I came to buy a smile – today –
But just a single smile –
The smallest one upon your face
Will suit me just as well –
The one that no one else would miss
It shone so very small –
I'm pleading at the "counter" – sir –
Could you afford to sell –
I've Diamonds – on my fingers!
You know what Diamonds are!
I've Rubies – like the Evening Blood –
And Topaz – like the star!
'Twould be "a Bargain" for a Jew!
Say? May I have it – Sir?
F258 (1861) 223
This poem, sent to Samuel Bowles, presents the narrator as a shopper and the beloved as shopkeeper. She has come to his store bejewelled and ready to spend her precious gems on one of his smiles. She is humble – she only wants a “single smile” and the smallest one at that. It can’t be important to him as “no one else would miss” it. The implication, though, is that what the narrator really wants is a private, secret smile; one that shines, and shines “so very small” that others don’t notice it. We all know those secret little expressions.
|This picture of Bowles about
the time Dickinson met him
shows a man in need of
a smile -- even a small one!
The last two lines of the first stanza are of particular interest: she is standing “at the ‘counter,’” she calls her beloved “sir” as fitting for a customer to a respected merchant, and she pleads with him to sell – but asks him if he can “afford” to sell this little smile. The problem with Samuel Bowles was that he was married. And so the question is very pertinent: Could he really afford secret smiles for a single woman, particularly one who kept sending him letters and poems? Dickinson also sent his wife Mary poems and letters, but I suspect the couple both knew the way the wind was blowing.
The first stanza is full of “s” sounds: smile, single, smile, smallest face, suit, else, miss, shone, small, sir, sell. The effect is sinuous, suggestive of snakes – and so of the serpent’s temptations to sin in the Garden of Eden. The stanza is soft, teasing, seductively wheedling.
The second stanza is quite different. The humble shopper pleading for just a tiny smile turns out to have diamonds. Not just one diamond, but diamonds plural. Diamonds in those days (as today) came from Brazil, South Africa, Australia, and India. They hadn’t yet been adopted as the ‘must have’ engagement and wedding ring stone, but with increased trade from the growing English empire, the gem was becoming popular with the upper class – not just royalty.
She is also sporting rubies and topaz – two other precious stones worth a small fortune if of any quality. Her rubies are of good quality, red as the “Evening Blood” of sunset spreading across the sky. Her topaz shines as clear and gold as a star.
The narrator is willing to trade all of these riches for the smallest smile. This, she points out would be “’a Bargain’ for a Jew!” This sounds a bit derogatory and it is in the sense that because of their role in finance and jewels, many people, Gentiles, thought Jews were money-centered. Background: Jews were forced out of many locations and many occupations (probably because their resistance to intermarriage and mingling with other cultures created suspicion, while their successes generated resentment) they became moneylenders – financiers across northern Africa, the Mideast, and Europe. Because diamonds and other precious stones were used for collateral for loans, Jewish communities developed a specialty in diamond assessment that eventually became dominance in global diamond markets. The assumption in this poem is that a knowledgeable Jew would find her offer of a trade a very favourable one for the shopkeeper!
Unlike the soft sibilance of the first stanza, the second stanza is all hard consonants – like the jewels it lists: Diamonds, fingers, rubies, blood, Topaz, Bargain. The last line goes back to the wheedling “s” sounds of “Say” and “Sir.”
The poem uses slant rhymes throughout. The first stanza has smile, well, small, and sell; as well as face and miss. The second stanza has are, star, and Sir. Both “Blood” and “Jew” end their lines and are without rhymes. This strengthens the already strong words, the effect being to underscore the value of the deal. The result is that along with the playful, teasing tone of the poem there is an undertone of urgency. Dickinson’s shopper really really needs that smile!