The Greatest Pain: On Dickinson’s “I sometimes drop it, for a Quick” (708)

“I sometimes drop it, for a Quick…” (708)
Emily Dickinson

I sometimes drop it, for a Quick –
The Thought to be alive –
Anonymous Delight to know –
And Madder – to conceive –

Consoles a Woe so monstrous
That did it tear all Day,
Without an instant’s Respite –
‘Twould look too far – to Die –


“It” in the first line presents a recurring problem: in the second stanza’s second line, another “it” is only known to be a “woe.” Finally, the last line gives us the most mysterious “it” of all – one that “would look too far – to Die -.”

But “it” is not our only problem. The multiple definitions available for “for” and “Quick” and the link between the first and second stanzas – what “consoles,” the “Quick?” “It?” – only compound the issue of what the “woe” is.

“The Thought to be alive,” dropped sometimes “for a Quick,” does seem to create an “anonymous delight.” Our gratefulness for merely existing can be said to be a generic basis for religion, a ground characterizing the thought of all believers. Perhaps that is why it is “madder” for our speaker “to conceive:” one has to “know” it to console “a woe so monstrous,” but in that knowing one might as well be dead, the freedom of thought that makes us unique is compromised.

So is that the “woe?” “The Thought to be alive” itself? If so, the “Quick” would console. “Quick” as an archaic adjective means “alive” or “pregnant.” Here it is used as a noun, and it could be “exposed flesh” or something else bodily that’s sensitive; it could be emotional sensitivity; it could refer to the living as a whole; it could also be the “essence” of something.

The “Quick” would be exposure to pain that reminds our speaker of her humanity. On this reading, “for” could be read as “in place of” or “because of.” If “because of,” something peculiar happens – we’re no longer talking about mere exposure to pain, but pain itself (something drops because of mere exposure? Highly unlikely). The poem is working backwards such that all three instances of “it” will link – “The Thought to be alive” can never really be dropped, but if conceived, causes a pain-like madness.

Now there is another way of reading the lines up to the point we’ve gone, the second stanza, first line. We could emphasize “sometimes” and simply say that at times, when we’re exposed to pain, we drop “The Thought to be alive” and contemplate suicide. In which case, it is “the thought to be alive” which “consoles a woe so monstrous,” and it is the “thought to be alive” that brings a graceful respite for an instant.

I obviously don’t like that reading. The first stanza in “Quick” and “Anonymous” is forcing us to choose who truly is living: the speaker or everyone else going on their merry way? To question the thought to be alive is to invite madness, sure. But it is also to ask a question of a higher stature. When we get to the second stanza in depth, we are confronted with some very strange lines, to say the least:

Consoles a Woe so monstrous
That did it tear all Day,
Without an instant’s Respite –
‘Twould look too far – to Die –

Now I’ve been saying the “Woe” is “the thought to be alive” itself. We can conceive this as possible if we think of life as a tension more than a state of being. But what textual support do we have for that? “Tear all day” doesn’t tell us anything, “instant’s Respite” doesn’t seem to be terribly informative, and “would look too far – to Die” makes less sense than anything we’ve been confronted with so far.

“Instant’s Respite” is the key – the whole poem is a respite from thinking that “I’m alive! Yay me!” is a normal feeling. That “sometimes” in the first line wasn’t accidental. “Tear” tears up the authorial metaphor of the first stanza: “thought” and “anonymous” obliquely refer us to writing. I don’t usually like invoking the speaker as poet, but it makes perfect sense here – what use is a legacy of any sort when you question your own life? The sense of the second stanza, so far, is that the most monstrous woe is one that doesn’t really “tear” – it’s one that seems to keep life together, when in reality it merely hides how pained we are. I’m almost tempted to read “tear” not in terms of “tear up a book” but rather as the visual effect of crying: that can be done silently and all day.

Which brings us to the final line: ‘Twould look too far – to Die –

Dickinson has hidden the “it” here, as if it has already dropped. “Would look too far – to Die” could mean any number of things, but we’re saying it is “the thought to be alive.” However, it wouldn’t make much sense to say “the thought to be alive” “would look too far – to Die” – literally, that’s true. “The thought to be alive” looks beyond Death or ignores it entirely.

What we have brought up, though, is the possibility that there are two audiences for this poem. One that thinks suicide is a load of crap and living is all nice and fun and good people get saved no matter what. That audience would read the initial “for” as “in place of,” march through the poem, and assert that “the thought to be alive” grounds faith and therefore reason.

There’s another audience sensitive to the distinction between “know” and “conceive.” To “conceive” is to bring the thought into being originally – how do we construct, for ourselves, a justification of our own existence? “The Thought to be alive,” on this reading, is a tension. That justification will never be complete.

Hence, the woe is not going to die for the same reason we’re alive, perhaps for the same reason we embrace life. We do live for what’s beyond us: the first sort of audience isn’t entirely wrong. The issue is whether we can suspend that notion for a second, and what that thought – that respite – might look like. What is stunning to those of us with a modern sensibility is how ghastly it is; we’re used to rhetoric about human freedom telling us we always have a choice and the basis of “morality” – if it exists – is our agency. We purposely miss the bigger problem that to call what is fundamental into question is to be exposed to the greatest pains, and to turn the world upside down in a “monstrous” fashion, one that might ignore Death itself in its aspirations. The movement from particular to general is occasioned by “it:” “I” never enters the poem again after being the first word.

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