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Takada, Ken: "Attachment Ambiguity in 'The Malay – took the Pearl –'"

Attachment Ambiguity in “The Malay – took the Pearl – "

Ken Takata, Hamline University

In the last several decades, "The Malay - took the Pearl -" has been recognized as one of Dickinson's most significant poems, in part because it directly addresses issues of race as well as class, rank, privilege, wealth, and nationality. Not surprisingly, the poem has been widely analyzed and interpreted. In our talk, we provide a brief summary of these interpretations along with some thoughts as to why these interpretations are strikingly different. We also offer new interpretations. Our analysis uses modified parse trees from linguistics to address the high level of syntactic ambiguity in the poem, especially a type known as attachment ambiguity in which readers are presented with several choices in assembling the poem's phrases into grammatically correct sentences. We describe and develop the machinery for addressing much of the syntactic ambiguity in the poem. Furthermore, we investigate poems that are closely related according to concordances of Dickinson's work. Also, we address questions regarding how this poem may be related to events from Dickinson's biography. Finally, we discuss how the syntactical ambiguity may be related to the number of different interpretations as well as describe how Dickinson may have used this ambiguity to document or express a certain ambivalence related to the historical circumstances of the poem's origin.