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09 August 2012

I can wade Grief—

I can wade Grief—
Whole Pools of it—
I'm used to that—
But the least push of Joy
Breaks up my feet—
And I tip—drunken—
Let no Pebble—smile—
'Twas the New Liquor—
That was all!

Power is only Pain—
Stranded, thro' Discipline,
Till Weights—will hang—
Give Balm—to Giants—
And they'll wilt, like Men—
Give Himmaleh—
They'll Carry—Him!
                                                           F 312 (1862)  252

            Dickinson gets at a truth here that many of us have experienced. We can hold up in difficult circumstances, but let anyone come with a bit of sympathy and we crumble. It might be therapeutic, but it sure breaks the stoic stance.
            She begins with the image of herself pushing through grief as if wading through a deep pool. That’s what she’s used to. But let a little happiness come her way and it trips her up as if she’s drunk. She finds this a bit funny, though, and warns the rocks not to laugh at her. “”Twas the New Liquor” that caused it. That’s the problem.
            She changes mood in the second stanza which is a contemplation of power and strength. The stanza contains two epigraph: Power is only Pain— / Stranded, thro’ Discipline, / Till Weights—will hang; and “Give Balm—to Giants— / And they’ll wilt, like Men— / Give Himmaleh— / They’ll Carry—Him!
These epigrams frame two reverse views of power. In the first we learn that power isn’t some gift but rather is the result of pain that, through discipline, can bear weight on its own. “That which does not kill  me makes me stronger,” as Nietzsche put it. “No pain, no gain,” as the 90s slogan went. Pain stiffens the spine and strengthens the sinews. It forges the soul. It becomes able to bear a heavy burden.
            The second epigram says that what wilts power is balm for the pain. The strongest person—a Giant!— can carry a burden heavy as the Himalayas. But as soon as you try to assuage and soothe him, he becomes as weak as an ordinary mortal.


  1. I love your take on the second stanza. Such a sublime thought.

  2. Stanza 1: “Keep your eyes on the prize.” Alice Wine.1949

    Stanza 2: “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Knute Rockne (1888-1931)

    ED anticipated many cliches with this poem, but Alice Wine and Knute Rockne didn’t plagiarize.