There are many reasons for people to love or hate Emily Dickinson, but her passion for writing about death can hardly leave any reader indifferent. This author is strong due to her confidence and the desire to find out what happens before and after death and formulate clear emotions about this process. Some people think that her death-related interests depended on her family and the traditions her parents developed. In several studies, the role of the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement is underlined.
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This paper aims at discussing Dickinson’s contributions to the literature during the Civil War through the prism of her poems about death in such poems as “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” and “I Felt a Funeral, in My Brain.” The Civil War was one of the most remarkable and influential periods of Dickinson’s life, and many different outcomes of that event can be found in her works. Death is one of the main and strongest reoccurring themes in Dickinson’s poetry that can be properly discussed through the events of the Civil War in the 19th century and her religious and spiritual beliefs.
Theme of Death
Emily Dickinson is the author who could perfectly combine a number of themes, subjects, and feelings in the same poem. In several lines, it was possible to find out the truth about love, death, or the desire to quit everything and begin a new life. However, the theme of death remains the most provocative and unique aspect of her works. Some readers may be confused by a number of metaphors in her poems and fail to under the true message of the author.
Still, it was evident that Dickinson suffered from mental agonies and depression and was ready to leave this world “when they all were seated,/ A Service, like a Drum – / Keep beating – beating – till I thought/ My mind was going numb” (“I Felt a Funeral, in My Brain”). Compared to other authors of that period when political, social, and religious changes occurred, Dickinson was influenced by the events in her family. Her cousin Sophia died when Emily was fourteen, and several years later, her friend Leonard died. Then, she continued losing the people she loved, as well as her favorite dog.
Taking into consideration the number of losses Dickinson survived, it was not a surprise that death was something she could not neglect in her life. Death was an inevitable part of every decade in life, and Dickinson wrote that when she “could not stop for Death – He kindly stopped for me” (“Because I Could Not Stop for Death”). It touched upon many people she knew and loved and places where she happened to be, including “the School, where Children strove/ At Recess – in the Ring,” “the Fields of Gazing Grain,” or “the Setting Sun” (Dickinson, “Because I Could Not Stop for Death”).
On the one hand, it is possible to think that Dickinson traveled a lot and used her experience in her writing. On the other hand, many people knew that Emily preferred a nun-like lifestyle. Therefore, her imagination and the possibility to introduce the world through the eyes of death impress and underline her role in history and literature. Death is something that cannot be ignored, and Dickson showed the way of how to handle it or, at least, be prepared.
War and Civil Rights
It is necessary to admit the fact that despite the fact that Dickinson lived during the Civil War, it did not take off life in her family. It is also hard to identify the lines of nationalism or social traumas in her poem as if the war was not close to her but somewhere in another country. According to Loeffelholz, “rather than bringing us closer to the Civil War, the distinctive value of Dickinson’s wartime poetry lies in her willingness to turn her critical eye on her own privilege of distance” (96).
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At the same time, the signs of the war and the reality in which Dickinson had to live determined her individuality and the desire to write about death and inform people about related emotions and outcomes. Her first poems were created in the late 1850s, just before the Civil War. It seemed that Dickinson predicted the social and national crisis and wanted to help people to deal with possible losses, unpredictable events, and deaths.
The analysis of Dickinson’s poems is also a unique opportunity to understand how caring and respectful to her readers she actually was. In the investigations by Loeffelholz, Dickinson was proved to be a person who did not try to lie or hide the truth. There was an “insurmountable gap between civilians’ vicarious experience of the war, gained through newspaper reports and pictorial representations, and soldiers’ direct, physical and largely unimaginable experience of combat” (Loeffelholz 94).
The description of the war was not Dickinson’s goal, as well as the relationships between the war and death. Death was not an outcome of the war, as many authors and poets of that period wanted to introduce. Dickinson had many other reasons to explain death in human life, and the war was not on the list. Although, one should realize that even if she did not write about the war, it did not change her. With all her grief, losses, and suffering, Dickinson turned out to be one of the best products of the Civil War in the 19th century.
Religion and Spirituality
Instead of searching for some evidence in the war, it is better to investigate Dickinson’s works from another point, for example, her religious beliefs and spirituality. In fact, there were no specific poems or letters where Emily identified her religion. However, her family was defined as true believers who visited the church regularly and expected to receive God’s permission and support. In her works, Dickinson was not ready to accept God and all his rules and decisions.
Death was a symbolic test for the author to evaluate the value of her belief in God and his justice. According to Daghamin, she questioned “the nature of death, immortality, trinity, religion, nature, love, God” despite the fact that she loved God and believed in life after death (149). Dickinson was not ready to make a final choice, and she continued judging, observing, and sharing her thoughts on paper without even guessing how many people could read them with time.
There were always ambiguous attitudes towards life and death, the possibility to live after death, or the desire to enjoy silence and nothingness. First, Dickinson is grateful to death because of the possibility to find peace, “We slowly drove – He knew no haste/ And I had put away/ My labor and my leisure too,/ For His Civility” (“Because I Could Not Stop for Death”). Then, concerns and frustration occur in the form of “Silence, some strange Race,/ Wrecked, solitary, here” (Dickinson, “I Felt a Funeral, in My Brain”).
Her spirit was challenged, and her dreams were broken because of frequent and unexpected losses. Religion was the cause of her grief and hope at the same time. She tried to believe in something good after the war and the death of her relatives. Still, she did not get the required portion of support from the Heavens but used her knowledge about something she was sure of, about death.
In general, Dickinson’s life was not easy, and a number of positive and negative events contributed to her growth as a poet, her understanding of the Civil War, and her attitudes towards religion. She was not a good example of a poet who described her thoughts about the war and the way it changed the lives of many people. However, her knowledge about death and her direct experience made her a remarkable figure in American history and literature.
Her poems contained much interesting information about how people should treat death and prove their rights. There was no correct way to avoid death but to accept it as it was. Therefore, some readers may find Dickinson as a good teacher, and some people still consider this author as a depressive and nun-like poet who had nothing to write about but death. In this research, Dickinson was introduced as an expert in death, and her poems helped to imagine life in the middle of the 19th century when society was hard to control and human lives were short and unpredictable.
Daghamin, Rashed Ahmad. “Reflection on Death in the Poetry of Emily Dickinson.” International Journal of Humanities and Social Science, vol. 7, no. 4, 2017, pp. 148-153.
Dickinson, Emily. “Because I Could not Stop for Death.” Poetry Foundation. Web.
Dickinson, Emily. “I Felt a Funeral, in My Brain.” Poetry Foundation. Web.
Loeffelholz, Mary. The Value of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge University Press, 2016.