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ISSN: 0974-892X


January, 2017



“Death” Theme in Emily Dickinson’s Poem

Dr. Sushama Kasbekar, Associate Professor, Assumption University of Thailand, Bangkok

Emily Dickinson the famous American poet explored death in her poems. She probably lived with the thought of death in a very realistic way and accepted it as a phenomenon not only as the end of life but as the beginning of immortality.

Amongst the poems dealing with death the most well known ones are: Because I could not stop for death; I felt a funeral in my Brain; and Success is counted sweetest. These embody the various facets of death and dying; its process and aftermath.

None of the poems are macabre or depressing: They are almost a celebration of the phenomenon of death. They describe death in its final stage and yet portray that immorality was possible contributing to a kind of hope even in death. 

Allen Tate (1899-1979), a distinguished American poet, teacher, and critic observed that "Because I Could Not Stop for Death" is an extraordinary poem. In fact, he said, it deserves to be regarded as "one of the greatest in the English language; it is flawless to the last detail” (Tate, 436).      

“Because I could not stop for Death “is one of Dickinson’s most well known poems. The poet explains that death called upon her in a carriage which held only death and herself. The solemn fact of facing death by oneself is mentioned here. That death is to be faced by oneself alone with no one to accompany one is projected by the poet.

In the second stanza, the poet views death as being well mannered, civil and slow. The poet mentions that death could be a slow process. And that the person who is facing death has to put away his labor and leisure.

The slow passing away of reality unto death is explored by the poet in the next stanza. Reality is expressed by the school children during recess and the standing grain. Both view the poet and death passing them by and finally they pass the setting sun. However, the sun passes them and not “they” the sun; giving a hint of passing into another world. Here there is a change in the poet who now wears a gown of gossamer and tulle, a fine fabric which is soft and probably made of nylon.

The ambience changes since the poet passes a house which seems to be part of the swelling ground and where the corner of the house is a cornice like mound. The roof of the house is also invisible. Since death, a number of centuries had passed and they all passed in a flurry – of very short duration. However, the hope of eternity is mentioned here since the horse carriage horses’ heads’ were turned towards unending eternity.

The mention of eternity and immortality as a possible aftermath of death is vibrant and striking here. It probably explains hope in a way, the hope of immortality after death and has therefore an expectant ring to it which is significant of the living entity of death which was part of Emily Dickinson’s poetry.

Although the poem is a source of considerable controversy, there are several fundamental ideas on which most critics agree: B. N. Raina says that “Death like a civil gentleman-suitor stops by in his chaise and four to take the busy persona out for the final ride.” And he further continues that:  He further suggests that the speaker, instead of merely ignoring death, actually conceives of death as “nonrealistic”, existing only "within the time-bound finite world" (Raina, 11-12), not within "the imaginative infinity of consciousness”. When the first line is interpreted this way, the second line takes on a new significance as well. Death stops not in the sense of "stops by" but in the sense of "ceases to be".

John M. Greenberg proposes an even more radical interpretation. He claims that "the poem is not about biological death at all, but about a vision of the rest of her life, a life of creative seclusion" (Greenberg, 21). Her life, he argues, was "so abnormal, so unlike the life any sane young woman (including Emily) would choose that it could be compared only to death" (Greenberg, 22).

There are several interpretations of the second stanza. George Monteiro notes that "the children ... do not play (as anyone would expect them to) but strive" (Monteiro, 20-21). Perhaps in response to the same observation, Patricia Engle suggests that the children's activity symbolizes not the innocent diversions of childhood but "the thrashings of professional competition that occur in the ladder-climbing stages of one's career" (Engle). George Monteiro offers a different explanation, speculating that "their game is the one called 'Ring-a-ring-a-roses'" (Monteiro, 20-21) which was "originally recited by children . . . as a charm against the ravages of the plague" (Monteiro, 21). If this is indeed what they are playing, then "imbedded in their ritualistic game is a reminder of the mortal stakes" (Monteiro) so central to the poem's meaning.

Dickinson begins the fourth stanza with a surprising, and controversial, reversal: "Or rather - He passed us -" . There is much controversy regarding the mention of “he”. Who is “he”?  Bernhard Frank claims that the sudden reversal is a result of the speaker's realization that because of death, she will come "to an abrupt, reversible halt" (Frank, 82), while "the sun . . . will keep revolving" (Frank, 84). Patricia Engle challenges the accepted view by suggesting that "the 'He' . . . may also refer to Death" (Engle, 72), introducing the possibility that at some point the speaker "leaves Death's carriage" (Engle, 73) and stands among the various stages of life watching the carriage go by. In this case, the "Us" would refer to the speaker and the stages of her life, instead of the speaker and Death.

The poem has been also viewed as a metaphor by many critics: Academician Margaret Freeman says:
“Metaphor making, under this view, is not peripheral but central to our reasoning    processes, not unique to poetical thinking but that which is shared by both ordinary discourse and the language of poetry. Poets, then, in their metaphor making, serve as arbiters of and commentators on the way humans understand and interpret their world. Much of Dickinson’s poetry is structured by the extent to which she rejected the dominant metaphor of her religious environment, that of LIFE IS A JOURNEY THROUGH TIME, and replaced it with a metaphor more in accordance with the latest scientific discoveries of her day, that of LIFE IS A VOYAGE IN SPACE”(Freeman, 1).

Times were changing during the 1830’s when Emily Dickinson lived (1830-1836) in Amherst, Massachuesetts: the early part of the century saw the rise of what T. H. Huxley was to call “Victorian Agnosticism” and the rise of evolutionary theories during the same period culminated in the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859, when Dickinson was 29 years old. The challenges presented to traditional, orthodox belief were enormous. And it is in these contexts—of time and place—that Dickinson’s words exist. How she creates her conceptual universe and what its nature is can only be found in examining what is said in her poems.

Thus death was a real living entity for Dickinson with eternity a reality round the corner. She has further explored this in her poems like “I felt a funeral in my Brain”; and “Success is counted sweetest”.

The poem “I felt a funeral in my brain” has the metaphor of the funeral which brings in ideas of mourning, closure, depression, blankness and inactivity. Therefore, ‘funeral’ serves as an apt metaphor to expressing the turmoil in the mind of the speaker. The movement of the mourners is likened to the oscillating of a pendulum making its presence felt as time does with its omnipresence.

“Success is Counted Sweetest” was written in 1859 and published anonymously in 1864. It is a lyrical poem which uses the images of a victorious army and a dying warrior purporting that only the person who has suffered defeat understands success. It also portrays the agony of the soldier who is dying and can hear the clarion call of victory by the enemy as he dies and thus understands why success is counted as sweetest.

Thus Dickinson’s poems are replete with death, dying and immortality. But she views death as a part of life, almost a living entity, a prosaic everyday phenomenon she comes to terms with especially in the poem “Because I could not stop for death.”  Her insight is deep, searching and also a seeking of sorts to understand the phenomenon of death. The recluse poet whose works were mostly published after her death had penetrating insight and dwelt on many aspects of the physical phenomena around her. Departing from her religiosity and ambience around her, she sought to understand death in its entirety and incisively wrote about it in her poems like “Because I could not stop for death”.

Works Cited
Blackmur, R.P. Language as a Gesture. New York: Columbia University Press. Reprint of the 1952 edition published by Harcourt Brace.1980.

Dickinson, Emily. “Because I could not stop for Death" Literature. Gardner, Janet E, Beverly Lawn, Jack Ridl, Peter Schakel, eds. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2004: 409.

Engel, Patricia. “Dickinson’s Because I could not stop for Death”. Explicator, 60. 2002. 72-75

Frank, Bernhard. "Dickinson's Because I could not stop for Death". Explicator, (Winter) 2000, Vol. 58 Issue 2: 82-4

Freeman, Margaret. Metaphor Making Meaning: Dickinson’s Conceptual Universe, Department of English Journal of Pragmatics 24 (1995) 643-666

Greenberg, J.M. "Dickinson's Because I could not stop for Death". Explicator (Summer) 1991, Vol 49 Issue 4: 21-2

Hoepfner, Theodore C. "Because I could not stop for Death". American Literature, March 1957, Vol. 29 Issue 1: 96

Monteiro, George. "Dickinson's Because I could not stop for Death". Explicator (Spring) 1988, Vol. 46 Issue 3: 20-1

Raina, B.N. "Dickinson's Because I could not stop for Death". Explicator (Spring) 1985, Vol. 43 Issue 3: 11-12

Tate, Allen.  American Literature: a College Survey. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1961, Page 436.