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09 August 2014

I measure every Grief I meet

I measure every Grief I meet
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
        But despite this horror, Dickinson has modified the grief of dying by saying death is "but one" cause and it "comes but once" and "only nails the eyes". Clearly the other griefs are more to be dreaded. The griefs of Want, Cold, Banishment and Despair by implication can come more than once, affect more than the body. They maim the soul.
        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."


  1. Wonderful commentary on one of EDs most famous poems. I particularly appreciate your references to other poems in respect of the line "nails the eyes".

    It strikes me that the attitude that ED takes toward grief of others in this poem is very close to what draws many readers to EDs poetry. We find in her precise, detached, introspection an entrance into another's experience -- and a rule for measuring our own hearts.

  2. This is a captivating meditation on grieving and, as the commentator above has said, it draws us to itself like a magnet. I have been waiting a long time for you to come to this poem and, as always, it is brilliant!

    I wanted to push the analysis a bit more in (perhaps) a more imaginative direction. I agree with you (against Vendler) that Dickinson is not engaged in a your-grief-vs-mine sort of comparison in which she always finds hers the heavier, the longer, etc. But I want to emphasize that, taken literally, Dickinson is not meeting grievers but griefs themselves! She personifies griefs in a way that is easy (for us) to mistake them for grievers but if you read the poem with the assumption that griefs are humans that she meets, you will notice the whole poem reaches a deeper level of contemplation and finds a greater degree of irony. I will not detail my case; noting only two points:

    1) As she clearly says at the beginning, she meets griefs. In contrast, she is 'told' that 'the grieved are many'. She hasn't seen them.

    2) If it was the grief of losing someone (death for others) it would certainly come many times not once. Vendler tries to resolve this apparent contradiction by saying that the eyes that are nailed are the "intellectual" probing eyes. Grief of death is beyond all measure, so to speak. But that still assumes that the grief of losing someone occurs to the poet (The only other way is meeting a griever of death which can hardly have the blinding effect.) Rather, it seems to me that she is talking ironically about the grief of anticipating death; (anticipating your own) death is no cause to grieve; especially if lines 10-11 are to hold, at least for her it is to be anticipated as a relief.

    Now consider these: how heavy is a grief on its own shoulders? how old is the grief of cold (or want, or despair)? Does it want to continue to exist?...

    I find it also fascinating that the poem is built upon the universal unity of grief, despite the variety of causes and sufferers...even though she is not good at guessing 'the kind', she presumes that suffering is the same. So, by the end of poem, the human becomes comparable to the divine. Here I have to disagree with Vendler again: even though the parallel to Herbert's poem is interesting and possible, "the fashions - of the Christ/ and how they're mostly worn' does not imply "democratic multiplication of the Crucifixion" or "many versions of Calvary". At the very least, this contradicts Vendler's insistence that Dickinson finds her grief only comparable to those of Jesus. But more importantly, I think "the fashions of the Cross" resonates "the passions of the Christ"... "the fashion" (colors and perhaps texture) of the cross is 'mostly worn' like a worn-out cloth. The resemblance is in that His passions ("fashions") are as old as hers. She may have not seen many grievers but sometimes only one is enough!

    1. Thank you for this -- I read the poem anew with this analysis in mind and it did help deepen it. Dickinson does indeed meet griefs, but as I read it she encounters them through actual humans – hence the need for "narrow, probing, eyes". The humans are clearly of less interest than the griefs that inhabit them, each one with its various provenances and manifestations.

      Death is one of the causes. I agree with you that she says 'death is no cause to grieve'. While it nails the eyes (and perhaps Dickinson intends for us to think of Jesus being nailed to the cross, setting up her last stanzas), the eternal soul lives on. The other griefs seem to have a life and weight of their own, forever dampening the lives of those who carry them.

      In F528, "'Tis not that Dying hurts us so", Dickinson makes a similar point. While Dying is a "better Latitude" beyond life, ", Tis Living – hurts us more". In "To die – takes just a little while" (F315) she claims that the dead have "gone to sleep … / Without the weariness" while the bereaved have "the pretty sunshine" to help forget their loss. No, I think Dickinson's real horror is the numbing, crippling despair that she probes in numerous other poems.

      As to the fashions of Calvary, I think the profound sacrifice contains all the types of grief – despair, betrayal, exile, cold and want. Through our griefs each of us partake in that. Calvary does indeed represent, by that way of thinking, a "universal unity of grief, despite the variety of causes."

      Thanks for your well-considered comments!

    2. LSE: After reading the post by Anonymous below I realize that I hadn't taken note of your comment about the fashions of the cross and how they are worn with 'worn' in the sense of 'worn clothing'. I wonder if you could elaborate: I, too, find it an interesting comment, but I'm not sure I know what you mean.

  3. This poem is also remarkable in its emphasis on the distance between the poet and others. Grief does not bind us together. Each grief is unique and isolating.

    LSE's comment about passions of the Cross is interesting. Viewed from that point of view, ED is joking or playing with the central image of Christianity in a startling and heretical way.

    I'll have to read the Vendler essay.

    1. I'd be interested on your opinion of the Vendler.
      It would be nice to think that Dickinson is wrong about the griefs and how they are suffered -- not in isolation, but as you so perceptively point out, in an isolating way. But I think you have the right of it. While it's nice to know that we are not uniquely visited by grief, it does form a barrier. My favorite part of the poem is her depiction of her "narrow, probing, eyes" – they are like the surgeon's sharp, unfeeling scalpel.

  4. Thank you, Susan, for your kind comments. I agree that Dickinson most probably met griefs through actual humans and that, at least for a poetic moment, "the griefs that inhabit" those human being were of more interest. One could even imagine meeting somebody who 'embodies' a particular kind of grief as if he or she is that grief.
    This takes us to the point about Calvary. I know Jesus usually doesn't have much clothing on the cross, but we have expressions like "the town was wrapped in grief". "Fashions of the cross", 'noted' in the last stanza, could be seen as materialization of the passions (the suffering). Not only the cross visualizes a corporeal Jesus 'wrapped in grief', but the cross itself (the sculpture) shows signs of 'senile decay' in its style/color-texture. My Shorter Oxford Dictionary records a now-obsolete meaning for "mostly": (L16 - E19) "in the greatest extent, to the greatest extent" and so does the EDLexicon. "Mostly worn" in this context is a comment about the conditions of the material representation of the cross (the sculpture) which testify to its age-old endurance. It offers some 'piercing comfort' to 'see' that His passions were like her griefs. It is one of those sympathetic moments: "I know what you've been through".

    1. Thanks - I see what you mean, now, and find it very helpful!

  5. That last stanza has generated some very scholarly analysis here! I loved reading all. My views always tend toward the concrete and Im really okay with that:) In my interpretation, Christ is on the cross through an act of betrayal and as a sacrifice for humanity. ED may have felt the same betrayal, loss, antipathy and isolation, her own fashions. She has felt these same sources of grief in a "piercing" recognition.

  6. Very insightful commentaries. It is also interesting to note the rhyme scheme of the poem, which often incorporates half-rhyme, as evident in the words 'worn' and 'own' in the final stanza. It suggests an affinity between the poet and other grievers, but one that inevitably falls short. In this example, with 'worn' being employed to describe others and how they may outwardly manifest their grief and 'own' referring to the speaker, the impression that Dickinson is at once alike, and separate from, others in her grief is made further palpable.
    The image of the lamp light in the fourth stanza is also sttiking as it is qualified by the noun 'imitation' which renders the effect of the light (representating a smile) even weaker or weak-willed, and also suggests a feigned or artificial effort on the part of the griever. The word 'patient' in this stanza, in addition to its initial meaning, also casts those who grieve as suffering, wounded individuals (in need of balm) echoing the phrase 'hurt to live' in the third stanza. Perhaps they can be perceived as eternal patients whose suffering can never be relieved or assuaged.

    1. Both good points. In particular I appreciate your attention to the word 'patient'. It goes back to those probing eyes -- like a physician in diagnostic mode. With that in mind, the 'fashions' become 'symptoms'. Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

  7. I wonder if the”fashions of the cross” means that ED is addressing the Christians themselves and how they are “wearing” their grief, and that their shared and typical grief is their religion itself, adopting Christ’s grief on top of their own personal human griefs. It would be a typical ED attitude to view Christians as adopting additional crosses to bear maybe unnecessarily. Or that bearing their religion IS a grief in itself.

  8. Twenty centuries ago, Calvary, a low hill just outside the walls of Jerusalem, witnessed crucifixion of two criminals and Jesus, son of a carpenter, Joseph, and his wife, Mary. His death altered history uncountably.

    One historic alteration occurred January 9, 1862, when San Francisco’s Calvary Presbyterian Church congregation voted to offer Charles Wadsworth, superstar Philadelphia minister, pastorship of their young, struggling church. Wadsworth accepted, moved family and belongings from Philadelphia during May and, so doing, altered ED’s poetry for the remaining 34 years of her life. ‘I measure every Grief I meet’ (F550) ranks seventh of eleven ED poems that include the word, “Calvary”.

    The complete list in Franklin order: F194, F283, F325, F347, F398, F431, F550, F670, F686, F749, F1485.

  9. ED enjoyed riddles to puzzle readers and provoke thought. She sometimes camouflaged identities by switching genders or assigning code names to protect reputations. It should be no surprise that about 1858-1862 she disguised her most formative life-altering relationship with a codeword, “Master”, which has served its purpose perfectly for 150 years, despite uncounted tries to crack its code.

    Franklin, R.W. (ed). 1986. The Master Letters of Emily Dickinson. Amherst College Press. 48 pp.

    My hypothesis is that about 1861 ED changed her codeword for “Master” to “Calvary”, beginning with poem F194, ‘Title divine, is mine.’:

    Title divine, is mine.
    The Wife without the Sign –
    Acute Degree conferred on me –
    Empress of Calvary –
    Royal, all but the Crown –
    Betrothed, without the Swoon
    God gives us Women –
    When You hold Garnet to Garnet –
    Gold – to Gold –
    Born – Bridalled – Shrouded –
    In a Day -
    Tri Victory –
    "My Husband" – Women say -
    Stroking the Melody –
    Is this – the way –

  10. Back to F550, ‘I measure every Grief I meet’. Susan K interprets so well, it seems there’s nothing more to say, but there always is. She certainly stimulates and continues conversations well on this poem.

    For five years after hearing him preach, 1856 – 1860, ED cultivated correspondence with Wadsworth. Her effort bore fruit when he personally visited her at Homestead in March 1860. Before he died, he destroyed all ED’s letters to him, and she did the same with his, except for one undated and unsigned note, probably sent before they first met:

    My Dear Miss Dickenson [sic]

    I am distressed beyond measure at your note, received this moment,
    - I can only imagine the affliction which has befallen, or is now
    befalling you.

    Believe me, be what it may, you have all my sympathy, and my
    constant, earnest prayers.

    I am very, very anxious to learn more definitely of your trial- and
    though I have no right to intrude upon your sorrow yet I beg you to
    write me, though it be but a word.

    In great haste
    Sincerely and most
    Affectionately Yours –

    1. Thanks, Larry. Can you provide more info on this letter? You say he wrote it before they first met -- how does one account, then, for his intense distress?

  11. Stanza 1

    “I measure every Grief I meet
    With narrow, probing, eyes —
    I wonder if It weighs like Mine —
    Or has an Easier size.”

    ED’s “Grief” was Wadsworth’s “removal” to San Francisco, described in my first comment above. She uses codeword “Calvary” in Stanza 9.

  12. Stanza 4

    "I note that Some — gone patient long —
    At length, renew their smile —
    An imitation of a Light
    That has so little Oil —”

    ED speaks from experience here. An earlier poem told how her fake smile hid pain of loss. Now she sees the same in others.

  13. Stanza 8

    “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 —

    The last two lines of this stanza refer to something unexplained that happened between ED and Sue during the late 1850s. Although they continued exchanged letters and poems, they stopped visiting each other:

    “As early as the quarrel in 1854, Emily had spoken of their "diverging paths," . . . . At the very least, the idea of rejection was in the air; and from what we know of Emily's sensitive relations with Sue, it would have taken only a hint. And it could have been either way: Sue might have rejected Emily, or Emily might have rejected Sue.

    “So, for fifteen years, according to the local estimate, Emily withdrew to the Homestead, not once venturing to the Evergreens until Gilbert's death, October 5, 1883.” (Sewall, R.B. 1974. The Life of Emily Dickinson. Harvard University Press. p.204.).

    Gilbert was Sue and Austin's second son, born August 1, 1875. 'Homestead' and 'Evergreens' were 300 feet apart.

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  15. Stanzas 9 & 10

    "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 —"

    Vendler (2010) closes her explication of this poem with a comment on rhyme: “Although there are other interesting rhymes ("try" and "die," "Harm" and "Balm"), the most striking one occurs when Dickinson rhymes "Me" and "Calvary”. . . . ”

    There’s a reason for that rhyme, other than sound; ED’s “piercing” pain (sarcastic “comfort”) began when Wadsworth took a pastorship at Calvary Presbyterian in San Francisco, abandoning her (“Me”) to mere memories of a letter-love with him (code “Calvary”). Sadly, for her, their love affair was only a construct of her imagination; her chosen fashion “of the Cross” was entirely white.

  16. ED tries to quantify every grief she meets and "wonders if it weighs like mine". Doesn’t she know everyone feels a grief differently? Some pass a grief off as “shit happens”, others spend years writing poems about it. Time heals all griefs, but she’s not over Wadsworth just yet. That didn’t happen until 1866:

    "ED’s 1866, final “Diadem” poem, ‘The Sky is low — the Clouds are mean’ (F1121), separated by three years and 508 poems from her penultimate "Diadem" poem (F613), says a sad sayonara to Charles Wadsworth:

    “The Sky is low — the Clouds are mean.
    A Travelling Flake of Snow
    Across a Barn or through a Rut
    Debates if it will go —

    A Narrow Wind complains all Day
    How some one treated him
    Nature, like Us is sometimes caught
    Without her Diadem”

    (Comment 8 on F613, TPB, January 8, 2024)