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When I Died by Emily Dickinson, Book Review Example

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Book Review

Emily Dickinson is considered a great American poet. The style she incorporated in her art included short paradoxical phases expressing her vast range of interest and inquiry. She was born in Massachusetts in 1830 and was a bright and independently minded child. As an adult she lived a simple and elusive life style. One of her famous poems I Heard a Fly Buzz-When I Died is considered one of her best. Her life of seclusion was in contrast to the themes, topics and symbolism of her poems. Some believed her chosen seclusion was her way of keeping her work unbiased and pure.

Dickinson’s accomplishments were not recognized until after her death. She kept her works hidden and her poetry was found by her sister after Dickinson’s death.  Paul Crumbley (2001) describes her work “like a jazz artist who uses rhythm and meter to revolutionize readers’ perceptions of those structures” (para. 1). She writes with passion and an intensity of depth and complexity to move and touch people. While a few articles of her work were published prior to her death, she was not recognized as an artist and great poet until after she died. Much of her work was unedited and unfinished when it was discovered.

Dickinson’s poetic form demonstrated her regular use of four-line stanzas with ABCB rhyme schemes. Her heavy religious influence is demonstrated by her use of alternating iambic meter between tetrameter and trimester. This flow is characteristic of biblical Psalms. Her work is creative and reflects her inner thoughts of life and passion. While her work is written in a somewhat random fashion without organization, the emotions are expressed vividly. “Her method is to reveal the inadequacy of declarative statements by evoking qualifications and questions with images that complicate firm assertions and affirmations” (Poem Hunter 2009).

The religious influence for Emily Dickinson is founded in her beliefs of God separate from formalized religion. Her family practiced Calvinism which she was never completely comfortable with.   “For Emily religious experience was not a simple intellectual statement of belief; it could be more accurately reflected in the beauty of nature and the experiences of ecstatic joy” (Biography Online, 2009).  This left her feeling somewhat of an outcast from the religious sector. Her sentiments of being distanced from the church and formalized religion can be seen in her poetry.  “Some critics think that her poetry shows a rebellion against her strong religious background, or a refusal to participate in the Transcendental Movement” (Abbott, 1998).

Dickinson was torn by the concepts of God as being mean and intolerant, which is what formal religion meant to her. Rather than see God and heaven in terms of sin and punishment, she felt religion through life experiences and nature were representative of a good and loving God interspersed in nature and all things. Her concept of God centered more on the theme of ‘self’ and God being in each person. In I Heard a Fly Buzz this concept is vividly displayed as the narrator is the central piece of the poem with the mourners being silent while the fly, the only sound in the room, ties the person to life for just a bit longer.

The impending death of the speaker can be seen literally or symbolically. The narrator of the poem is on their deathbed with perfect stillness surrounding them. The mourners present have dry eyes further demonstrating the stillness in the room. The sound of the buzz from the fly is the only resonance.  The fly may symbolize death which is approaching. They are expecting the ‘king’ which may symbolize God or an angel approaching. The appearance of the fly becomes the focus between life and death. The fly may represent the devil to Dickinson and her struggles between God and religious concepts and doctrines.

The final line of the poem “I could not see to see” indicates the narrator dies in the end. The concept of sight in the poem is evident as the speaker struggles to see. Perhaps this is symbolic of the fear of dying; sight being the last human sense just before death. The buzzing of the fly links the speaker between sight and sound. Her depictions of the mourners surrounding the narrator further demonstrate the separating life from death. They have cried their eyes dry and are awaiting death to take hold of the narrator. This is symbolic of society letting go of the narrator, escorting the narrator and delivering into death.

Dickinson wrote this poem during the Civil War era. Death was a constant reminder of the war and the uncertainly of the age. Dying was a subject that haunted citizens with the unvarying presence of the threat of death. Dickinson’s family had strong political roots and tradition; however, she distanced herself from the war. She lost family and friends in the war and it directly affected her life. This inevitably heightened her interest, fascination and fear of death, which informed so much of her poetry (Biography Online, 2009).

The Transcendental Movement began and changed and shaped literature and this occurred during Dickinson’s lifetime. This was a reaction by some intellectuals against Calvinism and the Unitarian Church. The concept included the belief that God exists within each person and in nature; not in the traditional heavenly realms. This movement grew out of social reform and the ideal of self expression and going against complacency and rigid standards.

Poetry may have been the resolve Dickinson needed to deal with the deaths of her loved ones and her need for seclusion. She was well known for her elusive and evasiveness in her character. When Dickinson appeared on occasion a visitor described “a moment when conversation lagged a little, she would sweep in, clad in immaculate white, pass through the rooms, silently curtseying and saluting right and left, and sweep out again” (Brooklyn Academics, 2009). This depiction appears to suggest her inability to deal with war and death. Her distance from helping with war effects and her need to be in only white clothing suggests her inability to be around the blood and dirt associated with war.

Emily Dickinson’s life and her works were closely related and have strong connections between the two.  “For Dickinson hopeful expectation was always more satisfying than achieving a golden moment” (Poem Hunter, 2009). She also felt that by depriving herself of something it would enhance her experience and knowledge. She believed this was a way to be able to feel and understand things she may not be able to experience otherwise. Her work is challenging and advanced beyond the nineteenth century in which she lived. Her connectedness to her poetry is much like her life.  Her quest was to understand rather than to find answers to questions. Reading her poetry requires an engagement and dedication to her work which is “filled with meaning if we are sensitive to her use of devices such as personification, allusion, symbolism, and startling syntax and grammar’ (Poem Hunter, 2009).

Emily Dickinson’s I Heard a Fly Buzz-When I Died is a short but powerful poem. The symbolism and prevalence of the author’s life can be felt and experienced in the poem. The word choice and imagery connects the theme of death and the unknown. She uses a common fly to suggest death may be small and common, but until experienced there is no way to determine the magnitude of the experience.

Works Cited

Abbott, Dori Anne. “Emily Dickinson.” 7 July 1998. December 11, 2009.  http://www.smarrpublishers.com/Dickinson.html

Biography Online. “Short Biography Emily Dickinson”. 2009.  December 11, 2009.  http://www.biographyonline.net/poets/emily_dickinson.html

Brooklyn Academics. “Emily Dickinson.” 2009. December 11, 2009.  http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/cs6/dickinson.html

Crumbley, Paul. “Emily Dickinson’s Life.” Modern American Poetry. December 11, 2009. http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/a_f/dickinson/bio.htm

Poem Hunter. “Emily Dickinson.” 2009.  http://www.poemhunter.com/emily-dickinson/biography

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