Death in American Literature

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Essay 2
05/07/2012

Dickinson and Edgar Allan Poe (writing a few decades prior to Dickinson) ask us to explore a consciousness that doubts and questions its own reflections. They employ death as the focal point of self-consciousness, the unknowable center around which our thoughts inevitably swirl (whether we are aware of it or not).  Compare Dickinson’s poem #315 and Poe’s “Ligeia” on the topic.

Philosophy of the death

The theme of death has always been a presence in American writings – from early colonial diaries and through the nineteen century – because death was perceived to be ever present in people’s lives. Descended from the tradition of Puritan religion and also influenced by sentimentalism and Romantic views of death, Emily Dickinson presented a highly individualistic treatment of death in her poems. Emily Dickinson and Edgar Alan Poe are often compared and analyzed together because of their “death” moods in their works. Poe and Dickinson had many similarities in their lives: both had early losses that haunted throughout their lifetimes, and both dealt with their tragedies in destructive ways. Poe used alcohol and drugs; Dickinson used emotional and physical isolation. They were non-typical persons of their times, and both Poe and Dickinson created beauty with their poetry, putting images and pictures in the reader’s mind with pictures of nature and romance, capturing these emotions. But their “darker” side that makes them most similar attracts readers and encourages finding answers. When reading Dickinson and Poe, a reader deals with sorrow, loss, terror, and the final step – death. They conveyed a Gothic writing style that can pull the reader into their nightmares. Dickinson and Poe introduce death as the focal point of self-consciousness, the unknowable center around which our thoughts inevitably swirl. They both used this concept and it was significant in their works. If we associate these writers with music, Emily Dickinson would be music of grief notes and changing moods, and Edgar Poe would be a composer, who is a hostage of his thoughts that affect his pieces. To compare Dickinson’s poem #315 and Poe’s “Ligeia,” I would like to start with analyzing these works separately even though they have similar features, because both these pieces are difficult to understand due to many symbols that convey the author’s thoughts and feelings. Emily Dickinson is loved by a lot of readers because her poems are ambiguous. Everyone can understand them in a different way. Poem #315 is very fascinating to read, because you gradually understand the meaning by reading it again and again. As in many other poems, #315 Dickinson tells us a story that always has just one end - death. I saw it as a poem that describes physical abuse, using a powerful force that becomes stronger from a line to line. The first four lines show us a “He” (“He fumbles at your soul/ As Players on the Keys/ Before the drop full music on-/He stuns you by degrees). We don’t know who or what “He” is, but we know that it is something or somebody powerful. A fascination with nature consumed Emily Dickinson, and probably, influenced by Henry Thoreau, in the poem #315 she uses nature as a powerful force. “Development” of this poem reminds levels of development of a thunderstorm. It doesn’t start out heavy and powerful, it starts out with a wind that we feel in the first four lines. Then the air gets colder, the degrees go down, and powerful thunder vibrates the soul of a person on the earth. The next four lines describe the storm that is getting more powerful; “Prepares your brittle Nature/For the Etherial Blow/ By fainter Hammers –further heard-/Then nearer-Then so slow.” In these lines Dickinson plays with contrasts, and shows Nature as brittle and fragile that powerful winds are able to knock down trees with the greatest of ease. Here I imagine Nature as a person that seems very strong first, and then can be destroyed, using his own power to act...
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