Skip to main content

Analysis of the Poem 'As Imperceptibly As Grief' by Emily Dickinson

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson

'As Imperceptibly As Grief' Analysis

'As Imperceptibly As Grief' is a subtle and melancholic elegy for the passing of summer, here used as a metaphor for happiness and light. The closer these are to leaving the more beautiful they become.

This transition, whilst sad and inevitable, hardly noticeable, shouldn't really be seen as deceitful because it is natural and part of the fabric of life. In the end, the hope is that it will be beautiful.

In this poem, the speaker is looking back to a time in life when happiness and growth were at their peak, and accepting that, yes, they have gradually lessened over time.

And interestingly, note that the line Our Summer made her light escape implies a personal connection; this happiness and light are 'owned', and so becomes a shared human experience.

Some of the language reflects the idea of slow, daily change: twilight, afternoon, dusk, morning - the diurnal cycle - but that this is essentially a difficult process to understand because it is imperceptible, barely noticeable.

We as humans might notice the small daily changes in life, how busy we need to be, and how much we have to fit in, but as we get older we puzzle over just how quickly time goes.

The themes of the poem are:

  • Loss and grief within natural time cycles
  • How happiness alters
  • Dealing with grief in the context of personal growth.

Little wonder that the poet chose the word perfidy (treachery) as if time was trying to undermine us. This is why stanzas three and four are explanatory, they break time down into periods of the day, in readiness for the light escape.

'As Imperceptibly As Grief' has that classical Dickinson form: short lines, compact stanzas and dashes here and there. It is known that she changed the form of this poem - some versions are a single 16-line stanza - but in her original handwritten manuscript, there are four separate stanzas, like the one shown below.

And because Emily Dickinson didn't title her poems, there are numbers given to each one, based on the two different publishers, R. W. Franklin (1998) and Thomas Johnson (1955).

So if you see this poem in an anthology for example it should have two numbers, 935 and 1540, corresponding to the publisher's names. It was written around 1865 and published posthumously in 1891.

'As Imperceptibly As Grief'


Stanza by Stanza Analysis

'As Imperceptibly As Grief' begins life in a reflective and downbeat mode but ends with a hopeful and philosophical message.

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Owlcation

Stanza 1

How odd to have the opening two lines relating grief to summer, suggesting that summer has ended without us noticing, and that is a subtle and sad thing. Summer here is a metaphor for happiness, light, growth.

The repeated imperceptibly/imperceptible implies that, as humans, we cannot really measure happiness; it's something we feel, just like grief, even though they're at opposite ends of the emotional spectrum.

So there is no treachery (perfidy) to consider because this is a natural phenomenon.

Stanza 2

That word distilled suggests a long-term process whereby essences are extracted - quietness in this case - from twilight, that time of day when the earth breathes out and the noise subsides.

Time is caught between light and dark; energy is lost and the transition to a more reflective mood starts.

And Nature is here personified, a female, isolated, even lonely, in the company of the afternoon.

Stanza 3

This is the most unusual of the four stanzas. From the alliterative dusk drew of the first line, to the unusual grammar of the second - morning foreign shone - and on to the longest third line with the juxtaposed courteous, yet harrowing grace and the metaphorical guest who doesn't want to or cannot stay.

The darkness is closing in fast; the morning seems foreign, that is, strangely unfamiliar.

And what about that word grace? It's both civil and disturbing; it brings delight but also pain and distress.

Stanza 4

This is the conclusion...And thus....summer, happiness, did not fly, nor did it sail away... it somehow lightly escaped into a different dimension. So, being human, we're all subject to the vagaries of time, we each have to endure the seasons.

Summer is that time of growth and peak energy and when it starts to fade away it can be painful, dark and sometimes lonely, but this is all part of the natural cycle.

Losing someone, losing one's vitality - these are inevitable. The happiness loved ones bring, the joy of living life to the full - grief can often subdue and overwhelm. Even so, there is always hope, something positive which can transcend, which is beautiful.

Meaning of Words

imperceptible - subtle so as not to be perceived or noticed

lapsed - expired, no longer active

Perfidy - treachery, being deceitful

distilled - separating out substances by heat and condensation

sequestered - isolating, being hidden away

courteous - politeness, respectful

harrowing - instilling fear, disturbing

keel - backbone or central part of base of a ship

What Is the Rhyme Scheme?

'As Imperceptibly As Grief' has the following rhyme scheme:


so the second and fourth lines of each stanza have some sort of relation. But these rhymes are not full end rhymes, they are slant rhymes, which points to some dissonance.

Only one stanza has full rhyme - shone/gone, the rest... away/perfidy, begun/afternoon and keel/beautiful don't quite unite in harmony.

Internal Rhyme

Assonance, alliteration and near rhyme within the stanzas help create resonance and texture and bring interest. For example:

summer/imperceptible....quietness/twilight....spending with herself/Sequestered...dusk drew...earlier/morning foreign...without a wing....

What Is the Metre?

'As Imperceptibly As Grief' is controlled by the familiar iambic beat, with first syllable unstressed and the second stressed (daDUM), much like in common speech where the voice is said to rise.

Pure iambic lines can be found in the second line of each stanza, lines 2, 6, 10 and 14. And also in lines 7, 12, 13 and 15. That's exactly half of the poem. So yes, iambic trimeter holds sway in this poem, but only just.

The striking thing about this poem is Emily Dickinson's use of three and five syllable words in certain lines, which alters rhythm and sound, so breaking the iambic beat from time to time.

As im / percep / tibly / as grief

The sum / mer lapsed / away,—

Too im / perceptible, / at last,

To seem / like per / fidy.

That first line is, arguably, an iambic sandwich with a pyrrhic filling. The five syllables of imperceptibly flow and tumble off the tongue...and some would say the third syllable...cept... should be stressed, to a degree.

It's a minor point but worth noting because it highlights the fact that there are some long words in this compact poem, and long words, three syllables or more, often trail off after that first stressed syllable, becoming dactylic. This helps quieten down certain parts of certain lines, most appropriate for a poet like Emily Dickinson.

That fourth line is a good example. A trimeter, three feet, two of which are regular iambic and the last one a pyrrhic, falling off, fading away.

A qui / etness / distilled,

As twi / light long / begun,

Or Na / ture, spend / ing with / herself

Sequest / ered af / ternoon.

The same idea applies in this stanza, the middle foot of the first line being a pyrrhic and the third foot of the last also. Everything else is familiar iambic, in tune with normal life.

The dusk / drew ear / lier in,

The mor / ning for / eign shone,-

A cour / teous, / yet har / rowing grace,

As guest / who would / be gone.

The third line of this stanza has two 3 syllable words which create a tetrameter - note the pyrrhic and the end anapaest, (dadaDUM) quietly rising.

And thus, / without / a wing,

Or ser / vice of / a keel,

Our sum / mer made / her light / escape

Into / the beau / tiful.

Iambic rules all the way through the last stanza until the final foot, which is that toned down pyrrhic, relatively stressless, in the word beautiful.


Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005

© 2018 Andrew Spacey

Related Articles