A Diamond on the Hand

A Diamond on the Hand
To Custom Common grown
Subsides from its significance
The Gem were best unknown—

Within a Seller’s Shrine
How many sight and sigh
And cannot, but are mad for fear
That any other buy.

“A Diamond on the Hand,” poem 1108 in Thomas H. Johnson’s edition, was written in 1867 and later published in 1932 in Emily Dickinson Face to Face: Unpublished Letters with Notes and Reminiscences. The poem is written for Dickinson’s sister-in-law, Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson (Smith and Hart 30-31), and in the original manuscript, the opening lines are crossed out and replaced. Franklin’s edition, however, excludes “A Diamond on the Hand” from his list of those sent to Gilbert Dickinson and places it in the list of those excluded. What is notable is that the manuscript has features in common with those sent to Susan: fold marks that suggest the stationary was folded and refolded into a small square so that it could be passed along to other people.

The poem is composed of lines with six syllables, six syllables, eight syllables, and six syllables twice, since the poem is two stanzas.  The first two lines are in iambic trimeter, the third line in iambic tetrameter, the fourth-sixth lines in iambic trimeter, the seventh line in iambic tetrameter, and the eighth line in iambic trimeter. The poem uses an ABCB rhyme scheme, with the words “grown” and “unknown” and “sigh” and “buy.” Alliteration is present in the poem as well: “To Common Custom grown,” “Subsides from its significance,” “Within a Seller’s Shrine,” and “How many sight and sigh.”

Dickinson has two other poems on diamonds: “Reverse cannot befall” and “I’ll clutch—and clutch —.” In Emily Dickinson Face to Face, a year after the book’s publication in 1933, Morris U. Schappes writes that the poems included in the volume, such as “A Diamond on the Hand,” will “add nothing to a high reputation,” and that the editing done by Dickinson’s niece, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, is suspicious because she “cannot copy the same page twice without making some error.” In 1971, thirty-nine years after publication, Scott Donaldson writes about the book saying that it “remains of value principally as a document in the long, and sadly vindictive, struggle over the hoard of Dickinson verse conducted by Mme. Bianchi and the heirs of Mabel Loomis Todd.” He writes that the book reveals more about the “ill temper, arrogance, and conspicuous propriety of Emily Dickinson’s niece…than about the woman-and poet-who continues to dazzle” (163).

The poem describes a diamond ring that is worn daily and loses its importance; yet people still sigh because they cannot afford diamonds, and are jealous of those who can. Therefore, it would be better if diamonds did not exist at all. Dickinson’s use of short meter and common rhyme scheme makes the poem flow, overall conveying its message clearly and efficiently.

Bibliography and Further Reading “A Timeline of Emily Dickinson’s Life,” Emily Dickinson Museum. Emily Dickinson Museum; Emily Dickinson. “1108.” The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. Thomas H. Johnson. (1960); Scott Donaldson. “Emily Dickinson Face to Face by Martha Dickinson Bianchi.” The New England Quarterly (1971); Morris U. Schappes. Emily Dickinson Face to Face: Unpublished Letters with Notes and Reminiscences by Emily Dickinson, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, Alfred Leete Hampson. American Literature (1933); Martha Nell Smith & Ellen Louise Hart, “On Franklin’s Gifts and Ghosts.” The Emily Dickinson Journal (1999).

Credits Composed by Danielle Field, Spring 2017.

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American Poetry and Poetics by Mark C. Long is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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