Saturday, May 15, 2010

Emily Dickinson: Dec. 10, 1830--May 15, 1886

It is a tradition among haiku poets to write a death-song, one that offers their last reflection on life here just before they die. Emily Dickson, while she didn't write a death-song, as far as I know, did write several hundred poems about death during her lifetime. I thought it only appropriate to provide one on this day.

Because I could not stop for Death —
He kindly stopped for me —
The Carriage held but just Ourselves —
And Immortality.

We slowly drove — He knew no haste —
And I had put away
My labor — and my leisure too,
For His Civility.

We passed the School where Children strove
At Recess — in the Ring —
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain —
We passed the Setting Sun —

Or rather — He passed Us-
The Dews drew quivering and chill —
For only Gossamer, my Gown —
My Tippet — only Tulle —

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground —
The roof was scarcely visible —
The Cornice — in the Ground

Since then — ‘tis Centuries — and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity —

-- Emily Dickinson --

Death here is personified as a kindly gentleman who clearly is not depicted as a fearsome monster, one to be feared. Her attitude is quite the opposite of Dylan Thomas' as it appears in his "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night."

"Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rage at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

While I haven't read all of her poems about death, none of those that I have read come close to expressing anything similar to Thomas' rage. Death in her poems is just another part of life or a a necessary change.

Comments, anyone?


  1. Emily Dickinson has indeed achieved immortality, or as close as anyone can get. But I think that Dylan Thomas really has the right attitude.

    Or maybe a compromise would be more appropriate. Rage against death, fight it all we can, but remember that it is natural and inevitable,... and that there are worse things. Too much fear of death could lead to terrible, terrible things.

  2. Fred, the Dickinson poem you include is one that I use each semester to introduce students to the accessible complexities of poetry. Throughout her poem, Dickinson employs powerful imagery and metaphor within an intriguing rhythm, similar to 19th century Protestant hymns. Once students understanding the poetic devices and how they work, they more readily embrace and understand Dickinson's wonderful poem about Death. To my mind, though, the equally (and perhaps more) intriguing Death-poem is Dickinson's "I heard a Fly buzz--when I Died." Students jump to conclusions about the fly as a symbol, but--when we examine it more closely--we usually agree that a fly is simply a fly (the creature that feeds on carrion and waste).

  3. The compromise position is probably the one I would like to hold. On the one hand, I have no intention of going easily, but on the other hand, I must also accept it as part of life. Apparently even the universe has a beginning and an end.

    And I agree, the fear of death can have terrible consequences. And, the fear of aging in our society seems to be almost as terrifying to many.

  4. "I heard a fly buzz--when I died" was the other poem I was thinking of posting.

    It has one of the most intriguing lines I've ever read--I can't explain what I get from it as it's more an intuitive grasp than an analytical view. Perhaps it's something like a satori.

    It's the last line of the poem:

    "I could not see to see--"

    What I would have expected was "I could not see" at the end, but that "could not see to see" suggests something inside failed--it wasn't her eyes that stopped seeing but...

    As you can see, I can't put it in words.

  5. Yes, Dickinson frequently leaves readers in suspense at the end of poems. It often seems that there ought to be more, but--for intriguing reasons about which readers can only speculate--Dickinson often abruptly breaks off without continuing. I'm sure Dickinson scholars have much to say about such issues, but I have not read enough in the literature about Dickinson to recall any of the "answers." As for myself, I am content to remain in suspense. That is part of the pleasure of reading Dickinson.

  6. This poem reminds me of the old Twilight Zone episode "Nothing in the Dark", which starred Robert Redford. (You can watch it on You Tube.) An old woman spends most of her life hiding from Mr. Death instead of living her life. In the end he finds her anyway, but he's not as fearsome as she'd imagined. Death says to her "What you feared would come as an explosion, is like a whisper. What you thought is the end, is the beginning." It's one of my favorite episodes.

  7. R. T.,

    In this poem, I think it was highly appropriate that she break off since it presumably is at the moment of death and what happens beyond that nobody really knows, as Omar Khayyam and Edward Fitzgerald frequently point out.

  8. Cheryl,

    I remember that episode and agree--the tone is similar at the end,in spite of her fears. It's a sad ending to some extent also when I think of all that she missed out on during her life.

    I've been watching the old Twilight Zone and Outer Limits shows on DVD recently. That's why I remember that episode.

  9. Ah,but in "Because I could not stop for Death," she fancifully speculates on what awaits after having died. Some people have criticized Dickinson for being morbidly preoccupied with the "D" words (death, despair, depression, etc.), but I rather think she had a remarkable sense of humor about all those "D's."

  10. I've always appreciated Dickinson's talent (and love that poem) but I can identify better with Dylan. I'm going to fight it like a bastard if I can.

  11. R. T.,

    Chuckle...Yes, she does speculate.

    But, one would be hard pressed to find something as explicit as what one might hear from various preachers on any given Sunday. A quiet grave just doesn't have the impact that frying in hell carries.

    She, and Frost also, reminds me of something I read in the Tao Te Ching--

    Those who know do not talk, those who talk do not know.

  12. David,

    I suspect you aren't alone. Fighting against death seems to be hardwired into most species.

  13. R. T.,

    Yes, that's one thing she and Frost have in common--a refusal to stay committed or a tendency to open the subject up at the end.