With narrow, probing, eyes —
I wonder if It weighs like Mine —
Or has an Easier size.
I wonder if They bore it long —
Or did it just begin —
I could not tell the Date of Mine —
It feels so old a pain —
I wonder if it hurts to live —
And if They have to try —
And whether — could They choose between —
It would not be — to die —
I note that Some — gone patient long —
At length, renew their smile —
An imitation of a Light
That has so little Oil —
I wonder if when Years have piled —
Some Thousands — on the Harm —
That hurt them Early — such a lapse
Could give them any Balm —
Or would They go on aching still
Through Centuries of Nerve —
Enlightened to a larger Pain -
In Contrast with the Love —
The Grieved — are many — I am told —
There is the various Cause —
Death — is but one — and comes but once —
And only nails the eyes —
There's Grief of Want — and Grief of Cold —
A sort they call "Despair" —
There's Banishment from native Eyes —
In sight of Native Air —
And though I may not guess the kind —
Correctly — yet to me
A piercing Comfort it affords
In passing Calvary —
To note the fashions — of the Cross —
And how they're mostly worn —
Still fascinated to presume
That Some — are like My Own —
F550 (1863) J561
Misery loves company and here Dickinson says she finds a "piercing Comfort" in noting the crosses other people bear, presuming that "Some – are like My Own". Yet Dickinson is saying much more in this contemplation of grief than the old saying. Combining her poetic eye and her family's forensic skills, she muses on and anatomizes the grief she sees in others – and that she herself has experienced. The second line of the poem invites readers to watch her "narrow, probing, eyes" as she scrutinizes her subjects. It is a very visual and startling line: she is more calculating than curious; more analytical than empathetic.
The coolness should be ironic, the poet is clearly noticing and identifying with her subjects' grief, yet Dickinson distances herself from actual pain throughout the poem. No specifics are given either about herself or other sufferers. She emphasizes her detachment in the seventh stanza as she introduces her categories of grief. "I am told", she adds – seemingly gratuitously – that there are many grievers and various causes for grief. The narrow-eyed observer of pain, the confident of dear friends and family, most of whom no doubt suffered mightily during their lives, would not need to be told that many suffer.
The very distance she establishes reflects a very Dickinsonian grief. We know from poems such as "After great pain, a formal feeling comes" [F372], that numbness and detachment are ways that Dickinson experiences grief. More recently, in "I tie my Hat – I crease my Shawl" [F522] she describes the "scrupulous exactness" with which she endures even though "existence – some way back – / Stopped – struck – my ticking – through". It with scrupulous exactness that she dissects the experience of grief in this poem.
The first two stanzas establish that her intense interest in the grief of others is spiced by her own grief. Hers is heavy and old; how old and heavy is theirs? Having established her misery bona fides, Dickinson begins a meditation on the effects of grief. Does it hurt so much, does living become such a struggle that the sufferer might prefer death? She notes grief's quelling effect on smiles. Her metaphor of smiles as lamps is apt, for we think of smiles as lighting up a face. Even when the smile returns after a long grief it is weak for lack of fuel. Whatever joy and comfort can be experienced are but dim warmth. Grief still dampens the source of light. She also wonders how long might grief might last – centuries perhaps? Could pain actually grow larger than the original love that spawned it?
Dickinson then makes her aside about being told about grief and its causes, cataloging the types of grief: Want, Cold, Despair, Banishment, and Death. In perhaps the most striking line of the poem she mentions, again almost casually, that "Death – is but one" cause, but it "comes but once / And only nails the eyes". The graphic image of death nailing the eyes is reminiscent of earlier poems where death comes wielding instruments of torture from the machine age. In "How many times these low feet staggered [F238] a dead housewife's mouth is "soldered" shut, the corpse is stilled with an "awful rivet" and stayed with "hasps of steel". In "That after Horror – that 'twas us" [F243] Death "drills his Welcome in" with a "metallic grin".
|Coffin nail -- now a fashion item via Etsy
As she closes the poem, Dickinson establishes yet more distance in tone from the real experience of grief that come out in the earlier striking phrases. She depicts the various agonies of the Cross as "fashions" and her interest in them centering in "how they're mostly worn". Such a diversion affords her comfort: surely some of these suffering people are experiencing the same sort of grief that she suffers. Looking at the outward manifestations as styles of dress affected by the afflicted is at once comfort, grist for the poet's mill, and survival strategy.
This poem is one of a hundred discussed by prominent critic Helen Vendler in Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentary. If you find yourself drawn to Dickinson's poetry, by all means get a copy. Although I almost always find myself enlightened by Vendler's commentary, I disagree with her on this poem. As one example, Vendler contends that Dickinson measures other Griefs against her own, always finding her Grief "is greater not only comparatively but superlatively. Only Christ's passion is a Grief on the same order as hers."
I simply don't see that degree of Grief one-up-manship here. I see the numbed soul finding human connection where it can, even while maintaining distance; I see a poet who delves into grief employing her narrow, probing eyes to see as deeply as she can, diving into the wreck as twentieth-century poet Adrienne Rich did to "see the damage that was done / and the treasures that prevail."