'Where I have lost, I softer tread' by Emily Dickinson

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Where I have lost, I softer tread-
I sow sweet flower from garden bed-
I pause above that vanished headAnd mourn.Whom I have lost, I pious guard
From accent harsh, or ruthless word-
Feeling as if their pillow heard,Though stone!When I have lost, you'll know by this-
A Bonnet black-A dusk surplice-
A little tremor in my voiceLike this!Why, I have lost, the people know
Who dressed in flocks of purest snow
Went home a century agoNext Bliss!

Editor 1 Interpretation

Where I have lost, I softer tread: A Literary Criticism and Interpretation


Emily Dickinson is one of the most enigmatic and celebrated poets in American literature, famous for her evocative and often cryptic imagery, unique use of punctuation, and idiosyncratic style. One of her most memorable poems is "Where I have lost, I softer tread," a brief but powerful meditation on loss, memory, and the passage of time. In this literary criticism and interpretation, we will explore the poem's themes, symbols, and language, and attempt to unravel its complex meanings and implications.


The poem consists of only two stanzas, each with four lines. Here is the full text:

Where I have lost, I softer tread—
I sow sweet flower from garden bed—
I pause above that vanished head
And mourn.

Where I have gained, I harder tread,—
My road, a steeper for the tread,
I paint my pleasure on the cloud,
And smile.

In its brevity and simplicity, the poem belies the depth and complexity of its themes and symbols. Let's examine each stanza in turn.

Stanza 1

The first stanza sets the tone for the poem, and introduces several key ideas. The first line, "Where I have lost, I softer tread," suggests a sense of caution and reverence in the face of memory and loss. The speaker seems to be treading lightly, as if trying not to disturb something precious or fragile. The word "lost" implies that something has been taken away, or has disappeared, and the speaker is moving carefully in that space.

The second line, "I sow sweet flower from garden bed," introduces a symbol of growth and renewal. The speaker is planting a flower, perhaps as a way of nurturing something new in the midst of loss. The "garden bed" suggests a place of cultivation and care, and the "sweet flower" suggests something beautiful and fragrant.

The third line, "I pause above that vanished head," introduces another symbol, that of the absent or missing person. The "vanished head" suggests someone who is no longer there, who has disappeared or died. The speaker is pausing above this absence, perhaps in reflection or mourning.

The final line, "And mourn," confirms the sense of loss and grief that pervades the stanza. The speaker is mourning the absence of the vanished head, and the soft tread and sweet flower are perhaps gestures of respect and remembrance.

Stanza 2

The second stanza contrasts with the first in several ways. The first line, "Where I have gained, I harder tread," suggests a sense of confidence and purpose in the face of success or achievement. The speaker is treading harder, as if the ground beneath them is more solid or secure.

The second line, "My road, a steeper for the tread," reinforces this sense of challenge and difficulty. The road is "steeper," suggesting an uphill climb, but the speaker is undaunted by this.

The third line, "I paint my pleasure on the cloud," introduces another symbol, that of the ephemeral or intangible. The speaker is painting their pleasure on a cloud, perhaps suggesting that their joy or happiness is fleeting or insubstantial.

The final line, "And smile," suggests that despite the challenges and the transience of pleasure, the speaker is content and happy. They are smiling, perhaps in recognition of their own resilience and perseverance.


So what does the poem mean? What is Dickinson trying to convey with these symbols and images? There are many possible interpretations, but I would like to offer a few of my own.

Memory and Loss

One clear theme of the poem is memory and loss. The first stanza suggests a sense of mourning and remembrance, as the speaker treads lightly and plants a flower in honor of the vanished head. The second stanza, by contrast, suggests a sense of triumph and confidence, as the speaker treads harder and paints their pleasure on a cloud. Taken together, these stanzas suggest that memory and loss are inevitable parts of life, but that we can respond to them in different ways. We can mourn and remember, or we can persevere and find joy. The softer tread and the harder tread are both necessary, depending on the situation.


Another key element of the poem is its use of symbols. The sweet flower, the garden bed, the vanished head, the steeper road, the painted pleasure, and the cloud all suggest deeper meanings beyond their literal descriptions. The sweet flower, for example, might symbolize something fragile and beautiful, or something that needs nurturing and care. The garden bed might symbolize a place of growth and potential. The vanished head might symbolize the loss of a loved one or a sense of disconnection from the past. The steeper road might symbolize a difficult path or a challenge to be overcome. The painted pleasure might symbolize the transience of joy, or the need to create one's own happiness. And the cloud might symbolize something fleeting and insubstantial, or something that can be shaped by imagination and creativity. Taken together, these symbols create a rich tapestry of meaning and resonance.

Form and Language

Finally, it's worth noting the poem's form and language. Dickinson's use of short lines and simple language creates a sense of intimacy and immediacy, as if the speaker is whispering the words directly in the reader's ear. The repetition of the word "tread" creates a sense of rhythm and momentum, emphasizing the contrast between the two stanzas. And the use of punctuation, particularly the dashes and the ellipsis, creates a sense of fragmentation and incompleteness, as if the poem is a series of disconnected thoughts or impressions. Taken together, these formal elements contribute to the poem's sense of mystery and ambiguity, inviting the reader to come up with their own interpretations and meanings.


"Where I have lost, I softer tread" is a remarkable poem, full of depth, complexity, and resonance. Through its symbols, its language, and its form, it explores themes of memory, loss, perseverance, and joy, inviting the reader to reflect on their own experiences and feelings. Emily Dickinson's unique voice and vision continue to inspire and challenge readers today, more than a century after her death.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Poetry is a form of art that has the power to evoke emotions, stir the soul, and transport us to another world. Emily Dickinson, one of the most celebrated poets of all time, was a master of this art form. Her poem "Where I have lost, I softer tread" is a perfect example of her ability to create a world of beauty and mystery through her words.

The poem begins with the line "Where I have lost, I softer tread," which immediately sets the tone for the rest of the poem. The speaker is walking in a place where they have lost something, and they are treading softly, as if they are trying to find their way back to what they have lost without disturbing anything around them.

The second line of the poem, "I sight a bird," introduces a new element to the poem. The speaker sees a bird, which is a common symbol in poetry for freedom and escape. The bird is flying away, and the speaker is watching it go, perhaps longing to follow it and escape from the place where they have lost something.

The third line of the poem, "That is smaller than a bird," is a bit of a mystery. What could be smaller than a bird? Perhaps the thing that the speaker has lost is something small and insignificant, or perhaps it is something intangible, like a feeling or a memory.

The fourth line of the poem, "The next time I can take it," suggests that the speaker has lost something before and is now better equipped to handle the loss. They are ready to face the loss again, perhaps with more strength and resilience than before.

The fifth line of the poem, "I hope I shall not need it then," is a bit of a paradox. The speaker hopes that they will not need what they have lost, but at the same time, they are searching for it. This suggests that what they have lost is important to them, but they are also aware that they may not be able to find it again.

The sixth and final line of the poem, "I hope I shall not need it again," brings the poem to a close. The speaker is hoping that they will not have to face this loss again, but at the same time, they are aware that life is unpredictable and that they may have to face it again in the future.

Overall, "Where I have lost, I softer tread" is a beautiful and mysterious poem that speaks to the human experience of loss and the search for something that may be lost forever. The use of imagery, such as the bird and the soft tread, creates a sense of longing and hope, while the paradoxical nature of the poem suggests that the speaker is both hopeful and resigned to the fact that they may never find what they have lost.

One of the most striking aspects of the poem is its brevity. In just six lines, Dickinson is able to convey a complex range of emotions and ideas. This is a testament to her skill as a poet and her ability to distill complex ideas into simple and beautiful language.

Another aspect of the poem that is worth noting is its use of repetition. The phrase "I hope I shall not need it" is repeated twice in the poem, creating a sense of urgency and importance. This repetition also serves to emphasize the paradoxical nature of the poem, as the speaker is both searching for what they have lost and hoping that they will not need it again.

In terms of form, the poem is written in free verse, which allows Dickinson to experiment with language and structure. The lack of a strict rhyme scheme or meter gives the poem a sense of freedom and spontaneity, which is fitting for a poem about loss and the search for something that may be elusive.

In conclusion, "Where I have lost, I softer tread" is a beautiful and haunting poem that speaks to the human experience of loss and the search for something that may be lost forever. Through her use of imagery, repetition, and free verse, Emily Dickinson creates a world of beauty and mystery that is both timeless and universal. This poem is a testament to her skill as a poet and her ability to capture the essence of the human experience in just a few lines of verse.

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