How Happy I Was If I Could Forget

Emily Dickinson

‘How Happy I Was If I Could Forget’ by Emily Dickinson contains a narrator’s confused thoughts and experiences. She uses complex grammar and imagery to convey it further.


Emily Dickinson

Nationality: American

Emily Dickinson redefined American poetry with unique line breaks and unexpected rhymes.

Notable works include 'Because I could not stop for Death' and 'Hope is the Thing with Feathers.' 

Key Poem Information

Central Message: Forgetting is difficult when you want to do it

Speaker: Unknown

Emotions Evoked: Anxiety, Confusion, Frustration

Poetic Form: Ballad, Quatrain

Time Period: 19th Century

With frustrating language, Dickinson reminds readers how hard it can be to forget something one needs to leave in the past.

How Happy I Was If I Could Forget’ is a two-stanza work where the narrator takes the reader through a series of confusing verb tenses and language choices to represent the overall lack of clarity she has for the memory that she wishes she “could forget.”

The cyclical state of the stanzas’ disorganization, additionally, reflects that the narrator feels trapped in her confused loop from the memory, and the reader could finish ‘How Happy I Was If I Could Forget’ without knowing what the troubling memory is. This is yet another method of revealing the narrator’s confusion over the memory.

Just as she does not know how to treat the memory, the reader does not know solid details about the memory. From start to finish then, this is a work that is structured perfectly to share and represent the narrator’s confusion.

How happy I was if I could forget
Emily Dickinson

How happy I was if I could forgetTo remember how sad I amWould be an easy adversityBut the recollecting of Bloom

Keeps making November difficultTill I who was almost boldLose my way like a little ChildAnd perish of the cold.

How Happy I Was If I Could Forget by Emily Dickinson

How Happy I Was If I Could Forget Analysis

First Stanza

How happy I was if I could forget

To remember how sad I am

Would be an easy adversity

But the recollecting of Bloom

The shift in verb tenses is remarkable in this first stanza to address the narrator’s unclear thoughts that are connected to whatever memory she wishes to “forget.” Within the first two lines of ‘How Happy I Was If I Could Forget’, the reader encounters past tense in “was” and the subjunctive imagined prospect of “if I could forget.” This “if” indicates that this is only a wish the narrator has, meaning it is not past, present, or future because it has not happened and will not definitively ever happen.

From there, the narrator turns to the present tense by saying, “how sad I am.” There is no clear way that all of these verb tenses sensibly link up, and this grammatic confusion mirrors how uncertain and shaken the narrator is from this memory’s lingering presence.

This grammatical confusion continues in the third line where there is no subject given for the sentiment. Nothing is stated as the thing that “[w]ould be an easy adversity,” so structurally, the statement lacks clarity. In fact, the reader might assume the thing is the memory, but the fourth line reveals that this cannot be the case.

The “recollect[ion]” is addressed as a reason why the “adversity” is not “easy,” and the two cannot be the same thing. It appears then that this is a general sentiment, that the situation that created the memory would be something to “eas[ily]” push past if she could keep from “recollecting” it, but the lack of subject requires additional time to come to this conclusion, thus – again – mirroring the narrator’s uncertainty.

The reader can infer, whatever this memory is, that it is not a good one because if it were pleasant, the narrator would not be “happy” to “forget” it, and also because the situation linked to it is noted as an “adversity.” Not only is that memory evidently unpleasant, but the scenario has an “advers[e]” effect on her current life.

An interesting thing to note, however, is that the “adversity” is treated in a beautiful way by being addressed as a “Bloom.” The capitalization can be written off with the notion that even a bad memory could be important enough to merit capitalization, but a “Bloom” has a connotation of natural beauty and livelihood.

This could simply mean the negativity from the circumstance grows with time, but the choice of such a soft verb gives the feeling that the narrator has warm feelings about whatever happened to cause this bad memory—maybe a relationship she loved but lost or a friend who was dear but forsaken. This would again give a reason for the grammatical chaos of the lack of subject and mismatched verb tenses since, it seems, the narrator does not know how she feels about the memory.

Second Stanza

Keeps making November difficult

Till I who was almost bold

Lose my way like a little Child

And perish of the cold.

Once more, the variation of verb tenses happens within this stanza to continue the representation of her uncertain mind frame since the “Bloom [k]eeps making November difficult,” which is present tense, but she “was almost bold,” which is past tense. Though there is a logic behind this particular verb tense change, the pattern is still striking enough to merit mention.

Additionally, the third line of this stanza again does not have a subject for its main verb, and this format adds a bit of structure amidst the chaos since the varying verb tenses happen in the first two lines of both stanzas while the missing subject shows up in the third lines. This sustained format is an indication that this bad memory she could not “forget” keeps her in a loop she cannot break free of, as in no matter how far she tries to run from it, she always ends up dealing with the same problems again and again. The grammar details, then, mirror the circular repetition of her emotional problems.

A piece of irony is that she claims the memory is “making November difficult,” but as “November” is the final month of autumn and a step toward harsh winter, it could be noted as one of the harsher months of the year on its own. With this in mind, her phrasing could be a subtle hint that her current state is already harsh, and perhaps she is blaming too much on the memory in regard to her unhappiness.

Furthermore in ‘How Happy I Was If I Could Forget’, she claims to “[l]ose [her] way like a little Child [a]nd perish of the cold,” and this concept is loaded with possible meaning. For one thing, the capitalization of the word, “Child,” could indicate that perhaps she has lost a baby and is grieving that “Child.” This would clarify why she would treat the memory simultaneously as a pain and a beauty since she would treasure the “Child” itself, but abhor the pain attached to the grief. This, however, is the only speculation since it could mean that the helplessness she feels is significant enough, like a “Child” who needs care, to merit capitalization.

Whichever is the correct explanation, the word choice makes the reference to “November” more sensible since it is the month that is on the brink of winter. In this, “November” is an indication that she is very close to being submerged into “the cold” of her sorrow over the memory, and that sorrow can cause her happiness and liveliness to “perish” just as winter can steal the livelihood of plants and nature.

It is also noteworthy that she speaks of “perish[ing] of the cold,” not “in the cold.” This treats “the cold,” or the devastation from the memory, like a disease rather than a weather detail, which furthers the paradox of how the situation remembered is treated. In the first stanza, it “Bloom[s].” Here, it has essentially become a disease. This again mirrors the uncertainty and lack of clarity within the narrator’s thoughts regarding the situation.

Overall in ‘How Happy I Was If I Could Forget’, the lack of clear details about what has happened to affect the narrator so, in addition to the confusion of verb tenses, subjects, and figurative language, creates an unclear work that perfectly depicts how unclear the narrator herself feels about her memory. Does she hate it? Does she want to keep it? Was it good? Was it bad? She does not seem to know, just as the reader cannot know the memory’s most vivid details.

About Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson was one of the most famous poets in the world. Born in 1830, this American writer attended the Amherst Academy and Mount Holyoke and wrote over a thousand poems in her time. She was known for her rebellious ideas, as compared to the time she lived in, and her writing remains significant enough to make her a common name in literature over a hundred years after her death.

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Connie Smith Poetry Expert
Connie L. Smith spends a decent amount of time with her mind wandering in fictional places. She reads too much, likes to bake, and might forever be sad that she doesn’t have fairy wings. She has her BA from Northern Kentucky University in Speech Communication and History (she doesn’t totally get the connection either), and her MA in English and Creative Writing. In addition, she freelances as a blogger for topics like sewing and running, with a little baking, gift-giving, and gardening having occasionally been thrown in the topic list.
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