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27 June 2011

I had a guinea golden—

I had a guinea golden—
I lost it in the sand—
And tho' the sum was simple
And pounds were in the land—
Still, had it such a value
Unto my frugal eye—
That when I could not find it—
I sat me down to sigh.

I had a crimson Robin—
Who sang full many a day
But when the woods were painted,
He, too, did fly away—

Time brought me other Robins—
Their ballads were the same—
Still, for my missing Troubador
I kept the "house at hame."

I had a star in heaven—
One "Pleiad" was its name—
And when I was not heeding,
It wandered from the same.
And tho' the skies are crowded—
And all the night ashine—
I do not care about it—
Since none of them are mine.

My story has a moral—
I have a missing friend—
"Pleiad" its name, and Robin,
And guinea in the sand.
And when this mournful ditty
Accompanied with tear—
Shall meet the eye of traitor
In country far from here—
Grant that repentance solemn
May seize upon his mind—
And he no consolation
Beneath the sun may find.
                                                                  -  F 12 (1858)

Dickenson calls this a 'ditty' and that seems about right to me. The iambic trimeter establishes the lightness as do the word inversions such as "Beneath the sun may find" and "I sat me down to sigh." She summarizes her point for us in the last stanza: she is writing to a friend she misses and she playfully says he should repent of his absence. 
     I don't know who she is writing about. The usual suspects didn't live in faraway countries. Samuel Bowles traveled widely, so perhaps it was to him.
her little "Troubadour"
- Tom Grey
     The three images she picks are each of interest. The guinea she has lost is worth about $5 US dollars -- or 21 shillings. Even though pounds were freely available, she, being frugal, valued it. But not enough to not lose it. The interesting part is that she did lose it. Would the missed friend be complimented by being compared to a guinea when there were plenty of pounds? Or to being carelessly lost? Perhaps Dickinson didn't realize she would miss it until she had lost it.
     The next image is of a springtime robin who came and sang until full summer came, painting the woods with flowers. The robin then leaves on its migratory path and although other robins come each spring and sing the same songs, her heart belongs to that first one. Here, it is the robin who leaves the poet, headed to the next port of call. Meanwhile, the poet waits.
     The third image calls on the heavens as one of the seven Pleiads is missing. This has some astronomical basis as only six of the Pleiades are visible. The Greeks had it that all seven were transformed maidens--although they all ended up bearing children. One of the seven, Merope, had a child by a mortal man, however, and so faded away. Why Dickenson would address a poem to a man but name him as the missing Pleiad is a bit of a mystery to me. Perhaps she is writing instead to a school friend or another woman and included the masculine reference ("his mind") at the end as a tease, a red herring. It's difficult to believe she would be writing to Sue as she never undervalued Sue so much as to misplace her like the golden guinea.


  1. Replies
    1. Google is your friend:

  2. Thanks, Susan. I really appreciate your reply and what you are doing about Emily Dickinson. I am in fact looking for places that could help me get a better understanding of her poems and your blog is a god send. If you don't mind, could I also ask you what is "house at hame"? Google does not help here.

    1. It's like saying "I kept house at home". It's an old word. One resource that is very helpful is the Emily Dickinson Lexicon. It uses the 1844 Webster dictionary that was current as she was writing. There is a small search bar for you to put in the word you want to check.

      A few good books: Sewall's The Life of Emily dickinson; Wolff's Emily Dickinson; and The Emily dickinson Handbook. I also suggest reading her marvelous letters: "Emily dickinson Selected Letters

    2. "House at hame" is in quotes in the poem; I believe it's a quote from Robert Burns' "We're a Noddin,'" with its chorus of "We're a noddin', nid nid noddin', / We're a noddin' at our house at hame!" Hence the Scots spelling of "home" as "hame." The allusion to a jaunty drinking song adds to the playful tone of the poem, and the speaker is both "keeping house" in the normal sense in the robin's absence and perhaps also literally keeping his "house (i.e. birdhouse) at home" in hopes of his return.

    3. Thanks, Kenneth -- that understanding really adds to the poem.

  3. Thanks again, Susan. I'll be going through the Emily Dickinson Lexicon soon. I discovered ED in my retirement years but had never went to school for poetry or literature. In fact, I came from Hong Kong but had lived in Canada for almost 30 years now.

  4. This back and forth is So great. Thank you all!

  5. Sam Bowles married on September 6, 1848, at age 22. He had 7 children. I doubt this poem was about him.

  6. ED thought she had lost Sue when she married Austin in 1856.

  7. The last six lines seem angry: “traitor; no consolation … may find”. Switch the pronouns to feminine, and the friend is Susan, who may live “a hedge away” physically but apparently now lives “in a country far from here” emotionally. ED sounds hurt and angry as she hurls the closing curse "And he no consolation beneath the sun may find", but I also hear a hint of hope that Susan will return some day.

    1. You may be right, but I still find the tone playful so am not convinced she is hurling a curse.

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  9. I could agree up to the last eight lines, but they obliterate any playfulness in the poem (pronouns switched):

    And when this mournful ditty
    Accompanied with tear—
    Shall meet the eye of traitor [A newlywed "traitor"? Really?]
    In country far from here— [Emotionally far away]
    Grant that repentance solemn
    May seize upon her mind— [ED grasps for a hopeful straw,
    And she no consolation [but anger overpowers hope.
    Beneath the sun may find. [I see no playfulness here.]

  10. After three months of reading and commenting on ED poems, the final two lines of ‘I had a guinea golden’ still sound angry. However, reading between the lines, I hear anger not with Susan but with herself. During academic year 1851-52 Susan had taught high school math in Baltimore, and ED’s frequent letters expressed intense pain of separation. Afterward, in hopes of keeping Susan nearby, ED had nudged Susan and Austin toward a romantic relationship that culminated in marriage in 1856. Whether or not ED consciously acknowledged her role in creating Susan’s understandable focus on her marriage, ED had helped create the situation. Anger hails from many homes.

  11. Samuel Bowles, amongst a group of three other men, was considered an important influence in Emily’s life and a possible contender for Master, if such a person even existed. This whole poem is similar in tone and style to Emily’s first valentines. Though ribald and frisky, they weren’t meant as aggressive bombs but playful felicities. The meaning I take from it is that each blade of grass is as important to Emily as the whole meadow. The kind of loss that is unacceptable is what comes from taking something for granted. IMO!!