The poem was published in 1890 in Poems of Emily Dickinson and was untitled. It’s usually referred to by its first line or by the number 241. It was published posthumously or after Emily Dickinson passed away. Although not one of her best-known poems, ‘I like the look of Agony’ is quite effective.
I like a look of Agony Emily DickinsonI like a look of Agony,Because I know it's true—Men do not sham Convulsion,Nor simulate, a Throe—The Eyes glaze once—and that is Death—Impossible to feignThe Beads upon the ForeheadBy homely Anguish strung.
Explore I like the look of Agony
‘I like a look of Agony’ by Emily Dickinson is a short poem that expresses the speaker’s interest and comfort in seeing pain on people’s faces.
The speaker describes how pain is truthful. Agony is something, like death, that can’t be hidden or faked. It is truthful in a way that love and passion are not. When she looks at someone’s face and sees their suffering, she knows it’s real as it’s impossible to simulate the throes of pain. The speaker concludes the poem by speaking about the beads of sweat that may appear on someone’s skin. They are like a necklace that agony itself strung and hung on someone’s body.
Structure and Form
‘I like a look of Agony’ by Emily Dickinson is a two-stanza poem that is separated into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains follow a rhyme scheme of ABCB; changing end sounds in the second stanza. This is the traditional pattern of the ballad stanza, something that Dickinson often used. In the first stanza, “true” and “throe” are examples of a half-rhyme. Dickinson also wrote this poem in common meter, or alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter. (There are a few instances where the pattern is broken.)
Throughout this poem, Dickinson makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Personification: occurs when the poet imbues human characteristics onto non-human things. For example, describing the “look” of “Agony” in the first stanza.
- Imagery: can be seen when the poet uses particularly interesting descriptions. For example, “The Eyes glaze once—and that is Death— / Impossible to feign.”
- Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound a the beginning of multiple words. For example, “like” and “look” in line one of stanza one.
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before the natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines two, three, and four of the second stanza.
I like a look of Agony,
Because I know it’s true—
Men do not sham Convulsion,
Nor simulate, a Throe—
In the first stanza of ‘I like the look of Agony,’ the speaker begins by saying that they like to see the pain on other people’s faces. This appeals to them, not because they enjoy pain in and of itself, but because they know its true emotion. The person feeling it is expressing something honestly. Those who experience it are not putting on a sham or simulating something they aren’t feeling. Fake throes of agony are not something one sees.
The Eyes glaze once—and that is Death—
Impossible to feign
The Beads upon the Forehead
By homely Anguish strung.
In the second stanza, the speaker goes on to say that when someone is suffering or experiencing agony, their eyes glaze over. The pain is something true, “Impossible to feign.” It is as true as death is.
The speaker creates a very easy-to-imagine image in the last two lines. She speaks of the sight of beads of sweat on the foreheads of those suffering. They are strung across, as one might hang a necklace or other string of beads. They appear as though Anguish itself hung them.
The purpose is to express how truthful pain and agony can be. One can look at another’s face and know right away that they are suffering. It’s hard to hide and impossible to fake.
It’s unclear who the speaker is, although it could be the poet herself. It is someone who is acutely aware that people often do not say what they mean or show what they feel.
The themes at work in this poem are pain and truth. These two ideas come together to suggest that only pain and agony are truthful. They can’t be faked or hidden.
The meaning is that in a world where most people are fake, pain is something dependable and real—like death. It shows itself on one’s face clearly. It is unmistakable.
Readers who enjoyed this piece should also consider reading some other Emily Dickinson poems. For example:
- ‘A Bird, came down the Walk’ – a beautiful nature poem. It focuses on the actions of a bird going about its everyday life.
- ‘A Coffin is a small Domain’ – explores death. It is characteristic of much of the poet’s work in that it clearly addresses this topic and everything that goes along with it.
- ‘A drop fell on the apple tree’ – is filled with joy. It describes, with Dickinson’s classic skill, images of the summer season and how a storm can influence it.