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The Weight of Death in Emily Dickinson's Poetry - She's So Heavy

by Paul Thomson

The fact that Emily Dickinson is one of the most gifted, prolific, ahead-of-her-time American poets is sometimes overshadowed by the fact that she was a totally unconventional, unmarried woman who liked to deck herself out in all white. Oh yeah, and for a good chunk of her life there, she never left her house. Although Dickinson is sometimes lumped together with Transcendentalists like Emerson and Thoreau, her style is way too calculated (not to mention, diverse) to belong to that genre - to say nothing of the fact that it isn't the most chipper stuff you can get your hands on.

Ever read any Transcendentalist death poetry? Take this excerpt from Emerson's "The Dirge," a battle elegy about hearing the sound of death in the woods: "Hearken to yon pine warbler / Singing aloft in the tree; / Hearest thou, O traveller! / What he singeth to me?"; Let's put it this way: if Edgar Allen Poe is sometimes called anti-Transcendentalist, we can pretty much guess where Transcendentalism goes on the whole "mood" spectrum.

Now let's look at Dickinson's "I heard a Fly buzz - when I died -" a creepy post-mortem retelling of its narrator's final moments. If the fact that the narrator is speaking from beyond the grave isn't enough for you, just keep reading. Her death chamber, though filled with loved ones saying their farewells, is tense and unpleasant; the "Stillness in the Room" is like the quiet "Between the Heaves of Storm," which makes us think that dying has been a violent on-and-off struggle.

The narrator then describes all the unromantic logistics of dying: writing up a will, watching everyone cry, and, most importantly, waiting. Which she makes us do for three more stanzas. Just as she takes her final breaths, an obnoxiously loud fly wanders into the room "With Blue - uncertain - stumbling Buzz" and ends up being the last thing she sees before passing. If you thought the mosquito on the ceiling drove you crazy as you tried to fall asleep, just imagine you're hearing a buzzing, vomitous former maggot. On your deathbed.

Foregoing the flower petals, angels, and gossamer threads common among her contemporaries, Dickinson gives us a very heavy portrayal of death. Though it may surprise some that a socially timid nineteenth-century New England woman would write such morbid poetry, the fact that mortality is a common thread in her work should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Emily Dickinson's biography; her writing was very well informed by the loss of friends and family in her own life.

Even the psychological impact of death is tangible in her work. Take, for instance, "I felt a Funeral, in my Brain," which compares an imagined funeral to a drumbeat, or to the thumping and shuffling of inconsiderate upstairs neighbors. This funeral, it's important to notice, isn't felt in the mind, but rather in the brain, which makes it sound like a migraine more than a metaphor. At one point, the narrator hears them "lift a Box / And creak across my Soul," and as all the noises get louder, she begins to feel as though "all the Heavens were a Bell" and existence, "but an Ear." By the end of the ordeal, the narrator is so overwhelmed that "a Plank in Reason" breaks beneath her, dropping her "down, and down."

Still think Dickinson sounds a thing like Emerson?

Shmoop is an online study guide for English Poetry like I heard a Fly buzz and I felt a Funeral. Its content is written by Ph.D. and Masters students from top universities, like Stanford, Berkeley, Harvard, and Yale who have also taught at the high school and college levels. Teachers and students should feel confident to cite Shmoop.

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