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23 December 2012

I cried at Pity—not at Pain—

I cried at Pity—not at Pain—
I heard a Woman say
"Poor Child"—and something in her voice
Convinced me—of me—

So long I fainted, to myself
It seemed the common way,
And Health, and Laughter, curious things—
To look at, like a Toy—

To sometimes hear "Rich people" buy
And see the Parcel rolled—
And carried, we supposed—to Heaven,
For children, made of Gold—

But not to touch, or wish for,
Or think of, with sigh—
And so and so—had been to us,
Had God willed differently.

I wish I knew that Woman's name—
So when she comes this way,
To hold my life, and hold my ears
For fear I hear her say

She's "sorry I am dead"—again—
Just when the Grave and I—
Have sobbed ourselves almost to sleep,
Our only Lullaby— 

                                                                       F394 (1892)  588

 For those of us who can't bear it when someone feels sorry for us, this poem is bad news. The misery continues even in the grave. Worse: the grave feels it too. 
          The poem's speaker is a dead girl in a grave. She recalls how "a Woman" recently stopped by the grave and expressed pity. This sparked a new self awareness in the child, "Convinced" her of the reality of her deathly existence. She thinks about how death and the pain she'd born while alive now "seemed the common way," while "Health, and Laughter" were "curious things," something to look at like toys. 
          She also remembers how wealthy people would buy expensive items wrapped so beautifully that they must be destined for heavenly children. But such finery was never for the likes of her. She could never even wish for such things or even sigh sadly that "God willed differently." This is a bit of harshness, implying that God willed the child's life to be full of pain, and willed her an early death; meanwhile, He seemingly willed a life of golden plenty to the children of the wealthy. 
Haunted grave of 6-year-old Gracie Watson: Visitors to Gracie's
tomb have reported hearing sobbing or seeing Gracie's statue cry.
          The speaker seems resigned to live eternally in her Limbo between life and death. But now she dreads the return of the pitying woman. Should she return, the girl will hold her hands over her ears and hold onto her admittedly truncated sense of identity in case the woman expresses any further pity. The child and her Grave have "sobbed" themselves "almost to sleep" already and need no more tears—even though the sobbing has been their "only Lullaby." The pathos of this is too rich for modern ears but easily within the norms of Dickinson's day. 
          Dickinson addresses several issues in this little tear jerker. First, what seems the unfairness of life can be attributed to God's will. That's mentioned in passing, but comes through loud and clear. Second, we should attend to the living child rather than spout pitying remarks at the grave. Is there a lonely child, a child in pain, a poor child? Then visit that child, bring a present, help relieve any pain. Just don't go caterwauling over the grave. That brings us to the other lesson: pity is worse than pain.
          It may be the Woman who makes repeated visits to the grave is the child's mother or another close relative. If so, Dickinson is making another comment about life in the grave (something she has written about in other poems): the dead forget us and live in some sort of half life, like the Greek shades in Hades.


  1. What amazes me is ED's ability to give death a consciousness, a personality, as if she is bringing the reader with her beyond the grave, as if her mind has transcended the boundaries between life and death and her poems simply step across the threshold barred from the rest of us from spanning until we actually die. Amazing!

    1. It was something in the pitying woman's voice who "convinced me – of me" -- as if the dead girl had been gradually losing identity and was called back. Seems rather Greek.

  2. How bizarre. The original version in fascicle nineteen that I am reading is "convicted me of me". Convinced adds a much different twist.

    1. Interesting; perhaps the two words share the meaning of conviction.

  3. ED must have known the Buddhist concept of the bardo - the limbo between life and subsequent reassignation to later incarnation - and imagined the “consciousness” of the souls “in the bardo” -
    Read “Lincoln in the bardo” (Saunders) - very Dickinson-like!

  4. Could this be about epilepsy? Fainting and being perceived as dead?

  5. ED’s original manuscript Line 4 read “Convinced myself of me”, which to me means “Convinced myself she was speaking of me”. In pencil above Line 4 ED wrote, “Convicted me of me”.

    There seem two reasons why she would revise: As first written, “myself” is repeated in Line 5, diminishing its force in both lines, and, second, “Convicted me of me” jolts us to attention and adds a sense of guilt. Franklin, for some reason, compromises with “Convinced me of me”, which feels weak.

  6. Anonymous (8/23/22) is onto something.

    Franklin dates this poem, ‘I cried at Pity—not at Pain—‘ (F394), “about Autumn 1862”. ED told Higginson in her second letter (L261, 25 April 1862) “I had a terror - since September - I could tell to none-and so I sing [write poems], as the Boy does by the Burying Ground-because I am afraid”. Seven years later, she told him, “You were not aware that you saved my Life. To thank you in person has been since then one of my few requests” (L330, June 1869).

    My take on “terror” and “afraid” is deep depression, possibly suicidal.

  7. Here's an interpretation of the six stanzas:

    I cried in self-pity, not pain, when I heard a woman say, "Poor Child", and something in her voice convicted me of self-inflicted depression.

    I have been depressed for so long It feels normal, and health and laughter seem strange to watch, like a fiction.

    I sometimes hear that healthy people achieve happiness here on Earth and carry it to Heaven to share with children there,

    But happiness is not for me to touch or wish for, or even think of with a sigh: “Wadsworth might have been mine if God had willed it differently.”

    I wish I knew that Woman's name so when she comes this way so I can hold my life and ears for fear I hear her say,

    She's “sorry I’m depressed again”, just when my self-pity and I have sobbed ourselves almost to sleep, our only lullaby.

  8. The speaker of the poem is psychically dead, or rather in a state of dissociation; she is not really aware of her own pain. This is a necessary defense mechanism that enables her survival. Something in the woman's voice convicts her of the reality of her suffering, and that is unbearable. She fears that it could happen again.  If the woman comes near her, the speaker will hold her ears so as not ho hear that she is DEAD.  In the very next line, she casually mentions GRAVE as her close companion. She knows and doesn't know at the same time.  Dissociation.