Essay/Term paper: Emily dickinson and death as a theme in her poetry
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Although she lived a seemingly secluded life, Emily Dickinson"s many encounters with death influenced many of her poems and letters. Perhaps one of the most ground breaking and inventive poets in American history, Dickinson has become as well known for her bizarre and eccentric life as for her incredible poems and letters. Numbering over 1,700, her poems highlight the many moments in a 19th century New Englander woman"s life, including the deaths of some of her most beloved friends and family, most of which occurred in a short period of time (Benfey 6-25).
Several biographers of Dickinson point out her methods of exploring several topics in "circumference," as she says in her own words. Death is perhaps one of the best examples of this exploration and examination. Other than one trip to Washington and Philadelphia, several excursions to Boston to see a doctor, and a few short years in school, Emily never left her home town of Amherst, Massachusetts. In the latter part of her life she rarely left her large brick house, and communicated even to her beloved sister through a door rarely left "slightly ajar." This seclusion gave her a reputation for eccentricity to
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the local towns people, and perhaps increased her interest in death (Whicher 26).
Dressing in white every day Dickinson was know in Amherst as, "the New England mystic," by some. Her only contact to her few friends and correspondents was through a series of letters, seen as some critics to be equal not only in number to her poetic works, but in literary genius as well (Sewall 98).
Explored thoroughly in her works, death seems to be a dominating theme through out Dickinson"s life. Dickinson, although secluded and isolated had a few encounters with love, two perhaps serious affairs were documented in her letters and poems. But, since Emily"s life was so self kept and private the exact identity of these people remains unsure. What is known, is during the Civil War , worried for her friends and families lives, death increased in frequency to be a dominant theme in her writings. After 1878, the year of her influential father"s death, (a treasurer of Amherst college, and a member of the Congress), this theme increased with each passing of friend or family, peeking perhaps with the death of the two men she loved (Waugh 100).
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But, as documented by several critics, Dickinson viewed death, as she did most ideas, in circumference. She was careful to high light and explore all the paradoxes and emotional extremes involved with death.
One poem expresses her depression after discovering her two loves had passed away. She wrote, "I never lost as much as twice, and that was in the sod; Twice I have stood a beggar, Before the door of God," (Porter 170).
Some critics believe it was the suggestion of death which spawned Dickinson"s greatest output of Poetry in 1862. After hearing from Charles Wadsworth, her mentor, and perhaps secret love, that he was ill, and would be "leaving the land," Dickinson made her withdrawal from society more apparent and her writing more frequent and intense. By then Dickinson was already in her mid thirties, and simply progressed from there to become more reserved and write more of death and loss, than of nature and love, as had been common in her earlier years (Whicher 39).
In the poem, My life Had Stood- A Loaded Gun, (since most of Dickinson"s poems were unnamed, many are known by the first line of
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the poem, as in this case) Dickinson writes in the last stanza, " Though I than He (the owner of the gun in the analogy) - may longer live- He longer must- than I- For I have but the power to kill, Without-the power to die-." Critics state that here Dickinson, (writing during the Civil War, 1863 specifically) speaks of the importance of mortality and death, and highlights the pure foolishness behind killing (Griffith 188).
As stated above, Dickinson is known for encompassing many perspectives on a single topic. In, I could not stop for Death, also written in 1863, Dickinson writes of immortality and eternity, and although death does not "come in haste", his eventual coming is inevitable since death in eternal, " Since then-"tis Centuries-and yet, Feels shorter than the day, I first surmised the Horse"s Head, Were toward Eternity-." (Porter 170).
Over all Dickinson"s works can be seen as a study into the thoughts and emotions of people, especially in her exploration death. From its inevitable coming to its eternal existence, Dickinson explains her feelings and thoughts toward death in the full, "circumference" of its"
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philosophy. As she edged towards the end of her life, Dickinson gave the world new poetic perspectives into the human mind and its dealing and avoidance of death (Whicher 30).
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Theme of death in poetry
Death is a subject not many authors would like to talk about. However, death is one of the gripping themes among poets and authors often avoided by many people causing fear and negative reaction. Ordinarily, many authors avoid the theme death or any circumstance that can lead to death. However, in poetry death provides a wide spectrum of ideas that can be used to present a persuasive message to the audience without causing fear. The theme death is commonly used by many poets like, Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath. The two poets examine death from different perspectives. For Sylvia Plath, death is evil and intimidating, while Dickson views death more like an endearment of a romantic journey.
There are many similarities as well as differences between Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath representation of the theme death. Sylvia’s poetry elaborates the concept of death, death is her major focus; she documents her life journey that includes death. She shares her experience, especially when she attempted suicide. For Plath, death represents horror because it destroys the mind and life in the body. Plath believed that death takes away people’s emotion and feeling, therefore, death dehumanizes us and kill human identity. Plath describes death as a painful experience which is evident in the poems Edge” and “I Am Vertical” where she describes those who chose death as vulnerable individuals who lack protection from society.
Emily Dickson views death from a different angle, despite touching on the idea of suicide. Dickson does not view death as suffering; Emily views death as the desire for people to get the chance to live eternal life. Death for Dickson is an ordinary theme. She mentions death frequently in her poem alongside frustration, pain, suffering, grief and loneliness. Most of Dickinson’s poetry presents the dark side of death from all aspects. She highlights death as courtly lovers, as a corruptor, the dreadful killer, and also a free agent. Dickson not only analyzes death from different perspectives, but she also describes life after death. She experienced death daily because, for her, death is horrible, full of uncertainties and doubts about life.
Religion greatly influenced Dickson’s view of death; this explains her preoccupation with death. Her notion of God, eternal life and immortality are mainly responsible for her interest in the subject. According to Dickson, immortality is a problem to be faced just like death, but it is not an extension of death itself. Dickson believed that death is a fact that causes tension and conflict among humans. In one of her poems, she describes death as being gentle at times, or at times being a menace, but it is inevitable. Dickson mentions, “I heard a Fly buzz when I died “as she explores the physical process of dying. She further states that “since I could not stop death” as a way of personifying death. She simply presents dying as a realization that there is indeed eternal life.
Since death is unknowable, Dickson goes around it, painting its many facets using descriptive language, making readers come close to knowing it from her viewpoint. Dickson highlights a variety of experience of death, examining the sensations of dying the response of other people in the process of dying, the struggle of the people dying including his body and the adjustment people make after one dies. She further reviews the final journey of someone who dies. Many view Dickson’s poetry to have a strange fascination with death. She even imagined herself dead and mourners walking past her dead body. However, both poets present their personal perspective about death.