Emily Dickinson's "I measure every Grief I meet"

Updated on April 13, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Emily Dickinson Commemorative Stamp

Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "I measure every Grief I meet"

By Dickinsonian reckoning, this poem is quite long. Of course, her longest poem is "Awake ye muses nine, sing me a strain divine," the first one that appears in Thomas H. Johnson's The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. But that Valentine message remains an anomaly, which hardly represents the poet's later accomplishment.

The theme of "I measure every Grief I meet" squares directly with the Dickinson voice that has become so beloved by her fans. Death, dying, and grief figure greatly in her canon, yet the sum of her output is nothing other than finding the good, true, and beautiful that human beings are capable of experiencing on this "terrestrial ball."

561 I measure every Grief I meet

I measure every Grief I meet
With narrow, probing, Eyes —
I wonder if It weighs like Mine —
Or has an Easier size.

I wonder if They bore it long —
Or did it just begin —
I could not tell the Date of Mine —
It feels so old a pain —

I wonder if it hurts to live —
And if They have to try —
And whether — could They choose between —
It would not be — to die —

I note that Some — gone patient long —
At length, renew their smile —
An imitation of a Light
That has so little Oil —

I wonder if when Years have piled —
Some Thousands — on the Harm —
That hurt them early — such a lapse
Could give them any Balm —

Or would they go on aching still
Through Centuries of Nerve —
Enlightened to a larger Pain —
In Contrast with the 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 —

There's Grief of Want — and Grief of Cold —
A sort they call "Despair" —
There's Banishment from native Eyes —
In sight of Native Air —

And though I may not guess the kind —
Correctly — yet to me
A piercing Comfort it affords
In passing Calvary —

To note the fashions — of the Cross —
And how they're mostly worn —
Still fascinated to presume
That Some — are like My Own —

Reading of "I measure every Grief I meet"

Emily Dickinson

Unretouched daguerrotype of Dickinson at age 17
Unretouched daguerrotype of Dickinson at age 17 | Source

Commentary

In "I measure every Grief I meet," the speaker examines the nature of human suffering. The poem is long by Dickinson standards, filling out a whopping ten quatrains.

First Quatrain: Special Observant Attention

I measure every Grief I meet
With narrow, probing, Eyes —
I wonder if It weighs like Mine —
Or has an Easier size.

The speaker in Emily Dickinson's "I measure every Grief I meet" from Thomas H. Johnson's Complete Poem of Emily Dickinson asserts that she scrutinizes every person who has sorrow with especially observant attention.

In this poem, "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.

Second Quatrain: Old Pain

I wonder if They bore it long —
Or did it just begin —
I could not tell the Date of Mine —
It feels so old a pain —

The speaker avers that she speculates about how much time has passed since the griever's suffering began. She notes that her own has been with her so long that it seems to be as old as pain itself.

Third Quatrain: The Depth of Suffering

I wonder if it hurts to live —
And if They have to try —
And whether — could They choose between —
It would not be — to die —

The speaker then ponders the possibility that the depth of hurt might cause the suffering one to wish for death; she wonders if the sufferers think about or contemplate making the choice between continuing to live in pain and committing suicide.

Fourth Quatrain: The Onset of Complacency

I note that Some — gone patient long —
At length, renew their smile —
An imitation of a Light
That has so little Oil —

The speaker reports that from her observations she has detected that some of those people in pain have grown so accustomed to their lot that they "renew their smile," but their "imitation" smile is as faint as a lamp with "so little Oil."

Fifth Quatrain: Any Balm in Time?

I wonder if when Years have piled —
Some Thousands — on the Harm —
That hurt them early — such a lapse
Could give them any Balm —

The speaker then wonders if after the passage of "[s]ome Thousands" of years, they might finally have recovered from their original hurt; could such a long period of time be "a lapse" that "[c]ould give them any Balm"?

Sixth Quatrain: Pain Larger than Love

Or would they go on aching still
Through Centuries of Nerve —
Enlightened to a larger Pain —
In Contrast with the Love —

The speaker suspects that the suffering might continue, especially if the "pain" grew "larger" than "the Love."

Seventh Quatrain: Waxing Philosophical

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 speaker then waxes philosophical in stating that many individual have suffered and continue to suffer. Clearly, this speaker knows this fact largely from what she had heard and read. She is not omniscient.

The speaker has likely been advised that many reasons exist for so much suffering in the world. Death is one cause only. 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 s/he has become God-united. The real "self" or soul transcends death's reach, as this speaker understands.

Eighth Quatrain: The Causes

There's Grief of Want — and Grief of Cold —
A sort they call "Despair" —
There's Banishment from native Eyes —
In sight of Native Air —

The speaker continues speculating about other causes of pain: "Grief of Want" and "grief of Cold" are two examples; then there are "Despair" and the "Banishment from native Eyes" despite remaining "In Sight of Native Air." All of these instruments of pain are ancient and ever-present; they can never be eliminated.

Ninth Quatrain: Consolation in Christ

And though I may not guess the kind —
Correctly — yet to me
A piercing Comfort it affords
In passing Calvary —

The speaker finally realizes that although she cannot ascertain the origin of the pain, she finds a deep measure of consolation from the experience and struggles of the blessed Lord Jesus.

Tenth Quatrain: A Spiritual Duty

To note the fashions — of the Cross —
And how they're mostly worn —
Still fascinated to presume
That Some — are like My Own —

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.

Dickinson's Titles

Emily Dickinson did not provide titles to her 1,775 poems; therefore, each poem's first line becomes the title. According to the MLA Style Manuel:

"When the first line of a poem serves as the title of the poem, reproduce the line exactly as it appears in the text."

APA does not address this issue.

Life Sketch of Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson remains one of the most fascinating and widely researched poets in America. Much speculation abounds regarding some of the most known facts about her. For example, after the age of seventeen, she remained fairly cloistered in her father's home, rarely moving from the house beyond the front gate. Yet she produced some of the wisest, deepest poetry ever created anywhere at any time.

Regardless of Emily's personal reasons for living nun-like, readers have found much to admire, enjoy, and appreciate about her poems. Though they often baffle upon first encounter, they reward readers mightily who stay with each poem and dig out the nuggets of golden wisdom.

New England Family

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born December 10, 1830, in Amherst, MA, to Edward Dickinson and Emily Norcross Dickinson. Emily was the second child of three: Austin, her older brother who was born April 16, 1829, and Lavinia, her younger sister, born February 28, 1833. Emily died on May 15, 1886.

Emily's New England heritage was strong and included her paternal grandfather, Samuel Dickinson, who was one of the founders of Amherst College. Emily's father was a lawyer and also was elected to and served one term in the state legislature (1837-1839); later between 1852 and 1855, he served one term in the U.S. House of Representative as a representative of Massachusetts.

Education

Emily attended the primary grades in a one room school until being sent to Amherst Academy, which became Amherst College. The school took pride in offering college level course in the sciences from astronomy to zoology. Emily enjoyed school, and her poems testify to the skill with which she mastered her academic lessons.

After her seven year stint at Amherst Academy, Emily then entered Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in the fall of 1847. Emily remained at the seminary for only one year. Much speculation has been offered regarding Emily's early departure from formal education, from the atmosphere of religiosity of the school to the simple fact that the seminary offered nothing new for the sharp minded Emily to learn. She seemed quite content to leave in order to stay home. Likely her reclusiveness was beginning, and she felt the need to control her own learning and schedule her own life activities.

As a stay-at-home daughter in 19th century New England, Emily was expected to take on her share of domestic duties, including housework, likely to help prepare said daughters for handling their own homes after marriage. Possibly, Emily was convinced that her life would not be the traditional one of wife, mother, and householder; she has even stated as much: God keep me from what they call households.

In this householder-in-training position, Emily especially disdained the role a host to the many guests that her father's community service required of his family. She found such entertaining mind-boggling, and all that time spent with others meant less time for her own creative efforts. By this time in her life, Emily was discovering the joy of soul-discovery through her art.

Although many have speculated that her dismissal of the current religious metaphor landed her in the atheist camp, Emily's poems testify to a deep spiritual awareness that far exceeds the religious rhetoric of the period. In fact, Emily was likely discovering that her intuition about all things spiritual demonstrated an intellect that far exceeded any of her family's and compatriots' intelligence. Her focus became her poetry—her main interest in life.

Publication

Very few of Emily's poems appeared in print during her lifetime. And it was only after her death the her sister Vinnie discovered the bundles of poems, called fascicles, in Emily's room. A total of 1775 individual poems have made their way to publication. The first publicans of her works to appear, gathered and edited by Mabel Loomis Todd, a supposed paramour of Emily's brother, and the editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson had been altered to the point of changing the meanings of her poems. The regularization of her technical achievements with grammar and punctuation obliterated the high achievement that the poet had so creatively accomplished.

Readers can thank Thomas H. Johnson, who in the mid 1950s went to work at restoring Emily's poems to their, at least near, original. His doing so restored her many dashes, spacings, and other grammar/mechanical features that earlier editors had "corrected" for the poet—corrections that ultimately resulted in obliteration of the poetic achievement reached by Emily's mystically brilliant talent.

Thomas H. Johnson's The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson

The text I use for the commentaries
The text I use for the commentaries | Source

Questions & Answers

    © 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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    • Maya Shedd Temple profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Sue Grimes 

      5 months ago from U.S.A.

      Alberta, to join this site and write for it, you can begin with the following link: https://letterpile.com/signup/

      Good luck!

    • profile image

      Alberta Armstrong 

      5 months ago

      I have just discovered your poetry website. Do you welcome poetry by users? How do bring new people into your site? I write poems and have wanted to join an on-line group.

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