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The Theme of Death in Two Poems by Emily Dickinson, Research Paper Example

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Research Paper

Death is an important subject in Emily Dickinson’s poetry. Some critics have argued that most, if not all of Dickinson’s poems are involved with the theme of death. Certainly this is the case with two of her most famous poems, “The Chariot” and “I Died for Beauty.” In these two poems, the theme of death is obvious but the meaning of the imagery and narrative less obvious. The poems are both based on an imagined scenario of death but represent subtly different points of view. This slight difference in vision is an important quality that runs through Dickinson’s death-poems as a whole. Dickinson was preoccupied enough with the theme of death that her poems show a varied range of treatments on the same theme. This leads to an overall ambiguity about the way in which she viewed mortality, but it also shows the dynamic way of looking at death that Dickinson saw as a fitting theme for poetry.

One of the first things that is necessary to understand about Dickinson’s use of the theme of death in poetry is that Dickinson’s poetry is impacted by both a Calvinist religious tradition and an existentialist vision at the same time. This results in a state of friction in Dickinson’s poems, and particularly in those poems which are either directly or indirectly about death. Dickinson, being raised in a Calvinist family, had learned traditional ideas about the nature of death and resurrection. her poetry frequently rebels against these ideas and explores immediate existential themes. Thomas Ford, in his study, Heaven Beguiles the Tired: Death in the Poetry of Emily Dickinson. (1966) writes that the existential crisis that is reflected in Dickinson poems is a reflection of her primary motivation to write poetry.

In other words, Dickinson’s uncertainty about the nature of mortality and her fear of personal death were primary factors that led her to write poetry and, and such, emerged as important themes in her work. Ford writes that Dickinson’s ‘”awareness of the reality and the ‘problem’ of death had a pervasive influence on the content of the poems she wrote and, indeed, was the principal reason for her turning her energies to poetic composition of any kind.” (Ford 176). This is a significant fact to keep in mind when exploring specific poems and even specific lines in Dickinson’s work because the underlying impulse behind her death-poems was to investigate her own subjective psychological, emotional, and intellectual response to the reality of human mortality.

This theme an underlying inspiration is shown very clearly in Dickinson’s famous pome, “The Chariot.” In this poem, Dickinson develops a romantic vision of death that is described as a mystical ride in a carriage. Her vision of death in the poem is decidedly not in keeping with common ideas of a Christian heaven. There is no judgment or resurrection. Instead, as Jane

Eberwein mentions in her book An Emily Dickinson Encyclopedia (1998), the poem proceeds with a feeling of a mystery story and one which is never completely solved. Eberwein writes that “the speaker describes the moment of death as a leisurely carriage ride and “Death” as a kind suitor, the poem later takes on Gothic elements of suspense.” (Eberwein 14). the Gothic elements can be viewed as the aspects of human imagination that are brought to bear against the finality of death. It could be argued that the poem, throughout, is meant o be understood ironically and that, therefore, Dickinson is satirizing society and the idea of any after-life simultaneously.

Even without interpreting the poem at that deep of an ironic level, the way that Dickinson deals with the theme of death in the poem is a radical departure from her Calvinist background.

Dickinson humanizes the specter of death and makes the imagery of the poem as universal and as logical as possible. In the article “Wrestling with Silence: Emily Dickinson’s Calvinist God”

(2006) Zapedowska notes that Dickinson, above all other things in her poetry, rejected the Calvanistic vision of a detached patriarchal Diety. He observes “Dickinson, for her part, construes the unfathomability of God’s plan as a source of anguish […] She rejects as preposterous Calvinism’s requirement to worship an obscure, unresponsive Deity whose very abstractness makes a personal relationship impossible” (Zapedowska). This one of the reasons for transforming death to a gentleman in “The Chariot.”

The closing lines of the poems make it clear that Dickinson’s exploration into the nature of death have proven to be inconclusive. The poem’s last lines: “Since then ‘t is centuries; but each / Feels shorter than the day / I first surmised the horses’ heads / Were toward eternity.” (Dickinson, 35) convey nothing less than an ambiguous imagining that utterly lacks closure. The poem is, in other words, deliberately without an ending because Dickinson is embracing the fact that death, while being the most universal of experiences, remains totally mysterious to the living. by injecting the feeling of deepest mystery into common objects and images, Dickinson is able to show how life and death merge in a mysterious way that is invisible and almost incomprehensible, but stands at the very center of the human experience.

Although the poems that Dickinson wrote emerged, as mentioned above, from her personal fear of death, they are not only records of her subjective experience. Instead, Dickinson was able to find a way of expressing her personal experiences and feelings in words and images that attained universal resonance. In many ways her death-poems can also be considered

sociologically significant in that they related to the political situation of her age. Ford writes that “With the coming of the Civil War, the reality of death prompted her to the fullest use of her poetic talents. She wrote poetry to relieve her anxieties, gazing at death from all sides, testing her vision within the context of her poems, hoping to get close to death,” (Ford 179). The dual function of her poetry as personal catharsis and universal expression is one reason, according to Ford, that it is so powerful.

This combination of a personal and universal perspective on death is evident in Dickinson’s poem “I Died For Beauty.” In this poem, in contrast to “The Chariot” death is not personified, but rather is shown to be a force of nature. The poem envisions a life beyond death that takes place in a tomb. The speaker of the poem is someone who has died “for beauty” and the person next to the speaker has died for “truth.” The theme of the poem is that of principles and honor being more powerful and important to human nature than death. It is through the adoption of moral and aesthetic principles that human life has any meaning whatsoever. The dedication to ‘beauty” and to ‘truth” will survive death whereas the human ego and the selfishness that often accompanies the human ego will be utterly erased by death and time. This is the reason that the poem ends with the imagery of of moss growing over the tombstones and the implied loss of personal identity that comes with the poem’s close. The lines “We talked between the rooms,/ Until the moss had reached our lips, /And covered up our names.” Dickinson, 20) seems to suggest a far different outcome to personal death than that which was described in “The Chariot.”

However, there are certain similarities between the two poems that can be said to point to a consistency of Dickinson’s vision of death. In the first place, both poems show the transfer of the speaker from the world of everyday human events to a world which is formed out of elemental nature. In “The Chariot” the horses symbolize the power of nature whereas is “I Died for Beauty” it is the image of moss that shows the power of nature. Secondly, both poems show a meeting with a stranger as a consequence of death. Third, both poems show the loss of personal identity and the elevation of nature in its place. Because of these factors, it is easy to see how, as mentioned previously, Dickinson used the theme of death as a method by which to also make sociological and political commentary.

The fact that Dickinson turned to poetry to cope with her personal anxiety about death and to simultaneously cope with her disdain for society and religion is another aspect of Dickinson’s life and poetry that indicate an existentialist perspective. The rejection of traditional social ideas and traditional religious dogmas were part of Dickinson’s poetry. Rather than address these themes directly, Dickinson used the theme of death to make her commentaries. As Ford points out, death is the basis for almost all of Dickinson’s poems. He notes that “There can be little question that death was her central theme. Clearly it colored all her thinking and gave its tint to the majority of her poems. Even in her lighter verse, death slyly peeks out, largely hidden but none the less there.” (Ford 184). This is evidence that Dickinson, in some ways, saw death as the great equalizer in terms of society due to its eradication of the personal ego.

That said, Dickinson’s take on the theme of death is broader than what has been so far discussed. in fact her use of death as a theme is broad enough to go far beyond the scope of a discussion of this length and purpose. As Ottlinger writes in his study The Death-Motif in the

Poetry of Emily Dickinson and Christina Rossetti (1996) Dickinson, in regard to her death-poems “adopt (s) a multitude of different perspectives and present an almost infinite variety of aspects, though concentrating on a single theme […] the physical as well as the psychological and emotional facets of death” (Ottlinger, 167) . The best conclusion to reach regarding Dickinson’s use of the theme of death is that this theme was both of primary significance to her as a poet and it also eluded any vinal “verdict” in her mind.

Part of the reason that Dickinson’s death-poems continue to hold a fascination for readers is because, as the two poem referenced above evidence, Dickinson’s beliefs about death were in conflict with each other. One the one hand “Dickinson clung to the Calvinist categories of thought despite her acute sense of their inadequacy” while on the other hand “she pursued her controversy with the Calvinist Jehovah whose image she detested but could not renounce.” (Zapedowska). Unable to reach a religious conversion but equally unable to find a secularist “answer” to the reason of human life and death, Dickinson turned to poetry as a method by which to examine her own feelings about death against a backdrop of universal experience.

Works Cited

Dickinson, Emily. Selected Poems. Dover Publications Inc. New York, 1990.

Eberwein, Jane Donahue, ed. An Emily Dickinson Encyclopedia. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1998.

Ford, Thomas W. Heaven Beguiles the Tired: Death in the Poetry of Emily Dickinson. University, AL: University of Alabama, 1966.

Ottlinger, Claudia. The Death-Motif in the Poetry of Emily Dickinson and Christina Rossetti. Peter Lang Pub. Inc. 1996.

Zapedowska, Magdalena. “Wrestling with Silence: Emily Dickinson’s Calvinist God.” ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly) 20.1 (2006): 379+.

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