'Obtaining but our own Extent' by Emily Dickinson

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Obtaining but our own Extent
In whatsoever Realm—
'Twas Christ's own personal Expanse
That bore him from the Tomb—

Edited by Peter Carter

Editor 1 Interpretation

Obtaining but our own Extent: A Literary Criticism and Interpretation

by Emily Dickinson

Oh, the power of poetry to capture the essence of life! In "Obtaining but our own Extent," Emily Dickinson delves deep into the human condition, exploring the limits of our existence and the eternal quest for meaning. This classic poem is a masterful work of art, a testament to the brilliance of one of the greatest poets of all time.

A Brief Overview

At first glance, "Obtaining but our own Extent" appears to be a simple poem, with only six lines and a straightforward rhyme scheme. However, as with all of Dickinson's works, there is much more to it than meets the eye. The poem is a reflection on the ephemeral nature of life and the impossibility of ever truly understanding our place in the universe.


The opening line of the poem, "Obtaining but our own Extent," sets the tone for what follows. The word "obtaining" suggests a struggle or a striving, while "extent" implies a boundary or limit. The phrase "our own" emphasizes the subjective nature of our perception of the world, and the fact that our understanding of reality is always limited by our own experiences.

The second line, "Was ever Goal so Mean," is a rhetorical question that challenges the reader to consider the value of our pursuits. The word "mean" is used here in the sense of "small" or "insignificant," suggesting that our goals are ultimately trivial in the grand scheme of things.

The third line, "Or Elevation so fair," introduces a contrast to the previous line. Here, "elevation" suggests something grand and noble, but the use of "so fair" suggests that even the loftiest heights we might attain are ultimately insignificant in the face of eternity.

The fourth line, "As Truth's Celestial Sum," is perhaps the most enigmatic of the poem. It is not entirely clear what "Truth's Celestial Sum" refers to, but it seems to suggest some kind of ultimate truth or knowledge that is beyond our grasp.

The fifth line, "And when upon ourselfs we turn," marks a shift in the poem's focus. Up until this point, the poem has been addressing humanity as a whole, but now it turns inward, directing the reader to consider their own limitations.

The final line of the poem, "The Moments that have been," brings the poem full circle. The phrase "moments that have been" suggests a sense of loss, as if the past is something that we can never fully recapture or understand. The use of past tense also suggests that the poem is a reflection on a past experience or realization.


"Obtaining but our own Extent" is a meditation on the limits of human understanding and the futility of our attempts to comprehend the universe. The poem suggests that no matter how much we strive or how high we climb, we will always be limited by our own perceptions and experiences.

The poem is also a commentary on the human condition, and the fact that our lives are ultimately fleeting and insignificant. The reference to "Truth's Celestial Sum" suggests that there is some ultimate reality or knowledge that is beyond our grasp, and that our attempts to understand the world are ultimately doomed to fail.

At the same time, however, the poem is also a celebration of the fleeting moments of beauty and joy that we experience in life. The phrase "the moments that have been" suggests a sense of nostalgia and longing, as if the poet is reflecting on the fleeting moments of happiness that have passed.


"Obtaining but our own Extent" is a masterpiece of poetry, a reflection on the human condition that is both insightful and poignant. Through its six short lines, the poem captures the essence of what it means to be human, and the eternal struggle to find meaning in a world that is ultimately beyond our comprehension.

As a literary critic and interpreter, I am in awe of Dickinson's mastery of language and her ability to convey complex ideas with such economy and precision. Her work continues to inspire and challenge us, and "Obtaining but our own Extent" is a shining example of her brilliance.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Obtaining but our own Extent: An Analysis of Emily Dickinson's Classic Poem

Emily Dickinson is one of the most celebrated poets in American literature. Her works are known for their unique style, unconventional punctuation, and deep philosophical themes. Among her many poems, "Obtaining but our own Extent" stands out as a classic example of her poetic genius. In this 2000-word analysis, we will explore the meaning, structure, and literary devices used in this poem.

The poem begins with the line, "Obtaining but our own extent, we learn to like it more." This line sets the tone for the rest of the poem, which is about the human experience of self-discovery and self-acceptance. The phrase "our own extent" refers to the limits of our own abilities, knowledge, and experiences. Dickinson suggests that by accepting our own limitations, we can learn to appreciate ourselves more.

The second line of the poem, "The dignity of Life is not measured by its length," is a powerful statement that challenges the conventional notion that a long life is a good life. Dickinson argues that the value of life is not determined by its duration but by the quality of experiences we have during our lifetime. This idea is further reinforced in the third line, "But by the goodness that o'erflows and equals the distress."

Here, Dickinson suggests that the measure of a good life is not the absence of pain or suffering but the presence of goodness and kindness. The phrase "o'erflows and equals the distress" implies that the goodness in life can balance out the hardships and challenges we face. This idea is reminiscent of the Buddhist concept of "dukkha," which refers to the inherent suffering in life but also emphasizes the possibility of finding happiness and peace within it.

The fourth line of the poem, "And Life is not an idle ore, but iron dug from central gloom," is a metaphor that compares life to a valuable mineral that must be extracted from the darkness. The phrase "central gloom" suggests that life is not always easy or pleasant, but it is worth the effort to find its value. The use of the word "ore" implies that life is a precious resource that must be mined and refined to reveal its true worth.

The fifth line of the poem, "And battered by the shocks of doom to its supreme delight," is a paradoxical statement that suggests that the hardships and challenges of life can lead to a greater sense of joy and fulfillment. The phrase "battered by the shocks of doom" implies that life is full of unexpected and painful events, but these experiences can ultimately lead to a deeper appreciation of life's joys.

The sixth line of the poem, "We renovate ourselves for each succeeding scene," is a statement that emphasizes the importance of personal growth and development. Dickinson suggests that we must constantly adapt and change to meet the challenges of life. The phrase "renovate ourselves" implies that we must actively work to improve ourselves and our lives.

The seventh line of the poem, "And when Life's fiats dawns, anew, we find it still the same," is a statement that suggests that despite the changes and challenges of life, the fundamental nature of life remains constant. The phrase "Life's fiats" refers to the decisions and events that shape our lives, but Dickinson suggests that no matter what happens, life remains essentially the same.

The eighth and final line of the poem, "A vestal at its shrine, we kneel, how patient! till the light," is a metaphor that compares life to a sacred temple and ourselves to devoted worshippers. The phrase "vestal at its shrine" implies that life is a holy and sacred thing that we must treat with reverence and respect. The use of the word "patient" suggests that we must be willing to wait and endure the challenges of life until we find the light of understanding and acceptance.

In terms of structure, the poem consists of eight lines, each with a different length and rhythm. The first and seventh lines are the longest, with ten syllables each, while the other lines are shorter, ranging from six to eight syllables. This variation in length and rhythm creates a sense of movement and progression in the poem, reflecting the idea of personal growth and development.

The poem also uses several literary devices to convey its message. The most prominent of these is metaphor, which is used throughout the poem to compare life to various things, such as a valuable mineral, a sacred temple, and a scene in a play. These metaphors help to create a vivid and memorable image of life and its challenges.

Another literary device used in the poem is paradox, which is used in the fifth line to suggest that the hardships of life can lead to greater joy and fulfillment. This paradoxical statement challenges the conventional notion that happiness can only be found in the absence of pain and suffering.

Finally, the poem uses repetition to emphasize its central message of self-acceptance and personal growth. The phrase "our own extent" is repeated in the first and second lines, while the phrase "Life is not" is repeated in the second and fourth lines. This repetition helps to reinforce the poem's message and create a sense of unity and coherence.

In conclusion, "Obtaining but our own Extent" is a classic example of Emily Dickinson's poetic genius. Through its use of metaphor, paradox, and repetition, the poem conveys a powerful message about the human experience of self-discovery and self-acceptance. By accepting our own limitations and embracing the challenges of life, we can find joy and fulfillment in even the darkest of times.

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