Crossing Over with Emily Dickinson: Three Poems on Death & Transcendence

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For decades, Emily Dickinson has prevailed as one of the foremost literary legends in recent history. The extraordinary volume of work she produced throughout her quiet life has prompted the fabrication of rich mythology, based on speculations about her poetic motivations and her elusive character. The majority of scholarly writings on Dickinson describe her as a death-obsessed recluse, a grim combination of attributes that leads one to associate her with misery and morbidity (White). However, Connors' celebratory essay on the life and times of Dickinson paint her in a different light, emphasizing the metaphysical aspects of her writing as a reflection of her vivid spirituality and reverence for "Life, Nature, Love, Time and Eternity" (625). Indeed, when examining the breadth of her writings, there does surface a common narrative of subtle despair and an unmistakable preoccupation with death. Still, Connors' optimistic substitution of the word "Eternity," presumably in place of the word "Death," is validated by the surprisingly peaceful undertones present in three of Dickinson's most revered poems about death: "I felt a Funeral, in my Brain"; "I heard a Fly buzz—when I died"; and "Because I could not stop for Death."

In "I felt a Funeral, in my Brain," the narrator describes a funeral scene that is playing out in her own mind. While the imagery is precise and indicative of what many associate with customary funerals—most notably, the mourners treading "to and fro," milling about before being seated for the service which beats "like a drum"—the narrator never reveals for whom or what the funeral is being held. It has been postulated that the funeral happening in the narrator's mind is a symbolic service for the death of her own common sense, however, the final lines of the poem indicate a greater amount of clarity than one might expect from a narrator who is presumably slipping into madness:

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,

And I dropped down, and down -

And hit a World, at every plunge,

And Finished knowing - then - (17-20)

While it is understandable that a line like "...a Plank in Reason, broke," may lead readers to believe that this implies the narrator's loss of reason, is it not uncommon in the human condition to experience at least a temporary lack of logic in the wake of a loved one's death? If this is true, it is possible then that the narrator is internalizing an actual death by observing the funeral in her own mind and, as the first line of the poem suggests, deriving real physical sensations from doing so. The above passage describes the narrator falling "down, and down," and hitting a "World, at every plunge," an image that—for those who have had intimate encounters with death—is reminiscent of the mania that takes hold in such moments. The different "Worlds" that the narrator encounters at "every plunge," describe the range of emotions experienced during the aftermath of a significant loss.

In the end, though, the narrator develops a sense of "knowing." Dickinson herself lived through numerous significant deaths and it is safe to assume that, like any other human being, she emerged on the other side of mourning having learned something new about the complexities of love and death (Connors 632; White). In this light, the poem becomes less about the pain and anguish that accompanies death, and more about the strange descent into grief that culminates into a subsequent "knowing"—it is about the rise after the fall. Often, in Dickinson's poetry, the fall can be so weighty that it is hard to identify the ensuing rise. However, this is generally the movement of even her darkest poems.

Another fantastic example of Dickinson's penchant for delicately folding lightness into the macabre themes of much of her poetry can be found in "I heard a Fly buzz—when I died." The narrator of this poem, while on her deathbed, catches sight of a fly that obstructs her view of "the light." While this at first portrays the fly as a potentially menacing figure—putting itself in the narrator's path of ascent—it is important to note Dickinson's connection to and admiration of nature and all things in it (Connors 627). With this in mind, it becomes easier to view the fly as more of an usher than an obstruction, especially after the narrator pays special attention to the behavior of the people in the room, as well as the dispersal of her worldly possessions:

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 - (5-12)

The fact that the narrator, even in such a short poem, allots space to the mention of willing away the "assignable" portions of herself emphasizes her withering attachment to the living world and all of the tangible things in it. Even "the light" is a human construct, invented to assign some semblance of physicality to the act of dying. Then comes the fly, a representative of the natural world—a small creature, selected perhaps to exemplify the otherworldliness of all natural entities regardless of size—interfering with the narrator's preconceived ideas of what the process of dying truly entails. It is almost as if the fly arrives to set the record straight, to lead the narrator away from the construction of "the light," and toward the peaceful eternity that is death.

In this context, the poem becomes a manifestation of Dickinson's faith, both in God and in nature, as it indicates what Connors refers to as a "reverie [that] asserts itself in a form of transcendental thinking, drawing her away from worldly interests to an awareness of Order and the Divine Plan" (629). If it is possible that Dickinson was capable of seeing God in all natural things, it would make sense that the narrator of her poem is escorted into the afterlife by something so seemingly insignificant as a fly. Again, death is expressed as a rising action (it may not even be a coincidence that there are relevant, alternative meanings to the word "fly"), as opposed to a frightful descent into nothingness.

To be sure, nature plays a comparably dominant role to the portrayal of death in Dickinson's poems, and they are similarly personified via the same sort of tender compassion—as is the case in "Because I could not stop for Death." In this poem, the narrator is greeted by Death, who comes to her in the form of "a gentleman who stops and offers a ride in his carriage" (Connors 632; White). On her ride, the narrator observes children playing at recess, "Fields of Grazing Grain," and finally, the sunset. The carriage draws near to a house that is nothing more than a mere "Swelling of the Ground," an elegant way to describe her arrival at her grave. It is the final stanza that is particularly chilling:

Since then – 'tis Centuries – and yet

Feels shorter than the Day

I first surmised the Horses' Heads

Were toward Eternity – (21-24)

These last lines imply that this is perhaps being relayed to the reader from beyond the grave, that the narrator has taken the form of a "friendly spirit," much like the fly from the poem discussed above (Connors 627).

More overwhelming than the imagery and themes of this poem is the unexpected sense of peace and ease accompanying the narrator on her journey alongside Death. It is important to note that death is not a state at which she arrives; Death is her companion, leading her "toward Eternity." Dickinson's gentle, accommodating imagining of Death does not come as a surprise, considering the previous discussion of her devotion to nature. There is perhaps nothing more natural than death, and her lack of fear is a testament to her profound understanding of the interconnectedness of all things—the tangible and the intangible.

Of course, the assumption that Dickinson nurtured this "profound understanding" is merely the author's opinion. The aforementioned "elusive" quality that she possessed in life has led—and continues to lead—scholars and bibliophiles alike to draw their own conclusions about her work and her overall personality. As discussed in White's analysis of the "Major Trends in Dickinson Criticism," many have "attempted to link the poems with what they [know] of Dickinson's personal life, which [is] mostly gleaned from rumors and half-truths—an impulse that persists to this day." Truly, even the literary analyses presented in this paper possess virtually unfounded assumptions regarding Dickinson's motives and beliefs. However, considering how little is known of her, designing judgments about her personal life based on the nuances of her poetry is practically an indispensable component of Dickinson scholarship.

Her feeling toward death, in particular, is a consistently hot topic, as so much of her writing is concerned with death and the process of dying. Though this cannot be stated with absolute certainty, it does seem that death is one area in which Dickinson's poetry speaks quite clearly about her personal feelings—especially in the case of " Because I could not stop for Death." Her inclination to liken Death to a kindly man in a carriage and the process of dying to a leisurely ride through the country indicates her lack of fear and, along with that, the possession of an almost kindred relationship with Death as a figure. This again brings into question how much of her presumably darker, morbid poetry is actually about death. While it certainly plays an integral role in Dickinson's poetry, the subject of death is almost undoubtedly a vehicle for her to express her unique perspective on life and the transcendental connection between all things.

Works Cited

Connors, Donald F. "The Significance of Emily Dickinson." College English 3.7 (1942): 624-633. Print.

Dickinson, Emily. "Because I could not stop for Death – (479)." Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, n.d. Web. 16 Feb. 2014.

Dickinson, Emily. "I heard a Fly buzz - when I died - (591)." Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, n.d. Web. 17 Feb. 2014.

Dickinson, Emily. "I felt a Funeral, in my Brain, (340)." Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, n.d. Web. 16 Feb. 2014.

White, Fred D. "Major Trends in Dickinson Criticism." Salem Press. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Feb. 2014.