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Conflicting views of Death in Emily Dickinson’s Poems (2004)

Emily Dickinson’s poetic work contains different descriptions of death that encompass emotional responses to the body’s and/or soul’s journey into eternity, madness, or nothingness. Her poems’ greatness comes from the elaborate use of literary techniques to give shape to death, and the ambiguity of meaning that allows different interpretations of these journeys. Even though the ideas presented by Dickinson may seem contradictory at times, they all emphasize her idea that there are many types of deaths.

"I Heard a Fly Buzz – When I Died" presents a vision of death in which there is no afterlife as it focuses on the putrefaction that occurs after the death of the poet herself, a process that, according to the poem, leads to nothingness. Depending on the interpretation, the tone could be of paralytic fear, serenity or apathetic lethargy; Dickinson uses the atmosphere to reflect the decay of the body and the emptiness of death (Jensen, David). Surrounding the dead body there is total silence because people have ceased to cry and the wind has stopped blowing. Death seems to be expected, as the poet had made a testament before ceasing to be: "I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away/ What portion of me be/ Assignable" (Dickinson, 9).The fly that approaches the decaying body represents all the animals that will continue the cycle of life by eating from the body. Finally, at the end of the poem, the windows of the soul, which could be interpreted as the eyes, fail and the soul dies. There seems to be a moment between the instant of the physical death itself and the actual journey to nothingness. In the first verse of the poem, the poetic narrator has already died. However, the windows do not fail until the last line of the poem. This instant seems to be of uncertainty: the narrator has not lost consciousness of her surroundings but her awareness is decreasing. Even though death can be understood as a negative experience, I interpret that in this poem it is presented as a liberating journey and, even though there seems to be no afterlife, the poem paradoxically presents death as a natural process that contributes to the continuation of life in other forms.

The literary techniques help emphasize the idea of death. There is a constant repetition reminding us of the fly. In addition, diction also contributes to the ambiguity of the meaning. For example, critic David Jensen argues that in the lines "For the last Onset – when the King/ Be witnessed – in the Room- ", the word King can be interpreted as Christ, or also as the Lord of the Flies (Jensen, 3). Both interpretations are valid, as Jensen states. Christ, in Christian theology, will take the soul to another life, while the Lord of the Flies, an allusion to Be’elzebub, also very present in Judeo-Christian mythology, is the one expected to remove the soul from the body of the deceased. In addition, the imagery subtly reinforces the meaning. For example, based on the Oxford English Dictionary, the use of the word blue at the end of the poem can be interpreted as sad and depressed, but also as fear and panic. There is also ambiguity in other instances of the poem; the reader can well interpret that when the narrator stops hearing noises and feeling the wind it is not because they have ceased but rather because there has been deterioration in the perception. Finally, the rhyme and rhythm emphasize words at the end of the lines, such as be, fly, me and see which are key words in understanding the poem.

A contrasting vision of death appears in Dickinson’s poem "Because I Could Not Stop for Death --." Here, death is presented as a journey towards eternity. The poem depicts a vision of an afterlife, where the individual transcends and goes to a space where time seems not to exist. This is Dickinson’s romantic view of death. The poet personifies death as someone who is civil, patient, and respectful, and who gives rides to people. After Death stops for a busy poetic narrator who had no time to think about death, they start a journey together towards eternity, passing through places that symbolize different stages of her life; a school, representing youth and education, the fields of grain, which represent maturity, and a setting sun, representing old age. Ambiguity also plays an important role in this poem: the allusion to the school could also be interpreted as if the narrator and Death were passing by the school to pick a child who had died; and when the poet says, "We passed the setting sun," the setting sun could mean that the poetic narrator skipped old age. The last stop in the journey was a cemetery, where the corpse is left. Finally, the poet and Death transcend and go to eternity; a state in which time is imperceptible and we can deduce that there is peace.

Poetic techniques are employed along the poem to create images in the reader’s mind and strengthen this interpretation of death. The description of the grave is very powerful, and it supports the idea that it is only a temporary place. By comparing it to a house it provides a coziness that does not create repulsion to a place that otherwise can have a negative connotation. The description of the coldness felt before leaving the corpse is also very powerful, and emphasizes the coldness of the body after death. Finally, the relativity of time and the description of a peaceful destination provide the reader with a feeling of expectancy to reach that place. The horses in the last stanza can represent several things according to the A Dictionary of Literary Symbols. According to Plato, for instance, horses are a simile of the soul. In addition, horses represent travel, which goes well with the meaning of the poem. In addition, in Greek mythology, the horse Pegasus flew to heaven, which could be interpreted as an allusion made in the poem. Finally, the choice of words is very elaborate, and the rhyme helps emphasize words that have an important meaning in the poem.

Another divergent interpretation of death is presented by Emily Dickinson in "I Felt a Funeral, in My Brain." This poem depicts an internal death rather than a physical one: the descent of a human being into insanity. Once again, the reader can interpret that in the poem, Dickinson is talking about her own death. Even though this process is described as a real funeral, all the events are parallel to what seems her emotional death. Initially, her mind becomes numb, and she hears insignificant sounds until a bell starts to toll. Afterwards, a feeling of solitude and silence floods her. Finally, she feels as if she were in a boat where a plank breaks and she falls down and hits a world. This poem shows Dickinson’s belief that an individual can die many times and that the physical death is not the only type of death, nor the worst.

The constant reference to repetitive sounds that torment the poetic narrator helps emphasize the pain, anguish and the disturbing hyperesthesia that she is going through. Among these are the treading of the mourners with lead boots, and the constant beat of the drum and tolling of the bell. In addition, silence is personified and is accompanying her in her wreck and solitude; an image that stresses her feeling of disconnection with the world. Finally, the image of a shipwreck is used to compare reason to a plank of wood that breaks due to excessive strain. The image concludes when the poet falls repeatedly from space and every time she falls, she hits a world. The psychic outbreak seems to be infinite, but the reader can interpret that she understood what the definition of death through her own experience.

Emily Dickinson’s selected poems offer a varied repertoire of her apparent contradictory views of death. The clashing interpretations of death are accompanied by an elaborate use of literary techniques. Each poem reflects a different type of journey, and there is an implicit invitation to the reader to choose which definition of death goes better with his/her set of beliefs.

Works cited:

"A review of the poem I Felt a Funeral in My Brain by Emily Dickinson." EZ Essays. 2002. 1 April 2004. <http://www.ez-essays.com/free/1665.html>.
Andersen, Charles R. "A Critical Analysis of Because I could not stop for Death". The United States in Literature. Illinois, Scott, Foresman and Company, 1965.

Dickinson, Emily. "Emily Dickinson - Poems and Biography." American Poems.
1 April 2004. <http://www.americanpoems.com/poets/emilydickinson>

Ferber, Michael. A Dictionary of Literary Symbols. Massachussets: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Jensen, David. An analysis of Dickinson’s I heard a Fly buzz (#465)
29 March 2004. <www.psy-co.net/pdf/eng131-1.pdf>.

Emily Dickinson - Because I could not stop for Death -- (712)
Because I could not stop for Death --
He kindly stopped for me --
The Carriage held but just Ourselves --
And Immortality.

We slowly drove -- He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility --

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess -- in the Ring --
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain --
We passed the Setting Sun --

Or rather -- He passed Us --
The Dews drew quivering and chill --
For only Gossamer, my Gown --
My Tippet -- only Tulle --

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground --
The Roof was scarcely visible --
The Cornice -- in the Ground --

Since then -- ''tis Centuries -- and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horss'' Heads
Were toward Eternity --

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain, (280)
I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading -- treading -- till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through --

And when they all were seated,
Service, like a Drum --
Kept beating -- beating -- till I thought
My Mind was going numb --

And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space -- began to toll,

As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race
Wrecked, solitary, here --

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down --
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing -- then --

I heard a Fly buzz -- when I died (465)
I heard a Fly buzz -- when I died --
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air --
Between the Heaves of Storm --

The Eyes around -- had wrung them dry --
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset -- when the King
Be witnessed -- in the Room --

I willed my Keepsakes -- Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable -- and then it was
There interposed a Fly --

With Blue -- uncertain stumbling Buzz --
Between the light -- and me --
And then the Windows failed -- and then
I could not see to see --