Grave Danger: The Life Shadowed in Emily Dickinson’s Death Poems


Poem 449:
“I died for Beauty—but was scarce
Adjusted in the Tomb
When one who died for Truth, was lain
In an adjoining Room—
He questioned softly “Why I failed”?
“For Beauty,” I replied—
“And I—for Truth—Themself are One—
We Brethren, are,” He said—
And so, as Kinsmen, met a Night—
We talked between the Rooms—
Until the Moss had reached our lips—
And covered up—our names—“
Poem 465:
“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 that last Onset—when the King
Be witnessed—in the Room—
I willed my Keepsakes—Signed away
What portions 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—

Emily Dickinson’s perspectives on death offer perspectives on life: subtle features appearing in her poetry regarding death mirror and disclose subtle features of life. Transience of life, disenchantment, somberness, and death’s prerogative over life befall poems 449 and 465. Poem 449 portrays two individuals twined by mutual truth and thereafter forgotten in death; poem 465 renders an individual destitute, willing away all that life afforded. Both poems allude to a room and one or more active parties; the combination thereof create an atmosphere for Dickinson’s conclusion that the brevity of life and finality of death nullify the typical life ambitions of all parties involved.

Burges_bedroom,_Tower_HouseDickinson ascribes stillness to the air and quaintness to the light of the room in poem 465; a fly amplifies the stillness with its buzz and the quaintness with its interposing her vision of another element, light. These features meet the company of solid breath and the King as witness as she signs away “what portions of [her] be assignable.” (10, 11) All these elements joined demonstrate a picturesque, somber willing away of her assets as she lies on her deathbed. The active parties mentioned, the King and fly, amplify her end and destitution. She is dying, and they are not; her “keepsakes” (9) now escape her possession as though her possession of them is validated only by her ability to give them away.

Dickinson reposes into a picture of the hereafter and yields to the confinement of a new room in poem 449. This room can be assumed to share and emphasize the qualities of the former room: still, somber, and quaint. She illustrates two personalities, lain in adjoining rooms, who discuss the portions of themselves which are not “assignable.” Their dialogue reveals that one died for beauty and the other died for truth, which might as well be the same beneath the veil of death. The latter personality affirmed each life dedication and deduced “themself are one.” (7) The mutual truth between both parties creates the bond of two kinsmen; these ambitions are loftier than the keepsakes willed away in poem 465. The two personalities derive comfort from each other and their corresponding, worthy goals until moss smothers their solace.

The transience of life appears in both poems as death having prerogative over life. Poem 449 explicates that both the kinsmen were enclosed by moss; even further than the body, the moss crept over their corresponding grave-markers, their “names.” (11) Poem 465 exhibits a helplessness affixed to the dying: the keepsakes acquired in life and the King, who lent his notary publicity, could do nothing to sustain her life. Death for Dickinson, then, removes the belongings and remembrance of the living. This philosophy ought to disenchant those who remain living and provoke a somber approach to life. Tempered inspiration, perhaps, is superior to unbridled aspiration.

Death forgets the dead, and the living forget those who died; the grave silences all lofty and/or trivial ambitions voiced by life. Dickinson’s picturesque presentation of the deathbed and the sleep that follows bolsters transience of life, disenchantment, somberness, and death’s prerogative over life. These ideologies ought not to suppress the human spirit, rather, they should disillusion the human spirit from addendums to life, distractions. For example, a simple quip, you are what you love, not who loves you”, dispels amendments which addend the identity of several souls: many people identify themselves via the identity of a significant other; certain people, perhaps, identify themselves solely by a political or socioeconomic class; and others, even identify themselves in terms purely based out of religious conviction.

These are but a few sources anyone can draw from the identity pool: ethnicity, sociocultural stigma, marital role, career choice, technological devices (phones, gadgets, computers, gaming systems, etc.), internet (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Blogs, etc.), and so on and so forth. None of these even slightly relate to who a person is. If all of the aforementioned identity-bubbles were painted grey and popped, the residue from within represents identity.

Furthermore, the initial clause, “You are what you love…”, is inspirational; the latter clause, “…not who loves you.”, is liberating. Most people find peace in something, even if that something is nothing in particular. Most times, people are inhibited from doing that something by: physical barriers, metaphysical barriers (e.g., others’ expectations; self-imposed expectations), depression, demotivation, a career path or lack thereof, and the list goes on. That anyone’s peace-bringing something, or nothing in particular, would be suppressed by external or internal forces is grievous.

If one lives without allotting some or much of his time for the something that makes him, him, then his life lived without his something is devoid of truth. If a lie is presupposed not to exist, then the pseudo-identity may also be presupposed not to exist. If one fails to do what makes him, him; he, though existing, fails to live. Ignorance of oneself is ignorance of life, a special form of death. The initial clause, “You are what you love…”, represents one’s something; the latter clause, “…not who loves you.“, represents one’s something unshackled.4572553896_72f657e975_z

Dickinson’s image of death resurrects ignorance of life by mirroring all that one is not, which reveals all that one is: alive. The subtle features in Dickinson’s poems are not grappled only to death, but also woven to life; you cannot have one without the other. Life, at times, requires death to disenchant the living. For example, all forms of socioeconomic class and ethnic group flock to the city of Nashville, which begs the question: “to what end was such a city conjured?” On an individual basis, a man understands that he is finite and his efforts will fade away; on a universal basis, mankind lives and acts as though it is immortal and its institutions will undoubtedly withstand the trial of ages.

Light’s mere existence, whether interposed or not interposed by a fly, is breathtaking, let alone a metropolitan night. Mankind raises constructions to an enamoring magnitude; when considering all that has been, is being, or will be built up will be torn down, the mind defaults to Dickinson’s thoughts of still, somber existence. Though a man be frozen within his own time, he is warm just enough to move. Any success or lack thereof he may consider himself to have accomplished has an end: it is simply and truthfully the nature of finite things to remain as such. He may work to live or live to work; death closes both cases, and his cityscapes stand tall as ephemeral empires.

forest-66832_150Dickinson portrayed life as transient and death as permanent; life is a memory that death forgets. No preeminent, lasting purpose for life augments poems 449 and 465, though, perhaps such a lack of purpose alludes to her simpler purpose. Death is still, and life is still. Death is somber, and life is somber. Death is quaint, and life is quaint. Death subdues life; however, a still, somber, and quaint life for Dickinson, perhaps, allowed her to recognize herself, her life, before death stopped for her. If ignorance of oneself is ignorance of life, then the disenchanting presence of death is itself enchanting: death reminds us that we are alive.

Sudden immersion of oneself in a foreign culture produces culture-shock in response to the unfamiliar customs and cultural stigma without having had due time to acclimate. In the same sense, thoughts of death, like a culture, produce shock for the living in response to the foreign manner of thinking. Dickinson’s contemplations regarding death shine a rather dim light on life, if indeed, the brevity of life and finality of death annul mainstream initiatives for living. If, however, mainstream initiatives occur without consideration to life and death as a whole, then they may very well be worth dissolving and rebuilt.

In lieu of death, life becomes perceptible: if one is busy, he is not still; if one is conventional, he is not quaint; if one is both busy and conventional, he is likely living only in his mind. The man sleeping in spirit is dreaming in his mind: the life and person imagined is no more alive than the personalities in poems 449 and 465. Dickinson’s perspectives on death indicate awareness: she regarded the fly’s buzz, felt stillness in the air, observed the light, and took solace in kinsmen-ship, or rather, friendship. All these things slip through the cracks of daily routine; it is best to recover them before death. Otherwise, death will be no different than sealing an empty envelope.