Compare and Contrast Themes of Death in Emily Dickinson’s ‘How Many Times These Low Feet Staggered’ and ‘the Only Ghost I Ever Saw’.

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Emily Dickinson, as a poetic writer, composed most of her works with the theme of death, the entirety of which can be categorised into three different periods of writings; the earliest mainly contained the themes of death and immortality, personifying death and elegiac poems and lacked the intensity and urgency of her later poems or their fascination with the physical aspects of death (VAN DAESDONK 2007). Because of Dickinson’s immense fascination with this subject it is interesting to compare her pieces against each other to see how her view of death changed over the years of her writing.

‘The Only Ghost I ever saw’, written in 1857-62, is an example of the earlier period of Dickinson’s writing. There are many different interpretations of this piece, the most obvious one is that the poem centers on an individual who has encountered the spirit of a person and is shocked by the meeting. A deeper analysis shows the possibility of the poem being about how the persona, or Dickinson, is forced to reassess her loyalty or belief of Christianity through the encounter of a ghost. In contrast ‘How many times these low feet staggered’, written 1890, can be recognised to belong in her later period as its theme centres on the viewing of the corpse of a mundane housewife and the physical aspects of her death. The poem itself is in the first person persona and contains a grotesque dreary tone; and from the poem’s fascination with the corpse we can see Dickinson’s frustration and obsession with death.

Concerning the form and structure of ‘The Only Ghost I ever saw’, the piece is a ballad, one of the two main forms of narrative poetry, as the poem uses the traditional ballad metre, which is made up of rhyming quatrains of alternative four-stress and three-stress lines. It is written in Iambic metre which gives the poem a soft flowing, lilting rhythm, this along with the many pauses throughout the poem cause the pace to become slow and smooth, much like the movement of the poem’s subject, a ghost, would be.

‘How many times these low feet staggered’ differs from this in that the metre of the poem is iambic, the first syllable of each line is unstressed followed by a stressed one, however the first line of he poem intentionally breaks this pattern. ‘How many times these’ makes the rhythm disjointed and gives the impression that the sentence itself is staggering like the line is trying to describe the housewife staggering over her work. The hyphen at the end of this line also helps to throw the rhythm off as it makes us pause in our reading, but, it also gives us time to stop and envision what the life of this drab housewife would have been like, and how hard it must have been if she would be ‘staggering’ her way through it. The idea about contemplating the dead woman’s life could be linked to the words ‘low feet’ as they are such usually unnoticed things to note about a dead person when normally a person would be looking at the face, it gives the impression that the persona of the poem is staring at the corpse’s feet in her death bed and wondering about how her life was life and what she must be feeling in death.

The poetic voice of ‘The Only Ghost I ever saw’ has a dreamy tone to it which shows Dickinson’s feelings about death to be innocent, almost naive, in that she seems to view death and something peaceful and or sublime. However, in the final stanza the persona’s tone changes from the earlier dreamy quality of when they were speaking about the ghost and snaps to a harsher, berating tone, where the the persona never wants to remember meeting the ghost, which could be an indication of Dickinson’s realisation that the afterlife isn’t as simple and innocent as she first viewed it to be. Throughout the first three stanzas the lines all finish in a rhyme; ‘so’ and ‘snow’, ‘roe’ and ‘mistletoe’, ‘breeze’ and ‘trees’, which gives the poem a smooth flowing rhythm to it and a dream-like quality. However the final stanza...
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