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I measure every Grief I meet

I measure every Grief I meet


by Emily Dickinson

Stanzas 3-4 Summary

Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.

Stanza 3

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—

  • The speaker gets a bit darker here, wondering if the sad people that she observes have ever considered death as an alternative to the major grief they carry around all the time.
  • Since the previous stanzas have both mentioned the speaker's own position, there is a very real possibility that she is implicating herself in these hypothetical situations. Does she have to try to live? Has she considered death?
  • As if things weren't depressing enough already…

Stanza 4

I note that Some—gone patient long—
At length, renew their smile—
An imitation of a Light
That has so little Oil—

  • Here the speaker talks about a specific subset of the sad people—those who eventually seem to feel better one day. Having been patient for a long time, these folks "renew their smile."
  • But the speaker's skeptical. She doesn't seem convinced by these shiny happy faces. In fact, she calls these folks' smiles "an imitation of a Light / That has so little Oil."
  • Harsh. But still, maybe she's onto something. Maybe there's something superficial about their happiness, as if they're putting on a happy face for others, while still feeling the grief inside. 
  • In lines 15 and 16, the poem sets up a metaphor comparing a person's overall happiness or to oil in a lamp. Just as oil is required to cause the lamp to brighten, happiness is required to get someone to smile. The poem suggests that a grieving person's smile could never be real, because they have too "little Oil." It'll just be a flickering flame.

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