Emily Dickinson Literature Research
Emily Dickinson is an American poet well known for her unique style of expression that often defied the conventional limitations of poetry. She was born in 1830 and lived a mostly solitary life up until she died in 1886 after which her family discovered that she had written over 1800 poems. During her early life, she spent her time gardening at the homestead in the company of her sister. Meanwhile, she sent her verses to her friends along with baskets of flowers meaning she started writing at quite a tender age but opted to remain unpublished. She eventually left the Homestead and spent most of her time alone only interacting with the outside world occasionally by correspondence, and she also read a lot of material. Her major inspirations seem to have come from the Book of Revelation, which she studied a lot as a Christian while growing up, along with the works of the metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century.
Having gained most of her fame posthumously, Emily Dickinson’s poetry pieces are mostly appreciated for the raw talent that they exhibit. She was not limited by the rules of poetry, and as such, she spent her time experimenting and reinventing herself in her volumes. Amongst the many themes that Emily Dickinson covers in her poetry, death and immortality stick out the most. The poet approaches the subject of life and death with such proficiency and confidence that she appears to know some secret of the universe. Her poems about death often imply that she is at peace with the concept and eventuality of dying and that she has hope in immortality.
The trick to understanding Emily Dickinson’s poems is by examining her historical and cultural contexts, as well as her inspirations. These would provide a key to the poet’s style and choice of themes to allow for a better understanding and appreciation of her works. To define her genre of poetry more precisely, this paper will also focus on a number of her poems, specifically those that are about death and immortality, to draw a pattern of her approach to the subject.
A historical context is how a historical background shapes an individual’s thoughts and actions. In most instances, the historical aspects of someone’s life play a big role in how they turn out to be, how they think, and what they do. In the case of Emily Dickinson, the historical aspects of her life include the solitary lifestyle and her limited exposure to the outside world, as well as her hometown religion and family setting among other things (Charyn 27).
Emily Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, and other than the one year that she spent attending school at the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in South Hadley, she barely left her home. Generally, this means that she only came into limited contact with people and her main source of socialization was the few visitors who came to see her mother including the Reverend Charles Wadsworth, Otis P. Lord, and Samuel Bowles, all of who seem to have had an impact on the poetess at some point in her young life. Other than these three gentlemen, Emily Dickinson had the company of her younger sister Lavinia and her brother Austin for intellectual and social companionship (Dickinson and Toddi 53). They all lived together as a family, except for Austin, who lived next door with his wife. Emily and Lavinia never married and as such spent most of their lives isolated from the rest of the world, indulging their minds more than their bodies through correspondence, reading, and deep thought.
With such a lot of time spent in the solitude of the indoors, Emily must have had quite enough time to think about death and immortality. Amherst was a Puritan town where Orthodox and Calvinist approaches favored Christianity. As such, these doctrines took root in almost all members of the population including Emily, who had a unique interest in the Book of Revelation and the subject of death.
It can thus be said that the fact that Emily Dickinson spent most of her time in isolation and thus away from the distractions of an indulgent world, coupled with her Christian upbringing and interest in the Book of Revelations, played a great role in deciding her themes for most of the poetry pieces that she wrote (Mun 64). She seems to have had enough time to think about a subject that other poems consider too gloomy or scary, and as such she wrote more and more about it. With only her sister and brother for her company through most of her life, she read more and more, widening her knowledge and deepening her thoughts on her subjects of interest to the point that all she could write about was death and immortality from several different viewpoints.
Isolation has varied impacts on different people, but an individual who is interested in the Book of Revelation will likely become obsessed with death and immortality. This means that the fact that Emily Dickinson spent most of her time alone and away from the rest of the world lured her into the realms of life and death, where she used her knowledge of the Revelations to imagine a lot about dying and crossing over into the next world.
The cultural context implies the aspects of one’s culture that may have an impact on how they express certain issues, like death and immortality in this case. Emily Dickinson was born in Amherst, a small town in Massachusetts. The most significant cultural aspect that can be connected to Emily Dickinson’s upbringing in Amherst, Massachusetts is the Puritan doctrines of Christianity.
Massachusetts was predominantly founded and occupied by the Puritans as early as the 1600s. As a result, the population was largely rooted in Puritan teachings that include the concept of life after death, and that death is merely a gateway through which all must pass on their way to a better place. Puritans encouraged an orthodox approach to Christianity where good people had to die and go to heaven, and as such dying was not considered with as much fear as in other religions (Pike and Anna 38). In addition, the idea that death was like a passageway through which the soul could be transferred from this world to the next world, made it more bearable to think about dying. Another significant aspect of the Puritan context regarding death was in the description of the ‘next world’ as a place of bliss and eternal harmony in the presence of God. Other than encouraging the people to work hard and live by the teachings of the Bible, Puritan doctrines taught people to work for a place in heaven by doing good things and living by the Book. In this case, the people lived good lives and practiced Orthodox Christianity just so they could end up in heaven as taught by the preachers.
As a resident of Amherst, both by birth and upbringing, Emily Dickinson was influenced by the Calvinist doctrines of the Puritans about death and eternal life. She looked upon the concept of dying with awe and some level of encouragement, and as such, she was not at all flustered by the eventuality of death. Rather, she looked forward to eternal life by perceiving death as a momentary passage to the ‘next life’ of immortal bliss in God’s presence. This explains why she did not shy away from the subject of death like most of her counterparts at the time and even today. Her background in Christianity thus defined her viewpoint towards death, making it one of her favorite themes along with the eventuality of immortality after death and living in the presence of God.
Based on her background and the kind of exposure that she may have had to books and letters from her acquaintances, as well as her interactions with her family members as intellectual companions, it can be deduced that Emily Dickinson did not have much to go on except for her religious beliefs, and perhaps the writings of the metaphysical poets from the 17th century. Also, her upbringing in a Puritan town may have played a great role in the way she looked at life. For instance, she looked at life as a transitory experience in preparation for immortality. This may have been because of the Puritan doctrines embedded in her upbringing, but also the fact that she did not see much in her hometown may have convinced her that there is not much to live for in this world except preparation for the next. In more ways than one, it can be seen that the external factors surrounding her being from Amherst and living there for almost all of her life inspired her to embrace a specific perception of life and death, opting for immortality to explain the seeming emptiness of her own life.
The metaphysical poets were a loosely organized group of poets who ventured into speculative subjects like love and religion. They are considered loosely organized because they were barely affiliated and most did not even know about the existence of the others. These poets mostly encountered criticism for being too unique and particular in their expressions as they often used peculiar techniques and similes. Also, among other things they were known for bringing out an unexpected truth within their musings. The noted metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century included George Herbert, Katherine Phillips, Richard Crashaw, and Henry Vaughan to mention but a few.
These poets inspired Emily in that they were bold enough to go against the rules and express themselves however they saw fit. In her writings, Emily did not strive to stick to set techniques and patterns but rather followed her expressions and wrote whatever she felt and thought. While she may not have had as much exposure to other types of poetry due to her limited access to books and other printed material except for letters and newspapers, it can be said that this type of poetry appealed to her sense of freedom too. The fact that these poets also majored in love and religion may be a mere coincidence as she was more drawn to their style, or rather lack of it, than their contents. With this in mind, it can be stated that the metaphysical poets provided Emily Dickinson with the stepping stone with which she created her style of poetry. She may not be counted amongst the metaphysical poets today, but it does not nullify the fact that they inspired her. She ended up writing to herself more than to readers and critics, something that may have been economically unwise at the time but very fruitful in the end. This uniqueness coupled with a show of boldness and confidence is what makes her the most celebrated American poet of all time.
Death and Immortality
Death simply means the end of life in terms of the physical body. Immortality, on the other hand, can be defined as the continuity of life beyond the death of the physical body. Different people and religions, as well as cultures, have different perspectives on the concept of death and immortality but they mostly agree that there is something beyond death. Some belief in spirits, others in gods, and some even believe in ghosts. In Christianity, saints are the righteous people who died here on earth and were thus resurrected to live in Heaven eternally with God.
In addressing the concept of death, people often rely on cultural and religious viewpoints on the subject. This means that while everyone knows that death is real, some may be more open to it than others. Emily Dickinson seems more open to the subject of death and dying than most people would be. She looks at death as a point in one’s life when one discovers the secrets of life, where they find out what lies beyond that wall. In some instances, she can be seen to look upon the dead with envy for having their curiosity satisfied while she remained with the rest of humanity to ponder on the possibilities. By looking upon death as momentary darkness, like a tunnel for a train, she manages to remove the gloom and fear from it, only leaving uncertainty and hope. This is how she generally portrays death in her poems.
Considering immortality, Emily Dickinson embraces a Christian perspective that looks upon the reality of eternal life filled with peace. Even when she describes anguish at the time of death, she is consistent in presenting the aftermath of death as peaceful and possibly blissful. Without dictating the outcome of her work, she eases the mind of the reader by always ending a death scene with stillness and peace as it would be in Heaven. Some of her pieces are written from beyond death, as souls or ghosts depending on the reader’s viewpoint on the subject.
Emily Dickinson Poems Analysis
There are over 1800 poems by Emily Dickinson, all of which were written in her solitude. This study however relies on six of these poems, all of which are centered on the subject of death. These poems include I Like a Look of Agony, Because I Could Not Stop For Death, I Felt a Funeral in My Brain, I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died, It Was Not Death For I Stood Up and A Toad Can Die of Light.
- I like a Look of Agony
This poem is mainly about the sincerity of the emotions that people go through at their time of death. Rather than fearing this moment, the speaker shows a certain appreciation for the truthfulness of the actions of the dying person. In some way, this could be interpreted as an appreciation of death, as an escape from the lies and manipulations of humanity into a realm of honesty and originality. It is compressed and quite straightforward implying conviction in the subject (Dickinson 56).
- Because I Could Not Stop For Death
This poem, on the other hand, is written from an immortal’s perspective where the speaker is already dead. Without having to invoke too much detail, the speaker describes ‘death’ as a person, with such great attributes as one would anticipate in a true gentleman. Using such words as ‘civility’ and ‘kindly’, the speaker portrays ‘death’ as a gentleman and as such makes it less scary (Dickinson 31). Without stating where the journey takes them, however, the poet leaves the reader to decide on their destination and thus commit themselves to an after-death storyline of their imagination. To most, this open-mindedness allows room for doubt and uncertainty thus implying that they can use their creative imaginations to decide on how everything ends.
- I Felt a Funeral in My Brain
This poem is also from the other side of life, where the speaker experiences their funeral. Without applying clarity as to whether the funeral was real or only in the speaker’s brain as the title suggests, it is left to the reader to speculate whether the speaker was dead or still alive (Michiko 14). The speaker may have been a soul looking upon the people attending the funeral, or they could have been dreaming or imagining the whole thing.
- I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died
This poem also presents the moment of death as a peaceful one for the prepared soul. The speaker mentions willing their keepsakes and assigning the assignable portions of themselves, implying that they are ready to embrace the forthcoming eventuality. In this piece, the calmness and willingness of the speaker to “sign away” and be gone welcome the concept of death making it acceptable and even bearable to the reader (Dickinson 7).
- It Was Not Death For I Stood Up
This poem gives a perspective of death from a different vantage point. The speaker here is already dead and in the next life where time appears to stand still. Generally, the speaker is seen to dispute the conventional expectations of death, citing that their experiences are far from what they had come to learn and accept about death. The speaker here also strives to avoid clarity by using obscurity at most in terms of descriptions within the narrative.
- A Toad Can Die of Light
Emily Dickinson is yet again seen belittling the concept of death, trivializing it to the point of normalcy. In this poem, the speaker states all too confidently that death is the common right, of toads and men……“This implies that death must be accepted with some element of cheer, like a positive resignation in anticipation for something” (Michiko 6). Here, the speaker does not commit themselves to the possibility of a better life beyond death but rather educates the reader on the fact that they cannot escape and as such the best they can do is accept their ‘right’.
To be both cold and warm about death, Emily Dickinson uses several literary techniques that set her works apart from the rest of the contemporary poets (Michiko 26). She manages to manipulate several styles as she finds befitting to her mood and opinion in each poem. Without subscribing to a particular genre, this poet brings out the reality of death and the possibility of immortality with both clarity and ambiguity. She uses mysterious symbolism, obscurity, compression, and the element of doubt to mention but a few.
Symbolism by itself refers to the use of symbols to evoke thoughts and interpretations as opposed to offering a description of the message being conveyed (Dickinson 69). In her poems, Emily Dickinson is seen trying to evade clear descriptions, and instead, she uses mysterious symbols, like the gentleman ‘Death’ in Because I Could Not Stop for Death. Here, she rides on Death’s chariot as they rise above the ground looking down on the world as we know it, and seeing an altogether different view as they ascend into heaven (Dickinson 21). Normally, death is portrayed as a grim personality with a dark hood, but Emily Dickinson brings forth a gentleman with such impressive qualities. This is in defiance of the conventional expectations with regards to the ‘grim ripper’.
She uses the same technique in I Felt a Funeral in My Brain where she refuses to commit herself by stating whether she is alive and dreaming, or dead and hovering above the ground as a spirit, a ghost, or whatever she may be (Pike and Acosta 61). Rather, she narrates her position with so much ambiguity thus drawing the reader further into oblivion. As opposed to stating whether the speaker is dead or dreaming, this poem allows for varying interpretations in which the poet’s real intention remains a mystery.
While Emily Dickinson cannot be accused of obscurantism, it is evident that in most of her works she opts for obscurity over clarity. Rather than applying precision in her explanations of death and immortality, she often opts to be vague and leave it up to the reader to imagine and fill the gaps left in the poems. In her case, she can be stated to write obscure pieces to invoke a depth of thought on the subject without restricting the reader’s mind to her limitations of thought.
Most of Emily Dickinson’s work about death and immortality takes on varying viewpoints on the subject (Dickinson 43). While she can be seen to incline toward the idea that immortality is real, she is most instances avoids committing herself to this fact often leaving it up to the reader to decide on the position of the line between fact and fiction. She thrives on suggestions while avoiding explicit declarations in almost all of her pieces and as such becomes a contemporary obscurantist without appearing vacuous of thought. The major examples in this style are I Felt a Funeral in My Brain, I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died and It Was Not Death for I Stood Up. In all these pieces, the speakers refuse to commit explicitly but rather provide hints or suggestions on which the readers can build their interpretations.
Compression as a literary technique implies manipulating the events or narrative such that it becomes extremely short and relatively straightforward. Two of the poems featured in this study can be considered extremely short. These are I Like a Look of Agony and A Toad Can Die of Light. In both cases, the author compresses the events into very few words such that they only express what they have to and the rest is left to the reader’s imagination (Dickinson 13). The result is a short piece with so much brevity and, in Emily Dickinson’s case, often so little clarity. In A Toad Can Die of Light, the speaker describes the place of death for both toads and men without really setting the reader’s mind for it. The result is a half-baked ambush in which neither the event nor the outcome is clarified. The consequence of compression is often uncertainty in that by avoiding the details, the poet leaves the reader uncertain about what they may have meant based on the context of their narrative. I like a Look of Agony is, however, much clearer despite the compression, and the speaker is seemingly willing to commit to the explicitness rather than provide an open-ended suggestion as is custom with Emily Dickinson.
The Element of Doubt
An element of doubt implies providing contrary options where the reader is likely to be confused when picking what to believe. As a major part of the non-committal nature found in the works of most metaphysical poets from the 17th century and beyond, Emily Dickinson often borrows this concept to avoid setting the pace for any thoughts that may be termed as distortive to religious teachings or otherwise. In Because I Could Not Stop for Death, for example, in the 13th line, Dickinson states, “The speaker experiences a quiver and a chill, possibly because of the Dew as explained” (21). However, this also leaves room for the possibility of fear such that despite ‘Death’ being a gentleman, the speaker may have been afraid of him. This poem elevates the status of ‘Death’ while placing an element of doubt hidden under the guise of Dew on their ascension towards what is presumed to be Heaven (Dickinson 11).
Emily Dickinson is a great poet with a rich imagination and knowledge of the relevant literary styles that suit her content. In all her poems on death and immortality, she evokes the reader’s emotions without committing herself by stating explicitly what she wants them to believe. Rather, she applies vague suggestions through deliberate obscurantism, mysterious symbolism, compression, and element of doubt. In so doing, she creates a blurred line between fact and fiction such that the reader has to indulge themselves and cross the line at will rather than relying on the speaker in the poem. Consequently, most of her poems end up invoking deep thoughts, and in some cases, serious debates on the concept of death and immortality. With inspirations like the metaphysical poets of the 17th century who had no boundaries and the symbolist inclination towards ‘fluidity’ in poetry, it follows that Emily Dickinson has a unique style that is not only random but also organized in its context. Thus while others may capitalize on the obscurantist edge in her poetry, it is much clearer and easier for the reader who knows the poet’s cultural and historical context, as well as her inspirations.