Dickinson says “I can wade Grief… Whole Pools of it… I’m used to that.” I want to tell her “Teach me.” What grief destroys for me is consistency. I’ll do things that are helpful, but I’ll never do them enough to be fully effective. And my larger goals become lost even when I articulate them. My mind continually searches for what’s missing, not caring for premature declarations.
Still, she claims joy brings troubles of its own. “The least push of Joy… Breaks up my feet… And I tip — drunken.” She loses control, stepping where and how she shouldn’t, filling herself with overconfidence. “Let no Pebble… smile…’Twas the New Liquor.” She’s already thinking, although obliquely and jokingly, about those we’d call “haters.”
I can wade Grief (252) Emily Dickinson I can wade Grief — Whole Pools of it — I'm used to that — But the least push of Joy Breaks up my feet — And I tip — drunken — Let no Pebble — smile — 'Twas the New Liquor — That was all! Power is only Pain — Stranded, thro' Discipline, Till Weights — will hang — Give Balm — to Giants — And they'll wilt, like Men — Give Himmaleh — They'll Carry — Him!
Before I turn to Dickinson’s second stanza, which opens with a Conan the Barbarian-esque aphorism—“Power is only Pain”—I think it’s prudent to talk about success as a social phenomenon. There are forms of success where one can meet a set of standards and be done with it. We tend to romanticize them precisely because they don’t invite the judgment of others. Students who want their homework done quickly can become addicted to this.
The thought of success as dependent on others invites dread. But success of the “meet the standard and its done” sort is either very trivial or very profound. In the latter case, few will understand you, and you will probably be fighting for acceptance within your own age.
Here’s Dickinson, with a little bit of joy. Something’s gone right or feels right. And almost immediately, she imagines a pebble laughing as she stumbles.
There’s no way to avoid a stumbling block. You want to be able to explain to other people how you feel or what you did. And you’d like it to be convincing. The true standard for your success is if you can tell your own story. Trouble is, this takes more than figuring out a story and telling it insistently. What it takes is something more like this: you need to explain something you hold to be true, and account for how you got there. How you discovered what wasn’t true, how you realized that it was better to be mistaken than live a comfortable lie.
I’m not saying everyone has to be a philosopher, but at least the way Socrates is presented to us, he concerns himself with his own nature. Acts in the mode of a “rational animal,” if you will.
“Power is only Pain,” intones the first line of the last stanza, and we’re used to this dance. We’ve done it to ourselves numerous times. Vendler, in a brief comment on this poem, marks the disappearance of “Joy” entirely. “By now, the poet has learned the rarity of Joy, and is well acquainted with the habitual collapse back into Grief” (116).
“Power is only Pain,” and somehow, Vendler notes, the “Pain” is “Stranded.” Vendler doesn’t explicitly explain how to solve the puzzle—How could pain be stranded?—but I think her answer must be the identification of Dickinson and pain. That’s the reason why Dickinson stumbled in the first stanza, why “Joy” disappears in the second.
I think a different path is visible, though. Giants that wilt because of balms but eagerly accept the challenge of lifting the Himalayas speak to our sense of standards leaning upon the transcendent. There are some labors to which we can dedicate ourselves and receive the justification we need. We don’t need to panic about every detail of our story being acceptable.
What’s weird about this is that it places a literal miracle at the end of action. In other words, we act, we have discipline and pain. But we are stranded, in the end, even if we bear weights properly as we walk (“Stranded, thro’ Discipline / Till Weights — will hang”). What we do doesn’t matter compared to a giant lifting Mt. Everest, even if the giant learned from our example.
What matters is that we did set an example, that we can be confident we did something right. “Stranded, thro’ Discipline” is my full reading—that’s the solution to a world looking to judge but only understanding when floods of Biblical scale occur. The discipline consists in understanding one’s smallness. And, contra Vendler, there can be joy. You can celebrate the giant lifting the mountain, knowing full well that if you were a giant, you would do the same. “Power is only Pain” because joy and accomplishment are real. You can relax if you know what you’ve done.
Vendler, Helen. Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries. Cambridge: Harvard, 2010. 115-117.