The Pearl of Great Price Within

Spiritual Sunday

One of today’s lectionary readings has Jesus comparing the kingdom of heaven to a “pearl of great price.” The image shows up in a fine Hilda Doolittle (H.D.) poem, and knowing the allusion adds resonance to the poem.

First, here’s the passage. It’s one of a series of metaphors that Jesus uses to capture the process of spiritual search:

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls.  Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it. (Matthew 3:45-46)

H.D.’s poem is one of a series in her book The Walls Do Not Fall . H.D. is famous for using images to capture complex emotional states. In this case, she uses shell images to convey how she goes through life with a hard exterior so that she won’t be hurt.  This seems necessary because she sees herself as a “flabby amorphous hermit” who can be devoured by sharks or crushed by the weight of the sea, which may be a reference to her depression (treated by Freud).

However, while she may shut herself off from the world, sometimes with a snap, she has a rich interior life which seems more valuable than anything the world has to offer. That is the spell that is to be found “in every sea-shell.” Therefore, do not be fooled by the hard exterior.

The reference to the pearl reminds us how pearls are created. A grain of send gets inside the vulnerable oyster, which must build up a defense against this denizen from the world out there. In its defense, the oyster, like the introverted poet, creates something of transcendent beauty, a pearl of great price.

Jesus calls upon us to seek out a comparable transcendence.

From The Walls Do Not Fall

By H.D.

There is a spell, for instance,
in every sea-shell:

continuous, the sea-thrust
is powerless against coral,

bone, stone, marble
hewn from within by that craftsman,

the shell-fish:
oyster, clam, mollusc

is master-mason planning
the stone-marvel:

yet that flabby, amorphous hermit
within, like the planet

senses the finite,
it limits its orbit

of being, its house,
temple, fane, shrine:

it unlocks the portals
at stated intervals:

prompted by hunger,
it opens to the tide-flow:

but infinity? no,
of nothing-too-much:

I sense my own limit,
my shell-jaws snap shut

at invasion of the limitless,
ocean-weight; infinite water

can not crack me, egg in egg-shell;
closed in, complete, immortal

full-circle, I know the pull
of the tide, the lull

as well as the moon;
the octopus-darkness

is powerless against
her cold immortality;

so I in my own way know
that the whale

can not digest me:
be firm in your own small, static, limited

orbit and the shark-jaws
of outer circumstance

will spit you forth:
be indigestible, hard, ungiving.

so that, living within,
you beget, self-out-of-self,

that pearl-of-great-price.

This entry was posted in Doolittle (Hilda) and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

  • Sign up for weekly newsletter

    Your email will not be shared or sold.
    * = required field

    powered by MailChimp!
  • Twitter Authentication data is incomplete