Death as a Theme in the Writings of Emily Dickinson

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Emily Dickinson Paper

Alex Lesnick
May 7, 2002
Period 1

Written word is perhaps the most powerful medium that humans have created to express their thoughts. A person can express a myriad of emotions through pen and paper, ranging from hope and happiness to morbid obsessions and anxiety. Written words, unlike spoken words, are for eternity. Once a thought is written down, anyone can read it, interpret it, ponder it, or question it, until it is destroyed. On the other hand, if a thought is spoken, it exists only for a second and then exists only in the minds of the one who uttered it and those who heard it. Only those who were present can interpret, question, or ponder that thought. If the paper or whatever material a thought is written on is preserved and passed on, the idea can long out live its creator. Those words are a window into the soul of the author, bringing to the public light the very emotions the person was experiencing when the words were first written. Through her written words, Emily Dickinson, famous 19th century poet, shared her thoughts to a "World/ That never wrote to Me." (Dickinson, Emily, poem 441) She expressed many thoughts, one in particular and quite popular, being directly referred to 137 times, was death.

In order to understand Emily's preoccupation with death, one must search out her past. It is very difficult for a person to put so much emotion into words if that person has no experiences. Emily's preoccupation with death has its sources in the fact that her house's orchard was adjacent to Amherst's community cemetery. Emily would have seen many funeral processions because of the home's close proximity to the graveyard. Mrs. Millicent Todd Bingham, author of Emily Dickinson's Home, said, "Furthermore, the Dickinson orchard adjoined the burying ground where the final rites took place. Every funeral procession must pass their house. The wonder is, not that Emily as a young girl thought and often wrote about death, but that any buoyancy of spirit remained." (Bingham, Millicent Todd, Emily Dickinson's Home, New York, Harper and Brothers, 1855, pg 179-180.) Being so close to death would influence almost anyone. Many scholars express their belief that Emily's obsession with death stems from something else. "New England puritanism and nineteenth-century romanticism were both obsessed with death in their own particular way, and both, of course impinged on Emily Dickinson incessantly for every quarter of her cultural life. It is important to realize also that the standard of public health in the twentieth century (in which communicable diseases are well controlled, dangerous epidemics are thought of as the exclusive property of undeveloped countries, early death is a rarity, and longevity is the rule) renders it difficult for us to appreciate the impact on our nineteenth-century ancestors of the omnipresence of death and the very real and constant menace it presented every day of their lives. Emily Dickinson's Home, by Millicent Todd Bingham, provides an impressive review of the many frequently fatal diseases, today all but unheard of, which were prevalent in nineteenth-century Amherst. For Emily Dickinson's preoccupation with death Mrs. Bingham finds just excuse. She cites the incessant dramatization of illness and death by the newspapers, Mrs. Dickinson's anxieties, the tendency for colds to develop into more serious or fatal illnesses, and the frequent deaths of young people." (Cody, John, After Great Pain, President and Fellows of Harvard College, 1971, 271, 272)

Emily's preoccupation with death was shown in many of her letters to friends and also in many of her poems. Death itself was referred to in 137 of her poems. Death is also hinted at in many of her poems. One such poem, "My Life had stood- a Loaded Gun" number 754, refers to death, although never mentioning it directly.

754
My Life had stood -- a Loaded Gun --
In Corners -- till a Day
The...
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