Does Memory Necessitate Pain? On Dickinson’s “Such is the Force of Happiness” (787)

“Such is the Force of Happiness…” (787)
Emily Dickinson

Such is the Force of Happiness –
The Least – can lift a Ton
Assisted by its stimulus –

Who Misery – sustain –
No Sinew can afford –
The Cargo of Themselves –
Too infinite for Consciousness’
Slow capabilities.


“Consciousness” does not occur in the first stanza, and the peculiar grammar of “Who Misery – sustain” makes us wonder if the “Force of Happiness” allows for human agency. A first glance at this poem would lead one to think “Happiness” is uncritically empowering, and misery is merely wallowing in self-pity.

Our suspicions that this first reading may be slightly inaccurate begin with “such” opening the first stanza, implying sorts of things, whereas “who” opens the second stanza. “The Least” need not be people: we do say ‘the least amount of force.’ The “stimulus” inheres in the “Force:” does “Force” only assist itself? “Force” alone lifts, after all – we’ve all seen Star Wars.

“Who sustains Misery” is where the grammar of this poem truly leads. All of us sustain Misery; “No Sinew can afford” us. “Force,” “lift,” “Sinew” all link Happiness to a physical metaphor that stays physical. That physical metaphor is of vertical motion in one direction – up. “Cargo” implies horizontal motion, especially when coupled with “slow:” cargo can be lifted as a generic “Ton,” but why would speed be relevant in such a case? In “The Divine Comedy,” the consistent metaphor for the journey of the soul is a ship.

It seems Misery is all-encompassing in a problematic way: “Consciousness’ slow capabilities” are perhaps trapped by the very cargo they carry. Proust often talks about seeing other people exactly in the way you think of them: others’ features become confirmations of our judgment.

Yet there are clear differences between “Happiness” and “Misery.” The generic “force” denies subjectivity; the physical strength of Happiness is subordinate to the sheer infinitude of misery. Our strength, apart from happiness, is infinite: misery is what we sustain. The mere existential fact of being human sustains even as we grapple with the infinite. The weight of cargo slows us, but we still move rather than sink: no one said “slow” was a bad thing, when you are your burden. Before entering Eden towards the end of Purgatorio, Dante drinks of Lethe.

1 Comment

  1. I am intrigued by that ‘cargo’- i see your ship image and where that comes from but I’m interested in that separation between the cargo and the ship. I’m also intrigued by the word because there is something else in cargo- its firstly a very modern word- it reminds me of Masefield’s opposition between Byzantine ships and cargo carrying coal ships going up the Tyne. The other thing that intrigues me about cargo is its relationship to trade and transactions.

    I may be barking up the wrong tree entirely- but when I think of a ship with cargo, thanks to Masefield and a bit to my background, I think of great tankers steaming out of Newcastle carrying coal to fire the industrial revolution. I’m not sure that carries anything anywhere- but interesting article and poem.

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