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Considered one the most original and greatest poets of American literature, Emily Dickinson throughout her poetry tries to challenge the reader’s own view of it, often through themes of death, grief, truth, and fame. It is believed that she lived most of her life in isolation, communicating with her friends only through letters and she never married which was unusual for the period in which she lived. She was an extremely prolific writer, writing over 1,800 poems during her lifetime. Still, less than a dozen of them were published while she was alive. Her poems were discovered only after she had died in 1886 by her younger sister Lavinia. Her first collection was published in 1890 but heavily edited by her acquaintances. The first complete and unaltered poetry collection was printed in 1955, when Thomas H. Johnson, a scholar, published them under the name The poems of Emily Dickinson.
This poetry analysis paper will examine the various examples how Dickinson sees death. Often times, death is considered to be the end. It terrifies and awaits all of us, steals a person’s remaining days without giving them a chance to fight back. Is that why people love life so much? Or is it because of the uncertainty death brings us? Living in such a fear, does one live truly? Or do we live especially so we could die and become one with something else? Oftentimes, people think they know the answers to all of these questions or, at the very least, pretend to know the answers. Dickinson never knew these answers and that is why she dedicated many of her poems in hope of answering these questions, which will be brought up in this poetry analysis essay through Dickinson’s three poems: I like a look of Agony (or poem 241), Because I could not stop for Death, and I heard a Fly buzz – when I died.
The first poem analysis on I like a look of Agony. The narrator talks about how they prefer to see pain and agony in people, because that is truthful. Still, the poem evolves around a certain type of agony, and that is the one that precedes Death.
Dickinson does not talk about the inevitability of death, how she would like to escape it or it’s suddenness in a moment we didn’t expect it. It is more about the only moment person can openly be truthful about themselves and they are unable to act out his or her emotions. During life, in hope assimilating and being accepted into a community, people are often compelled to conform themselves to certain norms and to socially accepted behaviour. In a way, people place different masks on their faces so in turn they can control their emotions and actions in every possible situation, so we are not manipulated by others and vice versa.
Still, the only adversary before which every person has to become completely transparent and honest is death. That is the moment in which no mask can hide a person’s true face or their frank emotions. The agony that precedes death, be it pain or pure terror before the unknown, forces every person to tear everything from themselves and show the soul that is hidden underneath. Dickinson shows us that very moment of death’s triumph over a person as a method of freeing the person from Sisyphean labours, shackles and masks that the society has bound them in.
Ironically, death in this poem is not a punishment or end – death is a symbol of freedom. All of the burdens a person is forced to carry through their life are lifted in an instant, at the very moment death occurs. It also gives the poem a rather optimistic tone in a way, which is unusual for Dickinson’s poetry.
The poem also does not make the reader fear death, but rather sparks a certain type of curiosity: could death be seen as some sort of a rebirth? If one is to look through the lenses of religion, it could signify a journey towards heaven as in Abrahamic religions, but it could also signify a kind of reincarnation that can be found in Buddhism and Hinduism. Yet, if religious parameters are set aside, this type of death can be viewed as a soul finally being freed from a mortal body and a person being freed from societal norms and obligations. Could death be seen as a joyful moment if one can accept it in such a manner is the main theme and question of the poem. Death could be seen as this pure, unblemished moment in which a person is allowing themselves to become one with oblivion and perishing.
The second poem in this poetry analysis will be Because I could not stop for Death. On a fundamental level, the poem talks about the stages of the narrator’s life as Death drives her in his carriage to her grave. Death here is a gradual and slow process that takes time, but still inevitable.
In the first stanza, we can see that the narrator has led a hectic life, not even having time to die, therefore Death himself kindly stopped and offered her a ride in his carriage. The second stanza shows us that there is no rush, and in the following stanzas the narrator and Death take a look at the narrator’s life up to that moment until they arrive to a House that seemed a Swelling of the Ground, symbolizing her final resting place, and yet the narrator, knowing that centuries will pass from the moment she steps into her grave, is not scared – for it will feel like only a day flew by to her.
Death in this poem is both personified and not. The personified Death seems like some sort of a gentleman: he has patience, is polite, cordial and kindly offers her a ride. The narrator’s unwillingness to stop for death is actually more than skin deep, since it symbolizes her fear of death, which starts to dwindle away with Death’s arrival. She is now aware that there is no more running away and Death’s respectful and kind treatment of her helps her to move on as they take a ride in his carriage. It is a nostalgic scenery that evokes the reader of the myth that once a person dies, he or she has a flashback of their life. The narrator sees her schoolyard, fields of gazing grain and the setting sun, which all, respectively, symbolize her childhood, her adulthood and her elderhood.
The not personified death is the one the reader encounters in the last two stanzas. It is a grave that looks like a house, which could symbolize that once a person dies their new home is actually their grave. Still, to the narrator, the journey to that new home is a lengthy one, seemingly lasting centuries, even though it actually lasts less than a day and she accepts it, since she is aware that there was no turning back once she accepted the invitation to ride in the carriage.
The last poem that will be analysed is I heard a Fly buzz – when I died. The basic premise is her looking back at the way she died while her loved ones, who plan on taking her inheritance, surrounded her when all of a sudden a fly appeared in the room and disturbed the tranquil passing of the narrator with it’s buzzing and the moment she hears the ‘buzz’ she dies.
In the first stanza, we can see the narrator in the room waiting calmly for her death. Everything is tranquil: the air, the spectators, all, – except for the fly. Like in Because I could not stop for Death, the tones is calm, but here it is otherworldly, almost robotic. Still, a certain feeling of annoyance can be felt while reading the poem, which is aimed directly at the fly buzzing around the room.
The second stanza is also set in the room, but this time aimed at the loved ones that surround the narrator: they were in pain, but now they are also calming down only increasing the ‘intensity’ of the stillness in the room because the ‘Last onset’ is approaching – her last breath is about to be inhaled and exhaled.
The third and fourth stanzas are used to introduce the fly to the reader. The narrator gives away her will when all of a sudden, the fly appears and puts a stop to her peaceful passing. The fly is described in mere fragments, it is blue, uncertain and has a stumbling buzz. The uncertainty of the fly is in direct contrast with the certainty of the narrator that her death is closing in. It could be seen also at a much deeper symbolism – the narrator is certain that the light is close and that her death will be peaceful, but the fly brings uncertainty with it’s stumbling buzz and the fact that it flies right between the narrator and the window of light in the exact moment of the narrator’s death, could symbolize that what comes next is actually uncertain.
The fly can be seen as a symbol of death, but quite an opposite kind of death than in the previous poem Because I could not stop for death. Here, even though the narrator is aware that her passing is imminent and inevitable, she is still surprised and taken aback when it comes, thus, eliminating the possibility of a peaceful death. The very buzzing of the fly could be interpreted as a gathering storm, a type of storm that usually arrives after a particularly lovely period of weather.
Along with that, flies are found on corpses of the recently deceased. Like vultures, flies begin to hoard around the person or animal that is close to death, before finally feasting on their flesh and leaving larvae in the body following the death. When that is taken into consideration, the loved ones that surround the narrator are like flies – they await the death to mourn, but also to finally distribute the inheritance among themselves, as would the flies distribute the corpse among themselves.
Another strong symbol in the poem is the use of hyphens, which is an unusual symbol, not being a word, but a punctuation mark. It could mark the heavy breathing of the narrator, as breathing becomes harder and harder as death inches closer, but, the narrator nevertheless remains calm and still, refusing to be agitated – until the fly arrives. Then the use of hyphens drastically increases: in the first stanza there are four hyphens, the second stanza has five, the third only three, and then, with the emergence of the fly, the narrator starts to breathe faster and heavier and the number of hyphens increases to seven. The poem also ends with a hyphen, possibly symbolising that the narrator did not expect to die there and had more things to say or even increasing the notion that this is not the end of their existence, but it remains uncertain what will happen to them, since there are no more words following the hyphen and the poem ends.
While reading the poetry of Emily Dickinson, I noticed that she always questions things in her life, the greatest thing she questioned was exactly death. Sadly, no one knows what awaits us following life, not even poets like Dickinson who wholeheartedly try to answer that question. Being mortal shows us that we always live at a crossroad, a double life that is never complete and a life that can easily be cut short. If life is all about waiting for the arrival of death and is defined through the relationship with death, then it can never be special. It is intertwined and predetermined with the moment it will perish one day. Thanks to that, a person indirectly becomes aware of his or her own existence and his or her own inevitable end. We change our thoughts, our beliefs and certainties. And not accepting one strong and final belief and view of things are at the heart of Emily Dickinson’s work. Her view of death changes with every new poem she writes. In one death is a symbol of freedom from the shackles of life, in another it is a kind gentleman that gives us time to think about our life and view it once more, while in a third it is a storm that ruins the calmness of our spirit only seconds before it actually arrives. Today we are different from yesterday, and tomorrow we will change once more. Our identity constantly changes and melds itself as we encounter different problems and situations. Emily Dickinson was such a person who would embrace those changes with open arms in both her life and poetry, while at the same time giving and showing us a new way we can read it every time we do.
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