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Emily Dickinson's "We lose – because we win"

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

Introduction and Text of "We lose – because we win"

This short poem features characteristics of a versanelle, a short, usually 12 lines or fewer, dramatic narration that comments on human nature or behavior, and may employ any of the usual poetic devices. I coined this term to designate certain heretofore unclassifiable poems of Robert Frost, Stephen Crane, M. M. Sedam, and others.

The versanelle remains a natural, philosophical outlet for the poet who entertains a philosophical bent, as most poets do. From Walt Whitman to T. S. Eliot, many American poets from time to time are motivated to fashion a short observation regarding humankind into a poetic drama.

We lose – because we win –

We lose – because we win –
Gamblers – recollecting which
Toss their dice again!


Each line of a versanelle exudes thoughts whose meanings in the hand of a less masterful craftsman might take many lines to express.

First Line: A Puzzling Paradox

We lose – because we win –

The speaker in Dickinson's three-line versanelle has observed that humankind can become addicted to certain acts. Thus, she chooses the act of winning to state her perceived notion. She states the introduction to her conclusion in a paradox. At first, the statement seems non-sensical because it seems to contradict itself. One is tempted to query, how can we lose if she has won. Are the two not mutually exclusive. At first blush, it seems that the speaker has placed the acts of losing and winning in the same time frame. And if that were the case, the statement would have been ludicrous.

For example, if you placed your bet and won $1,000, no one can argue that you gambled and won. In order to remain a winner, however, you must walk away with your winnings.

Thus, the paradox is elucidated by the remaining two lines, which broaden the time frame. The speaker is not only referring to the short period of time after winning, but she is also encompassing the many years, perhaps, that may follow that unfortunate win that leads to loss.

Second Line: Gamblers Remember

Gamblers – recollecting which

Thus,"Gamblers" do not take their money and walk away. They become intoxicated by the win, and the memory of winning becomes implanted in their brains. The pleasure of winning that money has urged the "gambler" to make further choices that will again bring that pleasure.

Third Line: Lose After Winning

Toss their dice again!

In the attempt to regain the pleasurable feeling of having won that thousand dollars, the "gambler" must gamble again. And even if he wins, a second time, he will only strengthen the desire to keep winning.

But as those hooked on the notion of winning continue to "toss their dice," they will invariably begin to lose. And it becomes abundantly clear that they will lose many more thousands than they have ever won. Just ask members of Gamblers Anonymous!

And not only will the continuation of gambling lead to financial ruin, the seriously addicted gambler may lose his job, family, and friends, along with his self-respect and possibly his life.

A General Application

While the Dickinson versanelle can be understood to refer to the literal "gambler," there is no doubt that her speaker wishes to offer a far more wide-ranging application of this adage. Thus, the observation can include any human activity that leads to habitual repetition of an act that leads to negative instead of positive outcomes. Such activities might include those that lead to addiction to alcohol, those that lead to unhealthy eating, those that lead to unwholesome engagement in sex, and also those that lead to psychological malfunction.

The human mind and heart are capable of turning a heaven into a hell merely with thoughts that ultimately lead to depravity. Experiencing a delight in any unhealthy, unwholesome act must be rooted out before it can become habitual. The mood junky can become like a gambler who continues to roll the dice, expecting to experience that happy win again, yet finds himself unable to climb out of his nasty mood because he has come to rely on it, perhaps using it as an excuse for failures that are simply the result of lack of effort.

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 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.

Complete Poems - Book Cover

Complete Poems - Book Cover

© 2018 Linda Sue Grimes


Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on July 14, 2018:

Thank you, Louise! I'm glad you are enjoying Dickinson's poems. They are truly fascinating works. Her mind was a fountain of creativity. Her style was truly unique. She took very seriously the writer's credo of saying much with as few words as possible. And her attention to detail is astounding. Her little dramas filled with things she saw around her home never fail to entertain.

Have a great and blessed day, Louise!

Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on July 14, 2018:

I know you've written quite a few articles about her poems. I didn't know any of Emily Dickinson's poems until I started reading your hubs. I'm reading her poems now and really enjoy her poetry. Thankyou. =)

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