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

Updated on April 13, 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.

Sketch of 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!

Emily Dickinson

Source

Commentary

The speaker has made an amazing discovering, and she creates a little drama in which she muses on whether to reveal that discovery.

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.

Life Sketch of Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson remains one of the most fascinating and widely researched poets in America. Much speculation abounds regarding some of the most known facts about her. For example, after the age of seventeen, she remained fairly cloistered in her father's home, rarely moving from the house beyond the front gate. Yet she produced some of the wisest, deepest poetry ever created anywhere at any time.

Regardless of Emily's personal reasons for living nun-like, readers have found much to admire, enjoy, and appreciate about her poems. Though they often baffle upon first encounter, they reward readers mightily who stay with each poem and dig out the nuggets of golden wisdom.

New England Family

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born December 10, 1830, in Amherst, MA, to Edward Dickinson and Emily Norcross Dickinson. Emily was the second child of three: Austin, her older brother who was born April 16, 1829, and Lavinia, her younger sister, born February 28, 1833. Emily died on May 15, 1886.

Emily's New England heritage was strong and included her paternal grandfather, Samuel Dickinson, who was one of the founders of Amherst College. Emily's father was a lawyer and also was elected to and served one term in the state legislature (1837-1839); later between 1852 and 1855, he served one term in the U.S. House of Representative as a representative of Massachusetts.

Education

Emily attended the primary grades in a one room school until being sent to Amherst Academy, which became Amherst College. The school took pride in offering college level course in the sciences from astronomy to zoology. Emily enjoyed school, and her poems testify to the skill with which she mastered her academic lessons.

After her seven year stint at Amherst Academy, Emily then entered Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in the fall of 1847. Emily remained at the seminary for only one year. Much speculation has been offered regarding Emily's early departure from formal education, from the atmosphere of religiosity of the school to the simple fact that the seminary offered nothing new for the sharp minded Emily to learn. She seemed quite content to leave in order to stay home. Likely her reclusiveness was beginning, and she felt the need to control her own learning and schedule her own life activities.

As a stay-at-home daughter in 19th century New England, Emily was expected to take on her share of domestic duties, including housework, likely to help prepare said daughters for handling their own homes after marriage. Possibly, Emily was convinced that her life would not be the traditional one of wife, mother, and householder; she has even stated as much: God keep me from what they call households.

In this householder-in-training position, Emily especially disdained the role a host to the many guests that her father's community service required of his family. She found such entertaining mind-boggling, and all that time spent with others meant less time for her own creative efforts. By this time in her life, Emily was discovering the joy of soul-discovery through her art.

Although many have speculated that her dismissal of the current religious metaphor landed her in the atheist camp, Emily's poems testify to a deep spiritual awareness that far exceeds the religious rhetoric of the period. In fact, Emily was likely discovering that her intuition about all things spiritual demonstrated an intellect that far exceeded any of her family's and compatriots' intelligence. Her focus became her poetry—her main interest in life.

Publication

Very few of Emily's poems appeared in print during her lifetime. And it was only after her death the her sister Vinnie discovered the bundles of poems, called fascicles, in Emily's room. A total of 1775 individual poems have made their way to publication. The first publicans of her works to appear, gathered and edited by Mabel Loomis Todd, a supposed paramour of Emily's brother, and the editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson had been altered to the point of changing the meanings of her poems. The regularization of her technical achievements with grammar and punctuation obliterated the high achievement that the poet had so creatively accomplished.

Readers can thank Thomas H. Johnson, who in the mid 1950s went to work at restoring Emily's poems to their, at least near, original. His doing so restored her many dashes, spacings, and other grammar/mechanical features that earlier editors had "corrected" for the poet—corrections that ultimately resulted in obliteration of the poetic achievement reached by Emily's mystically brilliant talent.

Thomas H. Johnson's The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson

The text I use for the commentaries
The text I use for the commentaries | Source

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