Emily Dickinson's Death Poetry

Essay, 2002

11 Pages, Grade: 1.0 (A)


Emily Dickinson’s Death Poetry

After the first two volumes of Emily Dickinson’s poems appeared posthumously in 1890 and 1891, there were many negative reviews of her work, such as,

If Miss Dickinson’s disjecta membra are poems, then Shakespeare’s prolonged imposition should be exposed without further loss of time … Miss Dickinson’s versicles have a queerness and a quaintness that have stirred a momentary curiosity in emotional bosoms. Oblivion lingers in the immediate neighbourhood.[i]

Today, however, Dickinson’s poetry is widely regarded as a milestone in American literature. Dickinson has become a classic, famous for her vivid, powerful imagery and innovative style. In fact, some critics consider her ‘the finest American woman poet’[ii] and claim that ‘[h]er accomplishment is so radically original that the entire model of what poetry can know (and write) changes when her work is taken into account.’[iii] There is an extensive range of criticism on Emily Dickinson’s poetry, many of which focuses on her treatment of five dominant themes, that is, life, death, immortality, love and nature. Dickinson’s early editors as well as critics including Ruth Flanders McNaughton group the poems in these categories. According to Henry W. Wells, about one quarter of Dickinson’s poems deals chiefly with the theme of death.[iv] This part of Emily Dickinson’s poetry will be in the centre of this essay. The essay will, first of all, explain why the theme is so important for the poet. Why does Dickinson appear to be preoccupied with death? Is it natural for her to make death one of her central topics? As she examines death from many different angles, a multitude of attitudes towards death and dying can be found in Emily Dickinson’s poetry. Some of her ideas can be seen as highly ambivalent. For example, some poems deal with man’s inability and unwillingness to comprehend the reality of death whereas others accept it as an inevitable part of life. Several of Dickinson’s works even embrace death and deal with getting ready for it. These three different attitudes will be examined in this essay. They will be illustrated by examples taken from poems such as ‘Oh give it Motion -- deck it sweet’ and ‘The last Night that She lived.’

First of all, it is important to understand why Emily Dickinson made death one of her central topics. In fact, due to the lack of advanced medicine, death was omnipresent in the nineteenth century. Infectious diseases were increasingly common as cities began to grow and medical science had little understanding of them, let alone effective ways of treating or preventing their spread. Adult, childhood, and childbirth mortality rates remained quite high until the end of the century. One should also keep in mind that Emily Dickinson wrote during the time of the Civil War, and even though it did not affect her directly, one can see the emotional turmoil of the time shine through in some of her works. Not only Emily Dickinson, but also poets such as Walt Whitman and the British writers Robert Louis Stevenson, Christina Rossetti and Emily Brontë deal with death in their works. For instance, in ‘Reconciliation,’ which belongs to the collection Drum Taps, Whitman writes about his Civil War experiences and describes how ‘the sisters Death and Night incessantly softly wash again, / and ever again, this soiled world.’[v] This serves as an illustration of the fact that illness, the deathbed and funeral scenes were quite common in nineteenth-century literature. Moreover, Emily Dickinson experienced the death of many loved ones. In fact, in Dickinson’s later years, several of her closest friends and relatives died within the time frame of a few years. In 1974, her father Edward died. Four years later, Dickinson lost her close friend Samuel Bowles. In 1881-82, J.G. Holland and Charles Wadsworth, also good friends of the poet, and Emily’s mother died, and in 1883, she had to experience the death of her nephew Gilbert. This period of Emily Dickinson’s life was spent primarily in mourning. As the poet suffered the deaths of many friends and members of her family and as she lived in a time when death was much more present than it is today, one can conclude that is was only natural for her to make death one of her principal themes

How did Emily Dickinson approach the theme of death? As mentioned before, her attitude towards dying is at times ambivalent and shifts from denial to acceptance and, finally, embracement. To begin with, a large number of her poems deal with man’s inability to accept the reality of death and the confusion and disbelief that he experiences in its presence. For example, Dickinson expresses this feeling of incredulity in poem #981:

As Sleigh Bells seem in

Or Bees, at Christmas show --

So fairy -- so

The individuals

Repealed from observation --

A Party that we knew --

More distant in an

Than Dawn in Timbuctoo.[vi]

Those who are dead or ‘repealed from observation,’ as Dickinson writes, are no longer real; they only exist in our minds. At the moment someone dies, ‘in an instant,’ he or she becomes distant and unreal, as unreal ‘as sleigh bells seem in summer.’ Man, Emily Dickinson states, is confused in the face of death. He is unable to grasp what is going on

Similarly, poem #1527 deals with man’s desire to resuscitate the departed:

Oh give it Motion -- deck it

With Artery and Vein --

Upon its fastened Lips lay words --

Affiance it

To that Pink stranger we call Dust --

Acquainted more with

Than with this horizontal

That will not lift its Hat --[vii]

The speaker wishes ‘this horizontal one,’ a dead person, to come to life again. ‘Artery and Vein’ are, according to McNaughton, ‘carefully chosen symbols of vitality.’[viii] ‘Dust’ should become the ‘pink stranger’ again, that is, flesh. Dickinson’s characteristic playfulness shines through in this poem in the comic image of the dead one lifting ‘its Hat.’ However, the wish for resurrection is futile. The ‘horizontal one’ will never ‘lift its Hat’ again and stay what it is – dust. In fact, if one compares this poem to poems such as #214, ‘I taste a liquor never brewed,’ one can assume that the reason for Dickinson’s unwillingness to accept the fact of death may be found in her love of life. In ‘I taste a liquor never brewed’, the poet describes her intoxication with life and nature. Poem #214 is a lighthearted and playful account of how one can become ‘Inebriate of Air’ and ‘Debauchee of Dew.’[ix] Moreover, Emily Dickinson told Thomas Wentworth Higginson in one of her numerous letters that she finds ‘ecstasy in living.’[x] However, the poet’s attitude towards death and dying is far more complex than this simple explanation suggests. Therefore, the following paragraphs will deal with poems that convey a feeling of acceptance of even embracement of death

There is no denying the fact that death is inevitable, Dickinson states in several of her poems, including #390. She writes:

It's coming -- the postponeless Creature --

It gains the Block -- and now -- it gains the Door --

Chooses its latch, from all the other fastenings --

Enters -- with a "You know Me -- Sir"?

Simple Salute -- and certain Recognition --

Bold -- were it Enemy -- Brief -- were it friend --

Dresses each House in Crepe, and Icicle --

And carries one -- out of it -- to God --[xi]

Dickinson personifies death as ‘the postponeless Creature,’ a creature from which one can neither hide nor run away. Death enters the house without even knocking on the door and expects to be recognized. The speaker describes death as ‘Bold -- were it enemy’ and ‘Brief-- were it friend’ and thereby makes the reader wonder which of the two it is. The last line ‘And carries on --out of it -- to God --’ suggests that death is, in fact, a friend. Being taken to God is desirable. In line seven, ‘Crepe’ is used as a metaphor for mourning while ‘“icicle” chills us to the bone.’[xii]

Moreover, in a poem which, according to Power, deals with the death of Emily’s mother, the poet also conveys a feeling of resignation and acceptance of the inevitability of death.[xiii] Poem # 1100 deals with the night in which a loved one dies and the helpless waiting for death

The last Night that She

It was a Common N

Except the Dying -- this to U

Made Nature

We noticed smallest things --

Things overlooked

By this great light upon our M

Italicized -- as 'twere

As We went out and

Between Her final R

And Rooms where Those to be

Tomorrow were, a B

That Others could

While She must finish

A Jealousy for Her

So nearly infinite --

We waited while She passed --

It was a narrow time --

Too jostled were Our Souls to

At length the notice came

She mentioned, and forgot --

Then lightly as a R

Bent to the Water, struggled scarce --

Consented, and was dead --

And We -- We placed the Hair --

And drew the Head erect --

And then an awful leisure

Belief to regulate --[xiv]



[i] Anonymous, ‘The New Pastoral Poetry,’ The Atlantic Monthly, 69, January 1892, p.144, quoted in Ruth Flanders McNaughton, The Imagery of Emily Dickinson, Norwood Editions, 1970, p.

[ii] David Porter, Dickinson: The Modern Idiom, Harvard University Press, 1981, p.1, quoted in Helen McNeil, Emily Dickinson, Virago Press, 1986, p.1

[iii] Helen McNeil, Emily Dickinson, Virago Press, 1986, p.1

[iv] Henry W. Wells, Introduction to Emily Dickinson, Hendricks House, 1958, p. 94

[v] Walt Whitman, ‘Reconciliation,’ Drum-Taps, Baym, Gottesman et.al., eds., The Norton Anthology of American Literature, sixth edition, 2002, vol. B, p. 2225

[vi] Emily Dickinson, ‘As Sleigh Bells seem in summer,’ http://www.americanpoems.com /poets/emilydickinson/981.shtml>

[vii] Emily Dickinson, ‘Oh give it Motion -- deck it sweet,’ <http://www.americanpoems. com / poets/emilydickinson/1527.shtml>

[viii] Ruth Flanders McNaughton, The Imagery of Emily Dickinson, Norwood Editions, 1970, p. 48

[ix] Emily Dickinson, ‘I taste a liquor never brewed,’ <http://www.americanpoems.com/ poets/emilydickinson/214.shtml>

[x] Emily Dickinson, Letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, quoted in Ward, Trent, et.al., eds., The Cambridge History of English and American Literature, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1907-21, vol. XVII, Bartleby.com, Jan. 2000, <http://www.bartleby.com/227/ 0302.html>, 12 Dec 2002

[xi] Emily Dickinson, ‘It’s coming -- the postponeless Creature,’ <http://www.american poems.com/poets/emilydickinson/390.shtml>

[xii] Ruth Flanders McNaughton, Op. Cit., p. 49

[xiii] Sister Mary James Power, In the Name of the Bee, The Significance of Emily Dickinson, Biblo and Tannen, 1970, p. 87

[xiv] Emily Dickinson, ‘The last night that She lived,’ <http://www.americanpoems.com/ poets/emilydickinson/1100.shtml>

Excerpt out of 11 pages


Emily Dickinson's Death Poetry
University of Kent  (School of English)
Nineteenth-Century American Literature
1.0 (A)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
456 KB
Dickinson examines death from a multitude of angles. This essay offers an excellent set of analyses of Dickinson's treatment of death.
Emily, Dickinson, Death, Poetry, Nineteenth-Century, American, Literature
Quote paper
Nina Dietrich (Author), 2002, Emily Dickinson's Death Poetry, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/19970


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