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08 June 2012

I came to buy a smile – today –

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!


  1. In my opinion, the jeweled lady is not Emily but her beloved Sunset. The storekeeper is not Bowles but Sunrise. Blessed with a great fortune and royal dignity, Sunset cannot satisfy her vanity. She notices that she is frustratingly smileless. “Smile” is owned by Sunrise but not by Sunset. She is jealous of her rival smiling. Then she offers to exchange jewelries for a smile if light.

  2. Yes, the narrator does describe herself in sunset terms. But I think it's a sense of extravagance the narrator adopts to underscore her generous terms. But I do like the playfulness of imaging Sunset approaching Sunrise – very much Dickinsonian playfulness!

  3. Dear Susan,
    I've appreciated very much your comments on the above poem of Emily Dickinson. It's been of a great help to me in my translating the poem into the Russian language. At least I seem to become sure that I was not drifting far from the original.
    Thanks a lot and every success in all your endeavors.
    With best wishes and regards,
    I remain,
    Sincerely Yours,

    Valentin Savin

    P.S. Just in case my cite is

  4. Thank you, Valentin. I hope you find other jewels to translate among Dickinson's poetry.
    Warm regards - Susan

  5. I'm wondering what relation this poem has to the fascicle 11. Preceding "I came to buy a smile" in the fascicle is "That after Horror - that 'twas us," which you parsed in your previous post. Before this poem, the running themes I have found in Fascicle 11 are:

    Isolation and the brilliance of the soul in contrast to the plainness or shyness of the body [A Mien to move a Queen].

    Loss of individuality in death/transcendence [A drop that wrestles], provincial perspective (in a pastoral poem) [The Robin's my Criterion for Tune].

    The unexpectedness of change (whether that is of the seasons/joy/life to death/material to spiritual or abstract) [I've known a Heaven - like a Tent].

    The greater, though unseen, pain of the soul in contrast to the pain of the body [It is easy to work when the soul is at play].
    And the conjectures of death (though this speaker seems to be pondering an alternative in retrospect, after she has been saved) [That after Horror - that 'twas us].

    I know these aren't all of the themes that can be extracted from these poems, but they seem to fit into the fascicle more than "I came to buy a smile". Certainly, the poem has jewelry in common with "I held a Jewel in my fingers" and the idea of trade for a beloved in "What would I give to see his face?". As I have been writing, it seems that an over-arching theme of the fascicle is "Invisibility" or "Non-location" The smile "that no one else would miss" from "I came to buy a smile" could fit this theme, but I am still having trouble. Any thoughts?

    1. I haven't taken the fascicle approach -- although I think it is important to do so. I haven't found readily-available sources from scholars to help out, either. I'd love to know what prompted her to include the poems she did in each fascicle. The contrast between this Smile poem and the previous Horror one is startling -- different universes, as you point out.

      I keep entertaining the thought that Dickinson was making little chapbooks, samplers, if you will, of her work. With an eye for pleasing the public (or some special audience) she artfully inserts a bit of whimsy after a bit of desolation; she mixes earthly passion with musings about God and the afterlife.

      In looking for a unifying theme or idea for Fascicle 11, I noticed that the first poem ("Mien") sets up an identity -- which I proposed is Dickinson herself. The subsequent poems are all first person, each developing a different aspect of the "I", or narrator. She yearns for someone, she senses heaven, she is playful as well as passionate. Etc.

  6. Keeping it simple, maybe like your caption of Samuel Bowles states he was a person who needed some lightening up, and a smile was more for his benefit than the narrator, and the narrator was sincerely concerned for his overall well-being and was willing to part with her jewels to do so. Although I'm trying to gleam out your reference about him and his wife.
    Also, knowing Amherst in the 19th century, I wonder if Emily ever met a Jew. I was taken aback a bit when I came upon it. I suspect she read the "Merchant of Venice."

    1. It's a good question. It seems unlikely since she rarely left Amherst -- but I don't know whether or not there were jews or regularly visiting there. She certainly relies on the old trope without modification -- which does take many of us aback (to say the least) as readers.