Some Are Like My Own

“Some Are Like My Own”: Vicarious Experiencing Of the Grief Process in Emily Dickinson’s Poem #561


“Some are like my own” demonstrates a conscious effort on the part of the poet to establish, in the reader’s mind, inevitability and empathy in the speaker’s evaluation of grief. She accomplishes this by a skillfully crafted incorporation of devices which carry the receptive reader through the actual grief process. These devices can be better evaluated by dividing the poem into three distinct movements: Questioning (stanzas 1-6), Definition (stanzas 7-8), and Resolution (stanzas 9-10).

Dickinson uses, within the threefold movement, several techniques to pull the reader into a relationship of identity with and confidence in the speaker. She poses her questions in the first person, not only heightening the question’s intensity, but also sharply focusing our attention and sympathy as we become the speaker. We become the song while the song lasts. Unconsciously, the reader is identifying with the speaker early in the poem when she asks, “I wonder if It weighs like Mine — “. Thus the reader’s own questioning prepares him/her to accept the speaker’s resolution. In addition, her avoidance of didactic rhetoric subtly enlists the reader’s participation. S/he feels no need to defend or stand at a distance; s/he draws close, opening heart and mind. She has established proximity. The most effective device she draws upon to develop confidence in the speaker is her skepticism. She measures every grief “With narrow, probing, Eyes — “(2). The reader sees that the speaker can be trusted. No one will accept a naive evaluation of an emotion as intense as grief. If she had said ‘I know’ instead of ‘I presume'(39), s/he would balk. Knowing that an exact measurement or indicator of the presence of grief would be purely subjective, our speaker does not say, “The Grieved — are many — “(25) and leave it at that —  as though she had stated a new emotional axiom. She convinces us of her exposure to and awareness of grief’s illusive symptoms by adding, “I am told — “(25). Now the reader says, ‘She’s honest. I’ll go on with her.’ These are subtle but effective devices with which to win her poetic pilgrims. She wants to engage in such a way that she holds us until the end. Having evaluated her use of several of these techniques, let us move on to the threefold movement of the poem to see how else she draws the reader into direct experiencing.

The first major movement, questioning, is comprised of three types: questions of dimension, duration, and direction. In the first type, dimension, she says, “I measure every Grief I meet”(1); “I wonder if It weighs like Mine — Or has an Easier size.”(3-4). As the speaker thus evaluates the experience, these terms of dimension subtly move us to see how large her grief seems to her “Is theirs as big as mine?” she asks. Not only will the reader look for comparisons between the speaker’s grief and that of those s/he observes; but s/he internalizes the questions and begins to expand his/her consciousness, thus embracing a fellow sufferer and recognizing his/herself. Her questions are so basic and universally asked that on a subliminal level, memory is being affected. One of the first observations a person makes in his experience of grief (assuming he has experienced it) is that, at the time s/he was going through it, no one else’s’ grief mattered; to her/him, s/he owned the biggest. This is not something that people easily admit, so that Dickinson’s humble “I wonder if . . . ” endears the reader to her even more. She has empathized with the memory of grief that her reader may have exhumed as he was carried along by the poem. After having questioned dimension, the speaker directs the reader’s attention to the next and most effective type of questioning, that of duration.

She asks, in reference to the duration of their grief, if “They bore it long — Or did it just begin — “(5,6). She begins to break down finite time and the emotion of grief, into a homogeneous One, in an effort to convince the reader of the eternity of her grief: “I could not tell the Date of Mine — “(7). It is important to note that Dickinson sees grief as a form of pain, “It feels so old a pain — “(8), because her view of pain is endless.

Pain — has an Element of Blank —

It cannot recollect

When it begun — or if there were

A time when it was not —

It has no Future — but itself —

Its Infinite contain

Its Past — enlightened to perceive

New periods — of Pain. (#650)

She goes further to show us that grief absorbs time and time becomes grief: “Pain — expands the Time — Ages coil within . . . Pain contracts — the Time — “(#967). We understand the expansion but what of the contraction? If she has convinced or moved the reader to recall an experience of grief or extreme pain, s/he will remember how quickly time, space, the world, the universe — everything, was reduced to the confines of that experience; nothing existed but the pain. In stanza 5, she is deliberately ambiguous in order to establish another example of the two becoming one:

I wonder if when Years have piled —

Some Thousands — on the Harm —

That hurt them early — such a lapse

Could give them any Balm —  (stn.5)

Thousands of years or thousands of griefs? Or is she showing us that they are indeed the same? Time here, to the sufferer, becomes insignificant; stretching in both directions — past and future — it becomes “Centuries of Nerve”(22). Grief has become a timeless state of being for the speaker.

Closely related to her questions of duration are her questions of reaction to grief. In stanza 4, the speaker alters the pattern slightly. She notes rather than questions, that some who have grown patient in, or accepted their grief, “At length, renew their smile — “(14). At first, this may point the way toward a hopeful solution; but quickly she employs a metaphor that leaves us little room for misunderstanding. The smile, she ways, is “An imitation of a Light/That has so little Oil — (15,16). Thus, the smile is only a symptom of a brief and unreliable interlude between griefs. Dickinson is highly skeptical of any reprieves in pain or grief:

Music’s triumphant —

But the fine Ear

Winces with delight

Are Drums too near — (#582)

She goes on to tell us that Joy is closely related to grief, “grief and joy are done/So similar”(#329), but that joy, unlike grief, is fleeting: “In insecurity to lie/Is Joy’s insuring quality”(#1434). It becomes evident that many of Dickinson’s emotions overlap and must be dissociated in order to understand the whole. Once she has established the tentative nature of the smile or reprieve, she returns the reader to questions. She discourages from taking the easy way out of grief. After having experienced so much pain, could their brief reprieve “give them any Balm — “(20), or “would they go on aching still”(21)? She cements it in the reader’s mind that because they have been “Enlightened to a larger Pain”, they will suffer in proportion to their degree of enlightenment. Revelation begins to make the reader aware that there is little hope of taking an easy way out, if there is a way out at all. Having completed the questioning process that takes place in grief, the speaker moves on to the next major movement of the poem.

Definition is used by the poet to narrow the cause of grief and the aspects or by-products of the cause. Let me illustrate: to Dickinson’s mind, not many causes for grief are presented in this poem; rather, “the various Cause — Death — “(26,27). Yet, does it not seem that here she is speaking of more than the death that “comes but once — “(27)? Physical death does not appear to be her greatest fear because it “only nails the eyes — “(28); but, the living “Centuries of Nerve — “(22) suffered by those “Who till they died, did not alive become — “(#816) most definitely gives clarity to the intensity of suffering in prolonged grief. she develops next the types or aspects, of these two deaths, that are converted into griefs. Her “Grief of Want”(29) becomes an eternal toothache worse than death. Dickinson sees want as “a quiet Commissary for Infinity”, where “to possess, is past the instant we achieve the Joy”(#1036). “Grief of Cold”(29) is that physical cold of the corpse, but that deeper freeze of the spirit too — dead hope. She says elsewhere, “Hope it was that kept me warm — “(#768). By bringing definition into her poetic structure, she has caused the reader to experience and define types of grief which s/he may have experienced in common with the speaker. Her use of “despair” and “banishment” drives home the ‘time’ theme again. Dickinson says elsewhere that, “no man can compass a Despair”; he is too close and thus “unconscious of the width [notice dimension again]”(#477). This reinforcement of the eternity of grief gives the reader the added experience of being afloat in the poem.

Having brought the reader out to sea in what would seem a leaky and becalmed boat, she is now ready to stir up a small breeze and take the boat into a safe harbor of resolution. The poet’s resolve consists of a comparison (stn.9) and an assumption (stn.10). Only in looking at the ultimate pain, Calvary, does she find justification and reprieve from her grief: “A piercing Comfort it affords/In passing Calvary”(35,36). It is important to establish that she ‘passes’ Calvary; she does not accept it or affirm it as a means of salvation. The knowledge of this fashion trend, which is normally a part of the average reader’s schema (experience) [even in Dickinson’s day], cannot help but be subliminally, if not consciously, influential in causing the reader to sense that the resolution itself is only a temporary reprieve, soon to be out of style. With her grief having been measured and sized at the opening of the poem it is finally covered and accepted like any fashion is worn. She has brought the reader through — by means of the images and physical organization of the poem — a vicarious experiencing of the grief process. For the reader, this technique develops, believability and empathy in the speaker’s evaluation of so subjective an emotion as grief. The reader has been carried full-circle from “I wonder if It weighs like Mine — “(3) to “Some — are like My Own — “(40).

© 2009 David C Alves


[1] Emily Dickinson, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson,
ed. Thomas H. Johnson, (Boston, Toronto: Little, Brown and Company, 1960),
p.272-73; poem #561, line 3. All other references will be from this source.
Numbers in parentheses following quotes, are line-numbers unless otherwise
designated by ‘#’ for poem number or ‘stn’ for stanza number.

[2] (23) See also page two of
this paper — poem #650; lines 7-8. She seems to imply that we move
from pain to pain throughout life. Too many reprieves make the pain that much
more unbearable.

[3] Calvary is not of interest
to Dickinson because God’s Son died or secured salvation there; rather it
stands for her as the symbol of ultimate pain, suffering, grief and abandonment
(see poem #313

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