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10 March 2018

Just to be Rich

Just to be Rich
To waste my Guinea
On so broad a Heart!
Just to be Poor,
For Barefoot pleasure
You, Sir, shut me out!
Fr635 (1863)


A lot hinges on what the word 'just' means here. I can't cram it into the ED Lexicon suggestions of "only', 'nearly', barely', 'almost', or 'precisely'.  Instead, I find it works best as a sort of shorthand to deliver the reader as directly as possible to what is crystal clear: the beloved is just not the type to ever return her devotion.

King George guinea, 1719
The poem is two three-line laments. In the first, the speaker contends that if she had riches to shower on her beloved it would have little effect. One person's love is not enough for this man. Dickinson generously denotes this as his having 'so broad a Heart', but what I see is more of a flirt or Don Juan whose capacity for receiving love is that of a giant purse: plenty of room for more than one Guinea.
        Guineas were not commonly circulated by Dickinson's time but people used the term in regards to luxury items and fees paid to artists and high-status professionals. But spending such a coin on love, at least in this case, is futile. Even metaphorical guineas – love, tenderness, loyalty – would be wasted.

Young Girl, William-Adolphe 
Bouguereau, 1886

        But lest we think the beloved simply rejects the idea of having guineas bestowed on him, what if the speaker were poor? Perhaps, like the country maidens who entranced the English romantic poets, he would be charmed into love. Alas, for want of a shoe, the gentleman is lost.
  This second lament is harsher than the first. While the guinea was wasted on the beloved, we have no reason to believe it was rejected. Perhaps some connection was established, even if it did not rise to the level of reciprocal love. But in the case of poverty (and the ED Lexicon notes that 'barefoot' meant 'poor' rather than the more romanticized figure of a young woman enjoying the feel of grass beneath her feet as she gathers wildflowers), 'Sir' shuts her out.


There may be more to this poem, however. It is nearly the same as the last stanza of a longer poem Dickinson wrote a year earlier. She sent this shorter version to friend (and possible beloved) Samuel Bowles. The longer one, it seems to me, may well have been written with sometimes-beloved friend (and sister-in-law) Sue in mind.

Here is the longer poem, published by Johnson but not Franklin:
Sweet — You forgot — but I remembered
Every time — for Two —
So that the Sum be never hindered
Through Decay of You — 
Say if I erred? Accuse my Farthings —
Blame the little Hand
Happy it be for You — a Beggar's —
Seeking More — to spend — 
Just to be Rich — to waste my Guineas
On so Best a Heart —
Just to be Poor — for Barefoot Vision
You — Sweet — Shut me out —
J523 (1862)

In this version it is 'Sweet' that shuts the speaker out. It is 'Sweet' who forgets some important sentimental event, requiring the speaker to remember it for both of them so that the memory is not diminished. The beloved seems to have felt that the speaker is at fault somehow. And so the speaker defensively accuses the beloved of wanting her, a Beggar, to somehow find more to spend. 'More', I take it, would mean more acts of love, more tokens of endearment.
        Thus, the third stanza builds on that idea: richly spending love in vain to win a heart closed to poverty.

I read Sue in the longer poem because it reminds me of two earlier poems:

Fr542: "For largest Woman's Heart I knew", a poem Dickinson sent to Sue that seems to imply that although such a heart can feel love or pain, there is little that the speaker can do to capture its entirety.

Fr418: "Your Riches – taught me – Poverty": where Sue sweeps into Emily's life "broad as Buenos Ayre – // You drifted your Dominions – / a Different Peru – / And I esteemed all Poverty / For Life's Estate with you – ". Sue here seems in her drenching abundance richer than the mines of Peru and Argentina, whereas the speaker has only the 'names, of Gems' at her disposal. At the end of the poem we see that this treasured woman, this 'Pearl', slipped through the speaker's fingers.

2 comments:

  1. Thank you for this! This essay shows the worth of your project to write on each of Dickinson's poems. I doubt that many readers could summon up antecedents and resonant, informing language from other poems -- as you do here.

    It is interesting to see how the language of J523 evolves to the tighter language of Fr635. One guinea, rather than guineas is better -- it has the sense of actually paying, doling out the price, rather than thinking in the abstract about the cost. I like "broad" better than "best" -- it is more visual and surprising. Similarly with "Barefoot pleasure". And "Sir" seems much harsher than "Sweet", with its formality.

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    1. Thank you, and I agree with your assessment of the comparative language, particularly with 'broad' rather than 'best'. I got quite sidetracked because of the 'Sir', going through a couple of books of classic Chinese poetry as several develop around the phrase, 'You, Sir'... Then I got to thinking about ways in which Dickinson's poetry is like the classic Chinese in general.

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