The Theme of Death in the Works of Emily Dickinson

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Emily Dickinson: A Reclusive Poet with a Fascination for Death, Knowledge, and Religion

Emily Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts. As a child she was a reclusive child who would mostly spend most of her time in her room and hardly made friends. It is also notable that Emily Dickinson was never married. However, in her solitary life, Emily Dickinson wrote poems that not most people knew about. It is prudent to note that her works were not published until after her death when her younger sister recovered her cache of poems in her room. Just above a dozen of her poems were published as they were with most of the rest being altered by publishers to fit the conventions of poetry at that period. Her poems used slanted lines and rather short sentences that did not match the poetic conventions of the period in which she lived. Nevertheless, from most of her poems, it is quite ostensible that the she often captured the events that took place in her life through her poems and the letters she wrote to her friends while in school or in the confines of their home in Massachusetts. It is quite apparent that a common theme in the works of Emily Dickinson is the themes of death, knowledge, and religion.

The Theme of Death in Emily Dickinson's Poetry

As a child, Emily Dickinson was a reclusive. However, despite the fact that she was isolated from the rest of her peers and family, she experienced the emotions that came with losing people who were close to her. The theme of death in most of her works was reminiscent of her feelings towards death (Ahmadi 5). Nevertheless, it is prudent to note that this theme was not captured in similar ways in all of her poems. Among her poems, it is quite apparent that no two of them had an exact understanding of the concept of death. In "Because I could not stop for Death," death is personified in the voice of the speaker. The speaker talks of death from beyond the grave and describes the journey with death and into the afterlife. The speaker asserts that she is too busy for death and as such death "takes the time to do what she cannot, and stops for her." This implication of death as a passage into the afterlife is also seen in "Behind me Dips – Eternity" where she describes death as an interruption of life and not the end of it. In the two poems she describes the process of dying as a realization that there is life after death (Madden 83). It is quite apparent that her assertion of the afterlife is informed by the fact that she became religious while still in school. Perhaps the position on the afterlife is as a result of the Christian teachings that give prominence to life after death. In this regard, her conceptions of death are intertwined with her religious beliefs on the same. This is seen in the way she narrates the aspect of judgment and death in "Some work for Immortality," where the speaker cashes in the check of their behaviors on earth for eternal rewards after death.

The Dying Process in Emily Dickinson's Poetry

The popular "I heard a Fly Buzz – when I died" is a poem that elaborates the dying process till the moment the soul leaves the body. The poem takes the reader through that surreal moment that an individual passes on (Dickinson 5). The atmosphere of the moment is described as calm until it is broken by the buzz of a passing fly, and is filled with the tension of the scene that is likened to a passing storm. Death is seen as a sacred event as is seen in the curious and somber faces of the onlookers and their concentration on the face of the dying person. In this poem, death is given some sort of power over a person as it is referred to as the king and its arrival is likened to that of the king. The process is summarized as a psychological event that the speaker observes with the strength remaining in her senses. She is only able to follow the event but not speak as she gets detached from her surroundings and thinks of the keepsakes she leaves for people to remember and treasure. The process of death and its impact on the individual as it happens is also captured in the poem "Because I could not stop for death." Despite the fact that most of the poem takes the reader through the afterlife, the poem begins by describing death as a suitor on a horse that picks the speaker. In the final stanza, the speaker describes her death that happened several centuries earlier. She first got the feeling of the head of the horse (like in a death carriage) pointing towards eternity moments before she died.

The Impact of Death on the Living in Emily Dickinson's Poetry

"There's a Certain Slant of light" captures the feelings that engulf those who are let behind after death has passed. The symbolism of the poem compares the seasons of death and that which comes after the death to winter and spring. The author focuses on the way the sun that appears during the winter is oppressive and seems to weigh the earth down. The impact of the sun is that it seems to make people feel low, and unhappy like a visit from a 'heavenly hurt.' Winter in this poem symbolizes gloom and doom and the aspect of death that is often associated with these emotions. Afternoon is the time of the setting sun which further indicates the end of life. The speaker in the poem contemplates death to look like a winter afternoon and the slanting lights are oppressive and replicate the heavy and sad cathedral tunes. The fact that the hurt is described as heavenly underscores the author's Christian foundation and the fact that the hurt may be coming from a supernatural place and has emotional impacts that one cannot control. It underscores the hurting of the spirit whose source is both mysterious and powerful. The poem also brings the reader to understand the metaphysical state of the mind of the author. Nature is seen to be a cause of pain for humanity and cannot be controlled. In this light, Emily Dickinson seems to have a tragic perception of life in the contours of her despair. Perhaps the negative perception that Dickinson presents of life is informed by her love for solitude (Mitchell 40). Nevertheless she also shows her attitude towards God when she compares the winter light to the Supreme Being. By comparing God to winter light that causes pain, Dickinson asserts that the agents of God bring affliction and despair to humanity yet no one can understand the nature of God or nature.

Emily Dickinson's Conflicted Views on Death, Knowledge, and Religion

Most of the assertions made by Emily Dickinson especially in regard to what happens to the human soul after death were mostly informed by her Christian faith. However, in "This World is not Conclusion" Emily Dickinson draws a conflict between immortality and faith and shows clear doubt in immortality. It is prudent to note that in one of her letters in 1852, she wrote of the death Benjamin Franklin Newton (an adult who she looked up to before he died) that "When a little girl, I had a friend, who taught me immortality, but venturing too near, himself, he never returned." In the poem "This World is not Conclusion," the poet asserts that immortality is an attractive but puzzling concept. However, as she proceeds with the poem, she draws the debate on her doubt about faith. The speaker posits that she would like to be like the scholars who have stood by their beliefs and died like martyrs. The lack of knowledge in the depth of faith is symbolized in a bird that seems to fly around aimlessly. Understanding immortality is puzzling despite the fact that the speaker begins the poem by affirming that there is definitely life after death that the world can only understand intuitively. Even preachers themselves do not seem to understand the aspect of immortality but always try to explain it. It is prudent to note that while Dickinson was once converted to Christianity in her life, she took a different path from the rest (Freedman 37). She once stated that "while the rest keep the Sabbath by going to church, I keep it by staying home." These words and this poem exemplify her new understanding of religion and the fact that she had begun questioning some essential concepts presented by preachers in church. This conflict between religion and knowledge is also seen in "Much Madness is Divinest Sense."

The Divine Sense in Madness: Dickinson's Love-Hate Relationship with God

Religion also takes center stage in her poem, "Much Madness is Divinest Sense." The poem shows her love/hate relationship with God. It is apparent that the rebellion that creates the backdrop of this poem may have been light to the conversion into Christianity that most of her peers had gone through. In the poem, she asserts that it was alright to be different. In the very sense of the word "divine," the poet asserts that those who are perceived to be mad actually have some sense of god-like smartness that the rest of the society does not appreciate. In this poem, she ties the themes of knowledge and religion to a single one when she compares madness to a divine sense. She states that the madness is a reach for the godlike levels that the 'normal' cannot fathom. Madness is seen as a paranormal activity of the mind and may in actual fact draw the speaker nearer to God than religion itself. However, the poem applies several puns in the words used. The meaning of the word divine may be interpreted to mean godly but, on the other hand, may be an implication of the delight that one may take in being different from the rest. However, the speaker makes it clear that the mad are actually in touch with some form of Supreme intelligence and have a direct line to whoever seems to be controlling the Universe. Perhaps this trait of God in this poem can be compared to the ability of God to control the universe and nature as a whole in "There's a Certain Slant of Light." However, her love/hate relationship with God is seen in the second stanza of "Wild Nights – Wild Nights" where she states her rejection of God as the pilot and chooses love instead. God is not allowed to get in the way of their love. This assertion can be understood by the fact that in the early 19th century, God was considered the boat pilot (Coleridge) that Dickinson alludes to in her poem. Perhaps the poem may also capture the love that the narrator has for God.

In Conclusion

Emily Dickinson lived her life in reclusion as she preferred to lock herself in her room and did not have friends. However, it is quite obvious that she had a sinister idea on what the world was all about. She created a deep thirst of knowledge for death and immortality. Besides, it is prudent to note that as she went to high school and converted to Christianity, her poems also contained the aspect of faith in them. As search most of her poems that contain aspects of death are also underscored by the concept of religion and faith. It is prudent to note that despite the fact that Dickinson had converted to Christianity along with her peers, she soon regressed and stopped going to church. The implication of this moment was that she also started to question her relationship with God and the impact that God had over nature and the happenings in her life. These are all themes that are captured in many of the poems and letters that she wrote in her lifetime.

Works Cited

Ahmadi, Zahra. "“Death” in Emily Dickinson’s Poetry."

Coleridge, Samuel Traylor. "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (text of 1834)."Poetry             Foundation.

Dickinson, Emily, and Petra Press. I heard a fly buzz when I died. Petra Press, 2006.

Freedman, Linda. Emily Dickinson and the Religious Imagination. Cambridge University Press,         2011.

Madden, Frank. Exploring literature: Writing and arguing about fiction, poetry, drama, and the            essay. Pearson Longman, 2009.

Mitchell, Domhnall. Emily Dickinson: Monarch of Perception. Univ of Massachusetts Press,   2000.

November 24, 2023



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