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Death as Perceived by Emily Dickinson
The simple and the complex often merge when exploring the world of Emily Dickinson's poetry. Some of Dickinson's most impressive poetry explores the issue of death. Dickinson's approach is unique and haunting, for it provides us with a unique point-of-view. Dickinson's poetry is extremely personal and allows us to discern much from a psychoanalytic perspective. Her attempts to come to terms with her own death illustrate her courage and curiosity. Although her never "solves" the mystery of death, her observations are astute and her attempts to grasp such a solemn subject demonstrate her seriousness as a thinker and a poet. Dickinson's obsession with death led her to write powerful poetry that not only attempts to solve life's greatest mysteries, but also give us insight into her character.
Eric Wilson, author of "Dickinson's Chemistry of Death," makes an astute observation between Dickinson's life and the affect death had on her. He notes that in "an autumn, 1882 letter, Dickinson reported that the death of her mother was both 'benumbing' and 'electric'" (Wilson). This statement illustrates Dickinson's conflict with death that often surfaces in her poetry, given that she often approaches death with different sensibilities. Wilson also notes, "While this paradoxical sensibility perhaps inspired her to invoke the explanations of science to clear up tensions and contradictions, it also likely kept her from reducing the difficulties of death to mere chemistry" (Wilson). It is certainly fair to conclude that Dickinson considered death from almost every perspective. Death was a part of life that intrigued Dickinson. As a result, she was unabashedly drawn to the supernatural aspect of death. Her poems are an attempt at living through the experience she is writing about. Her death poems often delve into the realm of possibilities, leaving her to grasp something that is practically incomprehensible.
Death, in many ways, is the ultimate mystery for Dickinson. However, she did not let the fact that the answers are unknowable keep her from approaching the subject. In fact, many of her poems personify death. Eleanor Wilner, author of "The Poetics of Emily Dickinson," says of Dickinson's poetry, "Death is a person" (Wilner 130). Wilner also suggests that Dickinson's "verbal alchemy" (Wilner 132) was a way that Dickinson could somehow "exercise a control over nature and persons beyond the bounds of any moral constraint, whereby her subjects become her victims, her readers, her accomplices" (Wilner 132). From this control, Dickinson was able to attack death "by making dying a personal possession forever present" (Wilner 133). These images not only help us understand Dickinson's attempt at understanding death, but also reveal a very personal side of Dickinson. The fact that the majority of her poetry was not published until after her death makes them seem more like personal reflections, and in some cases, serious passages. These passages are more than just poetry meant for the world to see; they are expressions of her inner self that help her understand the questions of her mind.
Perhaps what makes Dickinson's poetry so unique is that through her introspection, her words do seem to come alive. Through her fantastic use of detail, we feel as though we are coming close to the poem, and as a result, coming closer to the poet as well. We shall see that Dickinson was able to view death as a scientist, a student, and a victim. From her various conceptions, we realize she is trying to resolve the conflict that the idea of death and the afterlife cause for her. Her writing serves as an outlet as well as an attempt to work through the tension she experienced. Dickinson's private world of also poetry provides her with a certain liberation when struggling through issues.
The recurring references to death represent Dickinson's obsession concerning the subject. This idea is sometimes linked with eternity and immortality and all of these subjects are seen through the scope of her personal conflicts with religion. This uncertainty is certainly connected to the afterlife. When we try to piece together Dickinson's perceptions of heaven and God as they relate to death, we do not find ourselves confronting soothing images of a pleasant hereafter. For example, in her poem, "There's a Certain Slant of Light," heaven seems to cause human hurt and suffering from which "We can find no scar" (Dickinson 6). Additionally, this concept heaven cannot be taught anything and is perceived as distant. It is interesting to note that in this poem, Dickinson makes no reference to God as creator. She does, however, mention that death is an "imperial affliction" (11). This reinforces the recurring idea that death is inescapable. The poem also reflects the idea that nature itself is more responsible for death and death is simply "Sent us of the air" (12). In this poem, Dickinson apparently accepts the conclusion she has drawn about death. This acceptance is revealed in other poems as well.
Death personified as a means of understanding becomes the goal of "Because I Could Not Stop for Death." Dickinson wishes to gain more understanding by placing herself in the carriage (or the coffin) that represents her last moments of life. When we analyze this poem, we are overcome with the sense of calm that the poem expresses. This allows us to understand Dickinson's psychological impression of death. She may not understand the complete scope of death, but she is certainly not afraid of it. Dickinson projects her unresolved emotions onto the figure of death; her uncertainty changes as the true image of death becomes apparent to her. In time, she recognizes death's ability to be deceitful. This poem illustrates that Dickinson was aware of the fact that she may not realize when death would come calling her.
We can learn from the tone of the poem that Dickinson does not see death in a purely negative fashion.
Dickinson does not express any fear, regret, or sadness in this poem. In fact, as death is courteous to her, she is courteous to death. For instance, we are told, "I had put away/My labor, and my leisure too,/For his civility" (6-8). It is also important to note that Dickinson also tells us that she could not stop as opposed to "would" not stop. This is significant because it indicates that even if Dickinson's had a "date" with death penciled on her calendar, she probably would have experienced difficulty keeping it. But at the same time, she appears to express no animosity toward the carriage driver in this poem. This conflict reinforces Dickinson's inner conflict with the idea of death.
Because I could not Stop for Death" also introduces the idea of immortality. Because immortality is included on the carriage ride, we gain insight into Dickinson's thoughts about an afterlife. She was being escorted by death, which would then leave her in the capable hands of immortality once the ride was over. The first four stanzas represent the past tense and the fifth stanza is written in present tense. We are told:
Since then't is centuries; but each
Feels shorter than the day first surmised the horses' heads
Were toward eternity. (17-20)
The shift from past to present tense reinforce the idea of an afterlife in Dickinson's mind.
Dickinson's life is flashing before her eyes as she rides past the different scenes. We get the impression that it is all happening very quickly. This represents her knowledge that our lives on earth only lasts a short time. Dickinson is expressing the importance of making life worthwhile because one does not know when death will make an appearance. It is also clear that Dickinson understands that death is merely part of the cycle of life through her nonchalant attitude.
In the poem, "I Felt a Funeral in My Brain," Dickinson also explores the possibility of an afterlife. The analogy is the obvious funeral in her brain and the funeral service itself. This is quite an unusual poem because it is written after her death has occurred and her body is placed in the coffin. This is an excellent example of Dickinson delving into the world of possibility. She is able to confront the anxiety she has toward death by imagining herself dead, yet conscious. This mood of this poem is macabre in that it represents a type of desperation that cannot be avoided. That consciousness is a possibility after death is a quite unique approach that obviously helps Dickinson face her fears about death, though not so pleasantly. Indeed, Dickinson may bring herself face-to-face with the solitary nothingness of life after death, but the act in and of itself is no reward.
Dickinson faces the possibility of losing her senses in this poem. From the first lines we are told:
felt a funeral in my brain
And mourners to and fro,
Kept treading, treading, till it seemed
That sense was breaking through. (1-4)
We realize that vision is no longer an option and she is acutely aware by "feeling" with her brain. She is haunted…[continue]
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