“Emily Dickinson” - The death motif in the poetry of Emily Dickinson

Seminar Paper, 2009
13 Pages, Grade: 3,0


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. The death motif in the poetry of Emily Dickinson
2.1 General characteristics of death
2.2 Reasons for her interest in death
2.3 The relation between time and death

3. Conclusion


1. Introduction

This term paper deals with the topic ''The death motif in the poetry of Emily Dickinson'' and is written behind the background of the seminar “Emily Dickinson”.

First of all my ambition will be to bring out the impact of death and why it is so difficult to define. Further explanations will be given in the paragraph “General characteristics of death”.

Death has always been a traditional theme for poetry and therefore it is not surprising that it was important to Emily Dickinson too. Five or six hundred poems, dealing with death[1], are proof enough for her enormous interest in this theme. Thus, the question arises why death was so important to her. Reasons for that should be constituted in the paragraph ‘Reasons for Emily Dickinson’s interest in death’. However she could not finally answer the question that she had asked herself, because she tried to find the salvation through imagination and in contrast death is something that one has to experience at least. Moreover, those who actually experienced death are not able to communicate anymore with those who live, so humans can not get any knowledge about death. Therefore one can say that her quest for an answer was doomed to failure from the very beginning.

One problem, she was confronted with while looking for answer, was the difficult time aspect. However, time does not just appear as a reason for her failure, but also as a poetic strategy, a reason for her interest in death and the description of the precise moment of death, which reflects in the central paragraph “The relation between time and death”. In order to point out the importance of time in Emily Dickinson’s poetry about death, my research question will be what different aspects of time affected her poetry and were expressed through her writing. The most difficult thing of the topic will be to relate the time aspects with each other, because they are settled on different levels. Moreover I am going to analyse the poem “A Clock stopped –“ with respect to the time aspect, because it is representative for the importance of time within her death poetry.

My primary source for the poem I used is “The Poems of Emily Dickinson” in the Franklin edition. Relevant secondary literature I used is “The death-Motif in the Poetry of Emily Dickinson and Christina Rossetti” by Claudia Ottlinger and “Emily Dickinson’s Poetry. Stairway of Surprise” by Charles R. Anderson. Moreover I read Peter Nesteruk’s “The many deaths of Emily Dickinson” and “’Death’ in the poetry of Emily Dickinson” by Katharina Ernst.

Finally a conclusion will be drawn in order to summarize my results and to answer my research question.

2. The death motif in the poetry of Emily Dickinson

2.1 General characteristics of death

Death, as the collapse of corporal functions, is what we, as mourners, can observe, when someone dies. But we do not know what effect death on the dying one’s mind has and what will happen to his soul after the life, we are familiar with. That being the case it is this unanswered question, which worries us, what comes after death and if there will be some kind of reunion with all our beloved, lost friends and relatives in heaven. This hope and the necessity to explain death may be the best reason for explaining some kind of religion in every culture, also if they were never in contact with each other.

One tries to determine death by observing the vital signs: If there are no vital signs left, the person seems to be dead, because he can not live without a functioning body. Our definition of death therefore depends on our ability to distinguish death from life and this again is not unproblematic all the time, if we think of misdiagnosed deaths in the past for example. Besides, today there are some apparatuses, which may get back the apparently dead person into life, like the defibrillation apparatus for instance. Thus, we can conclude, that the absence of vital signs is not a sufficient condition to decide whether someone is dead or not.

To sum up, death is not easy to define, because life is not easy to. We are not conscious about being something else than living and therefore the limitation of our mind does not allow us to explore what may come after death, even if we all are interested in this question, for the reason that we all have to die one day.

2.2 Reasons for Emily Dickinson’s interest in death

In order to point out the reasons for Emily Dickinson’s interest in death, one has to demonstrate the cultural and religious circumstances of her time and her own experiences with death, that are relevant to her writings.

Emily Dickinson, as a child of a Puritan father, knew the Bible very well and attended church services regularly, but nevertheless she could not adopt the religion, that had been imposed on her, uncritically: “They are religious – except me – “[2] This quotation is an allusion for her differentiation between herself and the rest of her family regarding to their religious beliefs. In this respect, poetry could have been her way to clarify her religious beliefs concerning an afterlife.

This again is also related to the cultural circumstances of her time: She lived, when the old religious certainty of a life after death was detached by a world dominated by science, which finally neglects an afterlife and emphasizes the physical phenomenon of death[3]. Her interest in sciences like mathematics, natural history or physiology, founded by her superior education at Amherst Academy and Mount Holyoke Female Seminary[4], underlines the changes toward a logically based world, which could not coexist with the religious beliefs of Puritans in this time. Therefore her education, that made her questioning Puritan beliefs, in combination with the general changes in science, is one factor that lead to Emily Dickinson’s interest in death as on one side the metaphysical and on the other side the physical one.

The Dickinson Homestead in Amherst, Massachusetts was the place where Emily lived all life long with exception of fifteen years, when the family lived on Pleasant Street[5]. Emily “could almost daily watch funeral processions passing her home and winding into the cemetery”[6] there from her upstairs bedroom window. Thus, she was reminded of death regularly and consequently may have started thinking about her own death and what may come after it.

Moreover the loss of some schoolmates as well as the death of her mother and father, friends like Samuel Bowles, Josiah Holland, Rev. Charles Wadsworth, Otis Lord and her nephew Gilbert affected her mind deeply[7]. She reported in a letter: “The Dyings had been too deep for me…”[8] The Civil war, that took life from a great number of young men, also supported the poet’s thoughts about the theme. Writing poetry about death was therefore her strategy to cope with the loss of beloved people and her dangling between the belief in an afterlife and the physical explanations for death and what comes after it.

However, “the conjoining of love and death, loss in the grave raising the hope of reunion in heaven, is probably the oldest motivation to a belief in immortality.”[9] Consequently, the loss of beloved friends and relatives may have supported her hope for an afterlife and finally poetry may have been her way to cope with the great losses in life.

Furthermore a very popular cultural genre, which is called “The Sentimental Love religion and the popular gospel of consolation”[10] had influence on Emily Dickinson’s poetry. She adopted for instance the famous Victorian deathbed scenes[11], which were strictly ritualized, and concerned with the physical aspects of dying. The Sentimental Love Religion created “a secular kind of consolation literature”[12], which dealt with tombstones and child-mourners for example.

One might assume, that Emily Dickinson’s ambition, like Johnson already supposed[13], could have been to explore the mystery of death and therefore the metaphysical side, throughout her poetry. Different views on death, expressed through the sub-divisions of death into death of the self and the other, show strengthened her ambition to explore death. By using different modalities, namely the death of the self and that of the other, she achieves, that the reader as well as herself explores death from different perspectives, which, as a result, helps to think about the “uncertain certainty”[14], as she calls death in one poem, in all its varieties.

Death is composed of two contradictory factors: certainty about death, in the way that everyone has to die one day, and uncertainty, regarding to time, place and manner of death and furthermore humans are uncertain about what comes after death.

Another aspect is that the death of oneself is further sub-divided into the process of dying, or rather the time before death, the very moment of death and the moment, that lies behind it. In the last case the mourners and the dead person’s views are separated, whereas emotions and impressions in the other instances are shared by both.

While writing about the death of the ‘other’, one deals with physical matters and the emotions of the viewer, whereas one excites death more closely in those poems, where the ‘self’ is confronted with death in the way of a dying or dead person. This is her way to highlight the pain of separation on both sides: on side of the mourners and on side of the dead ones. Because she just tried to explain what facets death can have, she tried to explore death through her imagination, whereas dying is something that one has to experience at least[15]. Therefore her quest remained unacknowledged until she died herself on May 15, 1886[16].

In conclusion one can say, that not just one, but many factors influenced the great importance the theme of death had to Emily Dickinson: Both general cultural or rather religious circumstances and her own biographical background affected her writing. As a result, one has to analyse her poetry against the background of her life and lifetime.


[1] cf. Nesteruk, Peter. “The many deaths of Emily Dickinson.” In: The Emily Dickinson Journal 6.1. (1997): 25.

[2] Ottlinger, Claudia: The Death-Motif in the Poetry of Emily Dickinson and Christina Rosetti. Frankfurt am
Main: Lang, 1996. 31.

[3] cf. ibid., 31.

[4] cf. ibid., 31.

[5] cf. ibid., 33.

[6] ibid., 33.

[7] cf. ibid., 35.

[8] ibid, 35.

[9] Anderson, Charles R. Emily Dickinson’s Poetry. Stairway of Surprise. Garden City, New York: Anchor Books,
1966. 255.

[10] Ottlinger, 32.

[11] cf. ibid., 32.

[12] Ottlinger, 32.

[13] cf. Nesteruk, 26.

[14] Ottlinger, 46.

[15] cf. ibid., 74.

[16] Farr, Judith. “Emily Dickinson.” Encyclopedia of American Poetry: The Nineteenth century. Chicago: Dearborn. 1998.

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“Emily Dickinson” - The death motif in the poetry of Emily Dickinson
RWTH Aachen University
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Dickinson”, Emily, Dickinson
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Miriam Dauben (Author), 2009, “Emily Dickinson” - The death motif in the poetry of Emily Dickinson, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/145297


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