Notes on Dickinson’s “They say that “Time assuages”…” (686)

Just some notes. I’m not terribly happy with the arguments from the dictionary, they’re just to get started thinking about this poem.

“They say that “Time assuages”…” (686)
Emily Dickinson

They say that “Time assuages” –
Time never did assuage –
An actual suffering strengthens
As Sinews do, with age –

Time is a Test of Trouble –
But not a Remedy –
If such it prove, it prove too
There was no Malady –


The link between “assuage” and “age” seems only established by rhyme; “assuage” is from the Latin “suavis,” meaning “sweet” or “delightful.” I don’t think I need to say how aging feels to most of us: the first stanza reiterates that sentiment without any ambiguity.

But in a poem devoted to Time, the very first word stands out: “they” makes one wonder why Dickinson’s speaker has opened up the question of who exactly holds the opinion “Time assauges.” “They” links indirectly with “trouble;” there’s the Latin “turbulare” which the free online dictionary is telling me with “turbidus” (confused) and “turbula” (small group). The origin is the confusion of many? That’s certainly an interesting spin on primordial Chaos.

So now we have to wonder about the speaker: for her, “Time never did assuage.” Perhaps Time could assuage; how would this happen? One has to look at “an actual suffering” completely in a “that which does not kill me makes me stronger” manner. An initial, surface gloss would most likely ignore that dark irony: after all, the “suffering” itself “strengthens” as/like “sinews.” “As” keeps the “suffering” a distance from the “sinews,” but “sinews” isn’t just “tendons:” the dictionary also notes that it is a source of vitality and strength [anyone got an OED? It would be very useful right about now].

So our speaker has perhaps been hardened by pain; she says “an actual suffering,” distancing herself from “they” who don’t know what suffering is. We can read “other people” for “Trouble” and come to a very cynical conclusion regarding the second stanza: people who say “Time assuages” don’t pass the test Time actually is, inasmuch as an inability to grip pain properly means they never truly felt any pain. But that makes our speaker too bitter to be reflective in any way; it reduces the poem to aspersion.

We need to preserve the puzzle and the pain of ignorance that accompanies it. A close look at “remedy” gives us the Latin “remedium,” re + mederi (to heal). A “remedy” can heal one again. “Malady” brings us to “male habitus,” “in poor condition.” “Habitus” is from “habere” (to hold). Consider, also: “If such it prove, it prove too” – we started with “they,” moved to an oblique consideration of the speaker (“actual”), and now we are reduced to “it?” We prove, not “it,” no?

What makes us unique is the pain we each hold. It is a dark, tragic teaching, but not too far from the more optimistic Platonic/Socratic ‘anger indicates the existence of justice’ – after one is wronged, with patience and time, one can articulate what exactly felt unjust. And that actually gives us an answer why Time doesn’t assuage: there’s more to life than the continuous progression of time. Our sinews strengthen with age because there are motions we continually make, and we get better with them. We allow our sufferings to strengthen sometimes because we stand for something and are (rightfully) frustrated. “Assuage” and “age” are linked in a negative way, then: to expect time to assuage is the hope of youth. Those of us who have become older have an entirely different set of expectations, and are well beyond the poem’s “they.”


  1. As I read this poem, I thought of my cousin whose husband died too young, and how she and their daughters miss him every day. I think this poem accurately sums up her feelings even though he’s been gone over a year. I also am wondering what Emily Dickinson’s “actual suffering” was? I don’t know that much about her. Suffering makes us stronger…I’ve also heard people who are suffering say they don’t want to get any stronger!
    .-= Ginny Marie´s last blog ..Looking at the Sky on Friday: Munising Bay =-.

  2. Hey Ashok, good last line for such a young older person!

    What my old age has shown me is that problems are not such, they are only opportunities – and with time spent dwelling on the problem (in my youth) only proves “There was no Malady.” This then seems a positive poem maybe telling us not to waste so much time.
    .-= Alice Shapiro´s last blog ..To rhyme or not to rhyme…. =-.

  3. une chanson française parle du temps : “avec le temps, va, tout s’en va…” il me semble que ce poème parle aussi de mémoire…et d’oubli. des “crises” que l’on a su dépasser au cours de sa vie, dont on a réussi à faire quelque chose, et des souffrances trop grandes qui se sont figées, et que l’on porte tout au long de sa vie. De ce que l’on a transformé en Vie, et de ce qui est resté dans la mort…

  4. 1st things 1st: I lik eyour reference to “primordial Chaos” (now starts the bitching)
    we started with “they,” moved to an oblique con­sid­er­a­tion of the speaker (“actual”), and now we are reduced to “it?” We prove, not “it,” no?[/quote]

    the “they” represents a generalised opinion about “it”, viz. “assuaging Time” and not the (NotaBene) unnamed “it” itself. The reasoning is against the opinion, not the (preserved, so-called) fact

    The vitality and strenghth of sinews (and tendons, grown with age) might not do, but I haven’t seen any polls or enquetes, as yet.

    [quote]parle aussi de mémoire…et d’oubli.[/quote]Oui.

    [quote]reduces the poem to aspersion.[/quote]
    Would you please, in future times, refrain from criticising my dearest Emmy Dicky in such an erroneous & fallible way puhuhleayuse?

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