The motif of death in the poetry of Walt Witman and Emily Dickinson

Topics: Poetry, Life, Death Pages: 8 (2179 words) Published: December 3, 2014

Since the very beginning of the appearance of literature, the theme of the death was one of the most important ones. This theme was more prominent in the tragedies than in other literary genres. In ancient Greek, for example, death was used inevitably in odes and was always presented as an obstacle that could never be overcame. In classic tragedies, it is common that the role of death occupies the central role, as in the work of Plato, Phaedo, which narrates the death of Socrates. This tragic view was altered in the West because of Christianity, which always defended the immorality of the soul. In the Middle Ages, death was less important than the idea of salvation proclaimed by the Christian view. The Renaissance, on the contrary, was a more individualistic period and the followers of this movement saw death as an end of the individual existence. One of them, for instance, was Mitchel de Montaigne, whose famous quote “that to philosophize is to learn how to die” had great influence on the soliloquies written by Shakespeare for Hamlet. In this period, death was also seen as an association with sexual love. This love and death connection could reside in a religious guilt or, as Freud suggested, in the desire for an union with the mother. This relationship of death and love is present in important works such as Romeo and Juliet. In the Romanticism, this topic became an obsession for the writers, as we can see in the poem of Percy Shelley, Adonais, an elegy about the death of John Keats. In modern literature, the greatest representation of death is in the work The death of Ivan Ilych by Tolstoy and a short story called The dead by James Joyce. Since colonial times to the nineteenth century, the motif of death was very present in the American literature. Scholars such as Gerald Kennedy, Wendy Simonds and Barbara Katz noted that this theme was very popular in poetry, especially in elegies about maternal grief. Examples of these poems could be seen in the magazines Godey’s and Peterson’s. There are a lot of writers on American literature that wrote about death, but I am going to talk about what was death for Emily Dickinson and for Walt Whitman by analyzing several of their poems. Emily Dickinson had to treat with death since she was a child. In the late 1870s and early 1880s, a number of people close to her died in quick succession, including her mother, her friend Judge Otis Lord, her young nephew, her good friend Helen Fiske Hunt and Dr. Charles Wadsworth. Death is therefore one of the recurring themes in Dickinson’s poetry. But in her poems there were two types of death: sometimes it was a gentle death, but sometimes it was a threatening and even inevitable one. In her poem Behind Me dips -Eternity, death is a normal phase, it is natural, and life is just an interruption of this death. In My life had stood -a Loaded Gun-, the existence of death allows the existence of life. In Some - Work for Immortality, death is the moment where the speaker can exchange their good behaviour for their eternal rewards. Despite of how it might be, all of these several types of death do not contradict each other. For the author, death is the ultimate unknowable, and so she moves around it, as a way to come as close as she can for knowing the best she can. We are going to analyse two poems of Dickinson in which we found evidences of the importance that she gave to the theme of death in her poetry. The first poem I chose is Behind Me dips –Eternity. The first thing we can say about this poem is that it has eight syllabess verses with a consonant rime. The first three lines of this poem establish the image of Dickinson’s speaker positioning in the space between the eternity, which goes before her, and the immortality which will follow her, introducing a short interlude. Behind me-dips Eternity-

Before me- Immortality-
Myself- the term between-
Death but the drift of Eastern Gray,...

Queen, Edward (2006). A Dictionary of Literary and Thematic Terms, Second Edition. Ed. Facts on File, 2nd Edition.
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