There is a pain—so utter

Emily Dickinson

‘There is a pain—so utter’  by Emily Dickinson is a complicated poem. It uses abstract language to describe pain.


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: Some pain is too horrible to handle

Themes: Journey, Wellness

Speaker: Unknown

Emotions Evoked: Grief, Pain

Poetic Form: Free Verse

Time Period: 19th Century

In this poem, Dickinson asks readers to consider the worst pain imaginable and how preferable it would be to never experience it at all.

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Throughout this piece, readers may find themselves confused and amazed by the poet’s use of language and style. The speaker defines pain in an interesting way, one that some readers are likely able to connect to better than others. The lines of ‘There is a pain—so utter’ are a great example of the way Dickinson can complicate her style.

There is a pain—so utter—
Emily Dickinson

There is a pain—so utter—It swallows substance up—Then covers the Abyss with Trance—So Memory can stepAround—across—upon it—As one within a Swoon—Goes safely—where an open eye—Would drop Him—Bone by Bone.

There is a pain—so utter by Emily Dickinson


There is a pain—so utter’  by Emily Dickinson is a complex poem that explores the concept of overwhelming pain.

The speaker begins the poem by suggesting that there’s a type of pain that can consume one’s life entirely. It takes one it the abyss, where they enter into a trance state. Here, the memory becomes important and perhaps takes one back to the worst times of their life. The final lines are even more abstract, perhaps suggesting that it’s only with these trance-like states that one can experience the pain. Without, that is, being dropped into the abyss for good.


Throughout ‘There is a pain—so utter,’ the poet engages with themes of pain and loss in addition to memory and time. The speaker explores these themes while also signaling that there is even more beyond them, things that words can’t effectively describe. There’s a deep and overwhelming pain one might encounter. It relates to memory and the way that these come in and out of one’s mind. Because the poem is fairly vague, readers are going to have very different experiences with it. This is a powerful aspect of the piece.

Structure and Form

‘There is a pain—so utter’  by Emily Dickinson is an eight-line poem that is contained within a single stanza of text. The lines contain a few examples of half-rhymes like “up” and “step.” This is something that is common within most writer’s work. “Bone” and “Swoon” might also rhyme, depending on how they’re pronounced. Readers are likely to notice Dickinson’s unique use of capitalization and spacing. Scholars are divided on why Dickinson chose to use dashes and capitalization in the way she does. Most believe it was in order to emphasize certain words more and ensure that the reader paused when it was the right time to pause.

Literary Devices

Dickinson makes use of several literary devices in ‘There is a pain—so utter.’ These include but are not limited to:

  • Caesura: a pause in the middle of a line. For example, “Goes safely—where an open eye—“ and “Would drop him—Bone by Bone.”
  • Imagery: can be seen when the poet uses especially vibrant descriptions. For example, “There is a pain—so utter— / It swallows substance up—.”
  • Personification: occurs when the poet imbues something inhuman with human characteristics. For example, “Memory can step / Around—across—upon it.”
  • Hyperbole: occurs when the writer exaggerates something for a specific purpose. For example, when they state that there is a “pain—so utter / It swallowed substance up.”

Detailed Analysis

Lines 1-3

There is a pain—so utter—

It swallows substance up—

Then covers the Abyss with Trance—

In the first lines of ‘There is a pain— so utter,’ the speaker begins by using the line the latter came to be used as the title of the poem. Due to the fact that Dickinson didn’t name her poems, the first lines often serve as the titles.

The speaker adds that this same pain, which is so “utter” or consuming, is capable of swallowing “substance up.” It can take away everything; replacing it was the pain alone. The poet uses the word “Trance” in the third line, suggesting that the pain covers the “Abyss” with “Trance.” This is perhaps a reference to a trance-like state that allows, as the next line adds, “Memory” to step “Around.”

Lines 4-8

So Memory can step

Around—across—upon it—

As one within a Swoon—

Goes safely—where an open eye—

Would drop him—Bone by Bone.

With the influence of the pain, memory can “step / Around— across—upon it.” Memory takes over once the pain comes. It’s a way of being reintroduced to pain from the past. The following lines are certainly up for interpretation. Dickinson uses quite an abstract language, describing a “Swoon,” also relates painful memories, and then an “open eye.” She is perhaps suggesting that being in this trance-like state or swoon is the only way to deal with the pain. If one addressed these issues with “an open eye,” then you’d be dropped “Bone by Bone” to the ground.

This is only one possible interpretation of these. Readers may find themselves considering the lines differently.


What is the tone of ‘There is a pain—so utter?’

The tone is dark and brooding. The speaker is talking about incredibly depressing subject matter, and the tone matches that. Readers might also note the tone as depressing and clarifying in that the speaker does not talk around anything. They address the subjects clearly.

Who is the speaker of ‘There is a pain—so utter?’

The speaker is someone who is accustomed to pain. They know what it’s like to experience it and have had time to consider it. The language is interesting enough to signal to readers that the speaker has had a great deal of time to think about.

What is the purpose of ‘There is a pain—so utter?’

The purpose is to explore a deep and overwhelming pain that takes over everything else. It consumes someone who experiences it, ensuring that everything else is blocked out.

What is the mood of ‘There is a pain—so utter?’

The mood is depressing and downtrodden, as the tone is. Readers may walk away from this poem feeling worse than they did before. But, they may also have a new understanding of what pain can be and what it may cause.

Similar Poetry

Readers who enjoyed ‘There is a pain—so utter’ should consider reading other Emily Dickinson poems. For example:

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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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