I had a guinea golden

American Robin - The Children's Book of Birds, 1901, Olive Thorne Miller
Background Image: American Robin – The Children’s Book of Birds, 1901, Olive Thorne Miller

The first three stanzas begin with the same words, “I had” and overall the poem is speaking about having lost something important to Emily and, though it might be something “simple”, it can’t truly be replaced. Thus she is talking about the value that each individual thing has, a value beyond its monetary value, such as the “guinea golden”, or how common it is, such as the “crimson Robin” or the “crowded” stars in the night sky. What Emily wants is a specific “guinea”, a specific “Robin”, a specific “star”. This is something she refers to (slightly) in “By Chivalries as tiny” in that individual objects hold great meaning to her and that she imbues the objects of her life with an essence of herself: her memories and her emotions.

The first stanza deals with a small amount of money she has “lost”. This is worth noting because her carelessness has led to her losing something of value to her. And even though she recognizes the sum is trivial and and that more “pounds were in the land”, meaning she could grow some more crops and recover the money quite easily, she is “frugal” and is vexed that she wasn’t paying enough attention to something, even though it was somewhat trivial. All things have value for her, and the moment she took something’s value for granted, she “lost” it and now suffers for having been careless.

The second stanza is clearly about the migration of the American “Robin”, but her use of the word “painted” is worth noting because the word pain is embedded in this image of the forests being “painted” with snow. In fact, if we look at the whole poem there is embedded in it multiple mentions of pain, such as “sigh”, “painted” (pain), “Pleiad” (plead), “mournful”, and “solemn”. For Emily, this “mournful” song is her “ditty” because she has lost something, unlike the “Robin” who “sang full” his ballad of springtime. In other words, when the “Robin” has migrated south because of winter’s pain, she remains behind to sing a “mournful ditty” in its place. She has “lost” the springtime and now must endure the pain of the seasons of death without her friend the “Robin”.

She is also writing about a very specific “Robin” because even though next spring a new “Robin” will appear, it won’t be the same as last year’s “Robin”. She enforces this image and how much emphasis she places on the individual with the missing sister of the Pleiades because, even though there are lots of other stars in the sky, it is the one she can’t see (the naked eye can only really make out 6 of the 7 stars of the Pleiades) which she wants. She values this one, lost little star who nobody notices is even missing because there are more than enough left over because it was her star that she failed to heed (she failed to value when it was visible) and thus it “wandered from the same”. Once again she feels responsible for something of value going missing because she was careless.

The final stanza, though it seems to conclude with the “moral” about having “a missing friend” – the word “friend” being important because a friend is someone who we have a unique relationship with, such as a specific “guinea”, “Robin”, or “Pleiad” and not just any random thing – the most interesting aspect of this stanza is about the “traitor”. She describes her eyes filled with tears meeting “the eye of traitor” who is, perhaps, that missing “guinea” and the migrating “Robin” and the wandering “Pleiad” whom she has run into “In a country far from here”. She calls them traitor because they left her, which is ironic because she was clear that, other than the “Robin”, it was her carelessness which caused her former friends to leave and turn traitor.

Yet she is quite adamant that this “traitor” shall find no “consolation” (which has a rhyme with constellation, such as with the Pleiades) because the relationship has been ruined and she hopes that he will forever be solemnly repentant for the rest of his days for having betrayed her. And while this might seem a little hypocritical of her to want a revenge on someone who left because of her own carelessness, the relationships go both ways because if someone values you only because you value them, then it’s not really a relationship based on mutual respect. Was one moment’s carelessness really worth turning “traitor” on someone and leaving for a “country far from here”?