Life, friends, is either difficult or boring. Right now, mine isn’t boring. On Dickinson.


Miserable?  Feel like you are falling out of a plane?  I know I am.  The parachute is empathy. Let’s take a moment and feel for Emily Dickinson, who was weeping long before you were born.  This was written around 1862.  She was about 32.

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 –

She wonders for a few stanzas whether time ever cures anyone, or if even with a thousand years, only a bit of a smile would return to the sad faces she sees.  Then she makes sure that we know that grief is a complicated word.  It always means, first and foremost, the harrowing trauma of the death of a loved one.  All other meanings seem to be metaphor.

But all other meanings of the word grief are not metaphor.  The reason there are so many awful people is that grief fills them from some real loss, but because it is not the loss of a loved one, no one tells them they have the right to grieve, so they don’t.  The grief stays in them, in their bodies, and it calcifies, it stops growth, it causes pain.  Dickinson uses her thrilling language to mean many things at once: loneliness, disappointment, rejection, human and profound.  Here’s how she puts it:

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 –

We don’t just feel bad, we can see feeling okay, right over there.  We are just banished from it. Dickinson closes the poem thinking of the death of Jesus and how each of us has to drag our cross around, and how for her there is a “piercing comfort” available.

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 –

The piercing comfort is in seeing other people, and seeing their grief. The comfort is in noting how people bear their load, how they wear their burden.  What is more, the speaker of this poem, dead-hearted through previous stanzas, now finds fascination.  She doesn’t know anything about anyone else’s grief, but it fascinates her to presume, to guess with expectation of being right, that some of the grief she sees is like the most mysterious thing she has ever encountered: her own grief.   Empathy is the hook back in. Why can’t you try to measure every grief you meet, and even speak to it?  It isn’t normal, but it is a lot better than being miserable alone.
Here is a fun quick interview at Neuronarrative (sorry I just fixed this link).

Also this is very nice. So why can’t I choose between the proposals I’ve written and commit and sell one finally? It’s freaking difficult to make choices sometimes. Too much pressure maybe. No money, terrible economy. Anyway, this link has nothing to do with that, I just felt like confessing.



About jennifermichaelhecht

I'm a poet with a PhD in the History of Science from Columbia University and I've written five books, two poetry, two popular philosophy, one intellectual history. I live in Brooklyn with my husband and our two little kids. I teach seminars in poetry in the MFA programs at The New School and at Columbia.
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