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The theme of death in Emily Dickinson's poetry


Emily Dickinson's poetry frequently explores the theme of death, often depicting it as a natural and inevitable part of life. She examines death from various perspectives, including its physical, emotional, and spiritual aspects, and uses it to delve into deeper questions of immortality, the afterlife, and the human experience. Her work portrays death both as a moment of transition and a profound mystery.

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What is the motif of death in Emily Dickinson's poetry?

This question has been asked and answered many times on eNotes.  Here is a comprehensive link for you:

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What is the motif of death in Emily Dickinson's poetry?

The motif or theme of death was evident in much of Emily Dickinson's poetry. "Because I Could Not Stop for Death" is one of Emily's poems which explains why she wrote about death so often. In this poem, the narrator or speaker of the poem states that death is kind in that death kindly stopped for her:

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;

Emily writes about death as if he were her friend. The carriage drove slowly, just the two of them. She seemed to have no fear of death. This is one reason she could write about it so comfortably.

Emily wrote about death often. She did not seem to fear death. She visualized death. She heard a fly buzz when she died. In this poem, "I Heard a Fly Buzz--When I Died," Emily had to have taken time to imagine what it would be like to be dead. In this poem, she describes with detail what she had witnessed so often--death. To hear a fly buzz during death would mean the room was so quiet. That is exactly how Emily described death with extreme detail:

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 –
Clearly, the speaker is not in any kind of anguish. In fact, the tone is matter-of-fact like. Death is ordinary:
The speaker's tone is calm, even flat; her narrative is concise and factual.
No doubt, Emily has a comfortableness with death in that she has written about it as an everyday event. There is no doom and gloom in her poetry about death. Death is a welcomed relief for some. Perhaps, Emily too secretly desired to die and let the world pass her by as it does when she is in the carriage in "Because I Could Not Stop for Death." The slower pace of death could be a welcomed sight for those who have labored continuously.

We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labour, and my leisure too,
For his civility.

Here, death is civil. There is no gruesomeness in death. Death is as a kindly neighbor who just so happened to pass by. Perhaps, Emily is preparing herself for death. Perhaps, she is is writing about death to rid herself of any fears. Either way, Emily is not in pain at the thought of death.

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What is the theme of death in Emily Dickinson's poetry?

One Emily Dickinson poem that is widely studied for its references to death is 'Because I Could Not Stop For Death.' The poet goes on from this title phrase to add that Death 'kindly' waited for her. Many readers have commented that in this light and casual style of writing, Emily Dickinson appears to treat the idea of death with disregard and nonchalance. Nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, in many of her other poems she speaks far more warily and thoughtfully about death, about the long approach to it and about what may lie beyond. Emily Dickinson spent much time reflecting and contemplating ideas of spirituality, so is unlikely to have written about death disrespectfully. It is more likely that she chose the nonchalant style purposefully, perhaps to illustrate the carefree attitudes we have to life - until it is 'time to stop for death.' We must reflect upon it long before that.

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What is Emily Dickinson's view on death as depicted in her three poems?

In the first two poems you list—"I died for beauty" and "Because I could not stop for Death"—Dickinson approaches death in an almost casual way. In both poems, the speaker seems somewhat comfortable with the idea of death and treats it as almost an extension of life. We see the speaker engaging in fairly normal activities that seem to lessen the seriousness and intensity of what we imagine of death. For instance, taking a carriage ride in the latter poem or having a conversation and forming a bond with another person in the former.

In "Because I could not stop for Death," Dickinson describes Death as a gentleman who takes her on a nice carriage ride. She travels across her life, and when she reaches her grave, it is described as like a home:

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

The grave is "a House" with a "Roof" and "Cornice," which makes it seem just like her new dwelling place rather than like something threatening. In "I died for beauty," the speaker has a conversation with the person in the grave next to her who died for truth. They decide they are "brethren" since the two concepts "are one." The final stanza begins with the speaker noting:

And so, as kinsmen met a night,
We talked between the rooms

This again figures the grave as a normal dwelling place for the living, where people gather to hold perfectly normal conversations with people in their family. The graves are their "rooms."

On the other hand, both poems also end with a statement about eternity and time that leaves the reader with a bit of a sinister undertone. The two lines quoted above are followed with:

Until the moss had reached our lips,
And covered up our names.

We can only imagine how long their discussion lasted (years? centuries?), but we also know that at some point it comes to an end. The fact that their graves are now covered by moss also means enough time has passed that people living probably don't know them or remember them any more. That seems to be the true end of "life" or existence. Similarly, in "Because I could not stop for Death," the speaker wonders at the passing of time by saying:

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

Again, this speaker considers how long "Eternity" could be, but she also recognizes a sort of paradox (in that it feels like it's been forever but then not that long at all). Both poems reference the passing of time and the different conceptions of time that the soul may experience after death.

"My life closed twice before its close" stands out a bit from the other two poems. In this poem, the speaker seems to be talking about events in her mortal life that seemed like the end of her life—some tragic change: loss, the end of a relationship, etc. She begins:

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

The words "its close" seem to refer to her literal death while the other two closures seem to have happened while still alive. It's possible that the speaker knows when she dies, so that could indicate she is speaking from beyond the grave as the speakers in the other two poems also do.

The next stanza continues the central idea of the poem—that life can offer experiences that feel like death:

So huge, so hopeless to conceive,
As these that twice befell.
Parting is all we know of heaven,
And all we need of hell.

The speaker wonders if death could be any worse, any more "hopeless," than her previous experiences. Again, this poem seems to take a different approach in considering how loss makes life feel like death, while the other two poems speak more literally on what might happen after actual death.

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What is the theme of death in 19th-century American poetry, specifically in Emily Dickinson's works?

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:

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What are the major themes in Emily Dickinson's poetry?

Emily Dickinson's work is certainly famous for a number of different reasons. Key themes that abound in her work and have been amply documented are death, love and marriage and the way that her poems try to define experiences and objects that otherwise escape definition. However, I am going to respond to your question by talking about the theme of Nature. I have previously responded to other questions about the theme of death in Dickinson's work, and if you search in this group you will probably find a number of different responses, including mine.

A number of the poems of Emily Dickinson centre on the relationship between the natural world and the human. What is interesting about Dickinson's presentation of nature, however, is the way that she presents it as a projection of an internal drama or as an antagonist that has real body and shape. Whilst Dickinson did have a real respect for and love of nature, which is made clear in such poems as "How the Mountains drip with Sunset," it is hard to ignore that more often nature is presented as being indifferent or threatening. Consider how the indifference of nature is presented in "Apparently with no surprise" and how nature is viewed as incredibly threatening and disturbing in "A narrow Fellow in the Grass." Also note how, contrary to Romantic poets, nature, for Dickinson, does not heal or bring comfort to the soul. In "I dreaded that first Robin, so," nature does not alleviate the internal pain of the speaker. It only makes it more acute by its indifference to her suffering.

Therefore, when considering the theme of nature in Dickinson's work, it is important to look beyond the Romantic sensibilities of authors such as Wordsworth and see how nature assumes an altogether more sinister and indifferent shape.

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What is the theme of death in Emily Dickinson's poems?

Emily Dickinson's theme of death in her poetry is three-fold:

In "I like a look of Agony," the speaker prefers death and suffering to its alternative, saying that "men do not sham Convulsion / Nor simulate, a Throe--".  In other words, death is the great equalizer: it elicits honesty, humility, and religious devotion.  Death is viewed as a necessary adjunct to life.

"I heard a Fly buzz--when I died--" shows that the speaker is not so sure that there is an afterlife.  The fly is a symbol of death and decay, a morbid reminder that the speaker will soon be worm food.  It also symbolizes a fear that death may be the end-all, that there is no spiritual transcendence or afterlife.  Death is viewed with fear here.

In "Because I could not stop for Death--" the speaker personifies Death as a gentleman carriage driver who shows her stages of her life.  Here, the speaker seems prepared to spend the rest of her life dead.  Together with Eternity, also personified, they travel to her grave--her final dwelling house.  Death is viewed with acceptance here.

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How is death used as a theme in Emily Dickinson's poems?

Death is a major theme in many of Dickinson's poems.  As some have noted, Dickinson is a poet of the interior life; she almost never mentions anything going on in the outside world, the world of politics, the world of sociology.  She has several different and interesting poems about death.  Perhaps the best known is "I heard a fly buzz when I died."  One of the odd things is that the author is writing the poem after he/she is dead.  (She does the same thing in "Because I could not stop for death.")  In some ways it's a horrible poem.  In the most significant "event" in a person's life, in the moment where we might expect the angels to come for our souls, this person is greeted by a fly.  Flies are often associated with carrion; they are annoying; they are certainly not what most of us would like to be surrounded by on our deathbeds.  Flies are also associated with Beelzebub, Satan's chief lieutenant in Hell ... the "Lord of the Flies."  Is the fly the horrible alternative to the angel?

"Because I could not stop for death" presents another, more accepting view of death.  Despite her/our business with the things of life, even if you cannot stop for death, he will "kindly" stop for her.  In this poems, she travels slowly toward eternity, passing experiences in her life until she arrives at her tomb, which she calls a "house."  There is none of the horror of the previous poem, just a great sense of inevitability.  And I am out of words ....

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What is the theme of death in Emily Dickinson's poems?

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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What is the theme of death in Emily Dickinson's poems?

Present day reception of Emily Dickinson's somewhat morbid and obsessive focus on the theme of death is distorted by our lack of appreciation of how current the topic of death was in her life and times. During her life, death was a constant preoccupation. People died from a variety of diseases, such as tuberculosis and pneumonia. Likewise, even childbirth and pregnancy were potentially fatal conditions in those days. Thus death was far more in the public consciousness compared to the taboo subject that we have made it today.

However, within this focus on death, it is important how Dickinson brings her customary wit and irony to play in examining death from a variety of different standpoints. For example, in "I heard a Fly buzz--when I died--" the traditional idea of death as a release from the pains and sufferings of life and the way in to eternal paradise in heaven is probed by the appearance of a "fly" with all of its connotations with death and rotting corpses. Death is likewise personified in a number of different ways that challenges the stereotypical representation of death. Most famously, of course, Death is personified as a polite gentleman caller in "Because I could not stop for Death," but also as a dangerous, threatening yet passionate figure in "Death is the supple Suitor."

So, whilst we can definitely say death is a major theme in her work, we would do a horrendous injustice to treat this as some kind of obsessive necrophilia. Dickinson explores the one unknown territory of humanity in a multifaceted approach that questions, challenges and pokes fun at the way death was considered in her day, and indeed in our day today.

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