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

Emily Dickinson's poems remain a vital part of my poet worldview. They dramatize the human spirit via deep attention to life's details.

Emily Dickinson Commemorative Stamp

Introduction and Text of "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."

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"

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.

Emily Dickinson

Unretouched daguerrotype of Dickinson at age 17

Unretouched daguerrotype of Dickinson at age 17

The text I use for the commentaries

The text I use for the commentaries

Questions & Answers

Question: What is Emily Dickinson's poem "I Measure Every Grief I Meet" about?

Answer: In "I measure every Grief I meet," the speaker examines the nature of human suffering.

Question: In what year was "I measure every Grief I meet" written?

Answer: The exact year that Dickinson wrote this poem is not known, but the earliest known manuscript in which it first appeared is circa 1862. It was first published in 1896. This information is offered by Thomas H. Johnson in his "The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson."

Question: What is the extended metaphor of Emily Dickinson's "I measure every Grief I meet"?

Answer: In "I measure every Grief I meet," the speaker likens pain to an object which can be measured by inches and/or weight.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on February 09, 2018:

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Good luck!

Alberta Armstrong on February 08, 2018:

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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