Emily Dickinson's "I had a guinea golden"

Updated on October 23, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Emily Dickinson

Source

Emily Dickinson's Titles


Emily Dickinson did not provide titles to her 1,775 poems; therefore, each poem's first line becomes the title. According to the MLA Style Manuel:

"When the first line of a poem serves as the title of the poem, reproduce the line exactly as it appears in the text."

APA does not address this issue.

Introduction and Text of "I had a guinea golden"

This fascinating 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 Emily 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.

Emily Dickinson

daguerrotype at age 17
daguerrotype at age 17 | Source

Life Sketch of Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson remains one of the most fascinating and widely researched poets in America. Much speculation abounds regarding some of the most known facts about her. For example, after the age of seventeen, she remained fairly cloistered in her father's home, rarely moving from the house beyond the front gate. Yet she produced some of the wisest, deepest poetry ever created anywhere at any time.

Regardless of Emily's personal reasons for living nun-like, readers have found much to admire, enjoy, and appreciate about her poems. Though they often baffle upon first encounter, they reward readers mightily who stay with each poem and dig out the nuggets of golden wisdom.

New England Family

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born December 10, 1830, in Amherst, MA, to Edward Dickinson and Emily Norcross Dickinson. Emily was the second child of three: Austin, her older brother who was born April 16, 1829, and Lavinia, her younger sister, born February 28, 1833. Emily died on May 15, 1886.

Emily's New England heritage was strong and included her paternal grandfather, Samuel Dickinson, who was one of the founders of Amherst College. Emily's father was a lawyer and also was elected to and served one term in the state legislature (1837-1839); later between 1852 and 1855, he served one term in the U.S. House of Representative as a representative of Massachusetts.

Education

Emily attended the primary grades in a one room school until being sent to Amherst Academy, which became Amherst College. The school took pride in offering college level course in the sciences from astronomy to zoology. Emily enjoyed school, and her poems testify to the skill with which she mastered her academic lessons.

After her seven year stint at Amherst Academy, Emily then entered Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in the fall of 1847. Emily remained at the seminary for only one year. Much speculation has been offered regarding Emily's early departure from formal education, from the atmosphere of religiosity of the school to the simple fact that the seminary offered nothing new for the sharp minded Emily to learn. She seemed quite content to leave in order to stay home. Likely her reclusiveness was beginning, and she felt the need to control her own learning and schedule her own life activities.

As a stay-at-home daughter in 19th century New England, Emily was expected to take on her share of domestic duties, including housework, likely to help prepare said daughters for handling their own homes after marriage. Possibly, Emily was convinced that her life would not be the traditional one of wife, mother, and householder; she has even stated as much: God keep me from what they call households.

In this householder-in-training position, Emily especially disdained the role a host to the many guests that her father's community service required of his family. She found such entertaining mind-boggling, and all that time spent with others meant less time for her own creative efforts. By this time in her life, Emily was discovering the joy of soul-discovery through her art.

Although many have speculated that her dismissal of the current religious metaphor landed her in the atheist camp, Emily's poems testify to a deep spiritual awareness that far exceeds the religious rhetoric of the period. In fact, Emily was likely discovering that her intuition about all things spiritual demonstrated an intellect that far exceeded any of her family's and compatriots' intelligence. Her focus became her poetry—her main interest in life.

Publication

Very few of Emily's poems appeared in print during her lifetime. And it was only after her death the her sister Vinnie discovered the bundles of poems, called fascicles, in Emily's room. A total of 1775 individual poems have made their way to publication. The first publicans of her works to appear, gathered and edited by Mabel Loomis Todd, a supposed paramour of Emily's brother, and the editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson had been altered to the point of changing the meanings of her poems. The regularization of her technical achievements with grammar and punctuation obliterated the high achievement that the poet had so creatively accomplished.

Readers can thank Thomas H. Johnson, who in the mid 1950s went to work at restoring Emily's poems to their, at least near, original. His doing so restored her many dashes, spacings, and other grammar/mechanical features that earlier editors had "corrected" for the poet—corrections that ultimately resulted in obliteration of the poetic achievement reached by Emily's mystically brilliant talent.

Thomas H. Johnson's The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson

The text I use for commentaries
The text I use for commentaries | Source

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Linda Sue Grimes

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