Drowning is not so pitiful
As the attempt to rise
Three times, ’tis said, a sinking man
Comes up to face the skies,
And then declines forever
To that abhorred abode,
Where hope and he part company —
For he is grasped of God.
The Maker’s cordial visage,
However good to see,
Is shunned, we must admit it,
Like an adversity.

Analysis, meaning and summary of Emily Dickinson's poem Drowning is not so pitiful


  1. Debra says:

    The first line is the most striking. For me, to see a man struggling in life is more pitiful than seeing a dead man. It is pessimistic but realistic. In life, many people choose to die than to live is misery. If you are dead, then you don’t have to worry about what to do next.

  2. Brian says:

    Here is what I thought of the poem after reading and studying it. It is not so much an analysis of the poem, but an analysis of the devices used to convey the thesis of the poem.

    Emily Dickinson lived during the years of 1830 to 1886, and many of her poems were written without titles and simply referred to by their first line, “Drowning is not so Pitiful” being one of them. The poem describes how all people struggle to live life. Dickinson speaks of how everyone is given chances to make mistakes and correct them; however, this is only a limited number of times. She goes further to explain how people do all they can to cling onto life which is why they lose hope once they feel life is out of their grasp. As long as hope is still present, people will do anything to keep alive. Dickinson also presents a universal irony of how people speak of God’s welcoming, heartfelt serenity and how delightful it would be to have the opportunity to see him, yet they are so fearful of death and loss. In essence, people should be eager to die so that they can meet God; however, they would also like to live at the same time which is impossible based on accepted beliefs and ideas.
    “Drowning is not so Pitiful” unmistakably possesses a melancholic tone. The poem speaks very much about the struggle between Life and Death. Dickinson describes how “drowning is not so pitiful as the attempt to rise” because “a sinking man comes up to face the skies,” but he eventually “declines forever to that abhorred abode.” She tends to be pessimistic by letting the man die, thus displaying her melancholic views on life. To compensate for this depression, a loss of Hope is evident within her poem. She tells of the point “where hope and he part company” because “he is grasped of God.” Once again Dickinson refers to the man within God’s grasp, and the death motif returns. This recurrent motif of Death forces the audience to incline towards such a tone by painting a portrait of how it is a constant battle between the two, which makes up for what Emily Dickinson was experiencing at the time this poem was being composed. In the final verse where “the Maker’s cordial visage, however good to see, is shunned; we must admit it like an adversity.” Dickinson does not show her enthusiasm about life in the poem. It is demonstrated here with a feeling of depression that not even God’s image could please, and many actually dislike it. Using various elements, Emily Dickinson consistently displays the melancholic tone adopted by the poem.
    Though concise and seemingly simple, the poem’s diction is strikingly apparent that adds quite a bit of dismal imagery. Words such as “drowning” until one “declines forever” and fall to the “abhorred abode” contribute to a whole idea of a terrible place in the deepest bowels of the earth. This emphasizes the idea that it is always a constant struggle to live life by “attempt[ing] to rise” to “come up to face the skies.” Dickinson speaks of the man who sinks and comes up three times, signifying three costly mistakes the man has made and “come up” to ask the heavens for forgiveness. With the number three being a religious number, the heavens do not give him any further chances, and the man is force to “decline forever to that abhorred abode.” That “abhorred abode” can be considered Death’s realm, and in that case, the man and Hope “part company,” meaning that the man has given up on Life. To provide a little contrast, Emily Dickinson speaks of God’s “cordial visage” being “good to see.” This would appear as if she is lightening up; however, she turns around by stating it is “shunned” and admitted “like an adversity.” Using strong words like “adversity” stresses how Life (and Death) is full of hard times and misfortune.
    The poem’s language is simple, but the complex syntax draws a rich variety of connotations from many common words, capitalization, and punctuation. Dickinson wrote this poem in a few different combinations of iambic tetrameter and trimeter lines which employs a simple rhyme scheme and the varied effect of these schemes by partial rhyming. By writing in such a fashion with the entire poem composed of two sentences, she is able to equate the feeling of prolonged struggling to the length of the sentences. These sentences are characterized as compound and complex. The very idea of compound and complex sentences is that they are long and elaborate. In addition to drawing out the “struggle,” Emily Dickinson also inserts punctuation in the most interesting places. Punctuation itself, especially in poetry, can signify a range of things: a period meaning an end of a thought, a comma showing a pausing moment, and a dash to show a particularly long pause. Acknowledging that, Dickinson tends to place the commas after every line in each stanza, with occasional commas within a line. The commas, like the words making up the compound and complex sentences, force audience to read her poem with the intended pauses, obviously to indicate the idea that Life is long and difficult, and the journey to Death is a lengthy process as well. The commas also provide a contrast of images, such as that of “the Maker’s cordial visage,” and “admitting it, like an adversity.”
    There is, however, the one peculiar dash between “Where hope and he part company” and “For he is grasped of God.” This specifies the long pause Dickinson intended. It is understandable why Emily Dickinson would choose to do this because she is providing that contrast between the dismal and the joyful. Initially, she speaks of a fateful man who declines toward Death, but one must realize that here, Death and God are interchangeable. When one falls to the power of Death, he is also falling into the hands of God, which explains why Dickinson used the dash: to show that the man is actually in a heavenly place now—being “grasped of God.” The once dreadful situation of the man’s death is lightened up once one understands that he is also in God’s power. At that point, she ends her first idea with a period. She then goes on telling of God’s beautiful serenity is cherished; however, she also states how it is shunned at the same time. Once again Dickinson is making it clear that Death and God are the same being so that when one avoids Death, they avoid God simultaneously. She then concludes the poem with that idea in mind with another period. The way Emily Dickinson arranges her ideas by contrasting one with the other and switching back and forth imitates her belief that Life and Death are a constant struggle, as everyone manages to hold onto Life for as long as they can. That is crucial to understanding the concept of “Drowning is not so pitiful.”
    Recognizing the value of “Drowning is not so pitiful” can be a difficult idea to hold true. Emily Dickinson was indeed a powerful poet whose very words expressed vivid personal feelings and conveyed a mystical directness to such universal themes. Granted, not many individuals of today’s society would agree with Emily Dickinson’s theories and beliefs, but she certainly did challenge the power of thought through her highly demanding poetry.

  3. Jane says:

    i agree w/ both. but the poem could be referring to more than just death, it could be any kind of struggle within life itself. maybe it’s describing kind of faliure in general, and how we hate accepting it even if it would be easier to and just move on. i guess that works for death too.

  4. Joseph says:

    I respectfully disagree with this comment.
    I think what she means in this poem is that dying people cling all they can to life and that’s why, when they’re dead they “part company” with Hope: it’s Hell for them because they were so bent on life. She then says that even though we might say that God is beautiful and how good it would be to meet Him, we shun that meeting (death) like an adversity.

  5. Stephanie says:

    Falling is a lot easier and quicker than trying to pull yourself up again. Most people that are in a depressed state would rather keep falling than try to get back on top and pull themselves up. Everyone has problems and obstacles, and this poem hits home to me, and I’m sure to everybody else.

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