I measure every Grief I meet

Emily Dickinson

‘I measure every Grief I meet’ by Emily Dickinson is a dark and depressing poem. The poet explores the nature of grief and how loss is unavoidable.


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: Loss is unavoidable

Speaker: Usually thought to be Dickinson herself

Emotions Evoked: Anxiety, Frustration, Sadness

Poetic Form: Ballad, Quatrain

Time Period: 19th Century

Emily Dickinson understood grief very well. This is something she skillfully demonstrates in 'I measure every Grief I meet.'

I measure every Grief I meet’ uses mostly clear diction and syntax in order to explore themes of grief, sorrow, death, and time. The poet takes the reader into the mind of a speaker who may or may not be the poet herself. There are several moments in this poem that a close reader and someone who understand’s Dickinson’s life and personal sorrows, might draw comparisons to what the speaker is describing. 

I measure every Grief I meet
Emily Dickinson

I measure every Grief I meetWith 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 LightThat has so little Oil –

I wonder if when Years have piled – Some Thousands – on the Harm – That hurt them early – such a lapseCould give them any Balm –

Or would they go on aching stillThrough 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 meA piercing Comfort it affordsIn passing Calvary –

To note the fashions – of the Cross – And how they're mostly worn – Still fascinated to presumeThat Some – are like my own –
I measure every Grief I meet by Emily Dickinson

Summary of I measure every Grief I meet

I measure every Grief I meet’ by Emily Dickinson is a moving and deeply sad poem that describes a speaker’s understanding of her grief and that of others.

The poem takes the reader into the speaker’s mind where she explains how she sees grief in the world around her. She wonders about everyone else, their sadness, and the way they deal with them. It brings her some measure of comfort to know that she’s not the only one suffering. The poet’s speaker also considers the possibility that some of these people may or may not eventually get a reprieve from their sorrow. The poem ends with an allusion to the crucifixion of Jesus. 

Structure of I measure every Grief I meet

I measure every Grief I meet’ by Emily Dickinson is a ten-stanza poem that is separated into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains follow a rhyme scheme of ABCB, changing end sounds from stanza to stanza. To those familiar with Dickinson’s poetry, this pattern will come as no surprise. Dickinson was fond of using what is known as a hymn stanza or ballad stanza in her work. 

This means that the lines follow that specific rhyme scheme, usually, and alternate between iambic trimeter and iambic tetrameter. These two different metrical patterns refer to the number of beats per line. The latter, iambic tetrameter means that each line contains four sets of two beats. The first of these is unstressed and the second is stressed in each pair. Iambic trimeter uses the same alignment of stresses but there are only three pairs of two beats per line. 

Literary Devices in I measure every Grief I meet

Dickinson makes use of several literary devices in ‘I measure every Grief I meet’. These include but are not limited to metaphors, allusions, and examples of alliteration. The latter, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “length” and “Light” in stanza four as well as “piercing” and “passing” in stanza nine. 

An allusion is an expression that’s meant to call something specific to the mind without directly stating it. There is a good example at the end of the poem when the poet alludes to Cavalry, the place where Christ was crucified, and then relates that to her experience of others’ grief. 

A metaphor is a comparison between two, unlike things that do not use “like” or “as” is also present in the text. When using this technique a poet is saying that one thing is another thing, they aren’t just similar. In the final stanza, the poet uses a metaphor to compare people’s grief to the clothes they wear. 

Analysis of I measure every Grief I meet

Stanza One 

I measure every Grief I meet

With narrow, probing, eyes –

I wonder if It weighs like Mine –

Or has an Easier size.

In the first stanza of ‘I measure every Grief I meet,’ the speaker beings by making use of the line that later came to be used as the title. Due to the fact that Dickinson died before any of her poems were published, they are mostly all titled with their first line. She is discussing, quite simply and directly, something that she often does— measure grief. When analyzing those around her she likes to consider whether they are experiencing the same level of grief, or more or less, than she is. Perhaps, their grief is of an “Easier size” or it “weighs” as her’s does. 

Stanza Two 

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 –

When thinking about the pain that others carry she also considers whether or not they’ve carried it for a long time or if it “just” began for them. She believes that others’ pain has a decipherable beginning and ending but when she thinks about hers she can’t tell when it began or if there could possibly be a date future when it ends. It just feels so “old” to her, as if it has been there all her life. 

Stanza Three 

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 –

In the third stanza ‘I measure every Grief I meet’, the poet considers whether or not others feel pain in their day-to-day lives due to their grief. The mood of the poem, as well as the speaker’s tone, darkens here. She suggests the possibility that others might consider committing suicide because of the weight of their grief. By asking if others struggle this way she is giving the reader a sign that she is herself struggling to want to live. 

Stanza Four 

I note that Some – gone patient long –

At length, renew their smile –  

An imitation of a Light

That has so little Oil –

There are some, the speaker says in this stanza ‘I measure every Grief I meet’, who eventually get better. Their happiness and their smiles are renewed and they are able to move on to another period of their lives, or so it seems. The speaker is not entirely convinced that this is true. She isn’t sure that their happiness is genuine or if they are putting on a facade. 

The third and fourth lines of this stanza begin with an interesting metaphor that compares a person’s happiness to an oil lamp or the oil that’s inside it. She is suggesting that oil is needed to make a lamp shine just as happiness is needed to make someone smile. Those who suffer as she does don’t have enough oil to light their light of happiness. 

Stanza Five 

I wonder if when Years have piled –  

Some Thousands – on the Harm –  

That hurt them early – such a lapse

Could give them any Balm –  

In the fifth stanza of ‘I measure every Grief I meet,’ Dickinson’s speaker considers another hypothetical in regards to the grief of others (but really about her own grief). She wonders if someone who has felt sad for as long as she has would ever be able to throw that sadness off. There is clearly an amount of skepticism that someone like her could find happiness or a “Balm” to their grief. 

Stanza Six 

Or would they go on aching still

Through Centuries of Nerve –

Enlightened to a larger Pain –  

In Contrast with the Love –  

The sixth stanza of ‘I measure every Grief I meet’ continues on the thoughts from the fifth. Here, the poet thinks that it’s likely that someone with as much grief as she has would “go on aching” through the “Centuries of Nerve”. She believes that the grief will be unending and that there will never be a light at the end to relieve them of it. In fact, Dickinson’s speaker says, they’ll eventually get to a place where they are “Enlightened to larger Pain”.

They’ll leave the world of normal pain behind and enter into a new one that is all-encompassing. She contrasts the larger pain that she feels is in the future for her and others like to to the “Love”. The source or nature of that “Love” is unknown at this point. It could simply by a disembodied idea of love. 

Stanza Seven

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 –  

Stanza seven of ‘I measure every Grief I meet’ explains how there are so many “Grieved” out in the world, or so she’s been “told”. They are sad for a variety of reasons, only one of them being “Death”. She thinks about death and decides that death is easier than many of the other reasons that one might feel grief. It happens only once but other kinds of grief are more permanent that happen over and over again. The last line of this stanza reads “And only nails the eyes”. This striking and disturbing image is a way of reiterating the nature of death. It happens once and then it’s over.


Stanza Eight

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 –  

There are many other griefs that are much worse than death. These include wanting, “Cold” and “Despair”. There is also “Banishment from native Eyes,” or one’s home. These griefs are much more long-lasting than death is.


Stanza Nine

And though I may not guess the kind –  

Correctly – yet to me

A piercing Comfort it affords

In passing Calvary –  

The speaker returns to the idea that people around her may be experiencing a pain similar to her own in this stanza of ‘I measure every Grief I meet’. This is something she takes comfort in, even though she doesn’t know what those griefs are. There is an example of allusion in the last line of this stanza “Calvary” refers to the site at which Christ was crucified. She witnesses others’ suffering, just as the world witnessed Christ’s suffering for the sake of humanity. 

Stanza Ten 

To note the fashions – of the Cross –  

And how they’re mostly worn –  

Still fascinated to presume

That Some – are like my own –

The last stanza contains an interesting metaphor. Here, she describes grief as fashions that people wear. When she passed the site of the “Cross” she notices how everyone is suffering around her and that makes her think that “Some—are like [her] own”. The poem ends here, on a semi-optimistic note, suggesting that there is some peace to be found in the knowledge that one is not alone in their experience of the world. 

Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.

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