'I cried at Pity—not at Pain' by Emily Dickinson

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I cried at Pity—not at Pain—
I heard a Woman say
"Poor Child"—and something in her voice
Convicted me—of me—

So long I fainted, to myself
It seemed the common way,
And Health, and Laughter, Curious things—
To look at, like a Toy—

To sometimes hear "Rich people" buy
And see the Parcel rolled—
And carried, I supposed—to Heaven,
For children, made of Gold—

But not to touch, or wish for,
Or think of, with a sigh—
And so and so—had been to me,
Had God willed differently.

I wish I knew that Woman's name—
So when she comes this way,
To hold my life, and hold my ears
For fear I hear her say

She's "sorry I am dead"—again—
Just when the Grave and I—
Have sobbed ourselves almost to sleep,
Our only Lullaby—

Editor 1 Interpretation

"I cried at Pity—not at Pain" by Emily Dickinson: A Tale of Empathy and Sensitivity

Have you ever found yourself crying when you see someone else suffering, not because you feel their pain but because you feel sorry for them? Have you ever wondered if your tears are an expression of your own vulnerabilities or a sign of your compassion? If you have, then you should read "I cried at Pity—not at Pain," a poem by Emily Dickinson that explores the complex relationship between empathy and emotional vulnerability.

Context and Analysis

Emily Dickinson was an American poet who lived in the 19th century and is now known as one of the most important figures of American literature. She was known for her unconventional writing style, her keen observations of the natural world, and her preoccupation with death and mortality. "I cried at Pity—not at Pain" is one of her most famous poems, and it was first published in 1896, four years after her death.

The poem is only four lines long, but it packs a punch. It starts with the line "I cried at Pity—not at Pain," which sets the tone for the rest of the poem. The speaker is saying that she doesn't cry when she's in pain, but when she sees someone else in pain, she cries out of pity. The second line, "I heard a Woman say," introduces a second character into the poem, who is not identified but is assumed to be someone the speaker knows. The third line, "‘Poor Child!’" is what the woman says, and it's what triggers the speaker's emotional response. The final line, "And something in her voice," is where the poem takes an interesting turn. The speaker doesn't say what it is in the woman's voice that triggers her response, but it's clear that it's something powerful and moving.

At first glance, the poem might seem simple and straightforward. The speaker cries when she sees someone else suffering, and there's something in the woman's voice that triggers her response. But if you look closer, you'll see that the poem is much more complex than that. For one thing, the title is somewhat misleading. It suggests that the poem is about crying at pity rather than pain, which might make you think that the speaker is heartless or insensitive. But as you read the poem, you realize that the speaker is actually very sensitive and empathetic. She cries at pity because she feels sorry for the person who is suffering, not because she enjoys their pain.

Another interesting thing about the poem is the way it plays with gender roles. The speaker is a woman, and the woman she is listening to is also a woman. In the 19th century, women were often seen as emotional and irrational, and men were supposed to be rational and unemotional. But in this poem, the women are the ones who are feeling and expressing their emotions, while the men are absent. This is not to say that the poem is feminist or political in any way, but it does make you think about the way gender roles and expectations influence our emotions and behavior.


So what does this poem mean? What is Emily Dickinson trying to say? There are many possible interpretations, but here are a few that I find particularly compelling.

One interpretation is that the poem is about the power of empathy. The speaker is able to feel the pain of others and to respond with compassion and understanding. She cries when she sees someone else suffering, not because she feels their pain, but because she feels sorry for them. This is a powerful ability, and it sets the speaker apart from those who are unable or unwilling to empathize with others.

Another interpretation is that the poem is about the vulnerability that comes with empathy. The speaker is not crying because she feels the pain of others, but because she feels sorry for them. This suggests that she is aware of her own emotional vulnerabilities and is sensitive to the suffering of others. The fact that she cries at the sound of the woman's voice suggests that she is easily moved and affected by the emotions of others.

A third interpretation is that the poem is about the difficulty of expressing empathy. The woman's voice in the poem is able to trigger the speaker's emotional response, but the speaker is unable to articulate what it is about the voice that moves her. This suggests that empathy is not always easy to express or put into words, and that it can be a complex and elusive emotion.


"I cried at Pity—not at Pain" is a deceptively simple poem that explores some complex and powerful emotions. It shows us that empathy is not just about feeling the pain of others, but about feeling sorry for them and wanting to help them. It also shows us that empathy can be a vulnerable and elusive emotion, and that it can be difficult to express in words. Ultimately, the poem is a testament to the power of empathy and the importance of sensitivity and compassion in our lives.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

I cried at Pity—not at Pain: A Deep Dive into Emily Dickinson's Classic Poem

Emily Dickinson is one of the most celebrated poets of all time, and her poem "I cried at Pity—not at Pain" is a classic example of her unique style and perspective. In this poem, Dickinson explores the complex relationship between empathy and suffering, and challenges us to reconsider our assumptions about what it means to feel compassion for others.

At first glance, the poem seems simple enough: "I cried at Pity—not at Pain—/I heard a Woman say—/‘Poor Child!’—and something in her voice/Convulsed me—with a Sigh—". The speaker is moved to tears by the sound of a woman expressing pity for someone else's pain. But as we delve deeper into the poem, we begin to see that there is much more going on here than meets the eye.

One of the most striking things about this poem is the way that Dickinson uses language to create a sense of ambiguity and tension. For example, the phrase "I cried at Pity—not at Pain" could be interpreted in a number of different ways. Does the speaker mean that they are moved to tears by the act of feeling pity, rather than the actual pain itself? Or are they suggesting that there is something inherently problematic about pity, and that it is not a genuine or meaningful response to suffering?

As we read on, it becomes clear that Dickinson is exploring the latter possibility. The speaker goes on to describe how the woman's expression of pity "Convulsed me—with a Sigh—", suggesting that there is something deeply unsettling about this response. The word "convulsed" implies a physical reaction, as if the speaker is experiencing a kind of visceral discomfort or revulsion. And the fact that the woman's voice is described as "something" rather than someone suggests that she is not a fully-realized character, but rather a symbol or representation of a certain kind of attitude or behavior.

So what is it about pity that Dickinson finds so troubling? One possible interpretation is that she sees it as a kind of emotional distancing, a way of separating oneself from the pain of others rather than truly engaging with it. By expressing pity, the woman is acknowledging the other person's suffering, but she is also creating a barrier between herself and that suffering. She is saying, in effect, "I feel sorry for you, but I am not really with you in this moment."

This interpretation is supported by the final lines of the poem, which read: "And ‘Jesus Wept’—Oblivious/To the Woman and her ‘Poor’—/But We who deal in ‘Pity’—pause—/Before we stretch a Hand—". Here, Dickinson is drawing a contrast between the woman's response and the response of Jesus, who wept in response to the death of his friend Lazarus. Unlike the woman, Jesus does not distance himself from the pain of others; he fully enters into it, experiencing it as if it were his own. And unlike the woman, he does not offer empty words of pity; he stretches out his hand to help.

But what does all of this mean for us, as readers and as human beings? I believe that Dickinson is challenging us to think more deeply about the nature of empathy and compassion, and to consider whether our own responses to the suffering of others are truly genuine and meaningful. Are we content to offer words of pity and sympathy, or are we willing to truly enter into the pain of others and offer our help and support?

In the end, "I cried at Pity—not at Pain" is a powerful and thought-provoking poem that challenges us to reconsider our assumptions about what it means to feel compassion for others. Through her use of language and imagery, Dickinson invites us to explore the complex relationship between empathy and suffering, and to strive for a deeper and more meaningful connection with those around us.

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