Emily Elizabeth Dickinson, born on December 10, 1830 was an American poet who was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, into a prominent family with strong ties to its community. While Dickinson was a prolific writer, her only publications during her lifetime were 10 of her nearly 1,800 poems, and one letter. It was not until after her death in 1886—when Lavinia, Dickinson’s younger sister, discovered her cache of poems—that the breadth of her work became public. She died at the age of 55, on May 15, 1886.
(Information from Wikipedia, image from Goodreads)
Published in 1896, this poem examines the nature of human suffering. Considered to be long according to Dickinson standards, the poem is written in a fairly straightforward manner and gets to the point from the first lines itself. As they convey, the poet scrutinises every grief-stricken person with ‘narrow, probing eyes.’ Here, the poet is portraying her visualisation of grief and, by capturing it in words, conveying the same to the reader.
Quoting Owlcation, “every Grief” provides a metonymic reference to a person who is grieving, of whose sorrow the speaker wishes to determine the breadth and depth. She knows the “size” of her own suffering, and thus she wonders if her fellows take their suffering as seriously as she does.”
[Metonymic- from Merriam-Webster, “a figure of speech consisting of the use of the name of one thing for that of another of which it is an attribute or with which it is associated”]
Proceeding on similar lines, the poet contemplates on how long the griever has been tormented by grief mentioning her own has been with her for too long a period that it now feels as ‘old as pain.’ In the third quatrain, the poet is seen reflecting on whether, the impact of this suffering would cause one to choose death over life i.e commit suicide. The fourth quatrain is particularly hitting and profound as the poet states that some have grown accustomed to the pain that they renew their smile. It is also saddening to hear her compare that their smile i.e fake smile to a lamp that shines faintly due to lack of oil. Dickinson’s use of words and reflective tone of this poem is truly a pivotal aspect that gives the poem its sad, contemplative vibes.
Over the fifth and sixth quatrains, the poet wonders whether they could recover from the hurt over a period of a few hours stating that it would be hard to recover were the grief to grow larger than love.
The Grieved — are many — I am told —
There is the various Cause —
Death — is but one — and comes but once —
And only nails the eyes —
The poet is seen pondering on the causes of grief and states that death is one of the many reasons for grief. Linda Sue Grimes at Owlcation states the metaphorical part clearly, “While “death” is thought to happen to each individual only once, this speaker realizes that death “only nails the eyes.” Death has no way of removing suffering from the soul. The mind of the unself-realized person will retain that taint until she has become God-united. The real “self” or soul transcends death’s reach, as this speaker understands.”
Over the last three quatrains, the poet continues to reflect on other causes of grief that are seen to be more long-lasting than that caused by death. Unable to come to a conclusion about the origin of the pain, she finds a deep measure of solace from the experience and struggles of the Lord Jesus. The Christian references are used to convey how she witnesses other’s suffering, just as the world witnessed Christ’s suffering for the sake of humanity, Cavalry referring to the site Christ was crucified.
And to conclude, stating from Owlcation, the tenth quatrain implies,”As the speaker observes the many styles of crosses people over the centuries have worn and borne, she realizes that suffering is universal and shared, and while such knowledge does not alleviate the suffering, it does demonstrate that there is a divine purpose, and that fact makes the act of bearing grief a spiritual duty, which ultimately leads to divine Bliss.”
From Poem Analysis (paraphrased), this is a “ten stanza poem that is separated into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains follow a rhyme scheme of ABCB. Dickinson was fond of using what is known as a hymn stanza or ballad stanza in her work. This means that the lines follow that specific rhyme scheme, usually, and alternate between iambic trimeter and iambic tetrameter.” Poetic devices used here include metaphors, allusion and alliterations.
I found this poem to be thought-provoking and highly relevant to much of what we experience and go through. Poems revolving around human emotions always end up intriguing me, simply because of how much the little things are given so much meaning. Let me know what you think! And please don’t hesitate to point out any errors or required additions. Thank you for reading!