illustrated portrait of English poet Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson

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Analyze the portrayal of death in Emily Dickinson’s poetry.

In her poetry, Dickinson uses personification and metaphor to portray death as a friend or safe state of being, perhaps reflecting her compromised health and need to overcome fear of death. In “Because I could not stop for Death,” the narrator shares a carriage with Death, who “kindly” stops for her. She uses metaphor and irony to describe the dead as “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers,” where no harm can come as they await the Resurrection.

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Death is a theme that appears frequently in Emily Dickinson’s poems. The Emily Dickinson Museum points out that religious focus at the time the poet wrote often was on preparation for death, particularly as life expectancy was much shorter then. Moreover, as Dickinson grew up in a house that was situated next door to the town cemetery, this might also have contributed to her seeming preoccupation with death. Her compromised health during the years leading up to her eventual death in 1886 at the age of fifty-five was also another likely contributing factor. At the same time, she also suffered the loss of several friends during her later years.

Death is often personified in her poems, presented as entering the person’s life almost as a benign newcomer or even a friend. Perhaps this reflects her ill health and her sense that she wished to be done with suffering. Perhaps it was her way of coping with the thought that death would soon be upon her and calming her fear about this.

In one of her most famous poems, “Because I could not stop for Death,” Death is a fellow passenger and, in fact, the driver of the carriage the narrator and Death share. The narrator notes that Death “kindly” stops for her, which might allude to the pain Dickinson felt in real life because of her failing health. Perhaps attributing human traits to death enabled Dickinson to overcome the fear she felt about it.

Moreover, metaphor associated with death might be another tool she used to try to understand and accept the inevitability of death, particularly in light of her poor health. In “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,” Dickinson likens the terrible pains associated with her medical maladies—she suffered severe pains associated with an eye disease that was diagnosed when she was in her mid-thirties and was extremely sensitive to light—to the heavy thuds, footsteps, and sounds associated with a funeral following death. Anyone who has ever suffered from severe headaches can recognize the symptoms.

Here, Dickinson uses death’s funeral rituals as metaphors for the heavy impact that light and sound can have on a person suffering from severe headaches, as she likely was at the time. The funeral is in her brain, which is also the seat of the severe headaches and close to her eye ailments. The mourners are pacing “to and fro” and causing her great suffering.

In “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers,” she uses metaphors again, describing the dead, or “meek members of the Resurrection,” as sleeping within a “Rafter of Satin and Roof of Stone” to denote their graves. The use of the word safe in connection with the dead is also interesting and perhaps ironic, as the author conveys that no harm can come to them now. This is likely another example of the poet trying to accept, perhaps even embrace, death in an effort to overcome fear.

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