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28 March 2015

'Tis little I — could care for Pearls —

'Tis little I — could care for Pearls —
Who own the Ample sea —
Or Brooches — when the Emperor —
With Rubies — pelteth me —

Or Gold — who am the Prince of Mines —
Or Diamonds — when have I
A Diadem to fit a Dome —
Continual upon me —
                                 F597 (1863)  J466

The poet doesn't care much about Pearls, Brooches, Gold, or Diamonds because she has the ocean, rubies galore from an Emperor, a mining empire, and a crown as big as a dome. Dickinson scholar Judith Farr believes that pearls represent Sue (based on poems such as "One Life of so much consequence" [F248]) and that the Emperor, the sea, etc., represent the adored Master to whom Dickinson wrote a series of powerful love letters.
        But I think the range of best things indicates more than just one man, no matter how adored or superlative, or how generous with his Rubies (Farr finds the imagery of the man pelting the speaker with rubies to be phallic and assaultive). In each case Dickinson dismisses the particular in favor of having the general and more encompassing richness. Pearls are just one precious commodity of the "Ample sea". One brooch will never equal a pelting of rubies, nor gold outweigh all the gems from all the various mines. Diamonds wouldn't fill out a dome the way a Diadem might.
Rubies in the rough

I find this poem as clear a pronouncement of Dickinson's brimming-over poetic calling as in "For this – accepted Breath" [F230] where (I believe) poetry is her "Crown" and her "perennial bloom" – and her portal into something like the "glory" experienced in heaven. Each metaphor supports this. The ocean is not only a symbol of the feminine but of creativity. To own it is to delve at will into its unpredictable and fertile depths. 
        The ruby-pelting Emperor is a fun version of a poetic muse. Each ruby is an insight or idea more delightful to the poet than a brooch. The rubies are in their natural state, ready for the artist's hand, whereas the brooch is a finished piece: good for adornment but not for creativity.
        As a Prince of Mines, the poet can not only delve in the seductive sea but in the richness of the mineral earth. The giant Diadem, or crown, is as it was in F230: the crowning glory of Dickinson's life – poetry. 

This poem is among the most regular of Dickinson's verse. With its ballad meter and simple rhymes, it seems almost a cheerful ditty. One could truly sing it to "The Yellow Rose of Texas" and it would sound just right.


  1. I have to agree with you. Sometimes ED's poetry does seem directed to people in her life (the last poem is an example). In this case and in most cases, the effort of scholars to read ED's poetry as commentary on people and events in her life is a stretch. And it bothers me because it diminishes appreciation of the universal in her poetry.

  2. I'm just going to put it out there that Victorians believed that pearls symbolize tears, rubies symbolize passion, and diamonds symbolize constancy. The purity of gold is a symbol of wealth in general. :)

    1. Interesting -- thanks. Now apply to poem...;)

    2. The juxtaposition just makes sense to me:

      Tears (pearls) — Sea
      Passion (rubies) — the Emperor pelteth
      Wealth (gold) — Prince
      Constancy (diamonds) — Continual

      It seems like ED is having a little fun here, and has added dimension to a poem that most likely pretty much means what you have interpreted. :)

      I recently learned that the Victorians were also into the "language of flowers," and my mind is spinning just thinking about all of the little "nosegays" (small bouquets) that ED sent to friends. Were those tiny, briefly alive, poems in and of themselves?

      So much fun to think about!

    3. I recently bought Judith Farr's book "The Gardens of Emily Dickinson" and like it quite a bit -- much more so than Farr's "The Passion of Emily Dickinson". I think you'd like the garden book, too.

    4. Thank you, I will look for it! I have this idea to needle-felt a "painting" of ED in her garden with Carlo (and a bobolink for a chorister, and an orchard for a dome) one of these days and have been actually looking for some good info about her garden. So thanks again! :)

    5. Have you done this 'painting'??? Just reviewed this post. Sounds wonderful. Would love a picture of it.

    6. Yes Ellen, I don't buy ED books but I would stand in line for your painting!

  3. I am grateful for your observations here. To understand Dickinson one must be playful, for she was surely so herself. Her self awareness as a person of paradox is captivating. So somber and then again so full of delight. Thank you for your thoughtful explication.

  4. This poem acknowledges and accepts the generous overflow of the universe, but is also weary of it. Those first two lines are enough on their own. Who could want individual pearls when you have the whole sea? That idea alone is worth contemplating for a year. But then you have the idea in the next couplet that expands this idea; when there is so much, when it is so ample, you feel a like you are getting pelted by it, besieged by beauty. You want to shield yourself from it. It's a funny turn-around, and complication .

    The next couplet deepens this further. To get to the "gold" you have to dig down into the mine. (Nice pun on "mine" here too.) You have to pull that gold from the depths of pain. (It must hurt, for instance, to be pelted by rubies.)

    The last couplet returns to pure expansiveness. The dome of heaven is your crown, millions of stars for diamonds. What a gorgeous metaphor.

    This is one of her best, for me, as each couplet is, in itself, complete, and a gem, the first one is like a pearl, the second a ruby, the third, gold, and the last a shining diamond.

  5. As she has done so many times before, ED reminds us, and herself, that she has a Queen’s Diadem, marriage to Wadsworth, waiting for her in heaven. For her, hope is a thing with pearls, rubies, and diamonds embedded in gold.

    A "commentary on people and events in her life" only "diminishes appreciation of the universal in her poetry" if we let it. Surely we can do both.

  6. "Christmas marks the time when the light starts to come back." Heather Cox Richardson December 25, 2023