June 11, 2013


Emily Dickinson has been the centre of curiosity for a number of researchers due to her insuppressible obsession with death. Even though death has been the subject of scrutiny for numerous literary artists and philosophers for centuries, Dickinson audaciously secluded herself from others by conceiving it in a rather unique way. She portrayed death as a fascinating, fantastic and cryptic phenomenon rather than representing it in its traditional mundane outlook. In fact, she was attached with death too such an extent that one fourth of her poetry revolves round the theme of death.


Emily Dickinson encountered many tragic deaths of friends close to her which eventually led her to live a reclusive and sorrowful life. This sense of doom significantly engendered her interest in writing poetry of death. In fact, Dickinson lived in a time when medical science was less developed so people died from simple symptoms. Therefore, she again and again confronted with the cycle of human existence, from birth to death and birth again. Dickinson endeavoured to capture this tragedy of human life through her poetry.

Types of Death

Dickinson’s attitude towards death differs from poem to poem. A careful reading of her poetry reveals that she treated death from every possible perspectives. For example, she commonly portrayed death as a welcome relief from life‘s tensions; as a force which heightens one‘s satisfaction with life; as an assassin; as a lover gently conveying one to hidden pleasures; as a physical corruptor; as a cynical caller who poses beneath a cordial exterior; as an ever free creature in nature; and lastly as a solemn guide leading one to the threshold of immortality. Thus, keeping the context of the current discussion in mind we can roughly categorize her death-specific poems in the following vein:
  1. Poems dealing with death and immortality.
  2. Poems dealing with the physical aspects of death.
  3. Poems which personify death.
  4. Poems with elegiac note.
Now let us see in detail how Dickinson treated death in different categories:
Poems in this category primarily reflects Dickinson’s spiritual views on death. In her world she positioned death second only to god. Dickinson’s solitary life provided her much incentive to attain mystical experience. The centre of her mystical concept is deathlessness of death. She believed that all things in this world will one day perish but death alone will remain forever. Physical death is not the end rather it is the beginning of a perpetual  life.
Because I could not stop for Death (712)
Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.

We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –

Or rather – He passed us –
The Dews drew quivering and chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –

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

Since then – 'tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses' Heads
Were toward Eternity –
A Death blow is a Life blow to Some(816)
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.
Drowning is not so pitiful (1718)
Drowning is not so pitiful
As the attempt to rise
Three times, 'tis said, a sinking man
Comes up to face the skies,
And then declines forever
To that abhorred abode,
Where hope and he part company —
For he is grasped of God.
The Maker's cordial visage,
However good to see,
Is shunned, we must admit it,
Like an adversity.
If I should die (27)
If I should die,
And you should live,
And time should gurgle on,
And morn should beam,
And noon should burn,
As it has usual done;
If birds should build as early,
And bees as bustling go, --
One might depart at option
From enterprise below!
'T is sweet to know that stocks will stand
When we with daisies lie,
That commerce will continue,
And trades as briskly fly.
It makes the parting tranquil
And keeps the soul serene,
That gentlemen so sprightly
Conduct the pleasing scene!

This category is concerned with the physical  aspects of death. In such poems Dickinson primarily fixed her attention on the scenes of dying, the deceased person, and the effects of death as seen in burials, funerals, and household activities. She observed such aspects of death to comprehend how death may like physically.
How many times these low feet staggered - (187)
How many times these low feet staggered —
 Only the soldered mouth can tell —
 Try — can you stir the awful rivet —
 Try — can you lift the hasps of steel!

 Stroke the cool forehead — hot so often —
 Lift — if you care — the listless hair —
 Handle the adamantine fingers
 Never a thimble — more — shall wear —

 Buzz the dull flies — on the chamber window —
 Brave — shines the sun through the freckled pane —
 Fearless — the cobweb swings from the ceiling —
 Indolent Housewife — in Daisies — lain!
The last Night that She lived (1100)
THE last night that she lived,
It was a common night,
Except the dying; this to us
Made nature different.

We noticed smallest things, —
Things overlooked before,
By this great light upon our minds
Italicized, as 't were.

That others could exist
While she must finish quite,
A jealousy for her arose
So nearly infinite.

We waited while she passed;
It was a narrow time,
Too jostled were our souls to speak,
At length the notice came.
She mentioned, and forgot;
Then lightly as a reed
Bent to the water, shivered scarce,
Consented, and was dead.

And we, we placed the hair,
And drew the head erect;
And then an awful leisure was,
Our faith to regulate.
I heard a Fly buzz - when I died - (591)
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 –

The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –
And Breaths were gathering firm
For the 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 –

With Blue – uncertain – stumbling Buzz –
Between the light – and me –
And then the Windows failed – and then
I could not see to see –
I felt a Funeral, in my Brain, (340)
I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading - treading - till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through -

And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum -
Kept beating - beating - till I thought
My mind was going numb -

And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space - began to toll,

As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race,
Wrecked, solitary, here -

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down -
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing - then –

The Bustle in a House (1108)
The Bustle in a House
The Morning after Death
Is solemnest of industries
Enacted opon Earth –

The Sweeping up the Heart
And putting Love away
We shall not want to use again
Until Eternity –

Not any higher stands the Grave (1256)
Not any higher stands the Grave
For Heroes than for Men —
Not any nearer for the Child
Than numb Three Score and Ten —

This latest Leisure equal lulls
The Beggar and his Queen
Propitiate this Democrat
A Summer's Afternoon —

This category consists of Dickinson’s most ingenious ideas about death, which is namely personification of death. Dickinson believed that if she visualizes death as human then she will be able to come closer to death to understand its purpose. Therefore, she opted to attribute human qualities to death. Such a technique enabled her to express the abstract concept of death in terms of the concrete.
Dust is the only Secret — (153)
Dust is the only Secret —
Death, the only One
You cannot find out all about
In his "native town."

Nobody know "his Father" —
Never was a Boy —
Hadn't any playmates,
Or "Early history" —

Industrious! Laconic!
Punctual! Sedate!
Bold as a Brigand!
Stiller than a Fleet!

Builds, like a Bird, too!
Christ robs the Nest —
Robin after Robin
Smuggled to Rest!

This category comprise elegiac poems. These poems are generally written in somber voice and they are profoundly sentimental in tone. These are mournful laments over some real, or in many cases, imaginary individuals.
Mama never forgets her birds (164)
Mama never forgets her birds,
 Though in another tree —
 She looks down just as often
 And just as tenderly
 As when her little mortal nest
 With cunning care she wove —
 If either of her "sparrows fall,"
 She "notices," above.

The Theme of Death in Dickinson's Poetry


Antony, Omana and Suchi Dewan .“Emily Dickinson’s Perspectives on Death:
An Interpretation of Dickinson’s Poems on Death”. Lapis Lazuli. 2013.
Lapis Lazuli. 9 June 2013
< http://pintersociety.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/Omana-Antony13.pdf>.

“Inside The Mind Of Death”. Free-Essays-Free-Essays.com. 2013.
Free-Essays-Free-Essays.com. 9 June 2013
< http://www.free-essays-free-essays.com/dbase/3c/enq265.shtml>.

Abeijon, Brittany. “A Close Analysis of Major Themes in Emily Dickinson's Poetry”.
Yahoo Voices. 2013. Brittany Abeijon. 9 June 2013
< http://voices.yahoo.com/a-close-analysis-major-themes-emily-dickinsons-75243.html?cat=10>.

Tanvir Shameem Tanvir Shameem is not the biggest fan of teaching, but he is doing his best to write on various topics of language and literature just to guide thousands of students and researchers across the globe. You can always find him experimenting with presentation, style and diction. He will contribute as long as time permits. You can find him on:


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