Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
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 are a lot of bummed folks out there in the world, according to our speaker. Or at least, according to whoever told her that in the first place.
- And it's not like they're all sad for the same reason, either. According to the speaker, death causes grief, for sure, but it's not the only problem.
- In fact, those other causes might be even worse than death, because death only comes around once, while losing your job or breaking your leg can happen any number of times.
- But you could argue that throughout your life, you'll experience the deaths of more than a few loved ones—so doesn't death come around more than once?
- Maybe she's not referring to the grief of watching others die here, but the grief that comes with realizing your own mortality. Maybe she's talking about being bummed because you know that one day you'll bite the dust.
- That's where this whole death "only nails the eyes" thing comes in. It's an alarming image, sure, but it also gives more ammo to the theory that she's talking about mortality here. If she's referring to the dead person's eyes, well then that dead person is experiencing a unique, only-comes-around-once kind of grief—the grief of dying.
- The fact that the speaker drops in that word "only" adds an interesting note to the poem. Death sounds, frankly, not all that bad if all it does is nail the eyes.
- Maybe it's an easier grief than others. But what could be worse than death?
- Let's find out…
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—
- Now the speaker lists other kinds of grief: grief because of envy or desire; grief because of poverty or lack of shelter; and a kind of general sadness that some people call "Despair."
- The speaker adds to the list a type of "Banishment," while still being in sight of where you're banished from, like some sort of cruel exile.
- She could be talking about being in jail, or this could also be a reference to Emily Dickinson's own supposed agoraphobia, which kept her from leaving her dad's house.
- All these griefs sound pretty terrible to Shmoop, and check out how long lasting they are. Unlike death, which only happens once, and happens fairly quickly in the grand scheme of things, these griefs and pains can last for years, and can recur. Yikes.