To read only the first two stanzas of the poem, “I reason, Earth is short —”, by Emily Dickinson, is to be shocked by its absence of sympathy.  It starts with a concise description of every individual life’s bitter irony: its sparse quantity. Not only is life short, but its anguish is pure, unmitigated, perfect.

So, why, I asked myself when I first read this poem after my 16-year-old daughter died, am I wanting to read it again and again?

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?

That “many hurt” was only meaningful with family members, or, with other bereaved parents. Would anyone in their right mind say, “But, what of that?”

In a story at more», a bereaved mother tells of “The best Vitality” in her story of “Living Without My Noisy Boy.” Who could answer this mother with, “But, what of that?”  Is the poem a supreme example of callousness? 

To say to a family whose son soldier or mother-military officer will not be coming back after fighting for freedom, as many do, that “in Heaven — /Somehow, it will be even — /Some new Equation, given —  ” does that really make it comprehensible? Is it a compassionate thing to say? 

While I like the poem’s confrontation with death’s senselessness, comfort is to ask and answer the question for myself. “But, what of that?”  When I could ask the question, then I could answer it; with empathy and understanding toward someone else. But, it took a long time.


Digest A Poem A Day — Accept What Comes Your Way