I need help writing a short essay about the theme of death in nineteenth- century American poetry with some reference to Emily Dickinson.

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The theme of death is one with which many poets have been occupied as the contemplation of death often elicits much complex thought and emotion. Here are some themes that relate to death:

  • Death from battle

With the Civil War having occurred in the nineteenth-century and nearly 620,000 American men having died from combat, disease, and starvation, there was a keen awareness of death among people. Poets such as Walt Whitman and Stephen Crane wrote of these tragic deaths.

One poem by Whitman is "A Sight in Camp" in which the speaker sees three dead soldiers, one older, and one young.

...Young man, I think I know you--I think this face of yours is the face
of the Christ himself;
Dead and divine, and brother of all, and here again he lies. 

In the face of the third dead man, the speaker sees the face of Christ, recalling the words of Jesus from Matthew:25 in the New Testament in which He says to people who have ignored others,

Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brothers, ye have done it unto me.

The injuries to the soldiers are injuries to Christ, suggests Whitman, thus implying the great evil of war.

Stephen Crane approaches the tragedy of war with cynicism as he writes "War is Kind," a satiric piece in which he challenges the reader to perceive the true condition of war. 


....These men were born to drill and die.
Point for them the virtue of slaughter,
Make plain to them the excellence of killing
And a field where a thousand corpses lie.

Mother whose heart hung humble as a button
On the bright splendid shroud of your son,
Do not weep.
War is kind!

The speaker, a chauvinistic military officer, lauds the fallen soldier for dying and fighting for his country because he is now a hero and "war is kind" for having elevated him to this great honor. However, since the reader finds this view serves only the country's goals at the expense of human life, Crane's poem, then, satirizes the heartlessness of governments that sacrifice the lives of men for economic gain.

  • Death as an Awakening

Emily Dickinson writes of death from different perspectives. In one short poem, she perceives some lives as living deaths and death as a liberator: 

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.

  • Death as a Finality

Dickinson points to death as the ultimate finish to all. Her poem is, perhaps, a reminder to herself that all can be changed, repaired, renewed, and reborn but in life, but never in death.

All but Death, can be Adjusted—....

Wastes of Lives—resown with Colors
By Succeeding Springs—
Death—unto itself—Exception—
Is exempt from Change—

Death comes of its own time, as well. In her poem "Because I Could Not Stop for Death," Death arrives as a kind gentleman who drives her to the graveyard. On the way, the poet reviews her childhood, youth, and adult life, arriving at the final stop:

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground--....

Since then--'tis Centuries--and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses' Heads 
Were toward Eternity-- 

In another poem, "The Funeral," Dickinson reflects that all gain attention at their funerals, but would gladly not do so if they could,

That short, potential stir
That each can make but once,....

Is the eclat of death....
That not a beggar would accept,
Had he the power to spurn!

In another poem, "Dying," Dickinson writes of the finality of dying.

  • Life as a Form of Death

The critic Conrad Aiken observed that Emily Dickinson must have thought constantly of death because of the abundance of poems written about it. He writes,

...she...thought of it constantly--she died all her life, she probed death daily. 

In her poem "My life Closed Twice," Dickinson demonstrates her obsession with death:

My life closed twice before its close--
It yet remains to see
If Immortality unveil 
A third event to me

...Parting is all we know of heaven,
And all we need of hell.

The poet experiences the sensations and partings of death on two occasions, feeling that with the partings of death one ironically learns the true value of life while at the same time, one feels the ecstasy of being alive and enjoying life.

There are many more poems on the subject of death by Miss Dickinson at this link:

http://www.online-literature.com/dickinson/poems-series-1/102/

Sources:

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