Those details today’s readers have about Emily Dickinson indicate she may have been a modest woman, perhaps even a bit insecure, who did not seek public attention for herself or for her poetry, which she pursued for personal satisfaction or as an entertainment to be shared merely with family or a few friends, mostly in letters. Indeed, the small number of poems published during her lifetime only appeared as a consequence of an ongoing correspondence with Samuel Bowles, a friend who also edited the Springfield Republican newspaper, where the poems were printed anonymously and heavily edited.
Not until after Emily Dickinson’s death in 1886 did relatives discover more of her poems, and a thin volume of edited selections from Dickinson’s poetry was released in 1890 as a tribute to her. Unlike her contemporary, Walt Whitman, who often expressed confidence his poems would be read for generations after his death, Emily Dickinson would be most surprised to find her poetry continuing to be read and cherished more than a century after her passing. In fact, it took nearly a century for the full treasure of her work to be revealed and inform the world as to the magnitude of her poetic achievement, when a three-volume edition of her Complete Poems finally was published during the 1950s—totaling over 1700 poems, including the hundreds of hidden pieces uncovered in the time since that first slim volume had been released.
Throughout the decades since her death, but especially since the full extent of her production was revealed about fifty years ago, Emily Dickinson’s reputation and influence have grown so that few contemporary American poets could exclude her from the list of significant predecessors who have helped shape the current climate for poetry writing. Dickinson’s importance has been established in words of homage spoken both by prominent poets and perceptive critics. For instance, Charles Wright has recognized Emily Dickinson as a primary force behind his poetic approach: “I admire and revere and am awed by a good many writers; I have been in thrall to several. But Emily Dickinson is the only writer I’ve ever read who knows my name, whose work has influenced me at my heart’s core, whose music is the music of songs I’ve listened to and remembered in my very body.” Harold Bloom has expressed his high regard for her work, suggesting she is one of America’s four greatest literary figures, alongside Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry James, and Walt Whitman.
Nevertheless, Emily Dickinson’s individual style and personal perspectives continue to exist as unique, sometimes even quirky, examples that cannot be readily imitated by many subsequent poets as the work of fellow poet Walt Whitman so frequently seems to serve as model for those who have followed in his literary footsteps. Poets influenced by Emily Dickinson, such as Elizabeth Bishop, wisely have avoided an appearance that mimics Dickinson’s singular style.
On this day of her birth, to choose one poem as truly representative of Emily Dickinson’s output would be a fruitless task. Despite her swiftly identifiable style, I find myself frustrated by an inability to display the subtly wide range of possible selections that might easily be seen as significant pieces. Still, today I offer the following poem that repeatedly has struck readers with its view of typical themes usually associated with Dickinson—nature, faith, mortality, death, God, and the possibility of an afterlife—as well as its demonstration of Dickinson’s careful crafting of elegantly rhythmical lines and even a little of her recurring dark humor. Allen Tate once declared that he regarded this Dickinson poem, “Because I Could Not Stop for Death,” as “one of the greatest in the English language.”
BECAUSE I COULD NOT STOP FOR DEATH
Because I could not stop for Death—
He kindly stopped for me—
The Carriage held but just Ourselves—
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 Horses' Heads
Were toward Eternity—
With the beginning lines the poet personifies Death, portraying the figure as a friendly and cordial suitor courting the speaker on a pleasant carriage ride. Describing Death with words that characterize him as being “kindly” and exhibiting “Civility,” Dickinson offers a more positive view of death than most people normally hold or that even she usually has presented in other poems. Although fully engaged with life, the speaker suddenly must face her own mortality. However, Death brings with him a present, “Immortality,” maybe the greatest gift one can receive and an offering that may assuage any fear by allaying concerns about an afterlife.
Indeed, as readers will see by the close of the poem, perhaps by delivering reassurance of an afterlife, Dickinson’s attempt to reinforce one’s faith in God becomes a priority in this piece. The verb tenses in the poem even switch from past to present in the last stanza with “feels,” signaling an ongoing spiritual presence after death. This conclusion proves even more promising and optimistic than some other Dickinson poems. For instance, although “I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died” also contains a persona speaking from the grave, suggesting an afterlife, that poem ends with the moment of death after a possible display of faltering faith and a brief bit of uncertainty.
The speaker here relinquishes all of her life, “labor and leisure,” similar to the manner the persona in “I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died” had “signed away” all her earthly belongings. Yet, Dickinson then cleverly depicts the couple’s journey “toward Eternity” with scenery symbolizing the various stages of life: the innocence and leisure of childhood, the productiveness and labor of adulthood, and an aged one’s awareness of mortality in the image of “the Setting Sun.” In doing so, Dickinson reviews life at the moment of death, as though in the cliché about life flashing before one’s eyes, but with an accompanying notion that death is also a natural stage in the cycle of life. Indeed, the children are described as they “strove” during their “Recess—in the Ring.” (In an earlier and less effective published version of this poem, titled by editors as “The Chariot,” the children simply play and the image of the ring is absent.) Like Death, nature is personified when “gazing” modifies “Grain,” and with the poem’s instances of personification, death and nature achieve an equal stature with human life.
In that previous version, the editors also had omitted stanza four. But the images in this stanza signify clearly that the journey represents a funeral procession, the carriage is a hearse, and perhaps the speaker is dressed in the flimsy materials of her burial gown, though impractical for the cold of this physical world and perhaps as elegant as a bridal gown, which some could believe would be appropriate for her fresh start with the new suitor.
Finally, Dickinson further comforts readers about the prospect of death by labeling the grave as “a House,” perhaps connoting a pleasant domestic dwelling where the spirit will live on forever. Indeed, the speaker reports the centuries since her death have passed so quickly that the time feels “shorter than the Day,” which the poet already has metaphorically presented as representing a mortal lifetime. For the speaker, eternal life with God is so joyful that time flies by, as another cliché now might state.
Consequently, the speaker encourages readers to have greater faith because one who has passed through life to death now has reassured them about what bliss they can expect afterwards. Thankfully, in her many poems that have been retrieved and preserved (like the lone existing daguerreotype photograph of her accompanying this post), though now more than a century has passed since her death, Emily Dickinson continues to speak so eloquently to us.
Death In Emily Dickinson's Because I Could Not Stop For Death And I Heard A Fly Buzz When I Died
Death in Emily Dickinson's Because I Could Not Stop for Death and I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died
Emily Dickinson's two poems, "Because I Could Not Stop For Death" and "I Heard A Fly Buzz-When I Died," revolve around one central theme, death. Though the two do centralize around the theme of death they both have slightly different messages or beliefs about what is to come after death. By discussing both of the poems and interpreting their meanings, the reader can gain a fuller understanding of the message Dickinson is trying to send to her audience and a greater feel for what may lie ahead in the afterlife. When Dickinson writes in her first line, "I heard a fly buzz when I died," it grasps the reader's attention by describing the moment of her death. After reading the first stanza the reader can almost hear or sense the feeling of the fly buzzing in such a still and quiet room. The contrasting sounds of the noisy fly and the stillness in the air draw the reader deeper into the poem. The image created by this contrast is like the color white on the color black. It stands out immensely and catches the reader's eye. After the first stanza the reader is in full knowledge of the death of the poet.
The second stanza reads, "The eyes beside had wrung them dry, and breaths were gathering sure for that last onset, when the king be witnessed in his power." This stanza deals with how God is brought upon by the speaker?s death. Onlookers surround the dead body and seem to be looking for clues to what may eventually await them when it is their turn to pass onto another possible world. In stanza three the speaker is preparing for a journey into an afterlife that may lie ahead. Dickinson writes, "I willed my keepsakes, signed away what portion of me I could make assignable, - and then there interposed a fly." After already dying the speaker feels that it is no longer a must to have the possessions that most living people deem necessary and leaves them behind as her soul comes closer to it?s fate. The speaker is getting ready to make this transition to the next world but then the fly reappears and puts a halt to this alteration. The final stanza of this poem includes the lines, "With blue, uncertain, stumbling buzz, between the light and me; and then the windows failed, and then I could not see to see." The word light in this stanza can be associated with some heavenly existence or higher power that awaits the speaker.
The buzzing fly blocks her view though of where she is heading and the light that was once there is now gone. Though the poem deals with what may await the speaker in the afterlife the reader is still left...
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