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Discovering Suicidal Themes in Dickinson's Poetry

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“A Death blow is a Life blow to some” says Emily Dickinson in poem 816 (Dickinson 816). Emily Dickinson did not commit suicide– she died of her numerous medical conditions at the age of 55 in 1886. Her personal life was famously enigmatic, as she spent the later years of her life secluded in her room, having little to no contact with the outside world. This kind of estrangement, coupled with the preoccupation with death evidenced in her poetry and her medical conditions evidenced in her personal correspondence, leads one to believe there may have been something of a suicidal undercurrent in Dickinson’s work.            

In a study published in 2001, in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, an experiment was performed to determine if specific words in poetry could be indicators of a suicidal inclination. The following is an excerpt from the article: Suicide rates are much higher among poets than among authors of other literary forms as well as the general population (1). This phenomenon has variously been attributed to the types of writers who are naturally drawn to poetry as well as to the features of poetry itself. For example, there is retrospective evidence to suggest that many suicidal poets have suffered from some form of depressive disorder throughout their lives (1, 2). Poetry, it has been argued, may be a particularly appealing medium by which to cope with the unpredictable episodes of mood swings (Stirman, and Pennebaker 517). The article goes on to explain the specifics methods of study, and what sorts of trigger words were used to mark potentially suicidal poetry. The trigger words were determined according to two popular theories of what motivates a suicide: Durkheim’s Social Integration/Disengagement model, and the more traditional Hopelessness model. Poetry from eighteen corresponding poets, nine suicidal and nine not, was run through the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) (Stirman, and Pennebaker 517). This is a text analysis program that can be calibrated to look for specific words or phrases.        

In this instance, it was geared to mark words that could indicate the kind of estrangement that is thought to be evidence of a suicidal inclination. I and me were chosen to be signs of estrangement, with we and our chosen as signs of healthy social integration (Stirman, and Pennebaker 518). The trials revealed that suicidal poets use these significantly more often than the surviving poets. Emily Dickinson often employed these trigger words, with numerous examples to be found in her body of work. “I heard a fly buzz – when I died -,” “Because I could not wait for Death,” “I felt a funeral in my brain”– even when Dickinson has company in her poetry, it is decidedly less than cheery (Dickinson). This feeds into the Hopelessness model.         

Death and Grave were two of the words chosen to support the Hopelessness model. These, and other words associated with negativity or despair in general, are theorized to be signs of depression, the kind which could lead to suicide. I have already given a few examples of this in Dickinson’s poetry, and there are many more to be found. One of her poems, 816, seems to be advocating death, if not suicide. A Death blow is a Life blow to Some Who till they died, did not alive become— Who had they lived, had died but when They died, Vitality begun. (Dickinson 816)          

The multiple deaths that occurred among Emily Dickinson’s family and friends during her life are a matter of public record. These make an obvious case for her to be clinically depressed, which often goes to explain the preoccupation with death in her work; or the suicidal undertones, as it were.”‘The Dyings have been too deep for me,’ she wrote in 1884” (Qtd. in Hirschhorn, and Longsworth 309). Other popular explanations addressed are her serious medical conditions, her loss of sight predominantly, and how they may have informed her more macabre poetry.            

It has been proposed that Dickinson’s illness was described in her poetry overtly– that as she began losing her sight, her poetry reflected this malady precisely. For instance, in her poem that begins “I heard a Fly buzz – when I died -,” Dickinson discusses death and dying, but ends with “I could not see to see -” (Dickinson 465). This is likely a reference to her painful affliction of the eyes. So, there is a case for that theory, but the case for the condition more generally inspiring her work is more defensible.

“While she wrote each of her poems with specific events or meanings in mind, and may well have written some to reflect her state of health, the poems are too rich in implication, too subject to multiple interpretation, to function as reliable proof,” (Hirschhorn, and Longsworth 300). The article “Medicine Posthumous: A New Look at Emily Dickinson’s Medical Conditions,” examines Dickinson’s letters and poetry in an attempt to offer a new understanding of her peculiar ailments. The conclusion arrived at is that: In both illnesses, her condition was probably precipitated, or at least aggravated, by the loss of persons vitally important to her. Even with additional clarity about Dickinson’s two major physical problems, however, a central mystery remains, for neither medical condition accounts for Dickinson’s reclusiveness or the marvelous outpouring of her poetry. (Hirschhorn, and Longsworth 316). So, accepting that the tragedies in Dickinson’s life played a large part in her illnesses, it would make sense that they must have been extremely psychologically damaging. It appears that her illnesses stemmed from some manner of depression, as does her poetry.        

While she did not commit suicide, her poems indicate that potential. The instability brought on by the combined curses of the deaths haunting her and her loss of vision seem to have birthed a suicidal undertone in the majority of her work. Poetry is used today as a form of therapy to those with psychological issues, and Dickinson admits herself that “her verses ‘just reliev[ing]’ a ‘palsy’” ( Guthrie 8). I submit that Dickinson’s verses were a way for her to deal with her depression that had resulted from the relentless tragedies and chronic health issues that plagued her– and as such, they carry a noticeable theme of suicide.

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Discovering Suicidal Themes in Dickinson’s Poetry. (2018, April 23). GradesFixer. Retrieved October 20, 2021, from
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