Death in Emily Dickinson’s Poems

Introduction

Emily Dickinson was a renowned 19th-century American poet that wrote unique and complex poems. Her style, symbolism, and hidden meanings of poems continue to be studied in the modern-day as she delved into socially controversial topics of her time. One subject matter commonly explored in her poems is the concept of death. Dickinson inherently sought to relay the immense complexity and power of the topic.

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In poems “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” and “My Life Had Stood – A Loaded Gun,” death is explored from the perspectives of someone who has experienced it and an entity that can inflict such lethal force. The duality of death in Dickinson’s poetry displays a precarious balance and conflicting emotions which contrast on either side of the metaphorical mortality.

Sources used for this report include websites that specifically analyze the two selected poems. These are valuable because of the comprehensive assessment and in-depth analysis which is provided on the themes and meanings of the poems. Furthermore, journal articles from literary-focused publications are used. These resources are valuable as they provide scholarly analysis of Dickinson’s poems about her biography and style by offering commentary on the topic.

Because I Could Not Stop for Death

The poem describes the author’s encounter with Death as a personified figure. This entity is often compared to a carriage driver stopping to pick up a passenger or a gentleman suitor approaching a lady. Almost immediately, Dickinson forms a paradox. Death represents human mortality, but inside the carriage sits Immortality. When the narrator metaphorically gets into the carriage, she reaches the same plane of immortality that directly mirrors Death.

The poem goes on to describe the passing of various places such as a school or fields of grain, all of which are symbolic for stages in life until they finally reach “the setting sun.” The primary purpose of the poem is to describe this continuous life cycle and human preoccupation with mortal affairs, that one never stops to think about death. The key lines of Dickinson’s poem, “Because I could not stop for Death – / He kindly stopped for me” (1-2) demonstrate this journey. In a way, few people would want to stop for Death to claim them, which causes them to constantly remain active in the hopes of escaping death for a few more moments (“A Short Analysis of Emily Dickinson’s ‘Because I Could Not Stop for Death’”).

Dickinson follows a regular pattern of Iambic meter in quatrains with a few breaks in rhythm. She uses repetition and similar-sounding verbs such as “passed” and “paused.” Dickinson capitalizes certain words to highlight their importance as well as suggesting some elements of personification. The rhyme is also spread throughout the poem to emphasize these entities. Dashes are also inserted at the end of some lines, to artificially create a pause for consideration and interconnecting effects with the following lines.

The poem is one of the most symbolical and elusive ever written by Dickinson. By the end of the poem, the narrator implies she has been in Death’s domain as the language becomes more abstract and imagery less concrete. Despite that journey occurring centuries ago, it only seems like it has been a short time. The author ascertains that we are all essentially Death’s passengers heading into eternity.

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My Life Had Stood – A Loaded Gun

This poem is one of the most controversial by Dickinson, one that has several perspectives on it. This paper will examine it from the point of view that the gun is an instrument and death and power. The whole metaphor of a loaded gun suggests the emotions of pent-up anger, about to erupt with devastating force upon both its enemies and seemingly innocent creatures such as the doe in the forest. The final stanza suggests that the loaded gun is a weapon that can outlive its owners.

Ironically, a tool of death lives longer than human beings, continuing to be “loaded” until it is forced to be released. The gun holds absolute power of destruction but as an inanimate object, has no awareness of death. Night, which represents death, and day, a symbol of life, is contrasted in the poem. Human life and the loaded gun are paradoxically interconnected but also as far apart as they can be (“A Short Analysis of Emily Dickinson’s ‘My Life Had Stood – A Loaded Gun’”).

The poem is written in quatrains, with only lines 2 and 4 rhymings. At times, Dickinson uses slant rhyming. This approach is known as ballad rhyming, which also reflects on the meter of the poem. There is alternating use of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter. Dickinson excels in her use of literary devices in the poem, which requires in-depth analysis. As discussed in its meaning, the entire poem is an allegory, a discussion on death gaining power through human creating.

The title itself is an example of a metaphor. Dickinson strongly utilizes personification in the attempts to compare the gun to her life. The allusion is present as Dickinson makes mythological references, such as Vesuvius who has powerful abilities to destroy similarly to the gun. Through the use of literary devices, Dickinson creates emotional and profound imagery to emphasize the balance of life and death as well as how frail human mortality can be.

Discussion

Death is a common theme in Dickinson’s poetry, and her preoccupation with it can be considered morbid. However, the high rates of mortality due to disease and war during her time inherently welcomed such interest. In her poems, Dickinson commonly accepts and embraces death, often personifying it as almost a normal presence in life. Either having a courting relationship with it or being in awe of destructive powers that can cause death, Dickinson’s unconventional and experimental approach defies literary, poetic dogmas (Antony and Dewan 1).

Dickinson inherently juxtaposes the tension and dueling opposition and life and death. In both poems, she includes a comparison of temporal concepts with eternal and spiritual entities as a symbolism of life death, all while shifting between macro and micro perspectives of the world around. This in-depth and complex awareness can be attributed to Dickinson’s search for the truth. In her other poem, she mentions that “a certain Slant of light” can ultimately change the perspective and understanding of our experiences (Engle 73).

Dickinson maintained a rebellious character by addressing topics of controversy and complexity. While most people fear death, she rebels against it. The wordplay at the beginning of “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” suggests that she is unwilling to bend to the social or mystical parameters, forcing Death itself to stop for her. This is powerful imagery that Dickinson used to transcend the metaphorical mortality.

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Counterargument

Death is an inevitable part of life that many people fear. One of the most common ways with which this fear is conquered is faith, particularly in the afterlife through religion. While Dickinson portrays this unorthodox opposition to the fear of death, it is likely she may have been greatly afraid. Death is personified to be sensitive to the everyday schedule of mortals, and in the poem, it comes gently, kindly asking the narrator to enter the carriage. In reality, death is often sudden, violent to some extent, and morbid. It is unexpected and dark, which drives the greatest human fears. Dickinson in her rebellion and isolation, was terrified of the loneliness of death and like most people, yearned for immortality which she suggests accompanies one into the unknown (“On 712 “Because I Could Not Stop for Death”).

In “My Life Had Stood – A Loaded Gun,” there is a strong emphasis on the fact that the gun is loaded and stands until it is discharged. While life may never present the opportunity to pull the trigger, its tremendous force gives unchecked power to however wields. The force can leave untapped destruction and much-feared death. It is possible that it was a way for Dickinson to criticize the growing gun lobby. Other critics suggest that this is a poem of empowerment, particularly from a feminine perspective. The gun serves as a symbol of pent-up aggression and demons of oppressed women. It is an exploration into the mind and fantasy of a woman becoming the master and conquering her fears through the use of the weapon (“On 754 “My Life Had Stood – A Loaded Gun”).

Conclusion

In poems “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” and “My Life Had Stood – A Loaded Gun,” Dickinson writes about the theme of death. She utilizes the perspectives of death’s causes, journey, and acceptance. These experiences allow us to visualize the duality and balance between life and death. Her masterful use of metaphors helps the reader to explore mortality and accept. However, some critics argue that in fact, Dickinson may have feared death and condemned any potential tool which may cause destruction.

Works Cited

Antony, Omana, and Suchi Dewan. “Emily Dickinson’s Perspectives on Death: An Interpretation of Dickinson’s Poems on Death.” Lapis Lazuli – International Literary Journal, vol. 2, no. 2, 2012, pp. 1-12.

Dickinson, Emily. “Because I Could Not Stop for Death (479)”. Poets.org, n.d. Web.

Engle, Patricia. “Dickinson’s Because I Could not Stop for Death.” The Explicator, vol. 69, no. 2, 2002, pp. 72-75.

“On 712 “Because I Could Not Stop for Death”.” Modern American Poetry, n.d. Web.

“On 754 “My Life Had Stood – A Loaded Gun”.” Modern American Poetry, n.d. Web.

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A Short Analysis of Emily Dickinson’s ‘Because I Could Not Stop for Death’.” Interesting Literature. 2016. Web.

A Short Analysis of Emily Dickinson’s ‘My Life Had Stood – A Loaded Gun’.” Interesting Literature. 2017. Web.

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StudyCorgi. (2021, May 29). Death in Emily Dickinson's Poems. Retrieved from https://studycorgi.com/death-in-emily-dickinsons-poems/

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"Death in Emily Dickinson's Poems." StudyCorgi, 29 May 2021, studycorgi.com/death-in-emily-dickinsons-poems/.

1. StudyCorgi. "Death in Emily Dickinson's Poems." May 29, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/death-in-emily-dickinsons-poems/.


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StudyCorgi. "Death in Emily Dickinson's Poems." May 29, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/death-in-emily-dickinsons-poems/.

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StudyCorgi. 2021. "Death in Emily Dickinson's Poems." May 29, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/death-in-emily-dickinsons-poems/.

References

StudyCorgi. (2021) 'Death in Emily Dickinson's Poems'. 29 May.

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