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[I reason, Earth is short-] But, what of that?

Updated on December 13, 2012

Emily at a Glance

This isn't going to be a biography on Emily's life, however, to really understand any of her poems some background information really is necessary, that is if you want an extra understanding. Much of her poetry stands out on its own without knowing her sheltered eccentric lifestyle, but, if you want a deeper and more meaningful poem then you must know a few simple things.

Though her family was well known in Amherst, Massachusetts, Emily withdrew early on in her life. Maybe this is partially due to her emotionally unavailable mother or maybe because her publicly known father. Either way, Dickinson never married, though she did have relationships with others. Overall she became a homebody. She didn't really socialize with many and kept to herself. She lived deprived of things on purpose as to gain a better understanding of the things that she did not have. Which I suppose is slightly comparable to the saying "you don't know what you have until it's gone".

The interesting thing is that she writes about all the things we question and wonder about during our time here. Most significantly are the topics of love, life, death, and of course our life after death. Her keen understanding of things she didn't socialize with others about much is fascinating and of course the fact that she can put into words better than most exactly how we question the same things is definitely intriguing.

So now that you kind of have an idea of who the author is let me introduce to you my favorite Emily Dickinson poem....

I reason, Earth is short-

I reason, Earth is short- by Emily Dickinson

I reason, Earth is short-

And Anguish-absolute-

And many hurt,

But, what of that?

I reason, we could die-

The best Vitality

Cannot excel Decay,

But, what of that?

I reason, that in Heaven-

Somehow, it will be even-

Some new Equation, given-

But, what of that?

What!? Stanza One

So let's break it down. I find this piece easiest understood broken into the three stanza's it was meant to be in before bringing it all together. However, keep in mind that the best thing about literature is that everyone can bring out their own personal analysis of what it means to them and how they relate to it. For example my college American literature teacher related this to the recent death of her father, while I relate it to no particular death at all. Just remember that you may not agree with me but this is how I see the poem and if you don't understand the piece at all my interpretation may spark your own feelings of what the piece means for you.

Let's start with the first stanza, line by line. "I reason, Earth is short-", meaning perhaps, she sees that life is short, our time here is short, life goes by too fast...etc. "And Anguish-absolute-", here she seems to answer the question. As if someone asked her "your opinion on Anguish, Miss Dickinson?" her answer a short; "absolute-". So what does this mean? Is there an escape from Anguish, is it always there, around the corner, waiting to ruin a perfectly fine day? Maybe. Is this why Emily keeps to herself? As if to protect herself from the Anguish that just seems to surround so many. If you bring the first line in with the second line she almost mocks even our short time here on Earth. Our lives on Earth are short and painful, with no chance otherwise-absolute!

The last two lines of stanza one read "And many hurt, But, what of that?" I find it interesting that in the third line she uses the words many hurt when in the line previous to this she makes it sound as if there is no escape by using a word like absolute. So what does she mean in all of this. Earth, our life, is short and we spend it mostly in pain. Why? But, what of that?

Stanza Two and Three

"I reason, we could die- The best Vitality Cannot excel Decay," meaning we die regardless of our health. Decay, death, and even anguish happen no matter what. Even if you are the most healthy or decent person on this Earth, you will die eventually. "But, what of that?" Why? If we do everything we can to prevent our death and prolong life why does death come eventually anyway? Why waste our time? Isn't there anything that excels decay yet?

Stanza three states "I reason, that in Heaven- Somehow, it will be even-". Does this mean that in Heaven our lifelong struggles will be made up for? That all the anguish we endured will be eased? "Some new Equation, given- But, what of that?" A new life or reason for existence in Heaven will be given to us, but what was the point of life itself then?

Life, Death, and the Afterlife

So let’s bring this whole piece together. By summarizing each stanza into a single word we can start to see the progress of the piece. The first stanza would be life. Our life is short, our life is full of anguish, and our lives are full of hurting and pain. Why? The second stanza can be summarized into death. We all die, despite our good vitality or decent lives. Even when we do everything we can, decay comes, death overrules. Why? And finally the third stanza can be summarized as the afterlife, or at least what Emily think will be explained in the afterlife. Everything we do in this life is just our waiting till we get to the afterlife, and there all the suffering will be made up for.

However, most importantly, we must now draw in how all these stanzas connect. Of course the answer here is somewhat obvious. "But, what of that?" Dickinson repeatedly asks this but why does she? Because she has the same questions we all do. Why is life so painful? Why when we try so hard to prolong our lives do we die anyway? And what's the point of suffering when it's supposed to be great in Heaven? What's the point in our lives? What's the point in trying? What's the point in Heaven? Is it really that easily made up for? Does Heaven really exist? Life, Death, and the always going to be a clear cut start, middle, and end?

One final point that must be made is the capitalization of select words in this piece. Anguish, Vitality, Decay, and Equation. And appropriately so is Earth and Heaven. However if you bring together all these words you can see they fight each other. Earth, Anguish, Vitality, Decay, and Heaven are an Equation. Our lives on Earth, in Anguish, despite our Vitality, Decay occurs, and then we are to go to Heaven. Dickinson asks again; But, what of that? However, in Heaven a new Equation is given...will Heaven's Equation be just as disarrayed, yet so true, as Earth's Equation?

In the end we don't know? We don't know the answers to the big questions in the end, however, Emily writes a very relatable poem that we all can understand. We can compare her questions to our own. And overall, that is the great thing about not only most of Dickinson's poems, but all types of literature.

Any other poems you love or suggestions for me to read? Let me know!!

Emily Dickinson Quick Trivia

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    • ElizabethRidge profile imageAUTHOR

      Elizabeth Ridge 

      6 years ago from Iowa

      I have not seen that movie however, thank you for the comparison and the great feedback. I'm so glad it helped you! As I said, it is one of my favorite poems and you said it perfectly; "releases me from the seriousness and heaviness of life's struggles". I find this applicable in my view of the piece as well. Thanks again for reading and responding!!

    • Billie Kelpin profile image

      Billie Kelpin 

      6 years ago from Newport Beach

      Elizabeth, I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE analysis like this. As I read your piece, I was struggling to think of what the phrase "But what of that..." reminded me of. It came to me! Remember the movie "Meatballs," where the Bill Murray character is giving a pep talk to the rag-tag group he was training for the Camp's competition. He goes on and on about how we have to strive and do our best and never quit. And then he ends with that brilliant line that goes something like, "And if we try our hardest and we don't win, (pause)... and starts the chant..."IT JUST DOESN'T MATTER, IT JUST DOESN'T MATTER." That scene and this poem put into paradoxical juxtaposition the concept of it all being all important and not important at all. For me personally, that concept releases me from the seriousness and heaviness of life's struggles. Thank you so much for writing this. It came at a time when I personally needed it. I guess that's why we write. It's a gift we give with the hope that our words will touch someone and be meaningful to them at the precise serendipitous moment in time when we read them. And that's what your words and choice of topic did for me. Thank you!


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