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.
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In this short Life that only lasts an hourEmily Dickinson
How much – how little – is within our power
‘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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.