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Emily Dickinson's "I had a guinea golden"

Emily Dickinson's poems remain a vital part of my poet worldview. They dramatize the human spirit via deep attention to life's details.

Emily Dickinson - This daguerreotype is likely the only extant authentic image of the poet.

Emily Dickinson - This daguerreotype is likely the only extant authentic image of the poet.

Introduction and Text of "I had a guinea golden"

This fascinating Emily Dickinson poem of loss offers quite a tricky subversion of thought. The first three stanzas seem to explain the loss of three separate loved ones. Then the final stanza packs a wallop unloading on only one "missing friend," who has caused the speaker to create this "mournful ditty" with tears in her eyes.

This poem demonstrates the depth of Dickinson's education as she employs metaphors of the British coinage system and allusions to Greek mythology, which has been further employed by the science of astronomy to name stars. Not only did Dickinson study widely in many subject areas, she possessed the ability to employ her learning in creative ways to fashion those beautiful flowers, allowing them to grow in her garden of verse.

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.

Reading of "I had a guinea golden"

Commentary

Each stanza builds to a magnificent crescendo of outrage that allows the speaker to lavish affection as well as harsh rebuke to the one leaving her in a state of melancholy.

First Stanza: The Value of Small Things

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.

The speaker begins by referring to the coin, "guinea," which was a British coin manufactured with the gold from the African nation of Guinea. The coin was worth 21 shillings and ceased circulating in 1813. The speaker maintains the British monetary metaphor by referring also to "pounds" in the fourth line of the poem.

Metaphorically, the speaker is calling her lost friend a "golden" coin, which she lost "in the sand." She then admits that it was a small loss for much more valuable moneys, "pounds," were all about her. Nevertheless, to her, because of her frugality, the value of the small coin was huge, and because it was lost to her, she just "sat down to sigh."

Second Stanza: Missing the Music

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."

The speaker then employs the metaphor of "crimson Robin." This time she is likening her friend to the singing robin who "sang full many a day." But when the autumn of the year came around, she loses this friend also.

Just as other moneys were abounding after the loss of a simple guinea, other robins presented themselves to the speaker after she lost her robin. But even though they sang the same songs as her lost robin, it just wasn't the same for the speaker. She continues to mourn the loss of her robin; thus she kept herself harnessed to her house, likely in case her own robin should show up again.

Third Stanza: The Mythology of Science

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.

The speaker then finds herself once again mourning the loss of a loved one. This one she labels "Pleiad." Pleiad is an allusion to Greek mythology but also a reference to astronomy. In Greek mythology, the seven daughters of Atlas went into hiding up in the sky among the stars to escape being pursued by Orion. One the seven seems to disappear perhaps out of shame or grief. In the science astronomy, the constellation known as Taurus features a group of seven stars, but oddly enough only six can be seen, resulting in the same "Lost Pleiad" as exists in the Greek myth.

Dickinson, who studied widely the subjects of mythology, history, and science thus alludes to the myth of the "Lost Pleiad" to again elucidate the nature of her third lost beloved. She has now experienced the loss of money, a bird, and now a star–each more precious than the last.

The speaker loses the star as she was being heedless–not paying attention. In her negligent state, her star wanders away from her. Again, although the sky is full of other stars, they just don't measure up because "none of them are mine."

Fourth Stanza: Admonishing a Traitor

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.

While wildly famous for her riddles, Dickinson often breaks the riddle's force by actually naming the object described. In the final stanza, she blatantly confesses that her little story "has a moral." She then blurts out, "I have a missing friend." It is now that the reader understands the loss is not three different loved ones, but only one. She has thus been describing that "missing friend" using three different metaphoric images.

Now, however, she has a message for this friend whose description has revealed multiple times how much she misses the friend and laments the loss. After again rather baldly admitting her sorrow told in "this mournful ditty" and even "[a]ccompanied with tear," she refers to that missing friend as a "traitor."

If this friend who has betrayed her happens to see this "mournful ditty," she hopes that it will grab his/her mind so that he will experience "repentance solemn." Furthermore, she wishes that s/he be unable to find any solace for his/her contrition no matter where s/he goes.

The text I use for commentaries

The text I use for commentaries

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2018 Linda Sue Grimes

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