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An analysis of death and mortality in Emily Dickinsons poetry

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. (816)
- Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson led one of the most prosaic lives of any great poet.
At a time when fellow poet Walt Whitman was ministering to the Civil War
wounded and traveling across Americaa time when America itself was
reeling in the chaos of war, the tragedy of the Lincoln assassination, and
the turmoil of ReconstructionDickinson lived a relatively untroubled life in
her fathers house in Amherst, Massachusetts, where she was born
in 1830 and where she died in 1886.
Dickinson is simply unlike any other poet; her compact, forceful
language, characterized formally by long disruptive dashes, heavy iambic
meters, and angular, imprecise rhymes, is one of the singular literary
achievements of the nineteenth century. Her aphoristic style, whereby
substantial meanings are compressed into very few words, can be
daunting, but many of her best and most famous poems are
comprehensible even on the first reading. During her lifetime, Dickinson
published hardly any of her massive poetic output (fewer than ten of her
nearly 1, 800 poems) and was utterly unknown as a writer. After Dickinsons
death, her sister discovered her notebooks and published the contents,
thus, presenting America with a tremendous poetic legacy that
appeared fully formed and without any warning.

Death was important to Emily Dickinson. Out of some one thousand and
seven hundred poems, perhaps some "five to six hundred" are concerned
with the theme of death; other estimates suggest that the figure may be
nearer to a half.
Among these are many of her best loved and critically
acclaimed poems, for example, "Because I could not stop for Death." and
I heard a fly buzz-when I died. The reason why the death theme was so
important to Emily Dickinson remains a topic for criticism and debate. As
do the influences that inform it: aspects of a general cultural inheritance,
including the Bible, seventeenth-century American Puritanism and the
English 'metaphysical' poets, the religious reformer Jonathan Edwards, and
the ethical legacy of nineteenth-century reform sentiment with its links to
Transcendentalism. Or we may look to more personal circumstances: a
self-immurement, geographical, physical, existential, and strategic. The
answer remains a matter of critical emphasis. Whatever the reasons, Emily
Dickinson's poems of death remain amongst the most powerful and well-
known of her work.

A close reading of Dickinsons poems indicates that the best of her poems
revolve round the theme of death. Being a mystic she believes in the
deathlessness of death. In fact if death is to be assigned any position in her
world then it will be second only to God. Death is a free agent; it is evergreen
and all powerful. All the man-made creations perish with the passage of time. All
the kingdoms fall except death. This undoubtedly confirms the immortality of
death and reinforces its divine nature. The gradual encroachment of death
upon living beings imposed the only philosophically meaningful relationship
between man and nature, the soul and the body:

Death is a Dialogue between
The Spirit and the Dust. (976)

This particular theme begins in her early poetry and persists in her later poetry.
She does not pursue death with a single attitude; it varies in tone from elegiac
despair or horror at bodily decay to exalted and confident belief. For her Death
is an unsolvable mystery. As she says in one of her poems:

Death leaves us homesick, who behind,
Expect that it is gone
Are ignorant of its concern
As if it were not born. (935)

I will examine the representation of death in her poetry, focusing upon "I heard a Fly buzzwhen I
died," where I will show how Dickinson investigates the physical process of dying and Because I
could not stop for death --, where I will show how she personifies death and presents the process of
dying as simply the realization that there is eternal life.

Salamatullah Khan makes two divisions of death poems: where death is
described by the external appearance and signs, and where she imagines
death happening to her as an experience.

It seems that she had studied death from every conceivable angle and
expressed this wisdom in poems after poems. She presented death not as one
who would cringe away from it in terror. She rather presented it with
philosophical detachment and blatant realism. She accepts death as a physical
fact, as a material truth. The most fascinating aspect of her poems on death is
the presentation of death as a character.
Salamatullah Khan remarks : From the earliest poems one notices the
personifications of death, sometimes as a fairy or a ghost, till he develops into a
solid state oriental potentate with the traditional splendor of his bearing, court
and state gathering. John B. Pickard in the same tone observes: Throughout,
death is seen from various perspectives: as a welcome relief from lifes tensions;
as a force which heightens ones satisfaction with life; as a lover gently
conveying one to hidden pleasures; as a cynical caller who poses beneath a
cordial exterior; and finally as a solemn guide leading one to the threshold of

I heard a Fly buzz - when I died -
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air -
Between the Heaves of Storm -

The Eyes around - had wrung them dry -
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset - when the King
Be witnessed - in the Room -

I willed my Keepsakes - Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable - and then it was
There interposed a Fly -

With Blue - uncertain - stumbling Buzz -
Between the light - and me -
And then the Windows failed - and then
I could not see to see -
Emily Dickinson, I Heard a Fly buzzwhen I died from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas
H. Johnson. Copyright 1945, 1951, 1955, 1979, 1983 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Reprinted
with the permission of The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Source: The Poems of Emily Dickinson Edited by R. W. Franklin (Harvard University Press, 1999)

I heard a Fly buzz - when I died describes the deathbed experience. Like
many of her poems, I heard a Fly buzz when I died has a speaker who
communicates to the reader from beyond the grave. This poem, however,
unlike Because I could not stop for Death, is focused not on what comes after
deatheternity and the afterlifebut instead is focused on the actual rites of
dying, of having ones last moments. Indeed, this poems only dealings with the
question of afterlife and eternity come in the fact that the speaker is speaking
from beyond the grave, and in order to speak must have some kind of existence
after death.
The clues that the death scene itself is the most important element of the poem
is clear for several reasons. First, the poem is entirely located in a roomeven in
its metaphors, the perspective does not leave the room, with the only exception
being the imagined still air between the Heaves of Storm, which is a generic
enough image not to pull the reader out of the bedroom. In addition, Dickinson
repeats the phrase in the Room, in the first and second stanzas, making sure
the reader has not wandered away from this setting.
Finally, the flys importance also emphasizes this focus on the process of death.
Were it the afterlife, faith, or the journey to eternity that proved most important,
the fly would be a minor character; but it is, instead, the only significant
character besides the speaker in the poem and the character that best
represents the poems climactic moment. Its significance is so apparent that it
comes between the speaker and the light" -- this small, very earthly bug thus
supplants spirituality and the afterlife.
This bug and its consequences ultimately represents the speakers inability to
hold on to spirituality, faith, or hope, in the face of death. The speaker is
participating in a common deathbed ritual of the timepeople would, as the
end came near, will away their possessions, followed by a kind of climax where
they would announce the presence of God or of some spirit ready to take them
to the next life, before they died, and all of this before an audience of their
close friends and family.

Dickinson creates a tense situation by contrasting the immobility of the dead
with the mobility of the living and external growth of Nature.I heard a fly buzz
when I diedcontrasts the expectations of death with its realistic occurrence. A
small, trivial fly nullifies the traditional Christian belief that leads to eternal
happiness. The pun in signed and Assignable ironically illustrates deaths
supreme power, for only worthless documents, empty phrases, curious
momentous, and a corrupting body can be left behind. The irony increases as
the soul precisely arranges everything and waits confidently for death. Now the
grand moment is at hand, but unfortunately a fly interrupts the ceremony:

I heard a Fly buzz when I died
The stillness in the Room
Was like Stillness in the Air
Between the Heaves of Storm (1-4)

The speaker is lying on her death bed in a still room, surrounded by loved ones
who have been weeping and who recognize that the moment of death is at

The Eyes around - had wrung them dry
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset (5-7)

Death is personified as a male being; she and her loved ones are waiting for :

when the King / Be witnessed - in the Room (5-6).
The speaker is speaking only up to the moment of death, which is not depicted
symbolically as a carriage ride to a graveyard, but as a conventional deathbed.
The actual moment of death is described: one sense fails, sight, and one sense,
hearing, briefly become more intense:

and then it was
There interposed a Fly
With Blue - uncertain - stumbling Buzz
Between the light - and me
And then the Windows failed - and then
I could not see to see - (11-16)
At the moment of death, sound interposes itself between the light of life
perceived by sight, and then sight fails completely. The moment of death is
described as the intense sound of buzzing and the dying of the light. The ending
is abrupt but the end punctuation is not a period or full stop, only a dash.

Dickinsons speaker succeeds in willing away her objects, but she is distracted by
the idea that not all of her is assignablepresumably, this unassignable part
being her spirit or soul. Just as she has this thought, and thus is likely close to
seeing the light and announcing that the King/Be witnessed in the Room
, she is interrupted by the fly. This fly, which reminds us of the most physical
aspects of death, the rotting and decomposition of the corpse, stands between
the speaker and the spiritual light. While physicality distracts the speaker from
a final revelation, however, the poem does not say that all hope should be lost,
for the speakers very ability to write this poem means that there is an afterlife,
after all.
Mortality is definitely the big theme in "I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died," its whole
reason for existing. Dickinson uses the poem to explore all kinds of things about
death. She thinks about how it might feel, how it tends to happen, what we
expect from it, etc. She looks at the idea from a bunch of different angles
before, during, and after the moment of death and maybe tries to get us to
think about it in new ways.

The sense of time in I heard a Fly buzz - when I died is different than in
Because I could not stop for Death. This poem describes a moment or two, an
instant in time that is experienced and described intensely and then is over. It is
a poem of a moment: the moment of death. The ending can be interpreted in
two ways. It can be seen as not implying a full stop to life and, therefore, may
suggest there is a continuation after the moment of death. But it can also be
seen as an abrupt end.


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 grew 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 but a mound.
Since then 'tis centuries, and yet each
Feels shorter than the day
I first surmised the horses' heads
Were toward eternity.

Because I could not stop for Death describes the process of dying right up to
and past the moment of death, in the first person. This process is described
symbolically. The speaker, walking along the road of life is picked up and given
a carriage ride out of town to her destination, the graveyard and death. The
speaker, looking back, says that she could not stop for Death / [so] He kindly stopped
for her (1-2).
As does "I heard a Fly buzz when I died," this poem gains initial force by
having its protagonist speak from beyond death. Here, however, dying has
largely preceded the action, and its physical aspects are only hinted at. The first
stanza presents an apparently cheerful view of a grim subject. Death is kindly.
He comes in a vehicle connoting respect or courtship, and he is accompanied
by immortality or at least its promise. The word "stop" can mean to stop by for
a person, but it also can mean stopping one's daily activities. With this pun in
mind, death's kindness may be seen as ironical, suggesting his grim
determination to take the woman despite her occupation with life. Her being
alone or almost alone with death helps characterize him as a suitor. Death
knows no haste because he always has enough power and time. The speaker
now acknowledges that she has put her labor and leisure aside; she has given
up her claims on life and seems pleased with her exchange of life for death's
civility, a civility appropriate for a suitor but an ironic quality of a force that has
no need for rudeness.
The third stanza creates a sense of motion and of the separation between the
living and the dead. Children go on with life's conflicts and games, which are
now irrelevant to the dead woman. The vitality of nature which is embodied in
the grain and the sun is also irrelevant to her state; it makes a frightening
contrast. However, in the fourth stanza, she becomes troubled by her separation
from nature and by what seems to be a physical threat. She realizes that the sun
is passing them rather than they the sun, suggesting both that she has lost the
power of independent movement, and that time is leaving her behind. Her dress
and her scarf are made of frail materials and the wet chill of evening,
symbolizing the coldness of death, assaults her. Some critics believe that she
wears the white robes of the bride of Christ and is headed towards a celestial
marriage. In the fifth stanza, the body is deposited in the grave, whose
representation as a swelling in the ground portends its sinking. The flatness of its
roof and its low roof-supports reinforce the atmosphere of dissolution and may
symbolize the swiftness with which the dead are forgotten.
The last stanza implies that the carriage with driver and guest are still traveling. If
it is centuries since the body was deposited, then the soul is moving on without
the body. That first day felt longer than the succeeding centuries because
during it, she experienced the shock of death. Even then, she knew that the
destination was eternity, but the poem does not tell if that eternity is filled with
anything more than the blankness into which her senses are dissolving.
Since then 'tis Centuries and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses' Heads
Were toward Eternity (20-24)

It has become difficult for the speaker to tell the difference between a century
and a day. But she knows it has been Centuries since then, so the implication
is that her consciousness has lived on in an eternal afterlife.That immorality is the
goal is hinted at in the first stanza, where Immortality is the only other
occupant of the carriage, yet it is only in the final stanza that we see that the
speaker has obtained it. Time suddenly loses its meaning; hundreds of years feel
no different than a day. Because time is gone, the speaker can still feel with
relish that moment of realization, that death was not just death, but immortality,
for she surmised the Horses Heads/Were toward Eternity . By ending with
Eternity , the poem itself enacts this eternity, trailing out into the infinite.

Mortality is probably the major theme in this poem. It's all about the speaker's
attitude toward her death and what the actual day of her death was like.
Dickinson paints a picture of the day that doesn't seem too far from the ordinary.
The speaker isn't scared of death at all, and seems to accept it.
On a closer observation, there are two opposite themes Mortality and
Immortality occupy this poem. We find out that the memory of the speaker's
death day is being told centuries into the afterlife. So, in this poem, Dickinson
explores the idea of perpetual life. In this poem there is life after death, which
offers an explanation as to why the speaker's so calm about everything. Death's
not the end, just one step closer to eternity.

Under Emily Dickinsons brilliant composing techniques, this poem attempts to
change peoples perspective of death. Not only is this poem different in mood
from other poems based upon the same theme, it also presents a unique
character of Death that is rarely found in other poems. People are afraid of
death because they are afraid of what will be taken away from them once
death comes. However, in Dickinsons point of view, once you face this great
fear, you will receive great rewards eternity.



~ Peter Nesteruk , The many deaths of Emily Dickinson

~ The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H.

~ Salamatullah Khan, Emily Dickinsons Poetry: The Flood subjects