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24 April 2012

One Life of so much Consequence!

One Life of so much Consequence!
Yet I – for it – would pay – 
My Soul's entire income – 
In ceaseless – salary – 

One Pearl – to me – so signal – 
That I would instant dive – 
Although – I knew – to take it – 
Would cost me – just a life!

The Sea is full – I know it!
That – does not blur my Gem!
It burns – distinct from all the row – 
Intact – in Diadem!

The life is thick – I know it!
Yet – not so dense a crowd – 
But Monarchs – are perceptible – 
Far down the dustiest Road!
                                                            F248 (1861)  270

Pearls are prized world wide. Jesus himself said, ‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls: Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it (Matthew13: 45-6).’ Dickinson expresses a similar sentiment here, expressing her willingness to pay her “Soul’s entire income” for it. And not just a year’s income, but “ceaseless” income. She would pay sell her soul for all eternity for “One Life,” a Pearl of great value.
Princess Eugenie's Pearl Diadem
            She doesn’t say who the pearl represents, but she would risk her life out of love for him or her (scholar Judith Farr argues that the pearl stands for Sue Dickinson, Emily’s beloved girlhood friend and then sister in law; Farr makes her case, in part, by showing how other Pearl poems and letters are linked to Sue). The sea is full of pearls, but that doesn’t “blur” her feelings for this one pearl. It stands out for her among all the others. Her Pearl “burns” in its brilliant white glow in a Diadem (crown, or tiara). Ominously, she knows that to make that dive after the beloved would in some way kill her. The dive is too treacherous, the emotional cost too great. But the poet dismisses that as saying, in keeping with the idea of paying in the first stanza, that it would cost her “just a life” – as if her life were of little value compared to the reward of simply diving for the pearl.
            The poet then broadens her description of love by saying that no matter how thick with crowds the roads and towns may be, true royalty will stand out and be visible. Likewise, no matter how many people, the beloved’s face will be recognizable even “Far down the dustiest Road!”
            The poem is full of confident emphasis. The dangers are clearly spelled out and the poet emphasizes her awareness of them. She knows that diving (and the word implies a plunge to the deepest levels) for the pearl is a mortal quest; she knows the “Sea is full” of other pearls, that life is full of other potential beloveds. But none of that matters because of her intense love and desire. A “Life of so much Consequence” indeed!
            The poem’s emphatic insistence is reinforced by several repetitions and parallel constructions. There is “One Life” and “One Pearl.” She introduces the repetition of “I know it!” by “I knew.” The diver doesn’t want anyone to think she undertakes her quest without knowing full well the risks and the arguments against it. The main argument against it comes in another pair of repetitions: “The sea is full” (of pearls) and “The life is thick” (with people).
            It’s a beautifully constructed and powerful love poem.


  1. I love this. To me, Emily was the kind of person who was especially drawn toward intimacy of a private and personal kind. Some people go deep. Others go wide. She went deep, both in her musings and her relationships. This poem speaks of the intensity of her affection for that one person, who to her was that Pearl of Greatest Price. I can relate. I have a few of these special Pearls in my own life, for whom I would gladly trade "just a life".

  2. Wonderful, thank you, Susan K., Such a treat.
    I've been an Emily D. reader since long-ago childhood. Lately I came across the one that begins, 'A loss of something ever felt I' and return to it frequently...Thanks! Elwin Wirkala

  3. I just love how after reading a poem I can come here and read your interpretation. It's like it opens a new world of meaning to me and I can understand things I didn't quite get at the first read. Thank you Susan.

  4. ED’s manuscript clearly shows four stanzas of quatrains .

  5. One could argue the ‘Life of so much Consequence’ is Christ’s, but Judith Farr provides less far-fetched reaching. ED hopelessly “loved” Susan D, quote marks denoting ED’s lopsided view of love - a large dollop of mothering - and Sue knew it. Fortunately, ED realized if she dove for Sue’s pearl, Vesuvius would erupt, destroy her life and Sue’s and three generations of Dickinson respectability in small-town Amherst. Nevertheless, ED pined, put Sue on a monarch’s throne, disguised her poetically, and kept a respectable distance.

  6. My first reading is that the Pearl that she wishes for is recognition, a signal, that she knows her work is important, but that she is unknown and imagines not being so.

  7. In retrospect, I would say ED hopelessly wanted someone who would love her like a parent, a mother like Susan or a father like Wadsworth. Either would do but neither was willing. ED finally assuaged her desperate need writing poetry, and we are the lucky beneficiaries.