Emily Dickinson’s "Joy to have merited the Pain"

Updated on February 22, 2020
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

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

Sketch of Emily Dickinson


Introduction and Text "Joy to have merited the Pain"

On first reflection, it is unlikely that the notion that earned pain is ever welcome to the human mind and heart or that any pain can ever be accepted. But on second thought and possibly after some delving into the nature of Spirit and Its relationship to a fallen world, the idea becomes well founded and completely comprehensible.

The mind and heart crave pure solace but find achieving that exalted state fraught with obstructions. This speaker offers her hard won experience with that journey as she dramatizes the thrill of seeking and the ultimate winning of that goal. Her mystical proclivities enhance her skills as she offers consolation on every level of spiritual awareness.

Joy to have merited the Pain—

Joy to have merited the Pain—
To merit the Release—
Joy to have perished every step—
To Compass Paradise—

Pardon—to look upon thy face—
With these old fashioned Eyes—
Better than new—could be—for that—
Though bought in Paradise—

Because they looked on thee before—
And thou hast looked on them—
Prove Me—My Hazel Witnesses
The features are the same—

So fleet thou wert, when present—
So infinite—when gone—
An Orient's Apparition—
Remanded of the Morn—

The Height I recollect—
'Twas even with the Hills—
The Depth upon my Soul was notched—
As Floods—on Whites of Wheels—

To Haunt—till Time have dropped
His last Decade away,
And Haunting actualize—to last
At least—Eternity—


Dickinson's speaker declares then elucidates her declaration that having seriously earned, or "merited" pain, is a marvelous, soul-enriching experience, leading to ultimate liberation into Spirit.

Stanza 1: Joy Eliminates Pain

Joy to have merited the Pain—
To merit the Release—
Joy to have perished every step—
To Compass Paradise—

The speaker is affirming that earned pain fades into joy. It gains a vivid, long liberation of the soul. At every step of the transitioning process from lack of vision to full sight, the joy seems to dissolve the soul in a marvelous unity—Spirit and soul becoming one.

Of course, the individual soul and the Over-Soul are always locked in an unbreakable unity, but the curse of delusion or Maya renders the human mind incapable of comprehending that unity until it regains that vision through inner stillness and concentration.

The burden of living in a fallen world weighs heavy on each perfect soul, situated in a physical encasement and a mental body that remain in a state of perdition, neither comprehending its perfection, nor for some even being intellectually aware that it possesses such perfection.

Paradise will remain on the horizon, though, until the seeker takes notice and begins that journey toward its goal.

Stanza 2: The Ephemeral Becomes Concrete

Pardon—to look upon thy face—
With these old fashioned Eyes—
Better than new—could be—for that—
Though bought in Paradise—

The speaker now affirms that she has become aware of her eyes growing strong, after she has been absolved from certain errors of thought and behavior. She is now capable of peering in to the ancient eye with her own "old fashioned eyes."

The speaker's transformation has improved her ability to discern certain worldly ways, and she will not long brook those wrong manners that limit her ability to adopt new spiritual steps.

The speaker is becoming aware that she can realize perfectly, that Paradise can become and remain a tangible place. That seemingly ephemeral place can become as concrete as the streets of the city, or the hills of the country.

Stanza 3: From Dim Glimpses of the Past

Because they looked on thee before—
And thou hast looked on them—
Prove Me—My Hazel Witnesses
The features are the same—

The speaker confirms that she has, in fact, in the dim past glimpsed the face of the Divine Reality, and that glimpse has already atoned for the fallen state, in which she now finds herself.

She has now become completely in possession of the knowledge that her "Hazel" eyes were, in fact, witnesses to the great unity for which she now urgently seeks reentry. The sacred sight of the Divine Seer and the practicing, advancing devotee are one and the same.

This knowledge delights the speaker who has already admitted that it was indeed "Pain" that nudged her on to seeking final relief. The human heart and mind crave on every level of being the final elimination of both physical and mental pain and suffering. When a soul finds itself transitioning from the fallen world to the uplifted world of "Paradise," it can do no less than sing praises of worship.

Stanza 4: The Consummation of the Infinite

So fleet thou wert, when present—
So infinite—when gone—
An Orient's Apparition—vRemanded of the Morn—

The speaker avers that the Divine Belovèd forever consumes all time, as It continues to remain infinitely present. The Blessèd One never strays, though Its creation may stray far and wide.

Just as the sun rises in the East to explain morning to the day, the rising from having fallen provides a soothing balm of gladness to the human heart and mind living under a cloud of doubt and fear.

Each soul that has earned its liberation through great pain can offer testimony to the sanctity of having regained the "Paradise" that was lost, despite the temporary nature of all that went before.

Stanza 5: Highest Level of Awareness

The Height I recollect—
'Twas even with the Hills—
The Depth upon my Soul was notched—
As Floods—on Whites of Wheels—

The speaker now reveals that she has evoked the highest level of awareness, that is, she has determined that she will pursue the ultimate range of vision. She compares the highest sight to the "Hills," finding that they are "even." And the valley below that had "notched" her soul seemed to flood her consciousness, as water does as it splashes upon the wheels of a carriage.

Still the speaker is aware that her own voice can speak inside the darkest shadow that earth life has to reflect. She determines not only to be a spectator of events but to fully interact with all that might bring her closer to her goal.

This observant speaker knows that she has the ability to comprehend the nature of fallen earth creations, but she also continues to be stung by the facile observations that only limit each soul and denigrate each thought that would seek to alleviate the misery and tainted status of the fallen mind.

Stanza 6: Transcending Space and Time

To Haunt—till Time have dropped
His last Decade away,
And Haunting actualize—to last
At least—Eternity—

The speaker continues her effort to transcend spiritually all space and time. Each year drops eternally into the ghost-day and feather-night. And, of course, they all are on their individual journeys through that space and time.

The speaker has taken the task of "Haunting" all the unselfactualized minds and hearts that cross her path, whether by night or day. As the decades speed by, she intends to ride each moment into the utmost reality until it yields that creature whose head is toward eternity, like those horses in, "Because I could not stop for Death -."

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.

Emily Dickinson


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.


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.

Reclusiveness and Religion

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.

Emily's reclusiveness extended to her decision that she could keep the sabbath by staying home instead of attending church services. Her wonderful explication of the decision appears in her poem, "Some keep the Sabbath going to Church":

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church —
I keep it, staying at Home —
With a Bobolink for a Chorister —
And an Orchard, for a Dome —

Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice —
I just wear my Wings —
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton — sings.

God preaches, a noted Clergyman —
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last —
I'm going, all along.


Very few of Emily's poems appeared in print during her lifetime. And it was only after her death that 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 publications 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.

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

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes


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