Emily Dickinson Essay, Research Paper
Death in Emily Dickinson s Poetry
While Emily Dickinson s life is well documented, it is important that readers understand how significant events in her life impacted her views on death, sanity, and nature. Born in Amherst, MA in 1830, she was encouraged at a young age to pursue academics, which she excelled in. She attended Mount Holyoke in Massachusetts for one year, however, she withdrew shortly after for unknown reasons. The most significant years of her life are those from 1850-1862, which marked a prolific period in her writing as well as the development of her writing style.
An important aspect in the development of Dickinson s writing and her themes is her personal identification with the deaths of important people around her. Dickinson was deeply affected by the loss of young, close friends such as Sophia Holland, Leonard Humphrey, and Benjamin Newton; all of whom died before she reached maturity. Their deaths along with the death of her mother were a constant reminder, especially to nineteenth century Americans and Emily Dickinson, of the fragility of life. While the death of friends played an important role in her obsession about dying, her environment also contributed to her curiosity. The Dickinson s orchard adjoined a burial ground and funerals in procession were quite visible, therefore making death a constant aspect of daily life. It was not the familiarity with death that inspired Dickinson to write, it was her fear of what the afterlife would bring. She proclaimed that her motivation to write about death was further based on emotional responses which included feelings of guilt, fear of abandonment, and projection of anger.
After her years at Mount Holyoke, Dickinson left Massachusetts only on several occasions, and towards her middle age, she never left the comfort of her home. This period of isolation allowed Dickinson to work undisturbed on some of her best poetry. Many critics believe that her poems of sanity represented her mental state and perhaps indicate a shaking of the foundations of her psychic being. The lack of interaction with the outside world served as an impeding precursor to her nervous breakdown.
Among Dickinson s written works on the subjects of death, sanity, and nature, five poems deserve special attention: Because I could not stop for Death, There is a Funeral in my Brain, I heard a fly buzz when I Died, To die- takes just a little while, and I reason, Earth is short. Since Dickinson decided not to title her poems, they are often labeled by the first line of the first stanza or by the number they appear in the published volume of her work.
Dickinson s writing style and method, and the manner in which she approaches subjects in her poetry, are very distinct. Dickinson was very organized in her approach to writing poetry, often using worksheet drafts to assist her in the writing process. The end results of Dickinson s composition process are poems that are reflective and precise. In a further examination of her poetry specific characteristics arise through her distinct use of diction, meter, rhyme, and the dash. These figures of speech allow her to create poems that were intimate, universal, and unique.
Diction is an important aspect of Dickinson s poetry, and as aforementioned, she went through great lengths to ensure that she selected precise words for each single line. However, as a result of her abundant vocabulary, many of her poems have various implications as well as associations. In her poem, I felt a funeral in my Brain, her diction is very important in creating a parallel scene between the funeral procession and the speaker s own procession of insanity. Words like bell in the fourth stanza create the imagery of a bell tolling in the advance of a funeral march. The use of I instead of we or another pronoun, allows the writer to create an intimate first person portrayal of the struggle and subsequent, suffering of the speaker. Images of a funeral procession reappear in the work; however, it is her diction that ironically brings life to these images of death. Her collective use of images and diction in I felt a funeral in my Brain, provides an overpowering vision of not only the funeral procession, but also the procession of the mind to instability.
Through Dickinson s work, the written word possesses its own life separate from that of the speaker. She regarded words as individual entities with a growth and immortality of their own. She derived her extensive vocabulary from everywhere; her own intelligence, standard speech of her time, the concrete and the abstract, the words of the young people and the theological words of the orthodox preachers.
Dickinson s rhyme pattern utilized four types of rhyme patterns which were not often used by her contemporaries: identical rhymes, vowel rhythms, imperfect rhymes, and suspended rhyme. The freedom in her poetry is strengthened by her inability to be constrained by specific types of rhyme or metric patterns.
Her variation on rhyme and meter are evident in Because I could not stop for Death, where she uses imperfect rhyme. The lack of concise or perfect rhyme allows the reader to spend more time on the individual words rather than speed through them. The more meaning a reader finds in the words of a poem, the more they can identify the recurring symbols within its dialogue. The symbols that arise in Because I could not stop for Death, are of death as a civil gentleman suitor, and the carriage as a representation of the journey through life.
In addition to her other techniques, Dickinson is probably most well known her use of dashes in various pieces of her poetry. At times, Dickinson s dash presents punctuation such as a period, comma, or semicolon; anticipation and suspense; or equivalent to the phrasing marks of music. The dash in Dickinson s poems allows the reader to draw attention to words, or emphasize contradictions. In her poem, To die takes just a little while, Dickinson uses the dash to emphasize; to caution the reader to read slowly; and to reveal meaning to the reader. In the first stanza, the line To die–, is followed by a dash to emphasize the importance and boldness of death throughout the poem. This particular poem wants the reader to break each fragment of death in order to fully understand its effects on the dying individual and the society around. The dashes also emphasize symbols, like Ribbon and Hat to simulate the downcast atmosphere of a funeral. More importantly, the overall effect of dashes is either to present pauses in her reading of the poems or to provide a fluidity of transition for the clauses and phrases.
The poem, Because I could not stop for Death, is filled with tension as the narrator examines life and the uncertainties that lie beyond the moral world. Even more uncertain, is the true character of her companion, death, who greets her with civility. The speaker questions the true civility of death in the first stanza, kindly stopped for me, because in actuality Dickinson is struggling to continue life when death is occurring around her. Therefore, death s assumed civility is more of an intrusion, due to the fact that in the first line the speaker mentions, I could not stop for death. The poet is the mourner as she resents the funeral procession and gropes through her experiences of loss.
The tensions mentioned also exist within the hierarchical relationship of life and the irresolution that many often feel when it ends. Certain elements in the poem seem to exemplify the progression of life, the stages of youth, maturity and age. The hierarchical relationship of the stages of life are represented first in the third stanza, we passed the School, where Children strove, symbolizing an early period of childhood. Later, the narrator and death pass the next hierarchical level of life, maturity, which is present in stanza three when We passed the fields of Grazing Grain. In the last line of the third stanza, We passed the setting sun, the sun represents the last and final stage of life, old age.
The most significant aspect in this progression of life are the horses in the carriage, which represent time. The horses set a deliberate pace in the poem and finally lead the poet to the grave. This journey becomes the speaker s hopes for an understanding of death and the continuation of life. It is only after the poet reaches the grave that the tensions within the poem ease and the narrator and the reader realize the symbols of those she encountered. The carriage is life itself, which is driven by death. Death civilly and slowly directs the response to the loss of love. Thus, the ride is the conclusion of movement, the putting away of the labor and leisure of a normal life.
I felt a funeral in My Brain, is the progression of the mind to insanity or irrationality. By using funeral symbols, the speaker is able to dramatize her loss with intimacy and clarity. Through the use of symbols from the funeral procession, the speaker is able to describe several key things in the mind’s journey; the end of sanity, the loss of reason, and self-control within a formally familiar environment.
The first two stanzas establish the tension that the speaker is feeling prior to her nervous breakdown. The mourners in the first stanza, And Mourners to and fro, kept treading- and treading, represent the confusion and uncertainty that begins to grow in the speaker s mind. Disorientation and compulsion are reinforced and heightened in stanza two by the relentless beating drum which threatens to paralyze her mind completely.
The use of funeral imagery persists in the third stanza as the mourners move toward the closure of the funeral, and the speaker s mind moves to the closure on its abilities to rationalize. The coffin in the first line of the third stanza, And then I heard them life a Box, actually represents the mental and spiritual facilities of the speaker. However, as is common with any funeral, the mourners leave, and the speaker is abandoned and isolated even from the silence of her isolation. The sound of the bell concludes the speaker s interaction with the world, as it would the corpse with its mourners. In the last stanza which begins, And then the Plan in Reason, broke, and I dropped down, and down, represents the speaker s final sinking into irrationality. This moment is the breaking of all ties that formally bound her to the world, and finally ceasing, all thought, perception, and understanding. The poem, ultimately, represents the soul and mind s progression from control to irrationality.
In I heard a Fly buzz- when I died, Dickinson is conveying what it is like to be on your deathbed. In the first stanza, she is describing how still the air is and she compares it to the tranquility of the air before a storm hits. She then goes on to describe the surroundings in the room. There are a group of mourning people standing around her, who wept to the point of having dry eyes. As they stood waiting for her to be taken into the arms of God, the King, she tells of her will preparation and what part of her existence will be signed off for remembrance. Right before the speaker died, a buzzing fly captured her attention and distracted her from the painful end of wonderful life.
This poem is trying to convey that death is an ordinary experience of life, it is evolutionary. When someone dies, the whole world proceeds, as did the fly. Metaphorically speaking, a fly resembles the reality of life, it is a natural object that goes on about its business even through the occurrence of a traumatic event. The mourning people expected something monumental to occur, but death proved to be very uneventful. The fly shows how still the air was as the persona was able to block out the cries of her family and focus on the insignificant existence of a bug. The speaker s preoccupation from death lets the reader know that more emphasis should be put on the smaller details of life.
Dickinson s poem To die takes just a little while, is another example for the briefness and indifference of dying. Here, she describes death as being concise both to the person dying and to the environment in which the dying person lived. Society mourns at the funeral, but with the brightness of a new day they soon overcome the temporary melancholy. The dead being is seen to have gone into a deep sleep where they are joined by others in a world of serenity.
The Darker Ribbon and Crape upon the Hat, represent the dark and depressing attire worn during the funeral. However, this is only short-lived, because with the pretty sunshine everyone forgets the distressing experience. The absent creature, or dead persona, is seen to have gone to sleep therefore relieving morose feelings. I believe this poem expresses that death should be short-lived. The loss of a loved one may bring melancholic feelings, however, these emotions of despondency should not interfere with the precedence of a successful life.
The last of Dickinson s poems, I reason, Earth is short, again carries the message for downplaying death. In the first stanza, Dickinson tells of the suffering we endure while living. She states that life is short and pain is continuos, so what should we make of it? In the second stanza, she states that when we do die, even the best lives cannot avoid decay, so again, what should we make of it? And in the last stanza, Dickinson talks of afterlife and how she believes Heaven will be a new encountering, and she asks once more what we should make of it. All in all, I feel Dickinson s message is that death, along with the degree of our suffering, is out of our control. Therefore, if we cannot control our life, whether we die, or where we end up, why continue to distress? Understanding the incomprehensible often depends on an appreciation of the progression of the stages of existence. Dickinson is basically stating that we should live life to the fullest by accepting the fact that one day, we will die. Through this acceptance we are able to flourish and prosper as thriving individuals.
Even though Dickinson could not find all of the answers to her questions about life and death, she found a way to hinder the hurt and loneliness she felt within. Writing poetry became her happiness and rejuvenated her spirit in a way that nothing else could.
The complex fate of human beings in this tragic, yet beautiful world, and the possible fortunes of the human spirit in a subsequent life are the central theme in most of Dickinson s work. In her enticing poetry, Dickinson establishes a relationship between reality and imagination, the known and the unknown. Through her detailed and abstract context, she illustrates the mysterious, life, death, and the stages of existence.