Emily Dickinson was an isolated, nineteenth century American poet who was out of sync with her times. She spent most of her days locked away from society in her house where she composed over 1,700 poems. Dickinson never intended any of them to be published; she wrote, not for the sake of art, but rather to express her emotions about life. Many of Dickinson’s works are written in free verse and are short, their shortness inspires readers to have a deeper thought process to understand them and many demand a second look. Emily could take her thoughts, beliefs, and emotions and transform them into words and then into a poem that was truly from her heart. Most of Dickinson’s focus was on nature, life, immortality, and the mind; however, she was extremely interested in writing about death and love. As a result, Dickinson’s obsessions with achieving an understanding of death and illustrating the power of love dominate her poetry.
For the most part death does not typically fascinate people, but Emily Dickinson was absolutely captivated with it. In today’s society a person will not usually come in contact with death and would therefore not think much about it until it hit close to their family or friends. When Dickinson was alive the mortality rates were much higher and people died younger than they do today. Emily had experienced death first hand much more than a person of today’s society which caused her to think about its mystery. Her poetry presents both Puritan and Christian beliefs, but she was also attracted to the new age science that was being discovered around her. One day Dickinson had learned that when a person is about to die their last sense to go is their hearing. She then wrote a poem entitled, “I Heard a Fly buzz- When I Died-“, where the narrator, who is already dead, is hearing his own funeral. He starts by listening to the mourners as they pass his body, but a little fly buzzing catches his attention. “Dickinson both asserts and refutes, we are, when contemplatively, attentively reading this poem, brought into confrontation not just with our world or the mystery of what lies beyond it, but with the mystery of our world”(Arlengo 3). Dickinson uses a break in the verse in her first line of the poem to draw attention to the phrase “When I died”. The fly represents all of the small things in a person’s life that could not be heard in life, but only after death. It can also be seen “as death itself, for only seconds before the speaker dies, the fly interposes itself “between the light’ and me.” (Hendrickson 3) It is a fact that everything must die, and Dickinson believed that if death was accepted, the small parts of life that would hold a deeper meaning would finally be noticed (Lake 2). This poem shows how Dickinson was fascinated with the mystery of death. She wrote about a death experience and didn’t create a dark tone, or black atmosphere
The poem discussed how things in life can be taken for granted and not viewed while person is alive. Dickinson teaches her readers a lesson; people should not take things for granted because when death is upon them they will view the small things in life that had the most significance.
Dickinson’s early poetry showed a lot of expression, and contained a lot of emotion. In many of her poems on death, she would take different stances, in an effort to better understand what is across the border between life and death. In Dickinson’s poetry, death takes the form of a person, usually a man, and it possesses all the characteristics of an efficient worker. Sometimes she would like the readers of her poetry to understand death so that he/she becomes understanding of it. The imagery Dickinson uses makes death easier to accept (Porter 206).
In Dickinson’s “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” she expresses that death and the burial process can be a beautiful occasion. This poem is full of different metaphors that help readers understand the point Dickinson is trying to portray. Death in the poem can be representative of a funeral director and immortality can be understood as an individual’s idea of existence after life (Abbott 141). Dickinson shows that death should not be feared in this intriguing poem.
“We slowly drove-He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For his Civility-“(Engle 73)
Dickinson shows that death isn’t something to fear; people should accept death and go along for the ride. The poem shows the deceased leaving all of their ambitions and fear behind to follow their destiny and take a carriage ride with death. There are also some other very important components such as “School,” “Gazing Grain,” and “Setting Sun” (Engle 73). These components of the poem represent the life of the dead. “School” represents the younger years in a person’s life, while the “Gazing Grain” may represent the older years of a person. “The setting sun” represents the ending of one life and the beginning of life after death. Dickinson uses a beautiful sunset to describe the end of a person’s life. She often uses features that are perceived as beautiful to describe death because she felt that death was a wonderful and mysterious part of life. This poem is one of Dickinson’s favorite works among readers because many different meanings can be perceived from it. “A 1932 Essay” by Allen Tate, calls it “one of the perfect poems in English” and praises it for its ambiguity” (Joyner 2). Some believe that “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” is about a man who is a suitor to a woman, while others think it describes the fear that Emily Dickinson had towards the methods of the world she lived in. Whether this poem is perceived about accepting death or a man suitor, it still portrays a unique and interesting view of life that few poets have been able to capture.
Dickinson wrote a very intriguing poem about death called “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain”. Many different literary criticisms show that the poem can be viewed in many different ways; however, they all agree that the poem is about some aspect of death. Some critics believe that the poem describes an actual funeral, while others believe it is about some type of agony. This particular work of Emily is very difficult to understand. “It does seem that Emily Dickinson has left things deliberately vague here, and perhaps that is part of her point: she is talking of the difficulty of knowing and understanding” (Goldfarb 1). Many critics believe that the poem is about a mental breakdown and a funeral is used as a symbolic feature. “Kept beating-beating- till I thought my mind was going numb-” (Dickinson 128). This line symbolizes that something is continually bothering her until finally she feels as if her mind is not capable of dealing with it anymore. Dickinson often writes poetry that isn’t about death, but she still incorporates characteristics of death such as funerals. “The poem is a staple in Dickinson’s canon and reflects her ability to replicate human consciousness in a controlled poetic form” (“I felt a Funeral, in my Brain”, 1).
Emily Dickinson also wrote poetry about love and male dominance of women in relationships. In Dickinson’s poem “I started Early, Took my dog” she describes a sexual encounter with male. Dickinson uses the sea to describe sexual foreplay between a female character and a male. The third stanza of the poem relates the sea to humans.
“But no Man moved me-till the Tide
Went past my simple Shoe-
And past my Apron-and my Belt
And past my Boddice-too-
And made as He would eat me up” (Guerra 78)
While this stanza can be interpreted as high tide rising over a person standing still on a beach, it is also a representation of a sexual foreplay. “The Sea/man’s advances entice the female speaker as those of other men have not: according to the speaker’s own report, he alone has “moved” her” (Guerra 79). Many critics interpret this poem to be a sexual attack on the female character. The pronoun “We” supports the idea that the male and women are acting together as one (Guerra 79). Dickinson often left her poems open and vague so that many aspects of the poem could be interpreted with different meanings. Her poems often allow each individual to apply their own personal experiences to her works. This is why many different people view her poems with different aspects about the subject.
In comparing several variants of Emily Dickinson’s poems “Tie the Strings to My Life” and “How the old Mountains drip with Sunset”, it is easy to see how interpretations of the poems, as well as of the poet, rapidly change. A few words can and do change the meaning of a poem from the natural to the supernatural, and those same few words can and do change the poet from an avid observer of her surroundings to a woman who, at the very least, is obsessed with thoughts of death and the afterlife.
At first glance, both poems seem to deal with the so-called “natural” aspects of life: both mention raised land (Poem 279, line 8, version 1: “And it’s partly, down hill”; Poem 291, line 1: “How the old Mountains drip with Sunset”), and topics mostly associated with nature (in poem 271, the main topics center around horses and the sea; in 291, the main topics are fire, sunset, and wood). A closer examination reveals, however, a more sinister, yet intriguing, interpretation.
Let us begin with poem number 279. Line 5 is the perfect example of “variation,” as Dickinson experimented with the following versions: “Put me in on the firmest side,” “Put me in on the tightest side,” and “Put me in on the highest side.” The first of these variants suggests stability. A “firm side” can suggest a buttress of sorts, something that can prevent another from flailing in the wind, which seems to suggest that Dickinson would like her “Lord” (the man she is addressing in the piece; whether she is addressing her religious “Lord” or her domestic “Lord” is ambiguous at this point) to provide her with stability (though it is unclear as to what kind of stability, e.g., emotional versus physical).
“Firm,” though, can also mean “strict,” which may mean if we assume the discussion in class to be correct that thanks to Dickinson’s predilection for themes of dominance and submission, Dickinson wants her “Lord” to provide her with some means of discipline, giving the first variation of the poem a slightly anti-feminist lean, for why would a grown woman be wont of discipline?
The second and third variants do not offer much leeway in interpretation “tight” and “high” only make sense, here, in their most literal of meanings.
If we observe the “tight” variant of the line, it suggests that Dickinson’s “Lord” would offer her some sort of constraint, or restriction. If one takes the stance that Dickinson’s poem is religious in its nature, the variant suggests that her religion is inhibiting her. If, on the other hand, one takes the stance that Dickinson’s poem is feminist in its nature, the variant then suggests that her man “her significant other” is restricting her.
With the third variant “the high variant” the poem’s theme completely shifts from the mundane to the supernatural. Dickinson, with this variant, is clearly addressing her religious “Lord,” and she is supplicating Him to rush her to the Hereafter (ref. Line 7: “For we must ride to the Judgment,” and lines 13-14: “Goodbye to the Life I used to live, And the World I used to know.”).
Line 8 of the same poem also offers another interesting variation: “And it’s partly, down Hill” versus “And it’s many a mile down Hill.” The suggestion of the hereafter being “down” hill is interesting in and of itself, since traditionally, the Higher Intelligence (God, if you will) is found “up” hill. The former variant, though, suggests that the “Judgment” (line 7) in the Hereafter is close at hand, and somewhat attainable in the “ride” (line 7). The latter variant, meanwhile, suggests a Hereafter that is much more distant both in the literal and the figurative sense and hardly attainable in the “ride,” at least as far as she can see at the moment. Either way, though, both variants suggest this poem to be religious, rather than feminist, in nature.
In moving on to poem 291, we can find the first variation in line 3: “How the Dun Brake is draped in Cinder,” versus “How the Dun Brake is tipped in Tinsel.” This is probably the most dramatic variation in either poem. The first variant suggests that the Dun Brake is coated in something very heavy and cumbersome (cf. cinderblocks), which, in turn, sets a more serious mood to the poem. With the suggestion that the sunset is “pounding” down on the landscape, causing great pain in its wake (cf. line 2: “How the Hemlocks burn”; line 9: “How the Fire ebbs like Billows”), the first variant is in stark contrast to the second variant, which suggests the Dun Brake to be decorative (tinsel being associated with Christmas trees), light, and carefree.
Arguably, this could be a greater play on the Dickinsonian themes of dominance and submission (e.g., the “cinder” Dun Brake being dominant, and perhaps preferable, to the weaker, “tinsel” Dun Brake), but Dickinson never directly addresses this issue in the poem.
Therefore, it is only fair to further analyze the poem, and the second variation, which is found in line 4: “By the Wizard Sun,” versus “By the Setting Sun.” Though this variation is not as dramatic or obvious as the others in either poem, it is, nonetheless, profound. The first variant suggests a sun with supernatural qualities: “wizard” almost immediately conjures up images of Merlin, the fabled Arthurian confidant and purported practitioner of wizardry, which are qualities that Dickinson seems both envious of, and humbled by. The second variant, though, suggests a sun with more mundane, “natural” qualities that is to say, of course the sun is setting. Given, though, Dickinson’s frequent discussion of the supernatural in her poems, it could be argued that the “setting sun” is really just a metaphor for the twilight of life.
Whatever the so-called “correct” interpretations of Emily Dickinson’s poems are, the fact remains – it is in their variations, that the critics and the readers find their respective interpretations. A simple word change can make the difference between the mystical and the natural, the dark and the light.
Dickinson herself adored her poetry and the way it allowed her to express her feelings. To her, poetry was “the expression of vital meanings, the transfer of passionate feeling and of deep conviction” (Shackford 2). She believed very strongly that death needed to be acknowledged before it was upon someone. She also had a passionate feeling that love drives all action and expression because of its strength. Throughout much of her poetry, Emily Dickinson wrote that accepting death and believing in the power of love are both forms of freeing one’s self in the journey of life.
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