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23 June 2015

So glad we are — a stranger'd deem

So glad we are — a stranger'd deem
'Twas sorry – that we were —
For where the Holiday – should be –
There publishes – a Tear —

Nor how Ourselves be justified —
Since Grief and Joy are done
So similar — An Optizan
Could not decide between —
                           F608 (1863)  J329

Tears of joy and tears of grief – the manifestation of both emotions is so similar that the most discerning individual, or even an eye doctor, can't tell which is which. I personally find this an exaggeration, but Dickinson builds this light little poem around the conceit.
Who is happy here?
Photo, Mauricio Lima, Getty Images, 2012

        It's a familiar irony: we are overflowing with happiness, experiencing a "Holiday" of feeling. In the first stanza it is a stranger who can't tell that the crying person is experiencing joy. In the second it is an "Optizan" – a great made-up word – who can't distinguish between the two emotional extremes.
         I do like Dickinson's observation that "Grief and Joy are done / So similar" as if emotions are things one does as well as feels. Perhaps there is a very fine line between extremes. Surely if we have a sudden rush of joy it is because the potential for grief lay equally close to the surface. The strong potentials evoke similar responses.  
         Dickinson uses a very regular ballad form for the poem. You could sing "Yellow Rose of Texas" to it. The first two lines emphasize the emotions rather than the people: "So glad … / Twas sorry…"

David Preest says this is one of three poems Dickinson sent Samuel Bowles who had taken a trip to Europe in 1862. This one might have been the one she wrote on his return.


  1. Neither ED’s Webster nor OED recognize “optizan” as a word. OED recognizes “shazam” (1940, A ‘magic’ word used like ‘abracadabra’ or ‘presto’ to introduce an extraordinary deed or story), so why not “optizam”? Google defines “optizam” with a verbatim quote of BYU’s ED Lexicon, but ED Lex disclaims any responsibility for its definition:

    Optizan, n. [etymology unknown; definition not attested.] (figurative): “seer; visionary; scientist; wise man; person of discernment”

    The word works wonderfully, don’t you think? An ED original or slang she picked up from her lawyer brother or father? Nowadays, “optizam” is a lost pearl in the trash heap of English woulda, coulda, shouldabeens.

    1. Thanks for this. I do agree with you about 'optizan'. Now to work it into my conversation ....

  2. Shazam, optizam, optizan, AAARRRGGHH!!!; too many comic books in the formative years.

    Here's a handy alternative fact for spellbinding TPBers:

    Solomon was the archetype optizan, but, since tears of grief and tears of joy seem so similar, not even he could decide which caused them.