A Close Analysis of Major Themes in Emily Dickinson’s Poetry

Emily Dickinson had many tragic life experiences that influenced her poetry and caused her to commonly write upon the theme of death. “Dickinson’s life was marked by a succession of deaths,” (p. 2502) which caused her to spend the later half of her life in sorrow. She experienced many tragic deaths of people close to her, thus influencing her writing as means of expression and becoming a recurrent theme in her poetry. Although Emily Dickinson wrote about death, she often times wrote about it in peculiar ways such as death as being eternal and continuous but also immortality as a state of consciousness in an eternal present and can be seen in her poems #712, “Because I could not stop for Death-“, #465, “I heard a Fly buzz-when I died-“, and #449, “I died for Beauty-but was scarce”.

Emily Dickinson writes the majority of her poetry during a period of heightened tension during the civil war. Her poem #712, “Because I could not stop for Death-“, is a playful allegory in which death is personified as a gentleman. In the first line she writes, “Because I could not stop for death-/ He kindly stopped for me-,” (ll. 1-2) meaning that she is coming to meet death on his own terms. Usually death is presented as being unavoidable with negative associations, but Dickinson describes her carriage ride as, “I had put away/ My labor and my leisure too,/ For His Civility,” (ll. 6-8). She describes death as being “civil” meaning that death was rather courteous and polite. The way that Dickinson capitalizes “His” gives that line a religious context as well because when writing about God, his name is always capitalized. The next stanza speaks of the many things she passes while riding in the carriage with death. “We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain-/ We passed the Setting Sun,” (ll. 11-12). The carriage ride with death seems to be everlasting as they even pass the setting of the sun, describing the amount of time that is going by as well as specific natural images. In the next stanza she speaks of her dress as, “For only Gossamer, my Gown-/ My Tippet-only Tulle-,” (ll. 15-16). When she talks about her tippet and tulle, it is ambiguous as to whether she is talking about the thin lacy fabric worn at weddings as a veil, or the black lacy mourning veil that women often wear at funerals. Because of the similarity to both, death becomes an extension of life. The next stanza describes, “a House that seemed/ A Swelling of the Ground-/ The Roof was scarcely visible-,” (ll. 17-19). Dickinson uses the “house” metaphor when referring to a sort of tombstone, the house barley above the ground. Usually the carriage ride with death would be a one way ride, but in the end of her poem, she speaks of an “eternity”. She uses a cyclical form when she expresses her carriage ride with death that leads into eternity, making death another extension of life. During the time she was writing, there were a high number of casualties due to the civil war and she seems to naturalize death so that we accept it in an almost sympathetic way.

Although the previous poem was written about a carriage ride of eternal death, Emily Dickinson’s poem #465, “I heard a Fly buzz-when I died-“, is told by a woman who is still speaking and still hearing things upon her death. Because the dead woman can still speak, Dickinson feels that dying is continuous and incessant. This poem is highly ironic and unusual when it is concerned with life’s most serious moments but preoccupied by life’s most trivial of distractions. The first line describes her as she is laying on her deathbed trying to die, surrounded by her family, she claims, “I heard a Fly buzz-when I died-,” (l.1). The poem begins with an unusual and seemingly impossible claim to physically hear a sound as she is dying. A recurrent theme seen in Dickinson’s poetry is that death is an extension of life, and the poet’s claim of sound upon demise clearly represents this theme. The speaker’s family is there to see off their loved one as she lay dying. A moment like this one should be a crucial and most serious moment for any person, but instead there is a fly buzzing around the room. This fly is in effect “stealing the show” and everyone’s attention, because the room, “Was like the Stillness in the Air-/ Between the Heaves of Storm-,” (ll. 3-4). The speaker feels most annoyed at this distraction because, as unexplainable as death is, there are some expectations, such as seeing a bright white light upon entering heaven or seeing and being forgiven by God, yet the speaker only hears a fly buzz, no light, no redemption, no God. The next stanza tells of the family’s patient wait for her death to come. She describes them as, “The Eyes around-had wrung them dry-,” (l. 5). Her family has cried as much as one could cry over losing a loved one and now they are only waiting, “For that last Onset-when the King/ Be witnessed-in the Room-,” (ll. 7-8). In the first part of this line, Dickinson uses an oxymoron by stating “that last Onset”. Last obviously means an “end” while onset means a “beginning”. This paradox between the two cannot be seen as accidental but rather as death being the beginning of eternal life. Dickinson is using a metaphor and comparing the “King” to God. Because both her family and the dying woman are waiting for the king to arrive, the King could be a metaphor for God but also a metaphor for death. This is another example of the poem’s irony because the King comes in the form of a fly. This arrival is most disappointing because there is nothing special or miraculous; it’s only a fly buzzing around the room with no religious ceremonies, no God, but only a dirty fly. It is important that Dickinson uses the animal of a fly because she is referring to death and decay, and flies are always associated with buzzing around a decaying body. A very sad tone can be felt in the next stanza when speaking of the signing of a will. Dickinson writes, “I willed my Keepsakes-Signed away/ What portion of me be/ Assignable-,” (ll. 9-11). At this moment of her closure to her will, “There interposed a Fly-,” (l. 12). Although the fly is used in relation to a King or to God, it doesn’t seem to gain any power or authority and is described in the last stanza as sounding like a, “Blue-uncertain stumbling Buzz-,” (l. 13). Dickinson uses a poetic device here known as synesthesia, describing a sound with a visual color-the buzz is blue. The color blue is also symbolic because it is mostly associated with the sky meaning heaven, or with the ocean which would symbolize tranquility, but it could also symbolize tears or sadness that goes along with the grievance of mourners. The fly’s final act severs the speaker because as she describes the fly, it is, “Between the light-and me-/ And then the Windows failed-and then/ I could not see to see,” (l. 14-16). It is also ironic that the fly is the only sign of life at the end of the poem, as can be seen through its “buzz” that finally cuts off the speaker entirely from “seeing”. But in reality the only sign of vitality and aliveness in the entire poem is the fly.

Dickinson again reiterates her opinions of eternal life after death that can be seen in the first two poems in her poem #449, “I died for Beauty-but was scarce”. The poem is about a man and a woman who are having a conversation while dead about their previous lives and about their failures. Alike “I heard a Fly buzz-when I died-“, dead people are speaking. The first stanza sets up both characters of the poem, both of whom are dead. In the first line of the poem, “I died for Beauty-but was scarce,” (l.1), the first person introduced is the speaker who has died an outsider, one who did not conform to society when she was alive. This can be seen by the usage of the word “scarce”, meaning it was absent or missing from the speaker. Although this speaker was a unique individual during her lifetime, when she died, all her non-conformity was unobserved. In line two, she was “Adjusted in the tomb,” (l. 2) essentially meaning that she in fact did adapt or conform while in death. The next line speaks of the other character, immediately naming him “One who died for Truth,” (l. 3). The narrator introduces the new character with a more admirable tone, using less harsh and more expressive vocabulary with the word “lain” as opposed to “adjusted”. The tone seems softer as if the speaker feels that this person died for a good cause, unlike themselves. Although the speaker feels that this other man has died for a greater cause than herself, it appears to be insignificant because the second character, “was lain/ In an adjoining Room-, (ll. 3-4). The two characters are separated and yet still on the same level. The talking between rooms shows that after death, societal boundaries are no longer as distinguished as in life. In the next stanza, the two characters speak with each other and tell their story of how they died. The man speaks first, again with a soft whispering tone, “He questioned softly “Why I failed”?/ “For Beauty”, I replied-“And I-for Truth-,” (ll. 5-6). It is interesting that the second character asks, “Why I failed?” using the word “failed” rather than “died”. It appears that neither character succeeded in their lives at their attempted accomplishments. The man expresses that both of their faults are the same in death when he says, “Themself are One-/ We Bretheren, are”, He said-,” (ll.5-8). The connection that both characters have, is seemingly made only in death which makes what was done on Earth seem irrelevant. In the third stanza, the two people continue their conversation as equals again seen with the previous “Bretheren” and now with, “And so, as Kinsmen, met at Night-,” (l. 9). The use of “Night” can also be used as a metaphor to symbolize death, as in the two people connected upon their deaths and united as one. In the second line another metaphor can be seen with, “We talked between the Rooms-,” (l. 10). This metaphor can also be seen in line 4 of the poem as one for the distinction between social status and acceptance with each placed inside a different, yet adjoining room. In the last two lines, “Until the Moss had reached our lips-/ And covered up-our names-,” (ll. 9-12) the speaker is really emphasizing the fact that over time, memories of the deceased are slowly overgrown and forgotten. It is trivial if the person was highly honorable or a meek; in death everyone is equal and equally forgotten. The speaker’s yearn for companionship is destroyed within the last few lines when her ability to speak, and also her identity are lost. It is interesting that in Dickinson’s poem #465, “I heard a Fly buzz-when I died-” the only symbol of life in the poem was the fly, and in this poem, the only symbol of life is also in the closing of the poem, the moss.

Although Dickinson lived both in seclusion and in mourning, she was very passionate in her poetry. As can be seen in her personification of Death and her over-simplification of death in poem #712, “Because I could not stop for Death-“, the sounds of a fly’s buzz when dying and the beginning of her everlasting life in poem #465, “I heard a Fly buzz-when I died-“, and the conversation and unification among the dead in poem #449, “I died for Beauty-but was scarce”, reveals that death is the ultimate truth or reality; it makes clear the true nature of God and the state of the soul. It also proves that Emily Dickinson expressed the pain she endured from loneliness and mourning into her poetry, and it is this sublimation of pain, as well as other powerful emotions, into her poetry that has the power to move readers so profoundly.

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