The speaker of this poem declares that she did not have any time to hate (“I had no time to Hate –“), because she knew this hatred would be ended with her death (“Because / The Grave would hinder Me –“), and she didn’t have enough time before that end, because life is short (“And Life was not so / Ample I / Could finish”), to finish the task of hating (“Enmity”).
For the same reason—the brevity of life—she didn’t have time to love (“Nor had I time to Love –“), but since she had to do something with her life (“But since / Some Industry must be –“) other than sit and wait for death, she decided that the small act of loving (“The little Toil of Love –“) would be sufficient for her (“I thought / Be large enough for Me –“).
“I had no time to Hate –“ is William Blake-like in its compact treatment of diametrically opposed abstractions. Here, in two short stanzas, Dickinson quite impressively deals with love, hate, the brevity of life, what comes after death, and personal agency. Although “Love” and “Hate” are ostensibly the primary themes of the poem, they are actually given the least attention of those just mentioned.
What comes after death comes into play in the poem very quickly. The fact that life is short would not matter, if there was some kind of afterlife where the speaker’s motivations, intentions, and emotions could continue, ever after death, but she right away makes it clear that this is not the case, in the second and third lines. She doesn’t have time for hate “Because / The Grave would hinder” her—that is, she could not maintain this hate after death.
This may at first seem to be because hate is not an emotion associated with the Christian afterlife, and thus it automatically dies with the hater. This is not, however, the case, for when she says, “Nor had I time to Love –,“ the assumption in that “Nor” is that the reasons for her lack of time for love are the same as for hate. Thus, death does not just “hinder” hate, it hinders, perhaps not divine love, but at least human love. The brevity of life is clear very early on in the poem. Even if death hindered the continuation of love and hate, this wouldn’t be a problem if life were long enough to fulfill these emotions, but it is not. It is not “ample” enough even to “finish – Enmity –.”
Nor is it enough to finish love, however, the speaker chooses to try love anyway, because she must do something. Here the speaker speaks to personal agency. Emotions like hate and love are often described as or felt to be out of the control of the person experiencing them. Yet here, the speaker makes a rational decision—she has to do something in life, short though it may be, and “The little Toil of Love –“ seems as good a task as any—and lives by it, thus exerting full agency over her life and her emotions.
There is also, interestingly, some note of regret in the poem. Though largely the speaker seems pleased with her decision, she does not seem completely content to be dying. The rhyme scheme of the poem puts the most emphasis on the word “me,” and yet the kind of afterlife, if any, that this poem envisions certainly seems to erase identity. Thus, though the speaker is pleased with her decision to choose love over hate, she seems on some level to be fighting against the erasure of identity that will come with death.