Please could you analyse the theme of death in Dickinson's poetry.

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accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Certainly Emily Dickinson is renowned for her rather morbid sensibilities and her preoccupation with death. However, present day readers need to understand that health issues at her time made death a far more common-day preoccupation for those of Dickinson's generation than ours. Also, other critics have argued that death was such a part of the culture of Dickinson's time that it is only natural that a culture that romanticised death and mourning should impact Dickinson's work so greatly. Of course, this is very different for us, because in our culture death is something of a taboo and ignored as far as is possible.

However it is important to consider how Dickinson actually goes against the cultural flow of death in her work. Along with other topics, what she achieves in her poetry is a domestication, exaggeration and inversion of death. Quite daringly, even the traditional religious view of death as a release from life and as a reward of immortality is questioned. We are presented with an ironic treatment of such ideas in "I heard a Fly buzz--when I died--," when the audience in the room where the speaker is dying expects rapturous divine revelations, but all that happens is "There interposed a Fly--." The fly is a symbol of what will happen to the body, and thus Dickinson mockingly suggests the only fate that will await us all.

Dickinson gives a full treatment of death in her poetry, considering the physical, psychological and emotional aspects of what is for all of us a hidden or undisclosed experience. She unflinchingly considers the changes death causes on the body in "I Like a look of Agony," and the impact of death on observers in "The Last Night that she Lived." She even goes as far as imagining her own death. Death is likewise frequently personified to challenge our idea of who death actually is and what it is like. This is most famously done in "Because I could not stop for Death," but it is also done far more terrifyingly in "Death is the supple Suitor." It is perhaps amazing for Dickinson to focus so much of her work on the one truly unknowable experience that is beyond the realms of our knowledge and depict its many possible faces.

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