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.


Living Well: My Personal Story – John

During my junior year of college, I initiated a venture that tested my patience, rung my motivation, and stretched my mind. I intended it to be for my own good; I assured myself it would benefit me long-term. I insisted, “When you are 40 years old, you will be thanking yourself.”

Me in the park with friends during my freshman year.

Me in the park with friends during my freshman year.

Physical training had yet to grace my 20 year old, junior collegiate limbs: I enrolled as a soft, skinny, 170 pound freshman who was ignorant to his less-than-average appearance and physical abilities. When I stepped on the scale for Lifetime Fitness, my sophomore fitness class, I noticed 25 extra pounds on my body; I was unaware of my weight gain – and the unawareness scared me. My stereotypical guy-overconfidence shrank and I started climbing at the local rock-climbing gym with my one of my best friends. The gym’s yoga classes and climbing dropped 15 pounds off my stomach, built some strength, and granted peace of mind.

The end of my sophomore year solidified my interest in rock-climbing, and I wanted to approach the hobby seriously. Health and fitness research filled my free summer hours to prepare me for my junior year weight training class – which I was certain would improve my climbing. My diet changed during the summer, taking away five more pounds; my perspective also changed, instilling a desire to change my 40 year old self – making climbing a secondary motive. I began making decisions meant to improve my quality of life 20 years later: I pressed through my homework as hard as I pressed the dumbbells.

My priorities as well as my body changed during my junior year. The gym’s yoga class and personal meditation built inner-strength; weight training built physical strength. Introspection introduced me to someone I had yet to meet – myself. People became my priority; learning and fitness opened a door to my immediate community. Schooling taught me how to learn, and weight training taught me how to apply what I learn – consistent physical fitness taught me discipline.

There were innumerable occasions in the weight room when I questioned myself and what I was doing: “If you think this is hard now, what will this be like in 50 years? Do you really believe this is a lifetime endeavor?” That doubtful question almost always appeared during the last repetition of a weight. There exists a brief moment in weight training during the last push when you are convinced that you cannot push once more; it is in that moment that you must push once more because that is when you will grow, when you will see progress. That weight training philosophy manifested outside the weight room: when I could not read another page or complete another assignment, that was when I knew I must push once more because that is when I will grow, when I will see progress. That life philosophy inculcated discipline: I became strong in body and mind.

In retrospect, this venture strengthened my patience, grew my motivation, and expanded my mind. It proved beneficial, and I am Senior Yearcertain it effected me long-term – I thank myself today. Prior to my experience, I lived in the shadow of my potential: I lived unaware of my capabilities. Many of us are capable of things greater than we perceive. It is as though our subconscious disrupts any inkling of motivation to experience our true potential. Unless one is perfect, he has room for improvement; I found room in my health – do you have any hidden space to fill?

Ontology Crisis: Do You Exist??

“Men need some kind of external activity, because they are inactive within.” – Schopenhauer

SchopenhauerSchopenhauer, a German philosopher, walked this earth from the late 18th century to the mid-19th century, and he came to adhere to a faith in transcendental identity. Currently, I am not deeply versed with his work or philosophies, but I understand that he was influenced by Eastern philosophy.

This German philosopher and I share the same personality according to the Enneagram test.  “Men need some kind of external activity, because they are inactive within.” is a quote attributed to Schopenhauer and appeared during my personality study. Now one of my favorite quotes, it represents an ideal with which we should be acquainted.

If you busy yourself with cumbersome things for a long enough period of time, you will find yourself wishing you could do something else. You want to do something else because you are not fulfilled in what you are doing; in other words, you are not being you.

I know a number of individuals who, at some time or another, discovered that they are uncomfortable being alone for long periods of time. I speculate that this phenomenon occurs, at least in part, not because no one is around; rather, it occurs because you are the only one around – and you may be uncomfortable with yourself. Generally, being uncomfortable with yourself happens because you either know yourself well enough to believe you are worth disliking, or you know yourself so little that you are a stranger to your very self. I tend to believe the former is more commonly believed, and that the latter is more commonly the case. Once you come to a true understanding, or nearly true understanding, of what and who you are, you will understand that you are valuable.

You may or may not have noticed that 99% of the last paragraph is written in 2nd person: I repeatedly talked about you. This means that my assumptions are entirely up for debate, because I am not you. My question for you is the one I ask myself frequently: “who are you?

Becoming active within is vital because you are involved when I ask:

  • What do you believe?
  • What/who do you love?
  • Why are you here?
  • What do you do for a living?
  • What is your dog(s)’/cat(s)’ name?

You can claim neither to have faith nor lack faith in anything without first knowing who you are to claim it.

Is faith, belief, religion, morality. etc. present without you first being present? No. If you are sleeping inside, your faith is a dream.

I do not suspect Schopenhauer holds any contention to external activity, but I suspect he would contend with external activity meant to distract from internal activity.

To my brothers and sisters in Christ: Is “ministry” your external activity? Or is it a surging from deep within that you can neither suppress nor escape?

To everyone: If you have not done so already, do a little “soul-searching”. It may just be worth it; after all, this is life you are living. You should live it as beautifully as you are.

Further Reading: I See Dead People: An Old Adage  is my response to You Are What You Love by Phill Easley; both deal more with personal identity and may be a helpful step in self-discovery.





3 Simple, Proven Ways to Start Your Day Off Better

“With something this disproportionate in their effects, how can we afford not to make time for them. You can do them in as little as three minutes each.” – Stephen Passman
Ladies and Gents, I cannot communicate the value of this advice; It is worth reading and applying.

3 Simple, Proven Ways to Start Your Day Off Better.

Water-Tight Tethers: Surviving Peace before the Storm

“Rain has always fascinated me, it is one of my favorite things in life. As a child I would watch the rain from my bedroom window and imagine the ocean, a storm, a ship, a lighthouse. A story would play out in my mind as the rain hit the window. I would imagine being a raindrop falling into a great river, I would travel to the sea and begin a grand adventure.” – Brittany, from Ramblings at Night: Water

Brittany, a friend whose friendship warms my heart, unhinged a door to my thoughts after writing the above. “One of [her] favorite things in life…” illustrates life itself simply and powerfully. In my mind, a raindrop falling into a great river resembles new birth, and the sea’s grand adventure mirrors our traversing through life. The ocean’s personality may, at times, prove tumultuous, harsh, and uncaring towards travelers (us); at other times, it may prove tranquil and peacefully harbor us in mare pacificum. However capriciously or idyllically life’s current moves us, we ought to scour the horizon for the lighthouse, fix our coordinates, and sail steadfastly.
Growing up, I loved to watch the rain pour outside and rarely failed to escape the house to play with full throttle. I explored the myriad of canals that only come to life when it rains, making leaf-boats to war with the waters ’til they reached the channel’s end. Having grown, when life thrusts me to and fro, I mentally remove myself from the storm and relocate inside the house, beside the window, and watch the storm.

Baltic Sea (Darlowo)Picturing life in moments, or as a story, reminds me that living is like writing a book that only a few select individuals will read – my family and dearest friends. Each chapter is new, displaying both tribulation and triumph. Characters come, go, and a few remain, but I, I am constant ’til the last period, death. I reflect on the question: “Am I writing a story worth reading?” When storms battered the ship deck and put the mast to the test, did I remember my anchor? The lighthouse? Or did I allow my attention to be diverted and locked on the dissonant churning of the waves?

Will I be able to proclaim:

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.”

– Robert Frost, from the Road Not Taken

Unwrapping Time: Living Present


“There are only two days in the year that nothing can be done. One is called yesterday and the other is called tomorrow, so today is the right day to love, believe, do and mostly live.” – Dalai Lama


The culture in which I live interprets eye contact into various meanings: strength, care, respect, presence, etc., and each interpretation accompanies a degree of value. Presence occurs when two or more parties, engaged in discourse or the sublime company (or not so sublime company) of one another, come to an understanding of each person’s mental or spiritual presence. By U.S. sociocultural standards, little to no eye-contact in conversation translates as little to no attention/engagement/presence in the discussion. Making healthy doses of eye-contact during conversation tells the other party you are there – it tells the other party you are present.

Past and Future:

The past and the future belong to everyone; the past has helped and hurt most everyone, and the future has only yet to do so. Overly focusing on the past dwindles strength for today in that the strength used to perform yesterday is still in use as though the show never ended. Overly focusing on the future disrupts today in that the after-party is preemptively begun in the mind, confusing the immediate scene. Focusing on today rejuvenates the strength to satisfy today’s own needs and budgets the mind’s thoughts, mentally stabilizing for tomorrow.

Present Presence:

Focusing on today is making eye-contact with the present moment, being present in the present. The door leading to the past is locked; the threshold leading to the future is still being built – each of us exists in the same room of time – now. Shall we withhold love ‘til the future comes? The future never comes. Shall we falter in faith because experience (past) “taught” us better? Experience ought to redefine, renew, and fortify faith. Shall we put off “doing” today? If the past taught us anything about the future, it is that things change; today is the only opportunity to do. With the past behind me and the future before me, here I am betwixt and between alongside the present – now.

“…I looked in my rear view mirror to switch lanes. Then an idea formed in my mind. I have to use my mirror to look behind me in order to drive safely; however, I can’t continue to look back otherwise I will wreck. I believe this is like life; it’s important that we look back but if we continue looking back we sacrifice the life we’re living now.” – Brittany Echols, from Looking Back…