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14 August 2014

When Diamonds are a Legend

When Diamonds are a Legend,
And Diadems — a Tale —
I Brooch and Earrings for Myself,
Do sow, and Raise for sale —

And tho' I'm scarce accounted,
My Art, a Summer Day — had Patrons —
Once — it was a Queen —
And once — a Butterfly —
                     F553 (1863)  J397

Lacking the prominence of a poet laureate or the glamor of the lionized poets of her day such as the Brownings, Emerson, or William Cullen Bryant, Dickinson pluckily says she can make her own jewels and baubles. And despite her lack of fame, she had, at least on one Summer day, two patrons of her art: a Queen and a butterfly. 

This charming poem begins as if a once-upon-a-time tale. Like the unnamed heroine of Rumpelstiltskin, she can sit alone in a room with her Muse and craft treasures. Dickinson says she sows them – as if jewels were cabbages or poems peonies. She raises them as if they were lambs or ponies. And like a farmer or rancher, she raises them for sale.

The wry second stanza has her admitting that as she writes she is little known and "scarce accounted" in general. Perhaps this last phrase is a bit of a dig at editor and dear friend (at least) Samuel Bowles who didn't encourage her to submit poems to his paper – or to Higginsworth, her "Preceptor" who discouraged her from publishing.
If one were to pick two patrons, a Queen and a Butterfly are lovely choices. No doubt there are real people behind these monikers, but we can only speculate as to whom.

The poem is written in hymn meter. The "had Patrons" in the second stanza metrically belongs to the next line. But the "Once – it was a Queen" line works much better by itself.


  1. I read it differently: in her art she was once queen--majestic over captive audience or possibly queen of nature. After life, she is a butterfly, reincarnated through interpretation. To address a human patron, a queen even more so, with the pronoun "it" is more than a bit condescending; though I suppose that suggests that she is upset about being "scarcely accounted." Using the pronoun "it" for "art" may work in a different fashion. I think it can be interpreted both ways: dashes make the line of thinking nebulous.

    In the second stanza, she writes, (1) she is hardly accounted for; (2) her art is much like a summer's day; (3) although she is hardly accounted, she did have patrons (given apropos in the heat and lethargy of a summer's day), (4) and although her art in this poem is slightly mellow, restful, and lethargic, she once reigned supreme in some earlier deliberate, commanding, authoritative poems, (5) at once she will live anew reincarnated much like the butterfly.

    This interpretation is further supported when accounting for the contrast between the diamond and the butterfly. Diamonds are supposedly forever, while a butterflies life is brief as can be. She starts off thinking about the diamond, and finishes with the butterfly. Also, she raises these diamonds and diadem for sale (presumably for her art as a symbol). Using brooch and earrings as verbs is pretty interesting. Brooch and broach are pretty similar. I'm inclined to think she's almost considering the worth (broaching) of such fanciful jewels for her symbols (earrings or adornments for her poetry). Alas, in the second stanza, we learn that the sale wasn't enough.

    1. Allowing for Dickinson's looseness with grammar, I think the best approach to Dickinson's poetry is to look for the simplest reading that fits with the entire poem. In this case, even though the "it" is singular and "Patrons" is plural, I believe that "it was a Queen" and "[it was] a Butterfly" tie back to the "Patrons". There's a good reason for having a singular "it" and the plural antecedent "Patrons": both Queen and Butterfly were separate singular experiences.

      As to the verbs in the first stanza, I think Dickinson has simply put the verbs "Do sow, and Raise" after their objects: "Brooch and Earrings". We would more commonly write, "I do sow and raise for sale Brooch and Earrings all by myself." She doesn't have to depend on long-gone diamonds and diadems.

      Now that you mention it, I do think there is a nice irony in opening the poem with diamonds and closing it with a butterfly.

  2. I apologize for the mistakes in grammar in my earlier comment.

  3. I read "Queen" to mean "bee".

    1. Maybe, or maybe a play on the term. She might have meant grandiose and lovely Sue who in fact was an audience for Dickinson. Such a figure might well double as a queen bee.

  4. This is such a lovely "Once upon a time poem" completely taking place inside the poet's imagination. What a confident vision filled the lilt and light and playfulness and riches and royalty.

  5. She wrote to T W Higginson in a letter (L767), ‘I never wear Jewels.’ She was very passionate about flowers and her garden. I read the brooches and jewels as metaphors for flowers. The Queen was a person honored to receive one from her, the butterfly the other beneficiary. Horticulture is her Art a Summer Day!

    1. Yes -- that makes perfect and beautiful sense. Thank you!