Dickinson is speaking about two aspects of pain, its timelessness and its irresistible dominance. The poem is structured by references to time (the past in lines 1-4; the future, line 5; the past, the present, and the future, lines 6-8).
Lines 1-4: Pain is so overwhelming that it blots out our sense of ever having experienced anything but pain; the sufferer remembers the past as having consisted only of pain.
Lines 5-8: In the grip of pain, we see only continuing and relentless pain in the future; our lives and identities have become consumed by pain. Our lives, we ourselves, are only pain.
Inense pain so dominates the individual that it displaces eveyrthing else in her life, including identity. If all a person is aware of is pain, then in a sense, that person has become the pain. Pain has depersonalized her, i.e., it has taken away her individuality or identity. To express this depersonalizing consequence of pain, Dickinson uses only the impersonal pronouns "it" and "its," and she presents the experience from the point of view of pain. It is pain which "cannot recollect," "has no future," and is "enlightened to perceive." If pain has become the identity of the sufferer, are "it" and the the person suffering pain the same? Could the line "it cannot recollect" also mean, by implication, "the sufferer cannot recollect"?
The depersonalization of the sufferer is so complete that she has no other feelings; thus, the poem contains no words which express emotion. Nevertheless, under the chillingly objective surface of the poem, are feelings implied? Do you as the reader feel the sufferer's hopeless resignation or despair?
"Enlightened" (line 7) is ironic. Enlightenment is insight which enlarges our intellectual or spiritual understanding or enhances our knowledge. The enlightenment which pain brings is the realization that the future holds more and still more pain. Is this an enlightenment we would gladly do without?
"New periods of pain" (line 8) seems to contradict the idea of unbroken continuity in lines 1-7, but this is probably not meant literally, unless we assume one "period" to be followed immediately by another "period." Or does this phrase mean that pain succeeds pain, without stopping, just as one period of time succeeds another without interruption. How do you read this line?
Line 1 opens with two one-syllable words, both of which are accented. This emphasis opens the poem with a strong assertion.
The repetition of sounds subtly emphasizes meaning and connects significance. This repetition is heard by the ear, even if you are not conscious of the sounds as you read. Note the repetition of a consonant in the following lines: line 1, element, blank; line 2, It cannot recollect' lines 5, 6: future, itself, infinite; lines 7, 8: past, perceive, periods, pain.
There is only one exact end-rhyme in this poem: "contain" (line 6) and "pain" (line 8). This fact gives special emphasis to these words and the ideas they convey. Is there any reason why Dickinson might want to emphasize and/or connect these words/meanings? or has she made a mistake?
You are probably noticing that the same concerns and even language
appear in numerous poems. For
example, a basic idea in this poem appears in "I measure every grief I
meet"; it restates the idea of
timelessness ("I could not tell the date of mine / It feels so old a
pain"). She also uses certain words
repeatedly, though not necessarily in the same way. In "I measure every
grief," she uses "enlighten" to
mean being enlightened to a larger pain.
Connection to Other Poems