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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 - This daguerreotype is likely the only extant, authentic image of the poet.

Emily Dickinson - This daguerreotype is likely the only extant, authentic image of the poet.

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

Emily Dickinson's extremely short poem, "We lose – because we win," features characteristics of a versanelle, a short, usually 20 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, versanelle, to designate certain heretofore unclassifiable poems of Robert Frost, Stephen Crane, Malcolm 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!


This versanelle creates a brief encapsulated, crystalline drama that captures an unfortunate aspect of human nature, as the poem implies the very antidote to correct that human flaw.

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.

The speaker introduces her idea in a statement of paradox. At first, the statement seems non-sensical because it seems to contradict itself. It sounds puzzling that one can lose if one has won; the two states seem to remain mutually exclusive.

It may seem, at first, 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 literally ludicrous.

For example, if you placed a bet and won $1,000, no one can argue against the fact that you gambled and won. However, in order to remain a winner, you must walk away with your winnings. Human nature being what is it, however, likely you will feel emboldened and want to try to a second thousand. And that is where the flaw takes over and the end result may not be a happy one.

Second Line: Resolution of Paradox

Gamblers – recollecting which
Toss their dice again!

The paradox, then, is elucidated and resolved 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 decades, that may follow that unfortunate win that ultimately leads to loss.

Thus, the speaker is not referring only to the simple acts of winning and losing, she is averring that human nature encompasses an unhealthy affinity that may likely result in "Gamblers" not taking their money and walking away.

Instead, those "Gamblers" 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.

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 who have become addicted to the possibility of winning continue to "toss their dice," they also become more likely to begin to lose. And it becomes ever more likely that they will lose many more thousands than they have ever won.

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, from that simple act of "[t]oss[ing] the dice again!"

A Wide-Ranging Application

While this Emily Dickinson versanelle can be understood to refer to the literal gambler, who attempts to win easy money, 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, such as engaging in destructive moods.

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.

The human mind and heart are capable of turning a heaven into a hell merely with thoughts and feelings that in the end lead to depravity. Ultimately, the speaker is implying that experiencing delight in unhealthy, unwholesome acts must be rooted out before they can become habitual; instead of tossing those dice again, a better outcome will be to lay down those dice and walk away.

The text I use for Dickinson poem commentaries.

The text I use for Dickinson poem commentaries.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 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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