I Came to buy a smile – today –
But just a single smile –
The smallest one upon your face
Will suit me just as well –
The one that no one else would miss
It shone so very small –
I’m pleading at the “counter” – sir –
Could you afford to sell –
In this poem sent by Emily Dickinson to Samuel Bowles, the editor of the “Springfield Republican”, the speaking voice is a customer who goes to an imaginary shop to buy something.
The shopkeeper is her beloved and the small thing she wants is just a “single smile”, which can’t be so important to him as “no one else would miss” it.
This smile can represent both the request to reciprocate her love and the desire for a warm gesture, no longer hidden under the rigid social conventions of the time.
And she is prepared to offer anything just to receive that gesture of love.
The problem with Samuel Bowles was that he was married. Could he really have secret smiles for that woman, who kept sending him letters and poems?
I’ve Diamonds – on my fingers –
You know what Diamonds are?
I’ve Rubies – like the Evening Blood –
And Topaz – like the star!
‘Twould be “a Bargain” for a Jew!
Say – may I have it – Sir?
Now she seems to spur the shopkeeper, to beg him by attracting his attention on what she can give in return. And we realize that the humble shopper who is pleading for just a tiny smile has diamonds. Not just one, but “diamonds” and other precious stones.
These priceless gems highlight the fact that she has all she wants except his love.
She is willing to trade all of these riches for “the smallest” smile, which would be “’a Bargain’ for a Jew!”
This sounds a bit derogatory, but we have to remember that, throughout history, there has been a strong connection between diamond trade and Jewish people, starting from Exodus. The breastplate worn by the High Priest of the Israelites, according to the Book of Exodus, contained twelve jewels: in the second row there were an emerald, a sapphire and a diamond (Exodus 28:30).
Although the reader perceives an undertone of urgency, the poem has a playful, teasing tone: the poet is asking for love in a sweet and polite way.
Unlike Bowles’s disposition in June 1877, when he dropped in at her house to borrow a book and to visit her. Emily refused to leave her room and go downstairs to greet him, so he had to yell: “Emily, you wretch. No more of this nonsense. I’ve travelled all the way from Springfield to see you. Come down at once, you damned rascal”.
She obeyed and a few days later she sent him a letter and poem, and signed “Your Rascal”, adding “I washed the Adjective”.