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04 July 2012

We play at Paste –

We play at Paste –
Till qualified, for Pearl –
Then, drop the Paste –
And deem Ourself a fool –

The Shapes, tho’, were similar,
And our new Hands
Learned Gem Tactics
Practicing Sands –
                                                            F282 (1862)  320

“Paste” is a heavy and transparent flint glass used in jewelry as imitation gemstones. Faux pearls can also be made out of this material. The central image of this poem is of a jeweler who makes costume jewelry out of such imitations until she is able to work with precious stones and gems. Once “qualified” to use real pearls, Dickinson writes, we “drop the Paste” and think how foolish we ever were to use imitation.
            That’s what the first stanza of this poem tells us. But then the second stanza assures us that we haven’t been so very foolish after all.  Because the “Shapes … were similar”  we learned something about the look and feel of gems and how to handle them. We learned “Gem Tactics” even though we were just "Practicing" with "Sands."  Sands, here, stands in for "glass" as glass was made from high-silica sand.
The stones are glass, or paste, but unless we had real diamonds,
rubies, and emeralds, we might think this a great ring!
           The poem can be read, I think, as a metaphor for mature love. Our first love will probably not be our last.  We may even feel a little red-faced about the whole episode when we look back. Yet without that experience we may not have been able to recognize our true love – or to know how to love.

            Dickinson may also be talking about her development as a poet. Some of her early poetry is derivative and sounds a bit like other women’s Victorian poetry of her time. But it becomes apparent – at least it has to me as I  make my way through the poems chronologically – that she learns to recognize and use her Muse. The art and craft of poetry doesn’t just miraculously appear but are the result of “Gem Tactics” learned only after much practice. The metaphor of gems for poems is particularly apt for Dickinson’s verse: hard, clear, and polished to a burn.


  1. I like this one. It rings so true. I think regardless of what it is about the process is always the same. We think we're really doing something, then we level up and judge our former self for doing less valuable stuff. But it's all valuable!

  2. So good. Imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery. The whole poem could be seen as a picture of growth from apprentice to master, with the emotional regret that accompanies it. I find that when I move into a new season, I tend to despise the previous one. But this is a good reminder that the previous season in many cases had a lot of value, even it it was "apprenticing".

  3. Nothing is wasted. Everything moves us toward where we want to go. How can we get anywhere, unless we try and stumble? Thank you.

  4. What if , as in 280, pearl signifies marriage? Learning all the social graces is only to prepare us for the one worthy achievement - being a wife? (Not that I agree.)

    1. The poem certainly can work that way. Reminds me of when I was a little girl... very long time ago...

  5. I thought of the long process the oyster has to build layer upon layer over the irritant that has entered the shell until the beautiful pearl is formed.
    Thanks for all the wonderful comments. I’m new to ED.

  6. D’accord with a twist.

    For five years ED chased a phantom whose name was Charles Wadsworth, a legendary minister in Philadelphia. She heard him preach once in 1855, and in March 1860 he visited her at her home. Their personal recollections of the conversation that day must have been a million miles apart; here’s ED’s (see TPB Comment 10, F278, ‘A word is dead when it is said’):

    He was my host — he was my guest,
    I never to this day
    If I invited him could tell,
    Or he invited me.

    So infinite our intercourse
    So intimate, indeed,
    Analysis as capsule seemed
    To keeper of the seed.

    (F1754, undated)

    Of course, Wadsworth was 16 years older, happily married, and father of two children. Apparently, ED convinced herself that they could marry in heaven and thought they had agreed to that plan during his visit. Also apparently, ensuing correspondence burst that balloon.

    Bottom line, ED decided to stop “Playing in Paste”, both dreamy poems and older men, and devote her life to what she did best, sculpting words into poems of pearl.

  7. Three months later:

    Leave it to ED, Queen of Obscurity, to tantalize us with four levels of meaning in two quatrains: growth as a poet, growth as a person, dating versus marriage, and mature love are all compelling. Here’s a fifth level:

    Given ED’s increasing sexual frankness in many of her first 400 poems, her likely-consummated lesbian love experience with Sue in their late-teen/early-20s is the poem’s “Paste”; her late-twenties/mid-thirties, likely-unconsummated romantic experience with Charles Wadsworth, is the poem’s “Pearl”.

    Indeed, many poems, correspondence comments, and biographical details suggest ED leaned bisexual, but with Line 4 she deems herself a “fool” for the early “Paste”.

    Read in this light, with Sue the “Sands” and Wadsworth the “Gem”, Stanza 2 sure sounds sexual to me, if only in her imagination:

    “The Shapes, tho’, were similar,
    And our new Hands
    Learned Gem Tactics
    Practicing Sands –”

    1. Bravo Larry! What a genius she was.