Emily Dickinson’s Intimate Relationship with Death

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Updated: Mar 31, 2023
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Death Becomes Her

There is something that stays with the reader after a Dickinson poem: eerie and dusky, the feeling of an End on the horizon. Waiting. Death, in a poem by Emily Dickinson, is something familiar, almost a sort of trademark no one consciously expects but accepts all the same. In verses such as “There’s a certain slant of light…”, “I felt a funeral in my brain…” and “The bustle in a house…”, it is mentioned in various points in time— the before, the present, the aftermath— but with the same underlying message: it is inescapable, omnipresent, and, ultimately, not something to be feared.

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The rapid losses of those close to her while young— undoubtedly affected Dickinson’s perception of it as well— molding it into something intimate, the knowledge that it inevitably solidifies its presence in her life. Throughout the three poems, tone, memento mori, and the passage of space in regard to time develop and convey Dickinson’s close relationship and familiarity with death and its constant presence in her life.

The tone in “The bustle in a house…” beginning with “The bustle in a house / The morning after death,” is established as peculiarly routine: the word bustle carries a connotation of normality, almost, like the everyday bustle of an office (1-2). For it to be attached to the quietness of the second line implies unsurprised grimness. as if it were expected to lose someone, as if it had been done many times before, and now only resignation remains. The next line, which says “Is most solemn of industries,” reinforces that same feeling of carrying on despite the burden because it now is just working to be completed, highlighted by the definition of the word industries as used in the third line meaning “hard work” (3). For the aftermath— and clean-up, as unfeeling as it sounds— of a tragedy, it is unlikely that anyone unexposed to it would refer to the process as mere work, not when its effect on anyone’s psyche is so powerful. Dying and sorrow and loss, for Dickinson, are ubiquitous, the event not terrifying or crushing in any way.

It is as ordinary as a day’s labor— it is something that needs to be done. The lines “The sweeping up the heart / And putting love away” in the second and final stanza are perhaps most indicative of her perception of death (5-6). The tone of these lines is dismissive, methodical— almost mechanical. There is little to no emotion here, only the practiced motions of something deeply ingrained. Business, for her, is as usual. The person and the affection she had for them once are gone. There is no hint of fear toward something so common around her. They sleep beneath the earth now, and Dickinson accepts this. It is a familiar thing, death, as concluded in the final two lines: “We shall not want to use again / Until eternity” (7-8). Dickinson is fully well aware that love is not something one should want to feel for someone long dead. This is advice that stems from experience— the feeling it leaves is one of informed, careful warning as if she knows death well enough to be able to give counsel on the shortcuts to regain functionality. There is no need to fear something so saturated in one’s surroundings.

Remember death, Dickinson seems to whisper in the undercurrents of every verse, as it hangs behind every curtain and lurks on the horizon, a message of memento mori (literally, remember that you have to die) at its finest. Her poem “There’s a certain slant of light…” serves as a reminder of the ever-presence of death. It begins in the winter, the season when even the environment itself sleeps beneath the frost. The perfect picture of it with “winter afternoon” light and the weight it bears; winter at the end of the day hurts in a way that doesn’t scar the physical body but hurts the soul all the same (1-8). The surroundings Dickinson describes, though illuminated by the sun, bring about heavy depression, as if all the brightness in the world could not cancel out the unmistakable lack of life outside. The sadness so far, however, does not particularly equate to anything more than a reflection of one’s environment— death hides away in the corners still, not quite revealing itself, but there, anyway, there to see upon closer inspection.

It goes with Dickinson wherever she goes, no matter the medium, no matter the circumstance. It does not truly take a definite shape yet, but she allows the reader to infer it. Light is the classic antithesis of death, no matter the depression that sets in with it in the winter: there is life— light, though there is little— within death— winter. As long as there is light, there is life, grants Dickinson, with “When it comes, the landscape listens, / Shadows hold their breath” (13-14). But, as with memento mori, that afternoon light does not last forever. Remember that you have to die. The light is from late afternoon. It is fading, and with it comes the dark. “When it goes, it is like the distance / On the look of death” is the true final manifestation of what Dickinson has been alluding to all along: death is here, with her and with everyone, and it is waiting (15-16). It is on the horizon, an eternal reminder that life will end one day and that it is as inescapable as the night: the narrator comes to realize death’s “universal presence in the natural world” (“Overview: ‘There’s a Certain Slant of Light”).

Death’s presence thus settles into Dickinson’s own being. “I felt a funeral in my brain…” presents a shift in space in relation to time throughout the length of it. The first stanza describes Dickinson feeling a funeral and the tread of “mourners, to and fro” in the recesses of her mind, then shifting in the second stanza from that inner space to the outside world outside of her coffin for the funeral service, which she heard beat until her “mind was going numb” (1-8). Here, in contrast with the previous two poems, Dickinson is not an observer of death; this time, she personifies it. She is dead here—that relationship with it has grown so close that they have been rendered one and the same. The third stanza is split between the outside and inside perspectives, highlighting the duality of her and her state of being. It is a state. It is her. Here, death simply is. And in the final line of the third and the entirety of the fourth stanza, there is a last radical shift— it goes from that double-edged space that “began to toll” to “As all the heavens were a bell,” a dimension that transcends her and her coffin, and then suddenly to a space closer to her mind: “Wrecked, solitary, here” (12-16). The here is not her brain, nor does it seem to be her coffin. It is transcendent, like the heaven she spoke of— there, with her, and at the same time, everywhere. It exists everywhere, in all spaces and dimensions, all at once.

There is an eternity in the present. Here is the ultimate affirmation of Emily Dickinson’s perspective of death. It is a part of her that will exist long after she is gone. There is no sense of fright emanating from her as she narrates the poem; there is no need for fear when all of existence has been consumed by death, both within and without. Death is not so much an idea, as abstract as they are, anymore. How familiar can one be with oneself? Could it be called familiarity when one and the subject are the same?

Here is the height of close relationships, why Dickinson incorporates a semblance of death in every corner of her writing. Surrounded by it since she was a child, then plagued with it as an adult with the rapid succession of deaths of her close friend, her nephew, and her mother, death’s role in her life has been of the utmost importance to her development (Brand). It is that exposure that rendered it as much a part of her as her life itself— a constant companion through the years and her self-willed solitude. A bond that lasted for so long is one forged with adamantine— they are eternally intertwined, something that is conveyed throughout her three poems “The bustle in a house…”, “There’s a certain slant of light…” and “There’s a funeral in my brain…” through a variety of mediums: tone, memento mori, and the passage of space in regards to time. All the while, the familiarity with it is unmistakable— Dickinson demonstrates a deep understanding of it, going so far as to offer advice to the reader in “The bustle in a house…” to let go of any attachments in her knowledge of it. The closeness with death is heartbreaking, and even more so is her attachment to it.

The trauma she suffered, although not terribly uncommon in her time, was harsh enough to scar her permanently and establish an obsession with it; and an obsession is what it is, as beautiful as she paints it in her works. This bond is unique and iconic, the coming together of life and death and its inseparable coexistence on paper— an intimate alliance that has separated Emily Dickinson from others in her field since that time.

Works Cited

  1. Brand, Gerhard. “Emily Dickinson.” Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, 2018. EBSCOhost, db03.linccweb.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ers&AN=88807014&site=eds-live&scope=site.
  2. Dickinson, Emily. “The Bustle in a House.” Classics of American Literature, Volume One, edited by David Hennessy, David Hennessy, 2012, p. 385.
  3. Dickinson, Emily. “There’s a Certain Shaft of Light.” Classics of American Literature, Volume One, edited by David Hennessy, David Hennessy, 2012, p. 384.
  4. Dickinson, Emily. “I Felt a Funeral in My Brain.” Classics of American Literature, Volume One, edited by David Hennessy, David Hennessy, 2012, p. 386.
  5. Mackowiak PA, et al. “Post-Traumatic Stress Reactions before the Advent of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: Potential Effects on the Lives and Legacies of Alexander the Great, Captain James Cook, Emily Dickinson, and Florence Nightingale.” Military Medicine, vol. 173, no. 12, Dec. 2008, pp. 1158–1163. EBSCOhost, db03.linccweb.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ccm&AN=105599120&site=eds-live&scope=site.
  6. ‘Overview: ‘There’s a Certain Slant of Light.” Poetry for Students, edited by Mary Ruby, vol. 6, Gale, 1999. Literature Resource Center, http://link.galegroup.com.db03.linccweb.org/apps/doc/H1430005847/LitRC?u=lincclin_bwcc&sid=LitRC&xid=3dd3ecd7.
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Emily Dickinson's Intimate Relationship with Death. (2023, Mar 31). Retrieved from https://papersowl.com/examples/emily-dickinsons-intimate-relationship-with-death/