Emily Dickinson, “We never know how high we are” (1176)

We never know how high we are (1176)
Emily Dickinson

We never know how high we are
Till we are asked to rise
And then if we are true to plan
Our statures touch the skies —

The Heroism we recite
Would be a normal thing
Did not ourselves the Cubits warp
For fear to be a King —


We set standards. But we don’t merely judge ourselves in this life by those standards, if at all. Our desire is also to be judged after our lives are complete, with regard to whom we tried to become. We use the uncertainty of who exactly judges (God? the public? ourselves?) to advance a hope. Because of the lack of knowledge, because of our fears now, we can know we will be that much greater in the future.

This is not a problem limited to thinking about the Christian afterlife. This is actually the more general problem of nobility. We set the standards we want to be judged by? We assume the judgement of others will be our own, before even accounting for falling short of our own mark? Compounding the issue: nobility is the heart of morality. Nobility ends in self-sacrifice. Something is known to be moral when one will die for it.

What’s funny is the hubris of our standard-setting. We see ourselves as humble throughout the process. Our time as Heroes, reciting our stories to ourselves, should continue uninterrupted. It’s normal enough to us. But something broke that normalcy and spurred this poem.

“Did not ourselves the Cubits warp” – the Biblical measure of “cubit” is the distance from the elbow to the middle finger’s tip. As mortals, we do not provide a consistent measure or ability to measure. There is more. Our lack of measure is “for fear to be a King.” Not death, change, decline, or failure alone awoke the speaker. It was the pretended/not-so-pretended humility that provoked. We want our standards, we want judgement, but we don’t really want the responsibility entailed. No one really plays God. That is realized once one thinks he’s playing God.