Literature

The Curious Symbolism of Diamonds in Literature and Myth

Diamonds have long been regarded as the most precious of all of the precious gemstones. For this reason, diamonds often symbolise perfection, purity, and rarity; however, because of the durability of diamond – it is famously capable of cutting glass – diamonds also sometimes symbolise imperviousness and indestructibility. The word adamant, used of someone who is unwavering and committed, is from an Old French word meaning ‘diamond’.

Let’s delve a little deeper into the symbolism of diamonds.

Diamond-symbolism in the ancient world

In Buddhism, the Buddha’s throne was made of diamonds, because the precious stone was a symbol of perfection and, because of translucence and brightness, of enlightenment. Tantric Buddhists had a word, vajra, which refers to both the thunderbolt and the diamond as symbols of enduring and powerful spiritual forces.

In ancient Greek philosophy, too, diamonds have taken on similar symbolism: Plato talked of the world’s axis, or axis mundi, as being made of diamond. Pliny the Elder, a few centuries later, argued that diamonds possessed preservative and curative properties, warding off disease and driving away malevolent spirits. Pliny was a credulous soul, so we should take what he says with a pinch of salt, but here he appears to have been merely reflecting the wider belief in the symbolic properties of diamond.

The Greek myths refer to adamant, an earlier name for diamond, in a number of contexts: Cronus castrated his father, Uranus, with an adamant sickle, while Perseus is said to have used a sickle (or a sword in most versions) to decapitate the serpent-headed Gorgon Medusa.

Diamonds in fiction

Of course, diamonds are prized for their value, too, and novelists and short-story writers have often made them the focus of treasure hunts or heist stories. One of the biggest-selling novels of the late nineteenth century, King Solomon’s Mines – the 1885 book which launched a highly lucrative writing career for H. Rider Haggard – is about a quest to find the lost diamond stash of the Biblical King Solomon in Africa.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1922 novella The Diamond as Big as the Ritz is about a young man who meets a man, Percy Washington, who boasts that his father is so rich that he owns ‘a diamond bigger than the Ritz-Carlton Hotel’.

Percy’s family owns the only five square miles of land in the whole of the United States that’s never been surveyed, on which was discovered not only a diamond mine, but a mountain consisting of one solid diamond which is indeed bigger than the Ritz hotel.

Diamonds in poetry

A number of notable poets have written about diamonds. Indeed, Queen Elizabeth I is even thought to have written a poem using a diamond as her ‘pen’. It is said that she inscribed the following lines onto the glass window of her prison at Woodstock, where she was held during the reign of her Catholic sister, Mary I:

Much suspected by me,
Nothing proved can be,
Quoth Elizabeth prisoner.

When Satan is cast out of Heaven in Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667), he is described as being cast ‘to bottomless perdition, there to dwell / In adamantine chains and penal fire’. Iron chains simply aren’t tough enough, especially with hellfire around.

In her short poem ‘A Diamond or a Coal’, Christina Rossetti (1830-94) reminds us that diamond and coal are both made of the element carbon, for all of their superficial differences, and that although we may prefer diamonds, coal – in warming our fires and keeping us alive – has a more immediate place in our lives:

A diamond or a coal?
A diamond, if you please:
Who cares about a clumsy coal
Beneath the summer trees?
A diamond or a coal?
A coal, sir, if you please:
One comes to care about the coal
What time the waters freeze.

This contrast between coal and diamond – and their complimentary symbolism of darkness/blackness versus brightness/light – is one that the African-American poet Audre Lorde would brilliantly use, and interrogate, in her poem ‘Coal’.

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-89), in his poem ‘That Nature Is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection’, concludes:

I am all at once what Christ is, | since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, | patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.

Diamonds were created deep in the earth when carbon atoms were pressed under extraordinary high temperatures to produce the rare gemstones. Of course, in terms of their elementary (and elemental) make-up, they are the same sort of thing as the ‘matchwood’ Hopkins had likened to his mortal body earlier in the poem: they are both carbon. So Hopkins appears to be suggesting that it is through the struggle and heat of the Heraclitean fire, as well as the divine intervention promised in the Resurrection, that he will be made into ‘immortal diamond’.

In the twentieth century, Robert Graves wrote a poem, ‘Dew-drop and Diamond’, in which he compared two lovers. Perhaps unexpectedly, he ends up preferring the lover who is symbolised by the dew-drop, because the drop of water carries ‘in its eye’ all of the natural world, reflected beautifully in its surface; conversely, the diamond shows various facets of the world which remain separated and cannot be pieced together.

But some poets have taken the link between poetry and diamonds to the next level, and produced diamond-shaped poetry. This even has its own name: the diamante poem (or sometimes diamond poem) is a poem comprising seven lines, in which the lines on the page form the shape of a diamond. The diamante or diamond poem was developed by Iris Tiedt in her 1969 book A New Poetry Form: The Diamante.

Image: by Steven Depolo via Wikimedia Commons.

One Comment

  1. Wow!!! So interesting ✨

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