This poem opens with the speaker’s declaration that she “can wade Grief –,“ that is, she is used to pain (“I’m used to that –“) and so has no problem getting through it, and surviving it, even large amounts of it (“Whole Pools of it –“). But surprisingly, even only a small amount of happiness (“But the least push of Joy”) makes her metaphorically stumble (“Breaks up my feet –“) and fall (“And I tip – drunken –“).
She tells the pebbles—that is, the witnesses to this fall—not to mock her (“Let no Pebble – smile –“), for it is just that she has no tolerance for the alcohol of happiness, not having had any experience with it (“’Twas the New Liquor – That was all!”). She then explains that power can come only from pain (“Power is only Pain –“) that is intentionally isolated (“Stranded, thro’ Discipline”) and used, like weights in physical training, as resistance (“Till Weights – will hang –“).
She claims that if you give medicine or anything soothing or helpful to giants (“Give Balm – to Giants”), they will become as weak as normal humans (“And they’ll wilt, like Men –“), but if you give them a mountain (“Give Himmaleh –“), that is, a challenge, they will rise to it and show their greatest strength (“They’ll Carry – Him!”). This metaphor says that happiness only makes people weak, while pain and hardship allow their greatest strength to shine through.
“I can wade Grief –“ enacts a common Dickinson maneuver, that of taking something largely viewed as negative, here pain, but often failure, and showing that it is not purely negative. She has a great regard for strength, and in this poem, as in “Dare you see a soul at the White Heat?” her speaker declares that such strength, and the power that it brings, can come only from hardship. This poem does not just transform a negative into a positive, but shows how what is usually considered positive—joy—is also negative.
The metaphors she uses to describe this all deal with physical strength, but it is clear that what she is actually talking about, what these metaphors stand for, is emotional. She describes happiness as not just weakening—bringing giants down to the level of mere humans—but also as intoxicating. Even the smallest amount of joy makes her act so drunk as to not be able to walk without stumbling, for like liquor, joy is more powerful when one has no tolerance for it.
The parallel structure of the metaphor in the final four lines emphasizes the either-or stance of this poem—one either faces hardship, and becomes stronger, or has joy, and is weakened. There is no happy medium, it seems, so that hardship becomes the only good choice. The strength gained through pain or hardship in this poem, as opposed to the weakness caused by happiness or ease, at first seems useful, however, only in facing those very hardships as they come. The giants, for example, use the “Himmaleh”—the challenge they are given—only to gain the strength to overcome that very same challenge, in the act of lifting it.
Yet, if we take this poem to be not just about living, but about writing poetry, we can see that happiness certainly, in Dickinson’s view, does not lead to impressive or important poetry, because the person drunk on it certainly will not see the world with the clarity required for art. Instead, pain provides that clarity, sharpening the poet’s perceptions and ability to reproduce life truthfully. This is reflected in the two stanzas rhymes schemes, or lack of them. The first stanza has very little rhyming, while the poet is drunk with joy, and stumbling, whereas the final stanza, though not a clear rhyme scheme, has many off-rhymes, and so seems to hang together more tightly, thanks to the clarity of pain.
Thus the strength gained from pain becomes not just helpful in facing that same pain, but in being able to produce something meaningful or powerful, and it is thus not just a tool for survival, but a tool for living better, for creating something more powerful than oneself—if one has the “Discipline” to use it well, and not just wallow in it. Going through pain, then, becomes not just a way to better and strengthen oneself, but a selfless act to better the world.