a missing friend

I had a guinea golden;
I lost it in the sand,
And though 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 troubadour
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 though 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.

~Emily Dickinson
A guinea. Image via Wikipedia.

My edition of Dickinson’s poems includes a note after this one that suggests it may have been sent to a friend who was delinquent in responding to letters. It has a teasing tone, referring to the absent friend as a “traitor” after comparing the friend at length to a lost guinea, a flown robin, and a wandering star.

What really strikes me about this poem is how long it is. By Dickinsonian terms, this is practically an epic. There’s something touching in this gesture, in the idea that Emily would write a longer poem to tease a friend than to examine the depths of her own soul. She reportedly would bake for friends, including poems along with the food, and fully expecting the food to be more appreciated.

If this poem was included in a letter to a friend, imagine being that friend. I wonder if Dickinson’s correspondents appreciated the words they were receiving as anything more than mere letters–if they had any inkling that the person writing to them was squirreling away packets of poetry that would one day change the literary world.


My friend must be a bird,
Because it flies!
Mortal my friend must be,
Because it dies!
Barbs has it, like a bee.
Ah, curious friend,
Thou puzzlest me!

~Emily Dickinson

This poem perfectly captures the perplexing aspects of human friendship. Friends fly away, they die, they leave, they wound. They can puzzle us infinitely, because they, like us, are human and contradictory. No one has the power to injure us quite like someone we love.

This poem appears in collections of Dickinson’s poetry with love poems, and perhaps it is one–but it could be true of any kind of human relationship.

Enough is one

FEW get enough,—enough is one;
To that ethereal throng
Have not each one of us the right
To stealthily belong?

~Emily Dickinson

A small one, but a good one. Few do get enough-but of what? If “enough is one,” then is “enough” referring to people? If we have one true friend, are we among the lucky few? But what, then, is “that ethereal throng”? Is the throng ethereal because it is actually small–a pair rather than a throng? Is Dickinson being tongue-in-cheek here? This poem reminds me of the following one:

I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us — don’t tell!
They’d banish — you know!

How dreary to be somebody!
How public like a frog
To tell one’s name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!

~Emily Dickinson

In both of these poems, though in different ways, Dickinson seems to be arguing for the “select society” of the soul. I love her perspective on friendship, which is utterly refreshing in the age of social media–you don’t need many friends, as long as you have one true one.

So here’s to the real friendships, the unfiltered ones, the ones that last and grow and evolve and make us better than we were before.


South winds jostle them,
Bumblebees come,
Hover, hesitate,
Drink, and are gone.

Butterflies pause
On their passage Cashmere;
I, softly plucking,
Present them here!

~Emily Dickinson

This is a lovely little poem. Though on its face it reads like a riddle, never naming its subject, the reader knows that the poet is talking about flowers. The language is typically evocative–jostling winds, drinking bees, and butterflies “On their passage Cashmere.” The whole thing sounds like it could have been lines penned and pinned on a bouquet of flowers gathered for a friend–a gift to be presented with love and reverence.

Words of encouragement

Read, sweet, how others strove,
Till we are stouter;
What they renounced,
Till we are less afraid;
How many times they bore
The faithful witness,
Till we are helped,
As if a kingdom cared!

Read then of faith
That shone above the fagot;
Clear strains of hymn
The river could not drown;
Brave names of men
And celestial women,
Passed out of record
Into renown!

~Emily Dickinson

There is something rather un-Emily like about this poem. I don’t know if it’s that she usually isn’t trying to buck anybody up, or if it’s the more straightforward voice, or the address at the beginning, which sounds somehow more sonnet-y than usual.

Your prompt is to write some words of encouragement, and put them somewhere to be found and read.

The soul selects her own society

The soul selects her own society,
Then shuts the door;
On her divine majority
Obtrude no more.

Unmoved, she notes the chariot’s pausing At her low gate;
Unmoved, an emperor is kneeling
Upon her mat.

I’ve known her from an ample nation Choose one;
Then close the valves of her attention
Like stone.

~Emily Dickinson

I love how the abruptly shifting line lengths mirror the speaker’s certainty in her own right to do as she pleases. She does not need to humor anyone–her relationships are her own to forge and tend.

I also love Dickinson’s complete disregard for rank and title, for all the trappings of this world. Her voice in this poem recalls Robert Burns’s in his poem “For a’ that”:

Is there, for honest poverty,
That hings his head, an’ a’ that?
The coward slave, we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
Our toils obscure, an’ a’ that;
The rank is but the guinea’s stamp;
The man’s the gowd for a’ that,

What tho’ on hamely fare we dine,
Wear hoddin-gray, an’ a’ that;
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine,
A man’s a man for a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
Their tinsel show an’ a’ that;
The honest man, tho’ e’er sae poor,
Is king o’ men for a’ that.

Ye see yon birkie, ca’d a lord
Wha struts, an’ stares, an’ a’ that;
Tho’ hundreds worship at his word,
He’s but a coof for a’ that:
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
His riband, star, an’ a’ that,
The man o’ independent mind,
He looks and laughs at a’ that.

A prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an’ a’ that;
But an honest man’s aboon his might,
Guid faith he mauna fa’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
Their dignities, an’ a’ that,
The pith o’ sense, an’ pride o’ worth,
Are higher rank than a’ that.

Then let us pray that come it may,
As come it will for a’ that,
That sense and worth, o’er a’ the earth,
May bear the gree, an’ a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s coming yet, for a’ that,
That man to man, the warld o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that.

~Robert Burns

Broadcloth Breasts

A shady friend for torrid days
Is easier to find
Than one of higher temperature
For frigid hour of mind.

The vane a little to the east
Scares muslin souls away;
If broadcloth breasts are firmer
Than those of organdy,

Who is to blame? The weaver?
Ah! the bewildering thread!
The tapestries of paradise
So notelessly are made!

~Emily dickinson

Pam: Oh, this one is oddn!It’s easier to find a shady friend on a hot day, than a warm friend on a cold one?

Brenna: I think so–“fair weather friends.” It’s easy to find friends who will stick with you when things are good. But those friends flee when they catch a whiff of trouble. And whose fault is it that some people are like this? God’s?? How weird! That is my paraphrase of this poem.

Pam: What are broadcloth breasts??

Brenna: I think broadcloth was cheaper/tougher than fine materials like organdy. More common. Less prestigious…but the less prestigious friends may be the better ones, the ones who are in it for the long haul. Just because someone looks pretty doesn’t mean they’re going to stick with you.

Pam: Fair. I get the broadcloth/organdy comparison. But. Breasts?

Brenna: “Breasts” because that’s where the heart is? But boy howdy, does that sound super-weird to modern ears.

Pam: It’s so bizarre. Like. Why not describe faces? Or hands? And muslin, of course, is both a fabric and the word you use for a test garment you make in order to insure that your pattern works.

Brenna: It is? I did not know that! Maybe the “muslin” friends, like the test garments, were never made to last.

Pam: Yes! I’m not sure how modern the terminology is to refer to test garments as muslins, but it’s used that way nowadays.

Brenna: I hope that meaning held back then–I think it adds a lot to the poem! Some friendships are never meant to last. They’re pleasant, surface relationships for pleasant, surface times. But when things get real, you need the broadcloth friends. The ones who will stick it out with you.

Pam: Ah! It’s so-called because garment makers typically used muslin, which was pretty cheap, to make the test garment. Then they could make the pattern again, with any adjustments, in the final material, which was probably more expensive. Yes! You want friends who can be made into sturdy bags. Not friends only good for party dresses.

Brenna: So maybe all friendships start as muslin ones? And some stand the test of time and become broadcloth. Some turn out to be organdy–pretty, but not lasting. Others just remain muslin. They never work out.

Pam: They’re basic friendships that don’t delve into anything deeper. Acquaintances, not kindred spirits.

Brenna: “Friends who can be made into sturdy bags”= my new favorite out-of-context quote.

Pam: You and I are BROADCLOTH.

Brenna: You know it!

Pam: I’m going to cross stitch that for you as a constant reminder of our weird friendship.

Brenna: That would be possibly the best gift of all time. You have to stitch it ON broadcloth.


Brenna: Have we discussed this poem enough? I think we have. Thanks for the firm broadcloth breasts, Emily.