In this short life that only lasts an hour

Emily Dickinson

‘In this short life that only lasts an hour’ by Emily Dickinson is a thoughtful, short poem. It is about how little we can control in our everyday lives.


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: Much in life is outside of our control

Themes: Death

Speaker: Unknown

Emotions Evoked: Worry

Poetic Form: Ballad, Quatrain

Time Period: 19th Century

Dickinson taps into the universal concerns everyone has about their control, or lack thereof, over their lives.

This poem is uncharacteristically short for Dickinson, who was usually fond of quatrains and the ballad form. Instead, readers are faced with two direct and penetrating lines that deal with the nature of life. There is no way to get away from Dickinson’s central message in ‘In this short life that only lasts an hour,’—life is short, and we can’t control it.

In this short Life
Emily Dickinson

In this short Life that only lasts an hourHow much - how little - is within our power

In this short life that only lasts an hour by Emily Dickinson


‘In this short life that only lasts an hour’ by Emily Dickinson is a short poem about the importance of living life to the fullest.

The first of the two lines reminds readers that life is incredibly brief. The second, that there’s very little “we” can do to control it. Dickinson’s short poem, which itself evokes a feeling of the fleeting nature of life, is a brief but effective reminder of what’s important on a day-to-day basis.

Explore more Emily Dickinson poems.


Throughout ‘In this short life that only lasts an hour,’ Dickinson deals with themes of the purpose of life and death. Life, she says, is incredibly fleeting. Plus, it’s hard to control. One has to contend with their short time on earth as well as all the obstacles in their way if they want to live a good life. Death is going to come quickly, and when it does, you’re going to be left with the few good or bad things you accomplished during your brief life.

Structure and Form

‘In this short life that only lasts an hour’ by Emily Dickinson is a two-line poem that is contained within one stanza, known as a couplet. The poem also follows the normal rhyme scheme of a couplet, meaning that the two lines rhyme perfectly. In this case, with “hour” and “power.” Both lines are ten syllables long if the words “hour” and “power” are read as a single syllable word. Otherwise, both lines are eleven.

Literary Devices

Despite its brevity, Dickinson makes use of several literary devices in ‘‘In this short life that only lasts an hour.’ These include but are not limited to:

  • Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of words. For example, “Life” and “lasts” in the first lined “little” in the second line.
  • Caesura: occurs when the poet inserts a pause into the middle of a line. This could be towards the beginning, true middle, or end of a line. In this case, the second line has a medial caesura. It reads: “How much – how little – is within our power.”
  • Enjambment: This can be seen when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point—for example, the transition between both of the lines in this poem. Readers have to go down to the second line to find out what Dickinson wants to say about life is only an hour.
  • Imagery: occurs when the poet uses particularly poignant descriptions. For example, in this piece, by referring to “Life” and alluding to what’s “within our power,” readers are asked to visualize their own lives and what they feel they have control over. It’s open-ended and effective.


Detailed Analysis

Line One

In this short Life that only lasts an hour

In the first line of ‘How much – how little – is within our power,’ the poet uses the line that later came to be used as the title. This was often the case with Dickinson’s poems due to the fact that the vast majority went untitled. Throughout the time since her death, the poems have been given numerical designations and names from various editors but are most commonly referred to by their first lines.

The first line reminds readers that life is so short, it feels as though it only lasts an hour. This is a great example of hyperbole. While a lot of the time, hyperboles are extreme and clearly outrageous in some way, this one is far more serious and thoughtful. Readers shouldn’t feel as though Dickinson is exaggerating just to surprise or attract readers. Instead, she’s doing so in order to make a very clear point. Throughout the whole history of the world, one’s life is so minuscule it feels as though it’s only lasting an hour.

By setting up the one-hour life, Dickinson is asking readers to consider what their one hour is going to consist of and what’s important. The shorter life is, the less important mundane problems and tasks become. Instead, readers are asked to center their thoughts on what’s truly important. If you have one hour of life to fill, what would you fill it with?

Lines Two

How much – how little – is within our power

In the second line, the speaker concludes her thought by not only reminding readers of how short life is but of how little is “within our power.” The one hour of life is fleeting and far too fast to focus on the everyday troubles most people worry about. Plus, its brevity means that what may be the most important is actually impossible to control. We, those reading these lines of verse and living throughout history, are faced with the task of making a life we want to live. This is incredibly hard within one hour and made even harder by how difficult the world is to control. Things happen all the time that we can’t touch or change.


What is the tone of ‘In this short life that only lasts an hour?’

The tone is thoughtful and direct. The speaker is addressing the subject head-on. But in a way, that’s not abrasive or desperate feeling. She knows what life is like and wants to explore that.

Who is the speaker in ‘In this short life that only lasts an hour?’

It’s unclear who the speaker is in ‘In this short life that only lasts an hour.’ It could be Dickinson herself or someone else. Whoever it is, understands that life is short and is clear-headed enough to know that there’s little they can do to alter it.

Why did Dickinson write ‘In this short life that only lasts an hour?’

Dickinson wrote ‘In this short life that only lasts an hour’ in order to remind readers, and perhaps herself, that since life is so short, one should do whatever they can to make to the best of it. This is despite the fact that It’s often hard to control.

What is the meaning of ‘In this short life that only lasts an hour?’

The meaning is that you shouldn’t sit around and waste time when life is so short. It might be hard to get things in “our power,” but it’s worth the effort. Life is going to be over before you know it.

What is the mood of ‘In this short life that only lasts an hour?’

The mood is contemplative and serious. It could also be inspiring, depending on what readers take away from Dickinson’s message. Some might be depressed by what she’s sharing, while others might hear her words and try to make changes in their life.


Similar Poetry

Readers who enjoyed ‘In this short life that only lasts an hour’ should also consider reading some of Emily Dickinson’s best-known poems. For example:

  • Fame is a bee’ – talks about the transient nature of “fame” by using the metaphor of a “bee.”
  • A Bird came down the Walk’ – describes the simple, yet beautiful, actions of a bird searching for food and then taking flight.
  • A Coffin—is a small Domain’ – is characteristic of much of the poet’s work in that it clearly addresses death and everything that goes along with it.

Get More with Poetry+

Upgrade to Poetry+ and get unlimited access to exclusive content, including:

Printable Poem Guides

Covering every poem on Poem Analysis (all 4,172 and counting).

Printable PDF Resources

Covering Poets, Rhyme Schemes, Movements, Meter, and more.

Ad-Free Experience

Enjoy poetry without adverts.

Talk with Poetry Experts

Comment about any poem and have experts answer.

Tooltip Definitions

Get tooltip definitions throughout Poem Analysis on 880 terms.

Premium Newsletter

Stay up to date with all things poetry.

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.

Join the Poetry Chatter and Comment

Exclusive to Poetry+ Members

Join Conversations

Share your thoughts and be part of engaging discussions.

Expert Replies

Get personalized insights from our Qualified Poetry Experts.

Connect with Poetry Lovers

Build connections with like-minded individuals.

Sign up to Poetry+
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Got a question about the poem? Ask an expert.x

Discover and learn about the greatest poetry, straight to your inbox

Start Your Perfect Poetry Journey

The Best-Kept Secrets of Poetry

Discover and learn about the greatest poetry ever straight to your inbox

Share to...