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

I imagine most have muttered that which does not kill you makes you stronger to themselves. At least for myself, I said it several times with a tinge of positivity. Only that much, though. Once, when so sick I could barely see a few feet in front of me, when breathing was labored and painful. I’m not at all sure how I recovered — I know I should have gone to the ER. Another time, when I didn’t hear from a girlfriend for days. We hadn’t fought, everything had been going well, oh look we’re broken up. My most paranoid thoughts, confirmed. Yet another, when I didn’t hear for months about work I submitted. In all cases, I meant to turn suffering, disappointment, and anger into something still bitter but not fatal. Some kind of capacity marked less by resilience and force, more by ability and possibility. I guess I wanted to indulge my right to my disposition in speech so I could reserve strength for other thoughts, focus, and action.

Dickinson’s bitterness smolders below, but at whom or what does she rage? They say that “Time assuages” — Time never did assuage — is she angry at Time itself? Or those who told her that with time, all would be well?

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 —

“Time never did assuage,” as the anger at being lied to and Time itself becomes a still more vicious ambiguity. An actual suffering strengthens / As Sinews do, with age — her suffering is stronger, causing more pain, and she is stronger, continuing to endure that pain.

Only now, years after first reading this poem, do I understand what’s happening. She’s mad at everyone and everything, most especially herself.

Hers is not quite self-hatred, though it runs deep. Anger at time is anger at your own life. You’re angry that other people have advised you badly. You’re angry that you needed that advice, that this was a first attempt to cope. Not even sure you know what coping means, you’re angry that you aged and coped in some half-baked way. You’re stronger, harder, and wounded: the pain isn’t going away. You’ve grown into it. Your life serves it. Do you seriously want it some other way? Time is a Test of Trouble — But not a Remedy: she only knows her own life because it is a “Test of Trouble.” She relates to herself through her pain.

Again, though, it’s not self-hatred. The “Test of Trouble” was real, and so, ironically, is the self that wants remedies. At first, If such it prove, it prove too / There was no Malady sounds like a morbid repetition of the idea that life is nothing but pain. Time cannot prove “a Remedy,” for if it did, the cure and disease would be the same thing. But life is more than pain. “Malady” points to a self that could be wounded, a self that could be afflicted. These last two lines, then, indicate the existence of something good, something whole. There is a sliver of light, the realization that one has to do something with the maladies, a step to resolve to not let them take complete control.

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