Emily Dickinson, “So glad we are – a Stranger’d deem” (329)

So glad we are – a Stranger’d deem (329)
Emily Dickinson

So glad we are – a Stranger’d deem
‘Twas sorry, that we were –
For where the Holiday should be
There publishes a Tear –
Nor how Ourselves be justified –
Since Grief and Joy are done
So similar – An Optizan
Could not decide between –


A reference librarian pointed me to the Emily Dickinson Lexicon for the word “Optizan.” I hadn’t seen that site before, but I am inclined to take their definition of “Optizan” seriously, partly because the word simply does not exist in the OED. The definition they give:

Optician; optometrist; eye doctor; person skilled in optical science; [polysemy] optical instrument; magnifying glass; [word play] judge; magistrate; [fig.] seer; visionary; scientist; wise man; person of discernment.

Sounds about right to me. My own reasoning was to play around with Greek. “Optos” we know to be related to sight. “-idzo” is a causal ending: “[someone] who causes sight?” Again, sounds about right. The question of the poem may be “What is sight?”

In any case, a mysterious “we” starts glad. A stranger challenges that gladness in some way: “it was sorry that we were.” “Were” can be subjunctive: the gladness may not be over because of the stranger’s challenge. But it could have ended simply because of what he “deemed:” “since grief and joy are done so similar.”

The stranger seems to be sorry for two reasons. First, “for where the Holiday should be / There publishes a Tear.” All “publishes” means, when the roots are explored, is “to make known publicly.” Not just the stranger but the many are miserable while “we” are glad. Do “we” – not the stranger, not the many – have some special claim on time (“holiday”)? Second, “nor how Ourselves be justified” and the following. “Ourselves” is not “we:” it brings forth the notions of self and possession in a way “we” doesn’t. “We” seems to speak to unity.

A last ambiguity to consider. The “tear” that should be shed on precisely the day it shouldn’t explains “Grief and Joy are done so similar.” The outpouring of emotion is just that, nothing more. What gives the outpouring a shape may be how it is perceived. It may have been the case that the stranger simply mistook joy for sorrow. No matter what, though, he challenged the speaker’s self-perception, changed the perception of “we” and forced an accounting of “ourselves.” Time is no standard: it is only a trigger. The accounting has be done by the Optizan, who we now know to have been the stranger. At the end of the poem, it is the speaker (“we” – “ourselves” – “Optizan”). There is no stranger at the end of the poem. Have the speaker and stranger become a new “we,” only united in emotion, not in a particular sentiment?


  1. Ashok this is really opaque stuff. I can’t seem to see to the bottom of it.

    My reaction is that she’s observing that even the expert cannot categorically decide between grief and joy because their emotions and disunited from thought and reason. Only the central actor – who,interestingly is hidden, only speaks in the third person always bounding themselves in the “we” and “ourselves”- can tell the extent of each and its degree.

    I don’t get the first two lines though – how can you be glad that you are / but not that you were? Is it a time referential thing? Like live in the present and forget the past type thing? Well more questions than answers.

    *I just picked up Final Havest with intro by Johnson its got some great collection of her poems in it too.

  2. I read it rather differently. To paraphrase:

    “When people look at me they think I’m happy, even when I’m ready to cry for grief. How shall people understand me, if even the sharpest eye can’t see my mood?”

    I’ve been in the same situation many times: apparently I don’t always wear my mood on my face.

    Emily says it better, as usual.

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