I follow the work of writer and editor Andi Cumbo-Floyd, and in a newsletter, she recently challenged her audience to read a poem a day as an exercise in improving their craft as writers. I have accepted the challenge, and I am grateful that I have because I am gaining much from the experience of imbibing verse. What follows is an account of my insights after reading the following poem by Emily Dickinson.
To Emily Dickinson, she needs no corporal treasure, for she is her own trove. In “Real Riches,” Emily spurns the pearls of the ocean, the brooches of queens, and the gold of the mines in favor of the symbolic diadem crowning her.
I perceive two layers of meaning in this poem; the first is a feminist exhortation for the value of the woman, while the second represents the internal struggle of the poet. The poem is rich with symbolism. “Pearls,” “brooches,” “Emperor,” “rubies,” “gold,” “diamonds,” and “diadem” all are images indicating wealth and success. On the surface, it appears as though Ms. Dickinson is rejecting material wealth, opting instead for the value she possesses within herself. Beneath the surface, however, lies far more depth and insight.
For starters, I believe Emily is asserting that she finds more value in herself as a single woman and chooses an unmarried life with intention. The imagery in the lines “Tis little I could care for pearls…Or brooches, when the Emperor / With rubies pelteth me,” hearkens an absurd impression of a caricatured sovereign, tossing rubies–akin to stones–at a defensive woman while she blocks herself behind raised arms. To me, this conjures a relationship trope of a resentful husband chucking an expensive gift at a belligerent, nagging wife. I feel the image, farcical as it seems, offers insight into Emily’s perceived notions about married life. I contend that this is no coincidence, as Ms. Dickinson never did marry. This poem can be read as an exhortation from the past to girls across the ages pealing fervently, “You have value! You are enough! You don’t need a man to increase your appraisal.”
On the other hand, I find the same image, that of the Emperor pelting rubies at a woman, alludes in some small way to the woman in the Bible who, having a crowd of men preparing her execution with stones, is rescued by the unprejudiced Christ, who reveals to the horde their own sinfulness. I wonder if Emily chose this image as a symbol of poetic critics and publishers. She published few poems in her lifetime, and when once she solicited the opinion of a publisher, she was discouraged. I think it is possible that the “pearls,” “brooches,” “rubies,” “diamonds,” and “gold” could represent the acclaim that she would never–in her lifetime–receive for her verse. Perhaps, Ms. Dickinson is assuaging herself–“I know I have a gift. I don’t need validation. My talent is as vast as a dome.”
In conclusion, I am grateful for Ms. Dickinson’s perseverance. She lived a lonely existence, harrowed with anxiety. She never married. She published little, but she persisted in writing, and as a writer, this edifies me. So I ask myself–am I enough for me? As a woman, am I enough? As a writer and thinker, am I enough?