When We Lose Something, We Haven't Lost Everything

Excerpt: Emily Dickinson, poem

To lose thee – sweeter than to gain
All other hearts I knew.
‘Tis true the drought is destitute,
But then, I had the dew!

The Caspian has its realms of sand,
Its other realm of sea.
Without the sterile perquisite,
No Caspian could be.


The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1961) Poem #1754, p. 710.


In what begins as a love poem, Emily Dickinson’s musings shift to a philosophical reflection upon the nature of loss. And loss, she concludes, is never the whole story. For where there is loss, there was once something had. And where there is something had, there must at some point and in some way be loss.

In the first two lines of the poem, Dickinson is expressing how much she valued a love that she has now lost. Of all the other “hearts” that might have belonged to her, none could compare with her chosen love: so meaningful was this love, that even the experience of losing it is “sweeter” than the experience of winning any other love. Dickinson goes on, in the next two lines, to explain how this could be. Of course the actual experience of loss is painful, not sweet, as the third line poignantly acknowledges: it is a kind of “drought” to be without one’s love, and the poet certainly feels this--she is left with an emptiness, “destitute.” Yet this emptiness is different from the emptiness of never having had a love. The emptiness of loss somehow still resonates with what was once there: “I had the dew!” One aspect of loss, paradoxically, is that one was fortunate enough to have had something to lose.

After having reflected, in the first stanza, upon this positive aspect of losing something, in the next stanza Dickinson considers the negative aspect of having something. Using the Caspian Sea as a symbol for something positive, perhaps for anything worth having in life, she draws our attention to the fact that the Caspian Sea could not exist without borders. The sand that marks the sea’s boundaries is a negative symbol, marking the end of the sea, but it is just as necessary as the actual sea for the existence of the Caspian Sea. Dickinson goes so far as to call both the sand and the sea different “realms” of the Caspian, highlighting her surprising claim by noting the sand (in the first line of the second stanza) even before mentioning the sea (“Its other realm of sea”). If the Caspian did not end somewhere, then it couldn’t be the Caspian!

Looking back at the first stanza in light of the second, Dickinson seems to be saying that loss (such as the loss of a love) is a kind of limit, or boundary (like the borders of the Caspian). Through her reflections about the Caspian, Dickinson seems to be hinting that everything must have some limits--everything must end somewhere, somehow. Dickinson, in consoling herself for the loss of her love, is perhaps trying to see loss not as an enemy, but instead as a hard but necessary part of life. And though the end might come too soon, or under very difficult circumstances, the one thing we can never lose is the fact that we once had something that meant so much.




Posted: September 2004

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