puritan life was heavily contaminated by death. Half of the original 102 pilgrims that settled in America died during the first winter and it was not uncommon for children to perish before they reached adolescence. Funerals were a common occurrence in everyday life and the air of towns was often littered with the sounds of church bells. From the early stages of learning, children were educated on the grim reality that they faced and if they were fortunate enough to grow up, their demise still followed them wherever they ventured to. Puritan religion explains that a person is unable to control their destiny. Their ascendance to heaven or hell is pre-determined before the time of their birth and their actions in life have no influence on their final destination.
Although her lifetime took place more than two centuries after their arrival, Emily Dickinson presented poetry that offered views on death that were influenced by puritan belief. She believed that the manner in which a person dies would reflect their afterlife. For instance, a person that died a peaceful death, perhaps at home in the company of their family and friends, meant the person found harmony with the God after passing. On the other hand, an individual who experienced a painful and traumatic demise may have experienced an equally as brutal afterlife. She believed, as demonstrated in her poetry, that there are many different types of death that could lead a person's soul into several different directions.
Her poem, I Heard a Fly Buzz -- When I Died depicts a consciousness post-mortem. In this piece, her eyes are closed and she is experiencing a state very close to absolute nothingness. The only exception to this is a fly, which is making a constant "buzz." Pure peacefulness is terribly interrupted, perhaps forever, by the sound of this insect. Death has been prepared for and as she states, "willed my keepsakes, signed away what portion of me I could make assignable, and then there interposed a fly." This poem describes a person that was ready for death and is highly anticipating what it will bring. Attention, however, is delivered not to the final stage of life but rather to the fly, which nothing can be done to stop. There is no pain being experienced but instead annoyance as the dying is deprived of what seems to be an otherwise peaceful death. The buzzing insect stands as a reminder to the dying. It reinforces the physical realities of death. As she lay there, anticipating "the king be witnessed in his power." she is delivered this insect. The king can be interpreted as God and she is waiting to experience what wonders he has in store for her at the time of her death. No wonders occur, however, and the fly can be associated with the natural decay of human flesh after it dies. It is hovering around her dying body, waiting to feed on its remains. This poem depicts a person who holds a strong belief in a Christian-like afterlife and is patiently awaiting a profound experience to end her life.
Unfortunately, this experience never takes place and the poems character is left in a dark state of purgatory. I Heard a Fly Buzz -- When I Died offers a quite pessimistic view on death and although it is painless, its character obviously desired more. It suggests that the brain was the last component of the body to shut down, and it was the only thing keeping her from truly dying. The final line of the poem reads, "With blue, uncertain, stumbling buzz, between the light and me; and then the windows failed, and then I could not see to see." The "light" can be taken as the light at the end of a tunnel that people often report seeing at the time of their death. Many interpretations translate the light into the beginning of an afterlife but in this case, the insect has intercepted it, turning the experience in to a kind of hell. In this case, the fly turns into a satanic figure that deprives this woman of the ecstasy she may be expecting.
A more pleasant view of death can be found in Dickinson's poem, Because I Could Not Stop for Death. Unlike the former, this poem presents a journey to the afterlife that appears pleasant and peaceful, not interrupted or horrifying. Death is introduced as a kind of driver who offers a tour of the mortal life on the way to immortality. It takes little effort for death to convince the narrator to neglect her duties and come with him. She states, "I had put away? my labor, and my leisure too, for his civility." No words are spoken on this venture, as the narrator is taken through what appears to be three stages of life. They pass by a school, where children are playing at recess. The school signifies youth and an early stage of life. The children are playing at recess and showcasing their lack of concern for the troubles of the world. Next, they drive by a field of "grazing grain." This grain has met maturity and contently blows in the wind with no attention required. For this moment, it has reached a point where it is capable of taking care of itself. Finally, they pass by a sunset, which points to the downhill slide one reaches at the end of their life. The next line states, "Or rather, he passed us." Here, the sunset and death, have taken on a masculine identity as both are referred to as males. Aside from reflecting on the male supremacy of the time Dickinson wrote, this grants them a father-like figure that appears convincing and trustworthy. It also passes them by in the way life may pass an elderly couple. Life has been lived and death is the only stage that remains. It passes slowly but it is only a matter of time before it is gone.
When the sun has set, warmth of life has left and all that remains is the brisk, cold air of death. As the poem reads, "The dews grew quivering and chill, for only gossamer my gown, my tippet only tulle." The narrator's clothing signifies that she was not ready for death to arrive, people rarely are. She had to leave all she knew behind but she did not hesitate, pointing to the natural occurrence that is the process of dying. This also points to the puritan belief that humans lack free will and everything in life is pre-determined by God. It is as if the narrator seems to lose any sense of choice when death first appears and he steals any decision-making capabilities upon first sight. Lastly, they arrive at a house that is barely visible above ground, resembling a kind of tomb. It presents itself as a place of transition, the final stop before reaching their destination. It is a resting place for her physical body, but not the final resting place for her soul. It reminds the reader that there is more to life than what they may see and a lifetime is nothing more than a blink of an eye when compared to eternity.
Finally, I Felt a Funeral in My Brain is a poem about a mental death, rather than a physical one. This poem depicts a mental break down, a journey into insanity. The "funeral" is a metaphor for the par of the narrator that is dying and reflects what may happen to a human being after long periods of solitude. Dickinson's poetry was mostly written during extended periods of isolation and this poem offers a window into the inability to be rational any longer. Although the narrator is not physically dying, she is mourning the…