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Since the dawn of time, death has been one of the greatest mysteries known to humankind. It has been anticipated, mourned, feared, welcomed, loathed, induced, and, through the poetry of Emily Dickinson, death has almost been explained. Dickinson?s death-related poetic compositions reflect a metamorphosis of style and thought that distinguish her earlier work from that of her two later periods, and provide a means of understanding the mindset of the quasi-necrophobic poet, as well as an insight to the nature of death. Dickinson?s dynamic utilization of personification, metaphor, and euphemism is a key element in fully comprehending both her maturing poetic influences on the human perception of death, and her fear of relinquishing her life to an unknown eternity.
Critics have extensively categorized the poetry of Emily Dickinson since her work was first published post-mortem in 1890, but the categorizations of her compositions, especially those describing death, differ significantly among the literary minds responsible for creating the distinctions. Both the chronological and stylistic divisions of Dickinson?s death poetry serve as guidelines to mapping the evolution of her psyche, which is necessary to understanding her varied views of death. In general, her death poems are divided into time periods or by subject description, with some categories containing subdivisions of the primary theme. Of these groupings, the one that is most vital to understanding the maturation of Dickinson?s thought in respect to the human perception of death, is the time period division.
The chronological category consists of three time periods, each of which contain poems that exhibit certain common characteristics of Dickinson?s particular style. The first interval of death poetry consists of Dickinson?s 215 works composed prior to 1861. The work of this period has often been labeled ?more of a ?reflection? in verse than it is a presentation of ideas through concrete images?, and has lacked ?the intensity and sense of urgency that is so characteristic of her later work? (Ford 69). Additionally, Thomas W. Ford has noted that ?the poetry before 1861, by comparison with that which she wrote later in life, is somewhat conventional and sentimental? (Ford 68). However, the sentimentality expressed in these poems triumphantly escapes the weak maudlinism that prevailed during the period, elevating her poetry to a level that transcended the work of other authors. Despite the underlying sentiment of the work of this period, Dickinson formulated the basic ideas that she would continue to use in her study of death, especially through her varied perspectives of the many aspects of dying (Ford 69). Dickinson?s divisions of perspective within the time period comprise four major subcategories of her early death poetry: ?poems dealing with death and immortality, poems dealing mainly with the physical aspects of death, poems that personify death, and elegiac poems? (Ford 73).
The first subcategory, poems dealing with death and immortality, is the largest of the four groups. Dickinson?s ?primary interest in death in these poems [is] its intimate relation to immortality,? which is one of the major fascinations of her later years. This interest can be observed in nearly all of the poems of this subcategory, especially this 1860 work:
I shall know why ? when Time is over ?
And I have ceased to wonder why ?
Christ will explain each separate anguish
In the fair schoolroom of the sky ?
He will tell me what ?Peter? promised ?
And I ? for wonder at his woe ?
I shall forget the drop of Anguish
That scalds me now ? that scalds me now! (193)
The relation between death and immortality in this poem is ironic, for Dickinson was not a woman of sound faith in God, however, her trust in the belief that the faithful departed find a new home in Heaven when life expires is quite obvious. ?Peter?s promise? is a Biblical allusion to Peter?s Pentecostal sermon in the second chapter of the book of Acts, and confirms the prospect of immortality through eternal life. When asked what to do to receive the spirit of Christ, ?Peter replied, ?Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off ? for all whom the Lord our God will call? (ACTS 2:38-39). The ?promise? of the Holy Spirit is an acknowledgement of the promise of eternal life for all who believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, which is a direct link to the intimate relation of death and immortality that so intrigued Dickinson.
The second subcategory consists of poems that grapple with the physical aspects of death. Dickinson?s primary source of inspiration here was the ?observation of the dying, the dead, and the effects or aftermath of death as seen in burials, funerals, and household activities? (Ford 79). Through observing these facets of death, Dickinson gains a closer insight to what death must be like physically. This excerpt reflects the image of the mannequin-like corpse, devoid of warmth and spirit:
How many times these low feet staggered ?
Only the soldered mouth can tell ?
Try ? can you stir the awful rivet ?
Try ? can you lift the hasps of steel!
Stroke the cool forehead ? hot so often ?
Lift ? if you care ? the listless hair ?
Handle the adamantine fingers
Never a thimble ? more ? shall wear ? (187)
The adjectives used to describe the parts of the corpse convey an image of a cold and rigid object, which implies that death is representative of these same characteristics. The images of a ?soldered mouth? and ?adamantine fingers? strongly imply the notion that rigor mortis has undoubtedly set in, and the ?cool forehead? indicates that all warmth has left the body. These semi-euphemistic descriptions of the dead body soften the dramatic blow that usually accompanies the sight of a corpse, as well as Dickinson?s qualms about the physical aspects of death. For Dickinson, ?watching how a death [happened removed] both the suspense and the fear of it that existed in imagined versions of death? (Ferlazzo 46). Dickinson?s recognition of this fact led her to write in the poem ??Tis so appalling ? it Exhilarates? that ?Looking at Death, is Dying ? ?, which is the basis of an important technique relied upon heavily in the periods of her later death poetry. ?And because Looking at Death, is Dying,? the chief work of her quest becomes a comprehensive perceptual involvement with death? (Johnson 155).
Dickinson?s third subcategory is comprised of poems that personify death, and contains the least number of poems in the four divisions. By picturing death as a human, Dickinson could come closer to understanding its purpose. By attributing human characteristics to the non-human entity that is death, she found an avenue for expressing the abstract in terms of the concrete (Ford 89-90). ?Dust is the only Secret,? is a prime example of her utilization of personification, as seen in this excerpt:
Bold as a Brigand!
Stiller than a Fleet!
Builds, like a Bird too!
Christ robs the Nest ?
Robin after Robin
Smuggled to Rest! (153)
Dickinson?s attribution of human qualities to death through simple adjectives as well as similes investigates the personality of death, which serves as an aid to understanding death?s true nature. Her description of death an ?industrious?, ?laconic?, ?punctual?, and ?sedate? being, and her characterization of death as ?bold?, ?still?, and as a ?builder? help to express her view of the calm, concise side of death. Dickinson formed an opinion regarding death?s character traits through observation of the dead and dying, which aided the relief of her apprehensions about death by allowing herself to familiarize and understand it (Ford 92).
The fourth of the subcategories contains elegiac poetry, which were abundant in the first chronological writing period. In many of Emily Dickinson?s elegies, the person for whom she is writing can easily be identified, but even more of these poems are so general that it appears that she has written them for imaginary individuals (Ford 92). Dickinson?s early elegies, like the works of the other three categories, lack the intensity that is prevalent in her later works, as seen in this 1860 elegy, written for her Aunt Lavina Norcross: ?Mama never forgets her birds, / Though in another tree ? / She looks down just as often / And just as tenderly? (164). Dickinson likens her deceased aunt to a bird who has flown to another tree, but can still look down upon her ?sparrows?, or children, with tenderness even though she is physically gone. The sentiment in this elegy is painfully obvious, and could seem trite to an outsider, but it is clear that this mournful lament was intended to be for a specific person, unlike many of her others, addressed to imaginary individuals.
The compositions of Emily Dickinson prior to 1861 provide only a glimpse of the poetic talent that Dickinson possessed. Her technique was far from being perfected, but the potential was there, and Dickinson?s ideas were opening and expanding (Ford 96). The next period, however, marked the acme of Dickinson?s career. ?The time between 1861 and 1865 was Dickinson?s most creative period, and during these years her talent reached maturity? (Ford 69-70). Characteristics of her poetry such as a sense of tension and urgency, the joining of the like with the unlike, and the combination of abstract speculation on death and immortality with observed fact reached full development, and opened the floodgates of her mind?s eye. It is no mere coincidence that during Dickinson?s most prolific period, the bloodiest war in United States history, the Civil War, was taking place. Although the war did not ?figure in her poetry as it [did], for example, in Whitman?s or Melville?s,? it did elevate Dickinson?s awareness of death (Ford 58). Closely related to the poems of 1861-1865 are the works of the 1866-1886 period. Although her later poems are often more pessimistic and characteristic of cynical resentment, they continue to question the purpose of death and express hope for immortality. The focus of these poems, however, tends to center more on the ?apparent hopelessness of solving the ?riddle? in this life? (Ford 70). The death poems of last two time periods can generally be divided into three thematic categories: the persona witnesses an actual death, the persona?s own death is described, or a non-dramatic work that attempts to state a general truth about death and its effect on the human spirit (Johnson 156). These divisions, coupled with the subcategories of Dickinson?s early poetry, contain the key to her ability to convey her perception of death through the use of figurative language.
Dickinson?s primary concern in the writing of her death poetry was to study the effects of death on human perception (Johnson 156). Through her use of varied figurative language such as metaphor, personification, and euphemism, Dickinson shapes the personality of death, and thus, one is forced to alter their perception of death. Dickinson frequently substitutes phrases such as ?gone away? and ?disappeared,? as well as a number of phrases involving ?sleep,? for the words death, died, and dying, which tends to lessen the harshness of her death poetry. The intensity of her poems is still high, however, because ?it is the difference between separation and death, missing and mourning, that Dickinson dramatizes? (Weisbuch 89-90). This same quality is also true of Dickinson?s use of personification and metaphor. By making death human, or likening death to something that is representative of physical expiration, Dickinson creates a contrast between what is and what is perceived. In this aspect, Dickinson?s death poetry is perceptively experimental because she could observe death?s effects on the mind through her own thoughts and reactions. Had Dickinson published her work while still alive, this experimentation could have been extended to critics and other readers, which would have truly given her a clearer insight to the way death functions in the psyche. Dickinson?s poetic progression reflects not only her maturing talent, but also the maturation of her own perception. Through her varied perspectives of death and the language used to convey these perspectives, Dickinson records a diary of her spiritual growth that was published for the entire world to read.
Emily Dickinson thought that she had failed in her quest to conquer death, however, she came much closer than she anticipated. Dickinson did succeed in gaining a piece of the afterlife through her poetry by ?[making] the soul retain its finite identity in spite of physical disintegration in the wake of death, [and this] finite self conscious identity is Emily Dickinson?s only stake in the post-mortal life? (Khan 125). The question of what will happen after death is one that can only be answered by those who have died, but Emily Dickinson came extremely close to explaining death for the purposes of the living.
Dickinson, Emily. Final Harvest: Emily Dickinson?s Poems. Comp. And Introd. Thomas J. Johnson. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1961.
Ferlazzo, Paul J. Emily Dickinson. Boston: Twayne?G.K. Hall and Co., 1976.
Ford, Thomas W. Heaven Beguiles the Tired: Death in the Poetry of Emily Dickinson. Birmingham: University of Alabama Press, 1966.
Johnson, Greg. Emily Dickinson: Perception and the Poet?s Quest. Birmingham: University of Alabama Press, 1985.
Khan, Mohammad Mansoor. Emily Dickinson?s Poetry: Thematic Design and Texture. New Delhi: Bahri Publications Private Ltd., 1983.
The New Student Bible, New International Version. Grand Rapids: The Zondervan Corporation, 1986.
Weisbuch, Robert. Emily Dickinson?s Poetry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972.
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