Emily Dickinson’s Obsession with DeathEmily Dickinson is one of the most outstanding and prominent poets of AmericanRomanticism whose rather significant body of work employs themes and motifscharacteristic of the movement brushing them off with her unique treatment of visionarynature. Her poetry revolves around several binary oppositions such as life and death, eternityand immediacy, earthly and divine, body and soul that undergo various speculations forEmily Dickinson approaches them as if she were an eye-witness, sometimes dragged intotranscendental states and later sharing her persona’s experiences with the reader. Threepoems of Emily Dickinson were chosen for the analysis, namely “Death is a dialoguebetween…”, “Death sets a thing significant…”, and “Let down the bars, o Death!” whichexplicitly state the purpose of the analysis: examining the concept of death and itsmanifestation in works selected.
Working within romantic paradigm Emily Dickinson allows certain configurationswithin common structural oppositions. Her poems reflect the struggle between metaphysicaland dialectical strategies of Weltanschauung. Taking into account these two propositions thefirst inference comes into place: poetess chooses one conventional opposition which expandsupon the basis of two ambivalent notions and introduces the third member, which turns themetaphysical contrastive pair into a dialectic triad.Let us apply a close reading technique to the first poem. The opening lines of thepoem read: “Death is a dialogue between / The spirit and the dust”. To the limelight comesclassical binary opposition in structuralist sense – spirit::dust which is figuratively Last Name 2immovable but adding the third element – Death – gives an impulse of eternal motion to thepair, where the spirit becomes a thesis, the dust – an antithesis and Death is a synthesis whichsignifies a passage from state to movement, from metaphysics to dialectics.
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The form of thedialogue corresponds to the above discussed scheme, for it presupposes the exchangebetween two entities and results in a movement of ideas in time and space, and Death is thesubstance for this dialogue.The dialogue captures two different realities, equal in their importance: the life itselfand the afterlife correspondingly where the Death is the personification of the latter. Death asrepresented in collective unconscious is something rather inevitable when it puts its footdown there is no way to fight it back.
However, in the frame of the poem the Death ishaggling with the vital Spirit; even though it uses imperative mood: “Dissolve”, commands it,the Spirit has a right to make a choice and parry with another blow: “Sir, I have anothertrust”, which is a polysemantic word meaning either “belief”, “hope” or “reliability”. Eitherway this synonymous range implies that there is a possibility of choice and nothing may forcethe Spirit make it rather than itself.Moreover, moving on to the next stanza another important discovery is to be made:two different realities are clearly separated from one another and the margin is the groundfrom which the Death speaks. Speaking in contemporary terms the Death is quitediscriminated because its word is underestimated and not to be taken seriously. The power ofthe Death is of verbal quality only and, what is more, it is delineated by spatial restrictions –the ground.
The poem here draws on two different modes of Weltanschauung – mythological andreligious. Mythological is represented by the personification of the Death and designation ofthe place where its existence is possible; furthermore, three abstract notions taken in their fullgamut acquire human features and physical characteristics: they can speak and reveal the Last Name 3work of the second signaling system; they can also make choices. Religious componentcomes brightly into place by means of the last two lines of the poem: “Just laying off, forevidence, / An overcoat of clay.” Clay is a Biblical material from which man was made; it isalso an evidence of the Divine Providence and a connection between human and his creator.However, clay as a sign of origin is also a constant reminder of mortality and nothingness, sothe Spirit chooses to shake it off, to be free for good.Mythological and religious modes thus come in appeasing symbiosis resulting in thepersonification of death, restriction of its authority and such diminution comes fromsubstitution of the regular binary opposition with a triad of dialectics.Yet another embodiment of death is found in Emily Dickinson’s poem “Death sets athing significant…” where it becomes clear, how powerful and categorical its imperativesare.
The opposition between life and death is vaguely represented by culturally acceptedimages of the former and implicit presence of the latter and does not appear that important asthe opposition of life and afterlife. The poetess applies here characteristic of her stylespeculations of ability to be speaking from beyond the grave not being dead. Human life ismanifested in the chain of labor activities all aimed at production of something new, or, inother words, leaving traces of one’s existence in a material form.
The poem begins from beyond the grave, and “a perished creature” thatunderestimated the significance of death, because its “eye had hurried by”, missed themoment of death in a rush, did not pay attention to it and, henceforth, was unable to leaveanything behind in the world of living people. It is an appeal to all the humanity, and themessage bids not to waste time and use skill to create some artifacts or at least regular things.The materials vary: “in crayon or in wool”; words “thimble”, “stitches” and “closet shelves”imply tailoring and sewing clothes. Although the message seems very reassuring and givinghope Emily Dickinson brings into play an almost transparent thread of finiteness for Last Name 4everything a man creates in the course of his life falls prey to dust, covered by the mantel ofoblivion. The creation is detached from its creator, there is no vital connection anymore, andthe artifact becomes pointless and means nothing anymore.
A parallel between God and manas His creation suggests itself, but it is rather inappropriate due to the fact that a man is aliving being and never an object, therefore, may this suggestion be dropped for good.Death brings a void into one’s past by means of extracting the Spirit or the Soul out ofit. However, the persona of the poem seems to find the way of keeping the deceased one’ssoul alive in life after death. This is a specific medium of a word – a book, where the remarksof the deceased friend are left “whose pencil, here and there, / Had notched the place thatpleased him, – / At rest his fingers are.
” Books and what is written there is one level ofpresence – the presence of the actual story, its plot and characters, to put it simply, thefictional world of literary text. On the other level there is reader’s interpretation, his responseto the text which reflects itself in underlining of certain places – another typical romanticstrategy introduced by Friedrich Schlegel – the world is endless, there is no way to grasp it inits entirety, so fragments are only possible modes of approximation towards the Absolute. Onthe third level in the example lines there is another interpretation of the persona who says:”Now, when I read, I read not / For interrupting tears / Obliterate the etchings / Too costly forrepairs”.