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.