Emily Dickinson's "I never told the buried gold"

Updated on January 26, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Emily Dickinson

Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "I never told the buried gold"

The speaker seems to be sharing a secret, but it is a secret so bizarre that she must couch it in mystery. She has realized a possession that is buried deep in her psyche, she must dramatize it by creating a parable-like discourse, and she yet remains so ambivalent about revealing it that she seems to continue to waver as her drama unfolds.

I never told the buried gold

I never told the buried gold
Upon the hill — that lies —
I saw the sun — his plunder done
Crouch low to guard his prize.

He stood as near
As stood you here —
A pace had been between —
Did but a snake bisect the brake
My life had forfeit been.

That was a wondrous booty —
I hope 'twas honest gained.
Those were the fairest ingots
That ever kissed the spade!

Whether to keep the secret —
Whether to reveal —
Whether as I ponder
Kidd will sudden sail —

Could a shrewd advise me
We might e'en divide —
Should a shrewd betray me —
Atropos decide!

Commentary

First Stanza: Revealing a Secret

I never told the buried gold
Upon the hill — that lies —
I saw the sun — his plunder done
Crouch low to guard his prize.

The speaker begins by reporting that she has never told anyone about this treasure that she possesses. Then immediately she begins to liken it to the valuable metal, "gold." She places that gold upon a hill where the sun is guarding it. This gold belongs to the sun in the same way that her possession belongs to her.

The sun seems to "plunder" as it moves about in its shining rays over the landscape, and it then stoops over the hill where the gold is buried; in stealth, the sun watches over its treasure. The speaker has observed this odd behavior of the heavenly orb. Thus she likens her own guarding of her "prize" to that of the sun guarding the gold.

We know that the speaker intends to guard her prize because of its unusual nature, but the sun will continue to keep its prize safe out of sheer natural necessity.

Second Stanza: The Shock of Recognition

He stood as near
As stood you here —
A pace had been between —
Did but a snake bisect the brake
My life had forfeit been.

The speaker now has the sun standing near her, as near as the imaginary audience she is addressing. There is, however, "a pace" between them. And then a snake slithers through the thicket, dividing the foliage as it is wont to do. (This image is reminiscent of the line, "The Grass divides as with a Comb," in Dickinson's riddle poem, "A narrow Fellow in the Grass.")

The speaker then makes the odd claim that her life had been forfeited, suggesting that for an instant she likely gave out a gasp of fear before regaining her equilibrium enough to continue living, thinking, and creating her drama. The snake supplies the impetus for the notion of life forfeiting.

When the speaker suddenly experiences the epiphany that she was in possession of this magnificent, golden gift, she experiences a shock that unsettled her for at least a brief moment.

Third Stanza: Desire to be Worthy

That was a wondrous booty —
I hope 'twas honest gained.
Those were the fairest ingots
That ever kissed the spade!

The speaker now admits that what she has realized about herself is tantamount to coming into the possession of large storehouse of amazing gifts or treasure. She calls her treasure "wondrous booty," and then she indicates that she hopes she has earned this amazing treasure-trove, and not merely stolen it or been given it willy-nilly, or inexplicably.

The speaker then sizes up the value of this mysterious possession, by continuing the "gold" metaphor. Now calling her possession "ingots," she estimates their value as the "fairest" "that ever kissed the spade." Of course, ingots must be dug out of the ground, and when they are found by the excavating shovel, those ingots meet the metal of the "spade" with resounding touch, which the speaker calls a "kiss."

Fourth Stanza: Whether to Reveal the Secret

Whether to keep the secret —
Whether to reveal —
Whether as I ponder
Kidd will sudden sail —

Again, the speaker becomes ambivalent about revealing this amazing "secret." She lists her toggling of the mind that cannot decide if he should keep hidden this new knowledge or whether she ought to announce it.

As she muses on the issue—whether to tell or not, she reckons that Captain Kidd might just be sailing to retrieve his own booty of treasure, which by legend he had buried in the Caribbean.

This clever employment of "Kidd" and the allusion that it implies deepens the "gold" and treasure metaphor, continuing the revelation of the value the speaker has placed on this mysterious treasure of which she has become aware.

Fifth Stanza: Leaving the Mystery to Eternity

Could a shrewd advise me
We might e'en divide —
Should a shrewd betray me —
Atropos decide!

The speaker then makes a hilarious admission. If someone who is smart enough to know whether she should reveal her treasure should let her know what is appropriate, she would be willing to give that person part of her treasure. But she does not know if there is such a knowledgeable person who is trustworthy. If she reveals her secret to the wrong "shrewd," she might live to regret it. She could be ridiculed and left to suffer much betrayal.

By calling her potential advisor a "shrewd," the speaker is making fun of such individuals whom she thinks might believe they are, in fact, capable of advising her. But because she allows that a "shrewd" could likely betray her confidence, she remains ambivalent about seeking their advice.

Instead of making a definite decision about whether to seek counsel from one of those shrewds, the speaker decides not to decide. She will leave the decision to "Atropos," one the Greek Fates who is responsible for deciding the exact time for the end of each human life. Atropos held the scissors that cut the thread of life.

The speaker thus decides to leave her decision to the ultimate decision-maker, one whose decision is not only final but made without equivocation. The speaker will remain in humble possession of her knowledge that she owns a mystic, creative soul that will from now on guide her in her creation of little dramas on her pathway through life.

Without having revealed her secret to the wide, gaping yet eyeless majority of the world, the speaker has revealed her secret only to those who will understand. It is in that respect that the speaker's poem is like a parable of Lord Jesus Christ, who spoke through that form only to those who had ears to hear.

Dickinson's Titles


Emily Dickinson did not provide titles to her 1,775 poems; therefore, each poem's first line becomes the title. According to the MLA Style Manuel:

"When the first line of a poem serves as the title of the poem, reproduce the line exactly as it appears in the text."

APA does not address this issue.

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