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09 June 2018

I gained it so —

I gained it so —
By Climbing slow —
By Catching at the Twigs that grow
Between the Bliss — and me —
It hung so high
As well the Sky
Attempt by Strategy —

I said I gained it —
This — was all —
Look, how I clutch it
Lest it fall —
And I a Pauper go —
Unfitted by an instant's Grace
For the Contented — Beggar's face
I wore — an hour ago —
        Fr639 (1863)  J359

In this mystery poem, Dickinson describes how she has achieved some transcendent state but, although she clutches her gain, she has become empaupered – no longer at home in the earthly world.

Dickinson refers to what she has gained as 'Bliss'. Reading the poem I am reminded of Hinduism – specifically the concept of Brahma-nirvana: a state (according to Wikipedia 'Nirvana') of "release or liberation; the union with the Brahman. According to [Eknath] Easwaran, it is an experience of blissful egolessness."  Certainly such an experience or other state of Grace or spiritual transcendence would produce profound change in an instant.
        And yet …. The  liberation, awareness – or bliss – of such an experience should, one expects, not need to be clutched at, no should it result in discontent. So perhaps this 'instant's Grace' was something more wordly – a moment of love, a deep insight, a brief spiritual union, or a revelation. Dickinson employs the unspecified and transendent 'It', as she does in various other poems which allows a lot of room for interpretation.

Hildegard von Bingen's Cosmic Egg
But back to the poem. She begins in a matter-of-fact tone: she gained the 'It', the Bliss, by slowly climbing towards it, up through the trees, although it seemed so high up that she might as well have attempted to gain the sky through 'Strategy' rather than, say, a ladder.
        But although the first stanza ends with what seems a great achievement, the second stanza has a rather bitter sadness to it. "I said I gained it", she writes, but that was all there was to it. She does not admit to any betterment or lasting gain. Rather, she draws our attention to how she clutches it. Like the merchant in Jesus' parable in "Matthew", she has found a pearl of great price and given everything she has for it.  She feels herself a Pauper. As a beggar she was content; as someone with a great Pearl, she has nothing.
        In the parable, the pearl of great price stands for the kingdom of heaven. Is this what Dickinson was getting at? After all the reading and walking and thinking and soul searching and venturing out onto the Circumference, did she grab a fistful of Heaven's tent and find it an empty prize? Even the rhymes in the last stanza are rather sad: all / fall; instant's Grace / Beggar's face.

This is a very visual poem, and its frequent rhymes and simple diction make it a pleasure to read aloud. 


  1. Susan, I read an ED poem each morn followed by your interpretation & comments (just started to do so this past summer). Thank you for your insightful commentaries; they push me to investigate, search & think (!)
    Re clutching the pearl of great price, if we think of the bliss she clutches rather as a momentary insight or realization of the transcendent nature of life, a moment in time achieved via meditation, a moment which easily slips away only to be clutched at & achieved again & again,
    for me the poem has great power & connects all of us in our daily struggles.

    1. Thanks for the kind words! But the sort of bliss you describe would not leave one unfitted for the pre-Bliss life, would it? Except maybe for the mall or the Superbowl or something. It must be something fantastic -- a Grand Vision/Truth, a transcendence that makes regular life just seem pale and poor and hardly worth living. I've rather changed my mind about the disappointing part. I don't see it there now.

      Thanks for your comment!

  2. This poem now makes me think of the Clematis vine & flower. One symbolic meaning of the flower is wisdom. Maybe wisdom & poetry to ED. I see ED climbing the wisdom/poetry Clematis vine.
    I celebrate poems 1 thru 639, many thanks to you!

  3. Thank you. I was just working on a clematis vine this morning, trimming it up. I can see it in the poem, especially with the meaning of wisdom.