If each person's life were laid out as a book, then all these billions of books would end with the same concluding chapter: death. While such a thought might be depressing, it is nonetheless an inescapable fact. Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), one of America's greatest poets, wrote approximately 1800 poems over the course of her life, and many of her best and most famous poems deal with the subject of death, which she explored more deeply than any other American writer. While it might seem an odd motif for a poet to focus on, it was the loss of many loved ones when she and they were still young that laid the basis for Dickinson's preoccupation with death.
Dickinson's early life started normally enough. Born in Amherst, Massachusetts, she was enrolled from age ten at Amherst Academy, a prestigious private school, alongside her younger sister, Lavinia. Emily was apparently a bright student and excelled at composition. According to Dickinson biographer Connie Ann Kirk, one of her teachers called twelve-year-old Emily's writings “strikingly original” (28). But then came a series of deaths that would change Dickinson's life forever. The first occurred when Dickinson was only thirteen—her cousin Sophia Holland, a girl only a few years older than herself, died of typhus on April 29th, 1844. As Cynthia Wolff notes in her biography of Dickinson, she visited her ailing cousin often and was at her bedside in the girl's final hours (76-77). Grief over her cousin's untimely passing caused Dickinson herself to fall ill—her parents temporarily withdrew her from school and sent her to stay with her Aunt Lavinia in Boston for a month to recuperate (Kirk 63).
Upon returning to Amherst Academy in autumn of that year, she befriended the school's new principal, Leonard Humphrey, a young man only several years older than herself. In spite of her frequent absences due to illness, Emily saw enough of Humphrey so that she came to regard him as a kind of mentor, writes Dickinson biographer Alfred Habegger (216). Sadly, Humphrey died of illness suddenly in 1850, a few years after Dickinson had graduated from Amherst Academy. Writing to Abiah Root, a girlfriend from her days at the academy, Dickinson confided, “The tears come, and I cannot brush them away; I would not if I could, for they are the only tribute I can pay the departed Humphrey” (Habegger 150). In 1847-1848, Dickinson studied for roughly two semesters at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, a small women's college near Amherst. Her roommate there had been another cousin, Emily Lavinia Norcross. The two were of the same age and had been close since they were little. In 1852, Emily Norcross died of tuberculosis—yet another heartbreaking loss for Dickinson (Wolff 60).
Another young man with whom Dickinson had become acquainted was Benjamin Franklin Newton, a legal apprentice at Dickinson and Bowdoin, her father's law firm. Nine years her senior, Newton became to Dickinson, in her own words, “a gentle, yet grave Preceptor, teaching me what to read, what authors to admire, what was most grand or beautiful in nature, and that sublimer lesson, a faith in things unseen....” (Habegger 217). Tragically, Newton died of tuberculosis in 1853, only a few years after they had first met. In one of her poems, Dickinson wrote mournfully of her lost friend, who had “slipped my simple fingers through / While just a girl at school” (“Benjamin Franklin Newton,” par. 5). These and other deaths of those near and dear to her were no doubt the catalyst for Dickinson's many poems on the subject of death. It might also be one reason why Dickinson became increasingly reclusive as she grew older, remaining a spinster all her life and rarely leaving her prominent family's stately manorial home (“Emily Dickinson” 177).
Having become familiar with Dickinson's biography, one better understands why she chose to write so many poems on the subject of dying and what might come after. The reader can now better comprehend lines such as “I never lost as much but twice / And that was in the sod”—with “the sod” obviously referring to loved ones now dead and buried (Dickinson 178-179, lines 1-2). One can easily speculate that the word “twice” in the first line most likely refers to among the aforementioned deaths of those dear to her. These tragedies hurt Dickinson terribly, as she makes clear in the following brief but exquisite poem:
"Each that we lose takes part of us;
A crescent still abides,
Which like the moon, some turbid night,
Is summoned by the tides." (Bartleby.com)
One of the more noteworthy aspects of Dickinson's poetic studies of death is that she evidently took it for granted that she and those she had lost would one day meet up again. In her poem “Death is a Dialogue between,” she affirms that she did not believe that death is truly the end:
"Death is a Dialogue between
The spirit and the Dust.
'Dissolve' says Death—The Spirit 'Sir
I have another Trust'—
Death doubts it—Argues from the Ground—
The Spirit turns away
Just laying off for evidence
An Overcoat of Clay." (quoted in McMichael 192)
The “laying off” of “An Overcoat of Clay” in the last two lines is obviously The Spirit's release from the grave, and thus its vindication and triumph over Death, who is left defeated in “the Ground,” presumably to argue with “the Dust” if He wishes. She expresses this same belief in another poem, especially in its last three lines:
"The Bustle in a House
The Morning after Death
Is solemnest of industries
Enacted upon Earth—
The Sweeping up the Heart
And putting Love away
We shall not want to use again
Until Eternity." (quoted in McMichael 193)
Having lost so many close to her at such a young age, and the fact that they had all died quite young—perhaps the thought of someday reuniting with them was the only thing that made her pain bearable. Then again, no one should be surprised at Dickinson's earnest faith in a life hereafter. She had been raised, after all, in a devoutly Calvinist home and took her faith seriously all her life, even if her inclinations were mostly at odds with New England's stodgy Puritan orthodoxy (“Emily Dickinson” 178). She eloquently affirms her belief in God and her vision of a Christian afterlife in the following poem:
"I never saw a Moor—
Death PoemsI never saw the Sea—
Yet know I how the Heather looks
And what a Billow be.
I never spoke with God
Nor visited in Heaven—
Yet certain am I of the spot
As if the Checks were given" (quoted in McMichael 193)
These deaths of close family and friends also made Dickinson consider her own mortality, inspiring two of her most famous poems, “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” and “I heard a Fly buzz—when I died,” in which she imagines—hypnotically—what it must be like to experience the moment of death:
"I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading—treading—till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through—
And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum—
Kept beating—beating—till I thought
My mind was going numb—
And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space—began to toll,
As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race,
Wrecked, solitary, here—
And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down—
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing—then—" (quoted in McMichael 182)
"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 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—" (quoted in McMichael 186-187)
The two poems above are among the most unique in American literature. While it is common enough to write an elegy for the dearly departed, poems focusing on the moment of death are rare indeed—perhaps due to the unpleasantness of the idea, or it might be that most poets lack the imagination to compose such a dark fantasy. In yet another mesmerizing poem, Dickinson envisions the soul not at the moment of the body's death—but instead as it commences its journey afterward:
"Because I could not stop for Death—
He kindly stopped for me—
The Carriage held but just Ourselves—
We slowly drove—He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility—
We passed the School, where Children played
At Recess—in the Ring
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain—
We passed the Setting Sun—
Or rather—He passes Us—
The Dews drew quivering and chill—
For only Gossamer, my Gown—
My Tippet—only Tulle—
We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground—
The Roof was scarcely visible—
The Cornice—in the Ground—
Since then—'tis Centuries—and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses' Heads
Were toward Eternity—" (quoted in McMichael 191)
In line 21 above, Dickinson makes it clear that the female speaker in the poem is not someone who is recently deceased, but rather a woman who has been dead a very long time, and yet the “Centuries” seem to her to have sped by in less than a day. Perhaps this is Dickinson affirming the old adage that life is short.
Deaths of loved ones while she was a teenager and young woman profoundly affected the life and literary career of Emily Dickinson. As she wrote in the last two lines of her poem “My life closed twice before its close” (there's the word “twice” again): “Parting is all we know of heaven, / And all we need of hell” (Dickinson 196, 7-8). Grieving over the loss of so many dear to her, Dickinson wrote poetry to help her cope with the pain, rather than let it destroy her. In doing so, she gave humanity a number of unforgettable and timeless poems that the world will never stop reading.
“Benjamin Franklin Newton.” Emily Dickinson Museum. Emily Dickinson Museum. 2009. Web. 2 Nov. 2014.
Dickinson, Emily. “Because I could not stop for Death.” McMichael: 191.
---. “Death is a dialogue between.” McMichael: 192.
---. “Each that we lose takes part of us.” Bartleby.com. 2014. Web. 3 Nov. 2014.
---. “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain.” McMichael: 182.
---. “I heard a Fly buzz—when I died.” McMichael: 186-187.
---. “I never lost as much but twice.” McMichael: 178-179.
---. “I never saw a Moor.” McMichael: 193.
---. “My life closed twice before its close.” McMichael: 196.
---. “The Bustle in a House.” McMichael: 193.
“Emily Dickinson.” McMichael: 177.
Habegger, Alfred. My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson. New York: Random House, 2001. Print.
Kirk, Connie A. Emily Dickinson: A Biography. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2004. Print.
McMichael, George and James S. Leonard, eds. Anthology of American Literature, Tenth Edition, Volume II. Boston: Pearson, 2011. Print.
Wolff, Cynthia G. Emily Dickinson. New York: Knopf, 1986. Print.