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Death and Immortality in Dickinson's Poetry
Death and Immortality in Emily Dickinson's Poems
Emily Dickinson was an American poet whose unique lifestyle and writing have helped to establish her as an important literary figure. Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts in 1830 and died in the same town she lived her entire life in 1886. During her lifetime, despite her many attempts and multitudinous volumes of poetry written, only seven poems are believed to have been published during her lifetime, "all anonymously and some apparently without her consent. The editors of the periodicals in which her lyrics appeared made significant alterations to them in an attempt to regularize the meter and grammar, thereby discouraging Dickinson from seeking further publication of her verse" ("Emily Dickinson"). A recurring theme in many of Dickinson's poems, which were mostly distributed among her closest friends via personal correspondence, is that of death and immortality. These themes can be seen in "Because I could not stop for Death," "I felt a funeral in my brain," and "My Life had stood -- a Loaded Gun."
While the exact cause of Dickinson's reclusion and interest in the subject of death and immortality is unknown, there is evidence to suggest that Dickinson's work became more and more influenced by the deaths of those that were closest to her including her father, who died in 1874, the death of her invalid mother in 1882, and the death of her close family friend, Judge Otis P. Lord, in 1884 ("Emily Dickinson"). Moreover, it can be argued that her religious background greatly influenced her views on death and immortality. One of the central questions that Dickinson is believed to have tried to understand was how the soul survived after death. Xiao-Chuan Ren contends that Dickinson "rejected absolutely the idea of man's innate depravity; she favored the Emersonian partial reversal of Puritanism that conceived greatness of soul as the source of immortality" (Ren 96). Dickinson has been described as being as "self-conscious as Rembrandt with mirror and easel, writing into the poem a completed picture of self -- size, psyche, and all -- in the third person" (Miller 119).
In "Because I could not stop for Death," Dickinson's narrator personifies Death and perceives him to be a gentleman caller that is escorting her carriage on its final ride. In the poem, the narrator is riding along in a carriage accompanied by Immortality on a path, which is representative of life, to her final resting place, "a house that seemed/A swelling of the Ground -- / The Roof was scarcely visible -- / The Cornice -- in the Ground" (Dickinson lines 17-20). In the poem, Dickinson's views of death, the mortal body, and the immortal soul are explored. While Dickinson, as the persona of the narrator, maintains that death is ever present in the journey through life -- which is the path that Death, the narrator, and Immortality are riding along -- and that the carriage will only transport her mortal body to its final resting place, while simultaneously transporting Immortality, the soul, to Eternity. It is interesting to note that while Death is described as being chivalrous, Immortality is not given any specific description other than the fact that it was accompanying the narrator in the carriage. Death's chivalry is demonstrated through the narrator's observation, "Because I could not stop for Death/He kindly stopped for me…/We slowly drove, he knew no hast/An I had put away/My labor, and my leisure too./For his civility" (lines 1-2, 5-8). It may be posited that the narrator did not describe Immortality because she sees it as a reflection of herself and therefore does not see a need to describe it because she does not consider it to be a foreign entity. "Because I could not stop for Death" provides personal insight into the dilemma that Dickinson has encountered in regards to death and immortality. Through the poem, Dickinson demonstrates that she believes that Death and Immortality are forever bound to each other and that as long as individuals live, Death will accompany them while they are alive and escort their immortal souls to eternity once they have shaken their mortal coils.
While "Because I could not stop for Death" explores the physical implications of dying, and the separation of soul and body, "I felt a Funeral, in my Brain" explores the psychological effects that the concept of death has on the narrator. Unlike "Because I could not stop for Death," death produces psychosomatic effects on the narrator, which appear to be slowly driving her towards insanity. For instance, not only does the narrator believe that there is a funeral in her brain, possibly alluding to the death of the psyche, but she is able to picture the different aspects of the funeral from the mourners to the decedent. Unlike "Because I could not stop for Death" in which the narrator acknowledges that Death is her escort, yet whose presence does not disturb her, death is constantly interrupting the narrators thoughts. Each disturbance in the narrators mind transforms into the next disturbance and the narrator cannot find a single moment of piece until the end when everything mysteriously falls away. For instance, the "Mourners to and fro/Keep treading -- treading -- till it seemed/That Sense was breaking through" which while the narrator would hope to find some peace of mind once these psychological mourners were seated, her thoughts are immediately interrupted by "A service, like a Drum" that keeps "beating -- beating -- till [she] thought/[Her] Mind was going numb" (lines 2-4, 6-8). The noise in the narrator's head is once again transformed, as she believes that she hears "them lift a Box/And creak across [her] Soul/With those same Boots of Lead, again" (lines 9-11). The maddening cacophony of the endless noise within her mind eventually leads the narrator to lose all reason as she vividly describes in the midst of her race with Silence, "a Plank in Reason, broke,/And I dropped down, and down -- / And hit a World, at every plunge,/And finished knowing -- then -- " (lines 17-20). In this final stanza, the narrator establishes that the endless noise has driven her to lose all reason and that as she falls, she not only falls through an endless abyss, but also falls away from life.
"My Life had stood -- a Loaded Gun" is unlike the previous two poems because Dickinson does not appear to take on the narrator's persona, thus providing a third person account of her contentions regarding death and immortality, but rather anthropomorphizes herself into a pistol. While many argue that the gun/narrator in this poem is representative of a woman or bride, it can also be argued that the gun does not represent the feminine, but is an independent narrator (Wylder 5). Dickinson presents a triple paradox within the poem. In "My Life had stood -- a Loaded Gun," the narrator sees herself as a tool of death through her embodiment of the gun. The paradox arises in trying to determine if the gun brings about death, or if it is man, who through the use of the gun, brings forth death. Moreover, man appears to derive his power from the gun, which is only powerful in the hands of man. This paradox makes the gun a slave to man's wishes while making the man a slave to the gun's power. Moreover, the gun's ability to bring forth death functions on two levels. The gun can be used to provide sustenance for the man as the narrator describes, "We roam in Sovereign Woods -- / And now We hunt the Doe" (lines 5-6). Additionally, the gun can be used to kill for killing's sake as the narrator states, "To foe of His -- I'm deadly foe -- / None stir the second time" (lines 17-18). The concept of immortality is also alluded to in this poem in the final stanza during which the narrator maintains that though it can be immortal as an object, it is dependent on the man to fulfill its purpose in killing.
A secondary reading of the poem reveals its religious undertones. It can be argued that Dickinson, as the narrator, sees herself as a weapon and/or tool of God, wandering his Sovereign domain. The narrator contends "every time I speak for Him -- / The Mountains straight reply," that is to say that she believes God's word is so powerful and overreaching that it has the ability to make nature reply in return. Moreover, the narrator believes it is her duty to protect her "Master's Head" and to defeat any force that may oppose Him. However, the narrator argues that while she may outlive her faith, she must succumb to him in order to gain immortality. Although Dickinson anthropomorphizes the gun and uses it to symbolize her religious duty, "My Life had stood -- A Loaded gun," like the two previous poems, explores themes of death and immortality.
It is evident that Dickinson's ruminations on…[continue]
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