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Emily Dickinson’s Symbolism of Death

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Published: Thu, 14 Dec 2017

Emily Dickinson is thought to be “one of the greatest American poets that have ever existed” (Benfey 5). Her poems can be directly linked to her life and many of them are about death. Only seven of Dickinson’s poems were published while she was alive and her works were heavily criticized. However, despite the harsh criticism her works on the subjects of life and death are now among the most riveting in the English language.

Dickinson was antisocial and refused to leave her home or have visitors. Some biographers say that in the early 1860s Dickinson went through an emotional crisis because of her isolation. Her emotional state was further disturbed when her father died in 1874 followed by a close family friend, Otis Lord, a couple years later. Dickinson herself described what she felt at that time as an “attack of nerves” (Cameron 29). Dickinson’s remorse inspired her to write more poems: in 1862 she composed over 300 poems. “Her absorption in the world of feeling found some relief in associations with nature; yet although she loved nature and wrote many nature lyrics, her interpretations are always more or less swayed by her own state of being” (Benfey 22). “The quality of her writing is profoundly stirring, because it betrays, not the intellectual pioneer, but the acutely observant woman, whose capacity for feeling was profound” (Bennet 61).

The seven poems that were published during her lifetime were published anonymously and a few without her consent. “The editors of the periodicals in which her lyrics appeared made significant alterations to them in attempt to regularize the meter and grammar, consequently discouraging Dickinson from seeking further publication” (Fuller 17). After Dickinson’s death all her poems were published and she was acknowledged as a poet ahead of her time. Some critics thought that, “Her work was often cryptic in thought and unmelodious in expression” (Bennet 64).

A poem written during her attack of nerves in 1862 titled “This is my letter to the World” is written, as the title implies, as a message to the world after her death as if she were speaking beyond the grave. “The plea that she be judged tenderly for nature’s sake combines an insistence on imitation of nature as the basis of her art with a special plea for tenderness towards her own fragility or sensitivity; but poetry should be judged by how well the poet achieves his or her intention and not by the poem alone, as Emily Dickinson surely knew” (Bloom 297). “This particular poem’s generalization about her isolation—and its apologetic tone—tends toward the sentimental, but one can detect some desperation underneath the softness” (Bloom 298).

Another poem, “Tell all the Truth, but tell it slant-“ is full of her slant rhymes which make the reader get lost in her puzzle of words. “The idea of artistic success lying in circuit—that is, in confusion and symbolism—goes well with the stress on amazing sense and staggering paradoxes which we have seen her express elsewhere” (Eberwein 171). She seems to enjoy keeping truths from being revealed, as if we are not ready to know the truth. . “On the very personal level for Emily’s mind, “infirm delight” would correspond to her fear or experience and her preference for anticipation over fulfillment. For her, Truth’s surprise had to remain in the world of imagination. However, superb surprise sounds more delightful than frightening” (Bloom 89).

Dickinson’s famous poem “Success is Counted Sweetest,” is sagely and complex. “It proceeds by inductive logic to show how painful situations create knowledge and experience not otherwise available” (Eberwein 18). The poem begins with underdogs in their struggle for success and their indomitable will to succeed. Then the poem gains momentum by stating that only those with the most thirst can comprehend what they need to succeed. “Having briefly introduced people who are learning through deprivation, Emily goes onto the longer description of a person dying on a battlefield. The word “host,” referring to an armed troop, gives the scene an artificial elevation intensified by the royal color purple. These seemingly victorious people understand the nature of victory much less than does a person who has been denied it and lies dying. His ear is forbidden because it must strain to hear and will soon not hear at all” (Eberwein 19). Even though this poem is complex it has a cheerful side and paints excellent images. “On the biographical level, it can be seen as a celebration of the virtues and rewards of Emily Dickinson’s renunciatory way of life, and as an attack on those around her who achieved worldly success” (Bloom 158).

Of all her poems “I Heard a Fly Buzz—When I Died—” follows Dickinson’s style and infatuation with life and death most devoutly. The start of the poem has great impact. She describes the moment of her death, so you are already aware she is dead. “In the first stanza, the death room’s stillness contrasts with a fly’s buzz that the dying person hears, and the tension pervading the scene is likened to the pauses within a storm. The second stanza focuses on the concerned onlookers, whose strained eyes and gathered breath emphasize their concentration in the face of a sacred event: the arrival of the “King,” who is death. In the third stanza, attention shifts back to the speaker, who has been observing her own death with all the strength of her remaining senses” (Eberwein 201). As her senses start to leave her she makes a will of her material possessions so people can remember her and starts to saunter slowly towards death. “But the buzzing fly intervenes at the last instant; the phrase and then” indicates that this is a casual event, as if the ordinary course of life were in no way being interrupted by her death” (Bloom 365). “The fly’s “blue buzz” is one of the most famous pieces of synesthesia in Emily Dickinson’s poems. This image represents the fusing of color and sound by the dying person’s diminishing senses. The uncertainty of the fly’s darting motions parallels her state of mind. Flying between the light and her, it seems to both signal the moment of death and represent the world that she is leaving” (Bloom 365).

“In “This World is Not Conclusion,” Emily Dickinson dramatizes a conflict faith in immortality and severe doubt” (Bloom 55). The last eight lines were omitted by the publishers because of its controversial content. The altered poem no longer retained its original meaning. “The complete poem can be divided into two parts: the first twelve lines and the final eight lines” (Eberwein 89). The first four lines speak of the afterlife and how we should intuitively know it exists. The next four lines are about struggling and surviving. “Even wise people must pass through the riddle of death without knowing where they are going” (Bloom 55). “In the next four lines, the speaker struggles to assert faith. Her faith now appears in the form of a bird that is searching for reasons to believe. But available evidence proves as irrelevant as twigs and as indefinite as the directions shown by a spinning weathervane. The desperation of a bird aimlessly looking for its way is analogous to the behavior of preachers whose gestures and hallelujahs cannot point the way to faith” (Bloom 56). The poem ends with the message that no one can be rid of doubt, not even the preachers themselves. It manages to make the reader question whether there is an afterlife.

Finally, the poem “This Consciousness That Is Aware” starts off by talking about how experiencing death changes a person. “The poem opens by dramatizing the sense of mortality which people often feel when they contrast their individual time bound lives to the world passing by them” (Eberwein 49). In the next stanza the order of the words are reversed to show that the speaker’s life has been flipped upside-down. “The speaker anticipates moving between experience and death—that is, from experience into death by means of the experiment of dying. Dying is an experiment because it will test us, and allow us, and no one else, to know if our qualities are high enough to let us survive beyond death” (Bloom 137). As in her other poems, Dickinson seeks answers through death. It is as if she is courting death through her poetry.

Dickinson’s poems, even this small sample, touch upon death. She’s a spiritual person who prefers to look inward for answers. This inwardness explains her preference to being isolated and her fascination with death as those close to her died. It difficult to say exactly how many of her poems touch on the subject of life and death, but certainly most of them mention it. This is not surprising considering that a small New England town in the 1800s had a high mortality rate. Because of this there was death all around her. “This factor contributed to her preoccupation with death, as well as her withdrawal from the world, her anguish over her lack of romantic love, and her doubts about fulfillment beyond the grave” (Cameron 114). What is fascinating is that she tackles the sensitive issue of death in a way that her “Readers tend to be impressed by her sensitive and imaginative handling of this painful subject” (Stonum 83). “If nothing else had come out of our life but this strange poetry we should feel that in the work of Emily Dickinson, America, or New England rather, had made a distinctive addition to the literature of the world, and could not be left out of any record of it” (Benfey 66). Dickinson’s poetry is a quest to the answers within us all concerning life and death.


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