two maiden ladies who dwell in this valley. I would tell you how, in their youthful days, they took each other as companions for life, and how this union, no less sacred to them than the tie of marriage, has subsisted, in uninterrupted harmony, for forty years, during which they have shared each other's occupations and pleasures and works of charity while in health, and watched over each other tenderly in sickness; for sickness has made long and frequent visits to their dwelling. I could tell you how they slept on the same pillow and had a common purse, and adopted each other's relations, and how one of them [Charity], more enterprising and spirited in her temper than the other, might be said to represent the male head of the family, and took upon herself their transactions with the world without, until at length her health failed, and she was tended by her gentle companion, as a fond wife attends her invalid husband. I would tell you of their dwelling, encircled with roses, which now in the days of their broken health, bloom wild without their tendance, and I would speak of the friendly attentions which their neighbors, people of kind hearts and simple manners, seem to take pleasure in bestowing upon them, but I have already said more than I fear they will forgive me for, if this should ever meet their eyes, and I must leave the subject.” (Bryant, W.C. 1850. Letters of a Traveler, or Notes of Things Seen in Europe and America. Page 129 of 444).

  3. This paragraph in Bianchi's biography of ED seems to be the smoking gun in the debate about the nature of ED's relatioinship with Susan Dickinson:

    "David Copperfield" was published when she [ED] was
    twenty-one, and Dickens was always a favorite of her
    father's, so that many of the expressions used in his
    stories became household words. "Donkeys, Davy,"
    was flung back over Emily's shoulder as she fled from
    unwelcome visitors. The drollery of Dickens was congenial
    to her sense of the ludicrous, and "Barkis is
    willin" was a message carried more than once by the
    children [including Martha,the author of the biography] between her and their mother [Susan] without any realization
    of its import.

    Bianchi, Martha Dickinson. 1924. The life and letters of Emily Dickinson, by her niece, MDB. Pg 81

  4. Apparently, ED had at least one female lover before Susan D.

    Letter [L30] from Emily Dickinson to Jane Humphrey. ED met Jane at Amherst Academy, which ED attended for 7 years, 1840-1847.

    “23 January 1850 [

    Dear Jane.

    I have written you a great many letters since you left me - not the kind of letters that go in post-offices - and ride in mail-bags - but queer - little silent ones - very full of affection - and full of confidence - but wanting in proof to you - therefore not valid - somehow you wll not answer them - and you would paper, and ink letters - I will try one of those - tho' not half so precious as the other kind. I have written those at night - when the rest of the world were at sleep - when only God came between us - and no one else might hear. No need of shutting the door - nor of whispering timidly - nor of fearing the ear of listeners - for night held them fast in his arms that they could not interfere - and his arms are brawny and strong. Sometimes I did'nt know but you were awake - and I hoped you wrote with that spirit pen - and on sheets from out the sky. Did you ever - and were we together in any of those nights? I do love - and remember you Jane -……….

    They say you are teaching in Warren - are happy - then I know you are good - for none but the good are happy - you are out of the way of temptation - and out of the way of the tempter - I did'nt mean to make you wicked - but I was - and am - and shall be - and I was with you so much that I could'nt help contaminate. Are you ever lonely in Warren - are you lonely without me - very lonely the last to be sure - but I want to know…………

    Very sincerly yrs-
    Emily E. Dickinson.”