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25 March 2012

It's such a little thing to weep –

It's such a little thing to weep –  
So short a thing to sigh –  
And yet – by Trades – the size of these 
We men and women die!
                                                            F220 (1861)  189

While some folks’ lives may be full of derring-do and heroic deeds or noble self sacrifice that achieves great ends, most of us live, as Thoreau (Dickinson’s contemporary who died a year after this was poem was written) wrote in Walden, “lives of quiet desperation.” Shakespeare had MacBeth say upon learning of his wife’s death:
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow, 
Girl with a Dead Canary Jean-Baptiste Greuze 
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day, 
To the last syllable of recorded time.

Here, the poet measures lifetimes by such “little” and “short” things as weeping and sighing. These are the “Trades” – or trade goods – that mark the passage of our days. And then we die! Happy thought! Although the poet might have chosen happier words such as “laugh” or “smile,” and we know that Dickinson was apt to laugh and smile (in addition to tears and sighs), she was not out of tune with the literary conventions of her time where women were considered the dainty sex, sentimental and liable to swoon or faint at any small shock – let alone weep or sigh.
            Another of Dickinson’s contemporaries, Walt Whitman, sounded the polar opposite tone as he celebrated himself and all things wild and manly and strong. He was as far from Puritan Amherst as could be:
I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric YAWP over the roofs of the world.

The poem is a simply ballad-style quatrain


  1. I read the same theme from Buddhism and Judaism teaching. Life is suffering and the meanings to decrease is to detach. As much, “ it also shall pass.”

  2. ED literally says, “By exchanges the size of weeps and sighs / we men and women die.” For once, she’s unambiguous; she says and means “die”, not “live”. Smiles and laughs fuel life, weeps and sighs, death. Walk on the sunny side of the street.