On Choosing the Poems
Dickinson’s large and varied poetry about death exists within what Joan Kirkby calls a “rich discursive context” that included a wide array of approaches and attitudes, both religious and secular.
Growing up in a religiously observant household, Dickinson was subject to many Calvinist sermons on “last things” and the long Christian tradition of the ars moriendi or “craft of dying.” Barton Levi St. Armand follows the lead of scholar Nancy Lee Beaty, who traces this tradition in literature across the centuries and calls it a “liturgical drama” consisting of three main acts: 1) a proper Christian acceptance of afflictions; 2) triumph over the world by forsaking its material pleasures; 3) the actual death agony, fear of dissolution, pain, and finally visions and apparitions.
Dickinson’s poetry of death contains many Calvinistic touches. The Puritans put special emphasis on “deathbed behavior,” as St. Armand labels it, which they believed was a barometer of one’s salvation. They also believed that the moment of “crossing over” could provide significant hints of the afterlife. This accounts for Dickinson’s frequent requests for information and comments about such behavior, revelations, and significant last words in her letters. In 1878, for example, she shared with Higginson that “Mr. Bowles was not willing to die.” (L553). It also accounts for the setting of many of her poetic masterpieces at the very moment of death, her focus on the face and, especially, eyes of the dying, and other grisly details of earthly dissolution as hints about one’s eternal fate.
Nineteenth-century sentimentalists, whose writing about death, especially the death of a child, Dickinson read in heaps in the periodicals of her day, modified this approach. They discarded the Puritan emphasis on damnation, “replacing it with the new and radical doctrines of justification by suffering, atonement through pain, and sanctification by death.” They also added fourth “act” or “epilogue,” the eulogies and elaborate funeral rites, the mementos, photographs, and mourning rituals of dress, veiling, and remembrance. These aspects also populate Dickinson’s poems of death.
But Dickinson read works that modified such mournful approaches. She studied John Abercrombie’s scientific justification of continuous life, what we now call “vitalism,” and Higginson’s endorsement of spiritualism’s drawing back the curtain of terrors theology threw over death. She read and refers in several letters to Edward Young’s The Complaint: or Night Thoughts on Life, Death and Immortality, a long poem published in nine parts between 1742 and 1745, which regarded death and its attendant questions as necessary for stimulating imaginative thought and illumination. Dickinson echoed this attitude when she wrote to Higginson on the death of his baby daughter: “These sudden intimacies with Immortality, are expanse– not Peace – as lightning at our feet, instills a foreign landscape” ( L641).
Demonstrating that Dickinson was steeped in her culture’s popular genres of death, St Armand concludes:
She reacted selectively to the popular gospel of consolation. Sometimes she accepted its formulas without question; sometimes she subverted them through exaggeration, burlesque, and distortion; sometimes she used them only as pretexts for outright skepticism and satire.
Joan Kirkby summarizes the types of poems about death Dickinson wrote, some of which we have explored in earlier posts:
1. simple, homey poems like “I’ll tell you how the sun rose” (F204, J318) sent to Higginson in her first letter to him in April 1862
2. “poems that calibrate the complex emotional states that accompany loss and grief” such as “After great pain a formal feeling comes” (F372, J341) or “I measure every Grief I meet” (F550, J561)
3. “death poems of acerbic social observation” such as “There’s been a Death, in the Opposite House” (F547, J389)
4. “poems wryly commenting on the Victorian death bed scene” like “I heard a Fly buzz–when I died–”(F591, J465)
5. “witty confrontations with death” as in her most famous poem, “Because I could not stop for Death–”(F479, J712) and the later, more insistently threatening, “Death is the supple Suitor” (F1470, J1445)
6. poems with speakers “who are so tormented by the riddle of death that they just want to find out what lies beyond and race headlong to it,” as in “What if I say I shall not wait!” (F305, J277), or who embrace the torment, as in “‘Tis so appalling – it exhilarates–” (F341, J281)
7. poems where “there is a desire to be close to the corpse and to understand that strange borderland that separates the living and the dead,” as in “If I may have it, when it’s dead”(F431, J577)
8. Finally, death as a riddle, such as “This world is not conclusion.” (F373, J501)
We can probably find more categories of death poems, especially poems where death is a metaphor for another state of unknown adventure, ecstatic transport, or existential crisis. The poems gathered for this week illustrate several of these categories, staged around the arresting tonal masterpiece, “I heard a Fly buzz–when I died–.”
Dropped into the
Wearing the Sod Gown –
Bonnet of Everlasting
Brooch – frozen on!
Horses of Blonde –
And Coach – of Silver –
Baggage – a Strapped
Journey of Down –
And Whip of Diamond –
Riding to meet the Earl!
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Loose sheets, MS Am 1118.3 (247). Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. First published in Single Hound (1914), 79, with the first line as two, from the copy to Susan (B).
Dickinson made three fair copies of this poem in 1862-63 and sent one to Susan Dickinson and one to cousins Louise and Frances Norcross. It is written in a loose common meter with much compression in the tetrameter lines for emphasis, as in the line, “Brooch – frozen on!” which is compressed to two feet.
It is one of Dickinson’s ecstatic poems of reunion, sporting several exclamation points, where the speaker appears to be a woman, newly dead and buried—and thrilled at the prospect of “Riding to meet the Earl,” a male figure of stature, which could be a lover or deity. The first stanza gives several hints about the speaker’s disposition. She is wearing “the Sod Gown,” which suggests her body is in the grave, and a “Bonnet of Everlasting laces,” which suggests her soul is journeying towards Heaven or eternity. The first line also moves in these opposite directions, as the speaker describes being “Dropped into the Ether Acre!” a musical image that suggests both burial (being dropped into the ground) and the release of the soul upwards (ether is, according to Dickinson’s Webster’s,
A thin, subtil matter, much finer and rarer than air, which, some philosophers suppose, begins from the limits of the atmosphere and occupies the heavenly space. Newton).
Alongside this vertical movement is the speaker’s journey in a “Coach – of Silver” with “Horses of Blonde,” “Baggage” of “Pearl,” and an unforgettable “Whip of Diamond.” She calls this her “Journey of Down,” suggesting that the soul is as light as a feather or the travel is as soft as down, but “down” is also a directional term that points back to earth or further into the depths. Another discordant image is her “Brooch – frozen on!” It elaborates the impression of shimmering whiteness but also suggests a feeling of frigidity not altogether welcome.
Judith Farr considers this poem in relation to the American schools of painting called “Luminism” and “Hudson River School,” 19th century movements that used light, horizons, and other luminist effects to suggest “the translated consciousness” that occurs at the moment of death.
Dickinson knew Thomas Cole’s allegorical series of paintings, “The Voyage of Life” (1842). The last in the sequence, “Old Age,” depicts winged angels pointing the way to a light-filled break in the clouds for an old man in a small boat on the water. Dickinson evokes the shimmering luminescence of this painting and others in this style in her diction and imagery of pearly, pale and ghostly fantasy. It is notable, however, that in this poem, a woman drives herself (no need of the creepy “kindly” gentlemen of “Because I could not stop for Death”) to a joyous reunion of souls.
Farr, Judith. The Passion of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1992, 311.
If your Nerve, deny you –
Go above your Nerve –
He can lean against the Grave,
If he fear to swerve –
That's a steady posture –
Never any bend
Held of those Brass arms –
Best Giant made –
If your Soul +seesaw –
Lift the Flesh door –
The Poltroon wants Oxygen –
Nothing more –
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet XXIII, Fascicle 13 (part), (129c). Includes 11 poems, written in ink, dated ca. 1861. Courtesy of the Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. First published in Unpublished Poems (1935), 12, with the alternatives not adopted.
Dickinson copied this poem into Fascicle 13 in the 19th and last position sometime in early 1862. It is written in the short meter, with some compression of the lines, as befits a meditation on the brevity of life.
It is part of the ars moriendi, or craft of dying, called a “memento mori” (Latin: “remember you will die”). These were objects or symbols meant to remind us of our mortality and served in ascetic practice as the occasion for reflections on mortality, to help detach the mind from worldly goods and pursuits and turn one’s attention to the soul and immortality.
Many ages and cultures have versions of the memento mori but the Puritans who settled the eastern seaboard of North America honed the practice to a fine art. They felt it was absolutely necessary to “wean” oneself from attachment to things of this world, which are merely transient, and focus on things of the other, eternal world. They adorned their tombstones with winged sculls, hourglasses and grim reapers, exhorting the living to "remember death."
For example, when her house burned down in 1666 with all her worldly possessions, Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet mourned the loss bitterly but then chided herself:
Didst fix thy hope on mould'ring dust?The arm of flesh didst make thy trust?Raise up thy thoughts above the sky
That dunghill mists away may fly. …
The world no longer let me love,
My hope and treasure lies above.
Why why should I the World be minding, Therein a World of Evils Finding. Then Farwell World: Farwell thy jarres, thy Joies thy Toies thy Wiles thy Warrs. Truth Sounds Retreat: I am not sorye. The Eternall Drawes to him my heart, By Faith (which can thy Force Subvert) To Crowne me (after Grace) with Glory.
In her poem, Dickinson’s speaker addresses an unidentified “you,” recommending that if courage fails them, to “lean against the Grave”—that is, contemplate the certainty and democracy (“never any bend”) of death, in order to conquer its fear or trepidation. The fact of death holds us in “Giant … Brass arms” keeping us steady. What one needs the “nerve” or courage to do or risk is not explained; perhaps, simply, to face the demands of life.
The second stanza addresses the weakness of the “Soul” seesawing between faith and doubt or staggering under a weight. For this failure, the speaker recommends that we “Lift the Flesh door,” a resonant phrase that suggests looking beyond this life in the body to higher concerns. A “poltroon,” according to Dickinson’s Webster’s, is
An arrant coward; a dastard; a wretch without spirit or courage. – Dryden.
In this instance, the Soul is not noble but cowardly and the speaker uses a tone of contempt when it says it only needs “room to breathe.” The word “Oxygen” brings us back to the specific physical needs of the body, the nerves and neurons.
About this poem Sharon Cameron argues,
If feeling at all is the equivalent of feeling negation … the best way to repudiate negation is to transcend it. … to appeal to a numbness imitative of death.
Taking a different tack, Leonard Douglas contends that
the speaker adopts the comic mode to exhort herself to live fearlessly, wittily suggesting that nothing is more of a spur to life than the fact of death.
Cameron, Sharon. Lyric Time: Dickinson and the Limits of Genre. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979, 155.
Douglas, Leonard. “Certain Slants of Light: Exploring the Art of Dickinson’s Fascicle 13.” Approaches to Teaching Emily Dickinson’s Poetry. Eds. Robin Riley Fast and Christine Mack Gordon. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1989: 124-33, 133.
"Mememto Mori." Wikipedia.
We talked as Girls do –
Fond, and late –
We speculated fair, on
every subject, but the Grave –
Of our's, none affair –
We handled Destinies, as cool –
As we – Disposers – be –
And God, a Quiet Party
To our authority –
But fondest, dwelt opon
As we eventual – be –
When Girls, to Women, softly
We – occupy – Degree –
We parted with a contract
To +cherish, and to write
But Heaven made both,
Before another night.
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet XXVII, Fascicle 19. Includes 13 poems, written in ink, ca, (148a). 1862. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. First published in
Further Poems (1929), 99, as four stanzas of 5, 4, 6, and 5 lines, with the alternative for line 14 adopted; in later collections, as four quatrains but with rearrangement of lines 1-3.
Dickinson copied this poem into Fascicle 19 in the 14th position sometime in autumn 1862. It is written in the common meter with some disruptions in lineation.
The scenario of the poem sounds very much like a poetic account of Dickinson’s friendship with her cousin Sophie Holland, described in more detail in “This Week in Biography.” Sophie was Emily's bestie at age fourteen, whose death caused the young Dickinson to sink into a “fixed melancholy,” from which it was difficult to recover. Dickinson describes sitting by her dying friend in another unnerving poem of this period, “She lay as if at play” (F490A, J714), where she records physical details, such as “Her dancing Eyes– ajar,” that were the stuff of the Victorian ars moriendi. Some Victorian death photography depicts the dead with their eyes open, often retouched by the photographer.
In this poem, the speaker looks back on that harrowing occasion with the detachment of age. She describes the girls as having wide-ranging discussions about everything except death and “handling Destinies” with the flippancy and innocence of youth. Their favorite topic was imagining their growth into women and being “softly raised” to the “Degree” that Victorian culture bestowed on socially compliant females.
In the last stanza, they part after pledging themselves “to cherish/recollect, and to write” but the death of one of them prevents the fulfillment of their “contract.” Of course, the poem does not specify death as the culprit; rather, it is “Heaven,” by which Dickinson suggests a divine decree or predestination that separated the friends and prevented the fulfillment of their childish dreams.
Cutting down the young before their time was a particularly rich topic for Victorian elegies and Dickinson would have read many in the current periodicals. But centuries before the sentimentalists, Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet wrote several elegies to her grandchildren who died in infancy that contain barely concealed (and, for the time, highly heretical) questions and doubts about the benevolence of God.
Departed – to the Judgment –
A Mighty – Afternoon –
Great Clouds – like Ushers -
Creation – looking on –
The Flesh – Surrendered -
+ Cancelled –
The Bodiless – begun –
+ Two Worlds – like Audiences -
And leave the Soul – alone –
+ placing +Shifted +the
+ dissolve • withdraw • retire
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet XIII, Mixed Fasciles. Includes 27 poems, written in ink, ca. 1862, (62b). Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. First published in Higginson, Christian Union, 42 (25 September 1890), 393; Poems (1890), 112. The alternative readings were not adopted.
Dickinson copied this poem into Fascicle 20 in the 4th place around autumn 1862. It is written in a meter of 7676 syllables with slant rhymes in the second and fourth lines. But while the first stanza is relatively free of disruptions, the second stanza has several variations, including three alternatives for the word “disperse,” which forms its own monometer line. It is the word on which the poem turns.
The poem appears to describe someone who has just “departed” life and is heading for “the Judgment” on a “Mighty – Afternoon.” With the “Great Clouds” and all of “Creation –looking on,” the scene is glorious and awe-inspiring, implying the grandeur of this moment despite the anonymity of the dead person. This poem is unnervingly bereft of specific people. The striking simile of the clouds “like Ushers–leaning,” gives the scene a formal quality, as if white-gloved doormen or officers lean towards Heaven and point the way for the departing soul. Dickinson’s Webster’s notes another meaning of the word: “An under-teacher or assistant to the preceptor of a school,” which Dickinson would have experienced in her own school-days. Does she imply that this is the first day of school in Eternity?
The second stanza gets more specific about this mysterious process but, at the same time, Dickinson’s variants create ambiguity and raise questions: “The Flesh – Surrendered” seems like an apt description, but was it “Cancelled” or “Shifted.” These last two words have very different meanings, especially in light of the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body. In John 5:24ff, Jesus outlines the two resurrections: of the body for evildoers, who will then be judged and sent to everlasting death, and resurrection to everlasting life, where the saved will have glorious and incorruptible bodies.
Dickinson locates her poem at the seam between the “Two Worlds” where “The Bodiless” begins, and uses a simile of “Audiences” dispersing to “leave the Soul–alone” in a startling, echoing void. The imagery of performance resonates with the meaning of “ushers” who seat people in a theater. Dickinson provides three variants for “disperse,” an unusually large number: “dissolve,” “withdraw,” and “retire.” All bring slightly different meanings to the action, though what we are left with is an overwhelming sense of abandonment.
Cynthia Wolff notes that Biblical descriptions of Judgment Day “picture a crowded affair … an ordeal passed in the company of others.” But in this poem, “desolation derives not from punishment but from solitude.” Although the poem mentions judgment, it is not depicted as rendered.
This is clearly God’s realm, but Dickinson employs poetic devices that the great Christian poets had conventionally used to depict Hell.
Taking a completely different approach, Barton Levi St. Armand reads this poem as a description of a particularly dramatic sunset “that reveals the death of something inexpressible and sacred.” He compares Dickinson’s word-painting of “atmosphere” to the philosophy of Hudson River School painter Asher Brown Durand (1796-1886), who became the leader of the movement following the death of Thomas Cole in 1848. Durand articulated his aesthetic philosophy in a series of popular “Letters on Landscape Painting,” which possibly influenced Dickinson’s “haunted” aesthetics, discussed in more detail in last week’s post. St. Armand quotes Durand’s discussion of atmosphere, which uses the same simile of the usher we find in this poem:
atmosphere – the power which defines and measures space – an intangible agent, visible, yet without that material substance which belongs to imitable objects, in fact, an absolute nothing, yet of mighty influence. It is that which above all other agencies, carries us into the picture, instead of allowing us to be detained in front of it; not the door-keeper, but the grand usher and master of ceremonies, and conducting us through all the vestibule, chambers and secret recesses of the great mansion, explaining, on the way, the meaning and purposes of all that is visible, and satisfying us that all is in its proper place. [March 7, 1855, 146]
St. Armand, Barton Levi. Emily Dickinson and Her Culture: The Soul’s Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984, 225-27.
Wolff, Cynthia. Emily Dickinson. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., Inc. 1988, 329-31.
It is dead – Find it –
Out of sound – Out of Sight –
"Happy"? Which is wiser –
You, or the Wind?
"Conscious"? Wont you ask that –
Of the low Ground?
"Homesick"? Many met it –
Even through them – This
cannot testify –
Themself – as dumb –
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet XXXII, Mixed Fascicles. Includes 12 poems, written in ink, ca. 1862, 173a, b). Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. First published in Poems (1896), 110-11.
Dickinson copied this poem into Fascicle 15 in the 12th position around autumn 1862. Formally, it is as close to free verse as Dickinson comes, with little formal meter or regular stanza form and no rhymes, not even slant ones. This lack of form is, perhaps, mirrored in the poem’s subject matter: the unanswerable questions about death.
The first line is staggering: What is dead, and who is commanding whom to find it? And what does it mean to find something or someone dead? To find a body or evidence of its existence? We have seen in earlier poems Dickinson’s reduction of a person, through death, to an “it.” For example, “If I may have it, when it’s dead” (F431, J577) discussed in the post on Queerness and “Of nearness to her sundered Things” (F337, J607) discussed in last week’s post on haunting, in which we find out later in the poem that the “things” of this unsettling first line are “The Shapes we buried.” These speakers have trouble identifying the dead as (formerly?) human.
The questions pile up about the condition of the dead: Is it “Happy”? Is it “Conscious”? Is it “Homesick” and how do we find that out? Do we ask the “Wind” or consult “the low Ground” or ask the ghosts who return to visit us? There is no hint in this poem of consulting faith or religious doctrine for these answers. The speaker seems to be in an agnostic, if not atheistic, world, one we more frequently associate with modern thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche who posited the death of God.
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
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that 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 –
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Amherst Manuscript #fascicle 84 – They called me to the window, for – asc:1465 – p. 2. Courtesy of Amherst College, Amherst, MA. First published in Poems (1896), 184. The text was corrected in Bingham, Ancestors’ Brocades (1945), 336-37.
Dickinson copied this well-known poem into Fascicle 26 in the 3rd position, sometime in summer 1863. It is a fitting conclusion to our gathering of poems about death because it rehearses many of the conventions of the Victorian drama of death and deathbed scenes, discussed in the introduction. It is written in a fairly regular hymn meter, but throws a tiny monkey wrench into its piety and sentimentality: the appearance of a pedestrian, buzzing fly.
Jack Capps offers two possible sources for Dickinson’s poem. The first is from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s long narrative poem Aurora Leigh (1856), discussed in a previous post on Browning, a poem that Dickinson and her circle of friends adored. In Book VI, Marian Erle tells Aurora of the romantic connection between her and Romney Leigh, Aurora’s cousin and love object, with details that echo elements in Dickinson's poem:
'That Romney Leigh had loved her formerly.
'And she loved him, she might say, now the chance
'Was past . . but that, of course, he never guessed,–
'For something came between them . . something thin
As a cobweb . . catching every fly of doubt
'To hold it buzzing at the window-pane
'And help to dim the daylight. (ll 1079-87)
The second source is from a contemporary ballad by Florence Vane titled “Are we almost there?” A young Dickinson brought this poem to the attention of her friend Abiah Root, asking in a letter, “Have you seen a beautiful piece of poetry which has been going through the papers lately?” (L12, June 26, 1846). Vane’s lines set up the deathbed scenario:
“Are we almost there? are we almost there?"
Said a dying girl, as she drew near home …
For when the light of that eye was gone,
And the quick pulse stopped
She was almost there.
Dickinson’s famous opening line is even more arresting because it is spoken in the first person at the moment of death. It immediately locates us in that transitional, liminal state that she was so fond of exploring. While her sources are serious and poignant in their treatment of death, Dickinson’s tone is wry, even witty, certainly deflating. After fulfilling the requirements of the Victorian death drama—making a will, giving away keepsakes, surrounded by grieving family who have cried themselves out and caught in the eerie, still eye of a storm awaiting the appearance of “the King” of Heaven, presumably to usher her aloft—a pesky fly appears. No possibility of transcendence here. Barton Levi St. Armand notes:
Dickinson has taken the clichés of nineteenth-century popular culture and turned them in upon themselves.
Many readers note the masterful handling of chronology, repetition, sound and rhymes to create the poem’s “powerful sense of estrangement.” Helen Vendler traces the repeated resonance of the word “buzz,” which emphasizes the stultifying enclosure of the death chamber from which no soul can escape. “The synesthesia in the Fly–of the visual, the kinetic, and the aural–is complete.” She argues that the fly, which is literally “carrion-hunting,” becomes interchangeable with the speaker, both stumbling and faltering. Through this tiny winged insect trapped in the room, the speaker realizes her own insignificance and inability to “fly.” The fly is also a replacement for “The King,” and this equivalence, Vendler observes, renders the poem
entirely blasphemous–but in another sense (as generations of readers have felt) true. Mortality, in the person of the monumentalized and actual Fly, possesses the grandeur of Truth defeating Illusion.
Capps, Jack L. Emily Dickinson’s Reading: 1836-1886. Cambridge: Harvard University, 1966. 85, 121.
St. Armand, Barton Levi. Emily Dickinson and Her Culture: The Soul’s Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984, 56.
Vendler, Helen. Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2010 266-68.
Kirkby Joan. “Death and Immortality.” Emily Dickinson in Context. Ed. Eliza Richards. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013, 160-168, 160-62.
St. Armand, Barton Levi. Emily Dickinson and Her Culture: The Soul’s Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984, 41-44, 59-60.
Additional poems about death from c. 1862
To die takes just a little while (F315A, J255)
If anybody’s friend be dead (F354A, J509)
A train went through a burial gate (F397A, J1761)
She lay as if at play (F 412, J369)
A toad can die of light (F419A, J583)
We cover thee – sweet face (F461A, J482)
Rests at night (F490A, J714)