“The Malay took the Pearl” (F451A, J452)

The Malay – took the Pearl –
Not – I – the Earl –
I – feared the Sea – too
Unsanctified – to touch –

Praying that I might be
Worthy – the Destiny –
The Swarthy fellow swam –
And bore my Jewel – Home –

Home to the Hut! What lot
Had I – the Jewel – got –
Borne on a Dusky Breast –
I had not deemed a Vest
Of Amber – fit –

The Negro never knew
I – wooed it – too –
To gain, or be undone –
Alike to Him – One –

Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Packet XXXIV, Fascicle 21, ca. 1862. First published in Bolts of Melody (1945), 131, from a transcript of A. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

Many scholars interpret this poem biographically, as an allegory of Dickinson’s rivalry with her brother  Austin for the affections of Susan Gilbert, who eventually becomes his wife. It is one of several poems that describe Susan as Dickinson’s precious, luminously white “Pearl:” see “One life of so much consequence!” (F248), “Your riches taught me poverty” (F418), “Shells from the coast mistaking” (F716) and “Removed from accident and loss” (F417).

A daguerreotype of a young Susan Dickinson from Dickinson Family Photographs (MS Am 1118.99b). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

In this reading, the “Malay” is basically a male exercising his gendered privilege, though Judith Farr finds another source for this powerful character in Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821), a book Dickinson owned. In it, a Malay acts as a retributive figure who comes to the narrator in a dream and conducts him to faraway places where he is punished for some crime he committed by being buried alive or drowned.

By contrast, Robert Weisbuch sees no biographical meaning in the poem, but a universal allegory about failure to take risks, to act, despite fears, on one’s passionate desires. In a reading from 1984, Vivian Pollak challenges this interpretation by insisting that the poem can be read outside of the Emily-Sue-Austin triangle but not outside of the “sexual temptations of Dickinson’s experiences.” In her essay from 2000, Pollak reads the poem along color and, specifically, racial lines, finding in it Dickinson’s “use of race as a politically subversive form of self-definition.” In this approach, Pollak sees an erotic competition in which the speaker, a white upper class woman, fears the sea (sexuality) and thus loses “the Pearl” to “an id figure” first described as a “Malay,” then as “The Swarthy fellow,” and finally as “The Negro” who evinces an “erotic self-confidence” the speaker lacks. Pollak concedes that this view has “its own kind of racism – the association of dark skin and sexual power being all to familiar,” but reads it rather as “figuring whiteness as a burden,” and so  “opens up a space” to escape it.

Paula Bennett takes heated issue with some critics’ refusal to call out Dickinson’s racism, exemplified by Pollak’s reading. This racism, she argues, inheres in Dickinson’s invocation in poems and letters of conventional stereotypes, like the sexual prowess of dark-skinned men, assumptions she finds “pervading late nineteenth-century U.S. literature top to bottom, with minority writers themselves as likely as anyone else to invoke them.” Betsy Erkkila echoes this approach, suggesting that “religious symbolism joins with racial ideology and Western aestheticism to create a perdurable racist mentality–a psychology of whiteness.” Cristanne Miller takes a very different tack, finding the poem “as close as Dickinson comes to constructing an Orientalist tale,” based on the era’s fascination with pearl divers, stories and poems about which appeared in Harper’s Monthly Magazine and the Hampshire and Franklin Gazette.

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