With the theme of
Death and Impermanence
And the two poems:
By John Updike
“Because I could not stop for Death”
Introduction to Literature
“In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand, the raw material of poetry in all its rawness and that which is on the other hand genuine, you are interested in poetry.”(Guetebier. A. 2008. P. 10).
Two poems from different time periods; both about death, impermanence, and the acceptance of the unknown, comparing and contrasting the two, “Dog’s Death,” by John Updike and “Because I could not stop for Death,” by Emily Dickenson was not an easy task. The discrepancy of the two is the era, “Dog’s Death,” was written in the later 1900’s, whereas “Because I could not stop for Death,” was written in the late 1800’s, a whole hundred years apart. The wording, the images, the rhythm and the emotions behind the persona are of two different time periods. Comparing the two, they are both dramatic poems. According to Southwestern Advantage, Nash (2011), “Dramatic poetry tells a story. The difference is that dramatic poetry, a speaker tells the story or acts it out,” (p. 881). The use of first-person imagery brings the audience into an imaginative state of altered reality, and the usage of personification brings to life these pieces of literature, capturing that dwelling moment in time when one is to accept morality. Contrasting the two pieces, both of which are about death, yet one is a tale of a person on their way to meet their fate, while the other is about a family about to accept death upon their family’s pet, these two poems seem to be different by the choice of words used which allowed for the time frame to be known, the flow of the words with the rhythm and usage of assonance shows a distinct difference in style. The setting is different as well as the time period, one takes place in the past, for that is when it was written and the other is modern day. Both pieces play an important role to the audience, one by which accepting death on one’s own behalf, while the other accepting death of a loved one. As to why the better of the two poems is “Dog’s Death,” is not only because of its modern day relationship that it has with today’s audience, but because the imagery relates to a scene many have experienced, allowing for the audience to relate more to the author and accept the positive aspect of it all when death comes knocking at one’s door, life still goes on.
Both poems are dramatizing the acceptance of death while using the first person perspective. According to the author R. Wayne Clugston (2010) of the book Journey into Literature, “First-person point of view occurs when the narrator (describing his or her personal action and thoughts) is a participant in the story,” (section 5.2). By allowing the audience to imagine a voyage with the reaper as Dickenson takes the speaker to their final resting place she creates this imagined world of slow motioned imagery, while in the other poem by John Updike, he allows for the speaker to tell the dramatic tale of losing a families’ pet; yet allowing for the closure to be a positive aspect, while in Dickenson’s not so much. While reading the two poems, I felt as though one was more fictional than other, for there’s no way one could possibly write the experience of death while still alive. Emily Dickenson (1890) takes the audience on a grim tale, using a sonnet as a way to express her feeling of acceptance towards death, while she realizes that she was to never see anything again, for when she laid eyes on those two horses, it was over, as quoted here in the poem, “ Because I could not stop for Death,” : Since then – 'tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses' Heads
Were toward Eternity –
According to the Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary and Thesaurus (2006), the word surmised is, “a thought or idea based on scanty evidence,” meaning she did not realize she was going to die, for she thought that she would live for eternity as the carriage came to pick her up as Dickenson states in the first stanza: Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
By using the word immorality, a person visualizes eternity, living forever, never dying, and yet she does.
John Updike uses the tragic incident of losing a pet that not only was struck causing internal damages, but then invites the audience within the realistic tale of losing her slowly by creating a world through imagery. As the family realizes there is something wrong with their pet, Updike uses words like malaise and dissolution, both creating a more traumatic situation as these words create that image of suffering and the prolonging of death as stated within the poem “Dog’s Death,” by John Updike (1953-1993): We thought her shy malaise was a shot reaction.
The autopsy disclosed a rupture in the liver.
As the story carries on and their dog finally dies, Updike then allows for the speaker to realize how badly hurt his dog truly was by using the word dissolution, a term which could be used in many ways, yet one meaning stands out, the word death. Imagining a dearly loved pet suffering and coming to the realization that even though she was close to death, she still tried as the narrator applauds her final attempts to do as she was taught, allowing for the audience to accept the dog’s fate, and to accept life as well, for life does continue on even after losing a loved one: Back home, we found that in the night her frame,
Drawing near to dissolution, had endured the shame
Of diarrhea and had dragged across the floor
To a newspaper carelessly left there. Good dog.
Though both tales are somber in tone, touching on the personification that both authors have used in their pieces creates a scene for the audience to capture, bringing to life the dramatic situation that they both describe. Within the poem “Because I could not stop for Death,” by Emily Dickenson (1890), she personalizes death, by not only capitalizing the word, but then giving it the gender of a man as she writes, “Because I could not stop for Death/He kindly stopped for me,” (as cited by Clugston, 2010, Section 12.3). By doing this, Dickenson then allows for the audience to imagine Death as the person carrying her away in a carriage.
Within the poem, “Dog’s Death,” by John Updike, he personifies the dog’s heart, bringing it to life, only to let it die, “As we teased her with play, blood was filling her skin/ And her heart was learning to lie down forever,”( as cited by Clugston, 2010, section 2.3). The heart is learning to lie down, giving it a sense of something more than just and organ within the dog’s body, but that of substance creating an alternate effect of demise.
While comparing the two poems, we see that the usage of such a dramatic subject such as death, the personification by which each author uses, the first-person perspective, and imagery all run hand in hand in order to get the story across and to create and emotional relationship with their pieces. Contrasting the two poems, allows for the audience to see the different techniques used in creating such famous and memorable poems and shows the era of the two, one being more modern day and the other from the past.
Within the poem “Because I could not stop for Death,” by Emily Dickenson, words used show the era of the poem, such as the use of a carriage, tippet, which is a cape or scarf, and tulle which according to Merriam-Webster (2006) is, “a sheer often stiffened silk, rayon, or nylon net,” (p. 1105). These are all descriptive words of what the narrator was wearing and allow for the audience to envision the past a woman in a carriage dressed with cape made of of tulle and a man, “Death” driving her slowly throughout the poem. When compared to the poem “Dog’s Death,” by John Updike, he uses more modern day words, such as the vet, and car, allowing for the audience to envision the two driving worriedly to the vet. Hunley (2007) states, “If invention is a matter of getting words down on the page and arrangement consists of ordering those words in a sensible way, style is about making sure the words are readable and memorable. It’s about choosing just the right words so that the writing leaves a vivid impression on readers.” (p.81). Hunley goes on to say, “Language is important in all literary genres, but in poetry, language is the most important thing. Style, more than in any of the other canons, is concerned with language: diction, syntax, voice, tone, and effective use of figures and tropes. Often, upon coming across a striking use of language in speech or in writing, we remark on the colorful language employed by the speaker or writer. What we’re noticing is the presence of style, and more than any other kind of writer, a poet needs to have a colorful style: ‘The categories of style are called “colors” of rhetoric in several [medieval] treatises. They embellish – give “color” to – ordinary language, (Hunley. 2007. p. 82). According to Holcombe (2013), “Rhetoric is the art of persuasion, and the rhetorical approach attempts to understand how the content of the poem, which is more than intellectual meaning, is put across. Style is the manner in which something is presented, and this approach concentrates on the peculiarities of diction and imagery employed, sometimes relating them to literary and social theory.” Just as these two authors have, yet with the word choices and style that Dickenson uses, paints a more vivid picture or color of what is going on, even though more people can relate to the panic of losing a loved pet. Martin (2002) states, “The greatness of Emily Dickinson” is not going to be found in anything outside the poem, R. P. Blackmur averred. “It is going to be found in the words she used and in the way she put them together,” he argued, in an essay that carefully discriminates between Dickinson’s “mob of verses” and a very few poems in which she attains the ideal of “poetry” as “a rational and objective art” especially “when the theme is self-expression,”(p.16). Though there was the need to look up the words in these two poems, Dickenson’s word choice worked far better in carrying the rhythm onto the next stanza by rhyming with assonance, which according to Clugston (2010), “Occur when a similar vowel sound is repeated in words that have dissimilar consonants. In this way, assonance is different from rhyme, which is the occurrence of similar vowel sounds in two words that have different preceding consonants,” (section 10.2) Such as seen in the poem, “Because I could not stop for Death,” (1890): We slowly drove—He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For his Civility
Updike also uses assonance as seen in Dog’s Death,”(1953-1993): To bite my hand and died. I stroked her warm fur
And my wife called in a voice imperious with tears
Though surrounded by love that would have upheld her.
Nevertheless she sank and stiffening, disappeared.
The words fur and her along with tears and disappeared sound alike, they do not fit the definition of what rhyme truly is. “A rhyming pattern creates a sense of expectancy as you read; you find yourself anticipating the completion of a unit of thought as you approach each end rhyme. This pattern, therefore, requires the poet to structure ideas and thoughts. Perfect rhyme occurs when the vowel sounds in the rhyming words are identical, but the consonants that precede them are different, for example, car and far,” (Clugston. 2010. Section 9.1). Within the poem, “Because I could not wait for Death,” Dickenson uses the same technique with the usage of assonance, yet the way she places these words allow for the rhythm of the poem to flow perfectly, whereas with “Dog’s Death,” the need to look for the rhythm is there. Dickenson writes: Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
When it comes to rhythm and rhyming, Dickenson surely has the upper hand. She allows for the reader to follow gracefully throughout her piece, whereas Updike’s poem has certain areas that are uncertain and the need to read the lines over again in order to fully grasp the rhythm requires patience in order to fully comprehend his vision.
The fact that “Because I could not stop for Death,” takes place in the past where carriages were used and women still wore capes and there doesn’t seem to be much of the landscape only fields and a school house, seems to either place this tale in the countryside somewhere or back in time when their wasn’t much economic development. This doesn’t lose the interest entirely of the audience for the rhythm makes up for the time gap, yet the poem “Dog’s Death,” is more modern, relates to more people for they too have had similar situations and it brings to life those emotions that many seem to suppress.
After having a pet in the family for most of my oldest son’s life, the thought of losing our dog Puka was unbearable, yet at the age of eleven she passed away breaking the hearts of me and my children. We’ve had a couple puppies since, one the victim of a highway just outside our old house as I left to take my youngest son to school. We’ve had cats and dogs both fall victimized by traffic, two survived the impact, one survived completely and is alive to this day, the other was already ten when she was hit; the impact kept her alive for the rest of the day, but she didn’t survive the night. You can imagine the feelings reading “Dog’s Death,” by Updike which allows for the reader to step inside a household at breakfast, to watch the helpless dog hide underneath the bed, and allows for the reader to feel the wife’s sadness as she realizes her pet is dying. Not too many emotions were hit by Dickenson, sure people are afraid of death, but it is inevitable, to tell a venturous tale about riding with Death creates a world of the afterlife lost in eternity and the world of unknowing. By Updike bringing in the factor of death, and allowing for the reader to share his emotions of loss, the sympathetic relationship between the poet and the reader takes hold of the audience by the heart and embeds itself within it.
These to poems both share a lot in common, they both have the theme of death and impermanence, use the dramatic approach and first-person imagery, and allow for personification to paint a picture within the readers minds, the contrasting elements allow for the two pieces to slowly take on their own identities, separating the audience from those of the supernatural world to those of the more realistic emotional world. The fact that Emily Dickenson uses words and rhythm to bring to life her poem in a playful tone of a more morbid subject disconnects the reader from relating to her personally, but allows for words to flow smoothly. John Updike reaches within his past and brings to life a situation that many people have felt, experienced, will experience, or have had family members experience and allows for the situation to create an acceptance of death with a more positive aspect by using first-person perspective, imagery, assonance, and tone as he continues on after his loved pet perishes and applauds her one last time for her attempt of pleasing her master, “Good dog,” (as cited by Clugston 2010).
Clugston, R. W. (2010). Journey into literature. San Diego, California: Bridgepoint Education, Inc. Retrieved from: https://content.ashford.edu/books/AUENG125.10.2
Guetebier, Amber; Knight, Brenda. (2008). Poetry Oracle.
San Francisco, CA, USA: CCC Publishing, 2008. p 10. Retrieved from: http://site.ebrary.com/lib/ashford/Doc?id=10387171&ppg=11
Hunley, T. C. (2007).. Teaching Poetry Writing : A Five-Canon Approach. Clevedon, GBR: Multilingual Matters. p 81. Retrieved from:
Litlang Ltda. (2007). Types of literary criticism. Retrieved from http://www.textetc.com/criticism.html
Martin, W. (Editor). (2002). Cambridge Companion to Emily Dickinson. West Nyack, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press. p 16.
Merriam-Websters’s Dictionary and Thesaurus. (2006).Springfield, MA:Author Nash, A .(Eds). (2011). Southwestern Advantage. Social Studies & Language. Kendall Hunt Publishing Co. Nashville, TN. 893.