This poem opens with the declaration that the speaker, whenever confronted with a sad or grieving person, tries to determine the scale of their grief (“I measure every Grief I meet”), and she does so carefully (“With narrow, probing, Eyes –“). The main point of this measurement seems to be to compare it to her own grief (“I wonder if It weighs like Mine –“). The possibility that it is worse than hers is not mentioned, only that it might be lesser (“Or has an Easier size”).
After wondering about the depth of it, she next wonders how long this person has been grieving (“I wonder if They bore it long -- / Or did it just begin”). Her own pain is impossible to date, as its strength and persistence has made it feel ancient (“I could not tell the Date of Mine – / It feels so old a pain –“). She then moves away from mentioning her own pain again for the next few stanzas, although the questions she asks about the other’s grief implies certain things about her own.
She wonders if they find life painful and a constant effort (“I wonder if it hurts to live – / And if They have to try –“). She wonders too if, given the choice, some of these people might choose death. She notices that some, whose grief is older, manage to make a show of happiness again (“I note that Some – gone patient long – / At length, renew their smile –“). However, it is clear that this happiness does not go deep—the smile is only “An imitation of a Light / That has so little Oil –,” for there is no happiness deep down to help the smile burn long or powerfully.
In the next stanza she questions the trope that time heals all. That she doubts this trope is clear, for when she asks this question, she asks it about when thousands of years have passed from the date of the original harm. If she has to ask even if thousands of years will give “any Balm” after “the Harm,” it is clear she has no hope for any happiness in the near or relatively-near future.
In the next stanza she presents the alternative; that even after “Centuries of Nerve,” “they go on aching still,” that is, even after hundreds of years of pain, the ache does not abate. In this stanza, God’s love (“the Love”) does not heal; instead, it provides a contrast that only serves to illuminate further how great their loss and their grief is (“Enlightened to a larger Pain –/ In Contrast with the Love –“).
These people that she sees, whose grief she measures, are very numerous (“The Grieved – are many – I am told –“), although the causes vary. There is death, of course, although it “is but one” and it “comes but once.” There is also “Grief of Want,” the pain of lacking something one wants or needs. There is “Despair”—depression, perhaps, without an obvious cause. And there is “Grief of Cold,” which is likely the grief of loneliness, or grief caused by “Banishment” from friends and family (“native Eyes”) or from home (“Native Air”).
The speaker knows that when she passes these other sad people, even in trying to measure their grief, she may very well guess the cause wrong (“And though I may not guess the kind – / Correctly”). This does not bother her, though, for any kind of grief is grief, and she finds comfort in the idea that she is not alone (“A piercing Comfort it affords”).
She then compares herself and all grievers to Jesus carrying the cross, and explains that she is “fascinated” in seeing the different kinds of grief people have, and the different ways they carry it (“To note the fashions – of the Cross – / And how they’re mostly worn –“). In doing this, she takes comfort in the presumption “That Some – are like My Own –.”
In “I measure every Grief I meet,” the measurement of grieving and the community of grievers become the speaker’s essential survival tools to live with her own grief. The importance of this measuring is clear from the very beginning of the poem, when she explains that she measures “With narrow, probing, Eyes –.” The importance of these adjectives is clear, as Dickinson’s sparse poetry never wastes a word. This isn’t just a casual measurement in passing; this is a concentrated, careful measurement—and a vaguely desperate one.
The speaker only refers to her own pain directly in a few places; for the most part, her grief is made clear to the reader through the things she wonders about the other grievers that she watches. She would not ask “if it hurts to live” or whether, if given the choice, these grievers would choose death, if she had not faced these issues herself, and thus she uses those grievers she watches both to have a frame of reference for her own pain, and to indirectly describe her pain to the reader.
Similarly, the fact that when she questions whether time will heal the pain at all, the only time period in which she can imagine this working is centuries or thousands of years, shows the great immensity of her pain. She also imagines that, even in death, when presented face to face with God’s love, that love will only intensify the pain, in providing such a sharp contrast to it. Thus, she has here again indirectly portrayed her pain, without having to describe it directly to the reader, letting comparisons and images do the work for her
The immensity of the grief, both hers and that of those whom she watches, is also emphasized in the length of the poem—not long, but certainly longer than average for Dickinson—and in the repetitions in it. Most simply, the constant repetition of the various forms of the word “grief” emphasizes this profoundly. More subtly, she uses “and” rather profusely, which gives the poem the feeling of grief piled upon grief, griever piled upon griever.
This measuring of other people’s grief is, in a way, a symbol for her own poetry, where she measures her own grief. The questions that she asks of other’s grief reflect on her own, especially the questions dealing with when it started—she admits she can no longer date her own grief—and when or how it will finally ease itself, another question that she cannot answer for her own grief.
In writing about her grief she is exploring it, measuring it. She is also, however, presenting it to the world, and thus giving other grievers, who, like her, may find comfort in being part of a community, the opportunity to measure her grief; to find “A piercing Comfort” in her pain. Thus while measuring her own grief may not bring her the same comfort as measuring others’, it can bring comfort to the community, and perhaps comfort to her in imagining that others find their grief “like [her] Own”.