The Poems Death, Immortality, and Religion


Even a modest selection of Emily Dickinson's poems reveals that death is her principal subject; in fact, because the topic is related to many of her other concerns, it is difficult to say how many of her poems concentrate on death. But over half of them, at least partly, and about a third centrally, feature it. Most of these poems also touch on the subject of religion, although she did write about religion without mentioning death. Other nineteenth-century poets, Keats and Whitman are good examples, were also death-haunted, but few as much as Emily Dickinson. Life in a small New England town in Dickinson's time contained a high mortality rate for young people; as a result, there were frequent death-scenes in homes, and this factor contributed to her preoccupation with death, as well as her withdrawal from the world, her anguish over her lack of romantic love, and her doubts about fulfillment beyond the grave. Years ago, Emily Dickinson's interest in death was often criticized as being morbid, but in our time readers tend to be impressed by her sensitive and imaginative handling of this painful subject.

Her poems centering on death and religion can be divided into four categories: those focusing on death as possible extinction, those dramatizing the question of whether the soul survives death, those asserting a firm faith in immortality, and those directly treating God's concern with people's lives and destinies.

The very popular "I heard a Fly buzz — when I died" (465) is often seen as representative of Emily Dickinson's style and attitudes. The first line is as arresting an opening as one could imagine. By describing the moment of her death, the speaker lets us know that she has already died. In the first stanza, the death-room's stillness contrasts with a fly's buzz that the dying person hears, and the tension pervading the scene is likened to the pauses within a storm. The second stanza focuses on the concerned onlookers, whose strained eyes and gathered breath emphasize their concentration in the face of a sacred event: the arrival of the "King," who is death. In the third stanza, attention shifts back to the speaker, who has been observing her own death with all the strength of her remaining senses. Her final willing of her keepsakes is a psychological event, not something she speaks. Already growing detached from her surroundings, she is no longer interested in material possessions; instead, she leaves behind whatever of herself people can treasure and remember. She is getting ready to guide herself towards death. But the buzzing fly intervenes at the last instant; the phrase "and then" indicates that this is a casual event, as if the ordinary course of life were in no way being interrupted by her death. The fly's "blue buzz!' is one of the most famous pieces of synesthesia in Emily Dickinson's poems. This image represents the fusing of color and sound by the dying person's diminishing senses. The uncertainty of the fly's darting motions parallels her state of mind. Flying between the light and her, it seems to both signal the moment of death and represent the world that she is leaving. The last two lines show the speaker's confusion of her eyes and the windows of the room — a psychologically acute observation because the windows' failure is the failure of her own eyes that she does not want to admit. She is both distancing fear and revealing her detachment from life.

Critics have disagreed about the symbolic fly, some claiming that it symbolizes the precious world being left behind and others insisting that it stands for the decay and corruption associated with death. Although we favor the first of these, a compromise is possible. The fly may be loathsome, but it can also signify vitality. The synesthetic description of the fly helps depict the messy reality of dying, an event that one might hope to find more uplifting. The poem portrays a typical nineteenth-century death-scene, with the onlookers studying the dying countenance for signs of the soul's fate beyond death, but otherwise the poem seems to avoid the question of immortality.

In "This World is not Conclusion" (501), Emily Dickinson dramatizes a conflict between faith in immortality and severe doubt. Her earliest editors omitted the last eight lines of the poem, distorting its meaning and creating a flat conclusion. The complete poem can be divided into two parts: the first twelve lines and the final eight lines. It starts by emphatically affirming that there is a world beyond death which we cannot see but which we still can understand intuitively, as we do music. Lines four through eight introduce conflict. Immortality is attractive but puzzling. Even wise people must pass through the riddle of death without knowing where they are going. The ungrammatical "don't" combined with the elevated diction of "philosophy" and "sagacity" suggests the petulance of a little girl. In the next four lines, the speaker struggles to assert faith. Puzzled scholars are less admirable than those who have stood up for their beliefs and suffered Christlike deaths. The speaker wants to be like them. Her faith now appears in the form of a bird who is searching for reasons to believe. But available evidence proves as irrelevant as twigs and as indefinite as the directions shown by a spinning weathervane. The desperation of a bird aimlessly looking for its way is analogous to the behavior of preachers whose gestures and hallelujahs cannot point the way to faith. These last two lines suggest that the narcotic which these preachers offer cannot still their own doubts, in addition to the doubts of others.

In "I know that He exists" (338), Emily Dickinson, like Herman Melville's Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick, shoots darts of anger against an absent or betraying God. This poem also has a major division and moves from affirmation to extreme doubt. However, its overall tone differs from that of "This World is not Conclusion." The latter poem shows a tension between childlike struggles for faith and the too easy faith of conventional believers, and Emily Dickinson's anger, therefore, is directed against her own puzzlement and the double-dealing of religious leaders. It is a frenetic satire that contains a cry of anguish. In the first-person "I know that He exists" (338), the speaker confronts the challenge of death and refers to God with chillingly direct anger. Both poems, however, are ironic. Here, the first stanza declares a firm belief in God's existence, although she can neither hear nor see him. The second stanza explains that he remains hidden in order to make death a blissful ambush, where happiness comes as a surprise. The deliberately excessive joy and the exclamation mark are signs of emerging irony. She has been describing a pleasant game of hide and seek, but she now anticipates that the game may prove deadly and that the fun could turn to terror if death's stare is revealed as being something murderous that brings neither God nor immortality. Should this prove so, the amusing game will become a vicious joke, showing God to be a merciless trickster who enjoys watching people's foolish anticipations. Once this dramatic irony is visible, one can see that the first stanza's characterization of God's rareness and man's grossness is ironic. As a vicious trickster, his rareness is a fraud, and if man's lowliness is not rewarded by God, it is merely a sign that people deserve to be cheated. The rhythms of this poem imitate both its deliberativeness and uneasy anticipation. It is as close to blasphemy as Emily Dickinson ever comes in her poems on death, but it does not express an absolute doubt. Rather, it raises the possibility that God may not grant the immortality that we long for.

The borderline between Emily Dickinson's poems in which immortality is painfully doubted and those in which it is merely a question cannot be clearly established, and she often balances between these positions. For example, "Those — dying then" (1551) takes a pragmatic attitude towards the usefulness of faith. Evidently written three or four years before Emily Dickinson's death, this poem reflects on the firm faith of the early nineteenth century, when people were sure that death took them to God's right hand. The amputation of that hand represents the cruel loss of men's faith. The second stanza asserts that without faith people's behavior becomes shallow and petty, and she concludes by declaring that an "ignis fatuus," — Latin for false fire — is better than no illumination — no spiritual guidance or moral anchor. In plain prose, Emily Dickinson's idea seems a bit fatuous. But the poem is effective because it dramatizes, largely through its metaphors of amputation and illumination, the strength that comes with convictions, and contrasts it with an insipid lack of dignity.

The tenderly satirical portrait of a dead woman in "How many times these low feet staggered" (187) skirts the problem of immortality. As in many of her poems about death, the imagery focuses on the stark immobility of the dead, emphasizing their distance from the living. The central scene is a room where a body is laid out for burial, but the speaker's mind ranges back and forth in time. In the first stanza, she looks back at the burdens of life of the dead housewife and then metaphorically describes her stillness. The contrast in her feelings is between relief that the woman is free from her burdens and the present horror of her death. In the second stanza, the speaker asks her listeners or companions to approach the corpse and compare its former, fevered life to its present coolness: the once nimbly active fingers are now stone-like. In the last stanza, attention shifts from the corpse to the room, and the emotion of the speaker complicates. The dull flies and spotted windowpane show that the housewife can no longer keep her house clean. The flies suggest the unclean oppression of death, and the dull sun is a symbol for her extinguished life. By citing the fearless cobweb, the speaker pretends to criticize the dead woman, beginning an irony intensified by a deliberately unjust accusation of indolence — as if the housewife remained dead in order to avoid work. In the last line of the poem, the body is in its grave; this final detail adds a typical Dickinsonian pathos.

"Safe in their Alabaster Chambers" (216) is a similarly constructed but more difficult poem. After Emily Dickinson's sister-in-law, Susan, criticized the second stanza of its first version, Emily Dickinson wrote a different stanza and, later, yet another variant for it. The reader now has the pleasure (or problem) of deciding which second stanza best completes the poem, although one can make a composite version containing all three stanzas, which is what Emily Dickinson's early editors did. We will interpret it as a three-stanza poem. As with "How many times these low feet staggered," its most striking technique is the contrast between the immobility of the dead and the life continuing around them. The tone, however, is solemn rather than partially playful, although slight touches of satire are possible. The first stanza presents a generalized picture of the dead in their graves. The description of the hard whiteness of alabaster monuments or mausoleums begins the poem's stress on the insentience of the dead. Day moves above them but they sleep on, incapable of feeling the softness of coffin linings or the hardness of burial stone. They are "meek members of the resurrection" in that they passively wait for whatever their future may be, although this detail implies that they may eventually awaken in heaven.

In what we will consider the second stanza, the scene widens to the vista of nature surrounding burial grounds. Here, the vigor and cheerfulness of bees and birds emphasizes the stillness and deafness of the dead. The birds are not aware of death, and the former wisdom of the dead, which contrasts to ignorant nature, has perished. In what is our third stanza, Emily Dickinson shifts her scene to the vast surrounding universe, where planets sweep grandly through the heavens. The touch of personification in these lines intensifies the contrast between the continuing universe and the arrested dead. The dropping of diadems stands for the fall of kings, and the reference to Doges, the rulers of medieval Venice, adds an exotic note. The soundless fall of these rulers reminds us again of the dead's insentience and makes the process of cosmic time seem smooth. The disc (enclosing a wide winter landscape) into which fresh snow falls is a simile for this political change and suggests that while such activity is as inevitable as the seasons, it is irrelevant to the dead. This stanza also adds a touch of pathos in that it implies that the dead are equally irrelevant to the world, from whose excitement and variety they are completely cut off. Resurrection has not been mentioned again, and the poem ends on a note of silent awe.

Conflict between doubt and faith looms large in "The last Night that She lived" (1100), perhaps Emily Dickinson's most powerful death scene. The poem is written in second-person plural to emphasize the physical presence and the shared emotions of the witnesses at a death-bed. The past tense shows that the experience has been completed and its details have been intensely remembered. That the night of death is common indicates both that the world goes on despite death and that this persisting commonness in the face of death is offensive to the observers. Nature looks different to the witnesses because they have to face nature's destructiveness and indifference. They see everything with increased sharpness because death makes the world mysterious and precious. After the first two stanzas, the poem devotes four stanzas to contrasts between the situation and the mental state of the dying woman and those of the onlookers. Moving in and out of the death room as a nervous response to their powerlessness, the onlookers become resentful that others may live while this dear woman must die. The jealousy for her is not an envy of her death; it is a jealous defense of her right to live. As the fifth stanza ends, the tense moment of death arrives. The oppressive atmosphere and the spiritually shaken witnesses are made vividly real by the force of the metaphors "narrow time" and "jostled souls." At the moment of death, the dying woman is willing to die — a sign of salvation for the New England Puritan mind and a contrast to the unwillingness of the onlookers to let her die.

The simile of a reed bending to water gives to the woman a fragile beauty and suggests her acceptance of a natural process. In the last stanza the onlookers approach the corpse to arrange it, with formal awe and restrained tenderness. The condensed last two lines gain much of their effect by withholding an expected expression of relief. Instead of going back to life as it was, or affirming their faith in the immortality of a Christian who was willing to die, they move into a time of leisure in which they must strive to "regulate" their beliefs that is, they must strive to dispel their doubts. The subtle irony of "awful leisure" mocks the condition of still being alive, suggesting that the dead person is more fortunate than the living because she is now relieved of all struggle for faith.

"Because I could not stop for Death" (712) is Emily Dickinson's most anthologized and discussed poem. It deserves such attention, although it is difficult to know how much its problematic nature contributes to this interest. We will briefly summarize the major interpretations before, rather than after, analyzing the poem. Some critics believe that the poem shows death escorting the female speaker to an assured paradise. Others believe that death comes in the form of a deceiver, perhaps even a rapist, to carry her off to destruction. Still others think that the poem leaves the question of her destination open. As does "I heard a Fly buzz — when I died," this poem gains initial force by having its protagonist speak from beyond death. Here, however, dying has largely preceded the action, and its physical aspects are only hinted at. The first stanza presents an apparently cheerful view of a grim subject. Death is kindly. He comes in a vehicle connoting respect or courtship, and he is accompanied by immortality — or at least its promise. The word "stop" can mean to stop by for a person, but it also can mean stopping one's daily activities. With this pun in mind, death's kindness may be seen as ironical, suggesting his grim determination to take the woman despite her occupation with life. Her being alone — or almost alone — with death helps characterize him as a suitor. Death knows no haste because he always has enough power and time. The speaker now acknowledges that she has put her labor and leisure aside; she has given up her claims on life and seems pleased with her exchange of life for death's civility, a civility appropriate for a suitor but an ironic quality of a force that has no need for rudeness.

The third stanza creates a sense of motion and of the separation between the living and the dead. Children go on with life's conflicts and games, which are now irrelevant to the dead woman. The vitality of nature which is embodied in the grain and the sun is also irrelevant to her state; it makes a frightening contrast. However, in the fourth stanza, she becomes troubled by her separation from nature and by what seems to be a physical threat. She realizes that the sun is passing them rather than they the sun, suggesting both that she has lost the power of independent movement, and that time is leaving her behind. Her dress and her scarf are made of frail materials and the wet chill of evening, symbolizing the coldness of death, assaults her. Some critics believe that she wears the white robes of the bride of Christ and is headed towards a celestial marriage. In the fifth stanza, the body is deposited in the grave, whose representation as a swelling in the ground portends its sinking. The flatness of its roof and its low roof-supports reinforce the atmosphere of dissolution and may symbolize the swiftness with which the dead are forgotten.

The last stanza implies that the carriage with driver and guest are still traveling. If it is centuries since the body was deposited, then the soul is moving on without the body. That first day felt longer than the succeeding centuries because during it, she experienced the shock of death. Even then, she knew that the destination was eternity, but the poem does not tell if that eternity is filled with anything more than the blankness into which her senses are dissolving. Emily Dickinson may intend paradise to be the woman's destination, but the conclusion withholds a description of what immortality may be like. The presence of immortality in the carriage may be part of a mocking game or it may indicate some kind of real promise. Since interpretation of some of the details is problematic, readers must decide for themselves what the poem's dominant tone is.

The borderline between Emily Dickinson's treatment of death as having an uncertain outcome and her affirmation of immortality cannot be clearly defined. The epigrammatic "The Bustle in a House" (1078) makes a more definite affirmation of immortality than the poems just discussed, but its tone is still grim. If we wanted to make a narrative sequence of two of Emily Dickinson's poems about death, we could place this one after "The last Night that She lived." "The Bustle in a House" at first appears to be an objective description of a household following the death of a dear person. It is only the morning after, but already there is the bustle of everyday activity. The word "bustle" implies a brisk busyness, a return to the normality and the order shattered by the departure of the dying. Industry is ironically joined to solemnity, but rather than mocking industry, Emily Dickinson shows how such busyness is an attempt to subdue grief. The second stanza makes a bold reversal, whereby the domestic activities — which the first stanza implies are physical — become a sweeping up not of house but of heart. Unlike household things, heart and love are not put away temporarily. They are put away until we join the dead in eternity. The last line affirms the existence of immortality, but the emphasis on the distance in time (for the dead) also stresses death's mystery. Viewed as the morning after "The last Night that She lived," this poem depicts everyday activity as a ritualization of the struggle for belief. Such a continuity also helps bring out the wistfulness of "The Bustle in a House." Few of Emily Dickinson's poems illustrate so concisely her mixing of the commonplace and the elevated, and her deft sense of everyday psychology.

"A Clock stopped" (287) mixes the domestic and the elevated in order to communicate the pain of losing dear people and also to suggest the distance of the dead from the living. The poem is an allegory in which a clock represents a person who has just died. The first stanza contrasts the all-important "clock," a once-living human being, with a trivial mechanical clock. This prepares us for the angry remark that men's skills can do nothing to bring back the dead. Geneva is the home of the most famous clockmakers and also the place where Calvinist Christianity was born. The reference to a puppet reveals that this is a cuckoo clock with dancing figures. This image of the puppet suggests the triviality of the mere body, as opposed to the soul that has fled. The second stanza rehearses the process of dying. The clock is a trinket because the dying body is a mere plaything of natural processes. A painful death strikes rapidly, and instead of remaining a creature of time, the "clock-person" enters the timeless and perfect realm of eternity, symbolized here, as in other Emily Dickinson poems, by noon. In the third stanza, the poem's speaker becomes sardonic about the powerlessness of doctors, and possibly ministers, to revive the dead, and then turns with a strange detachment to the owner — friend, relative, lover — who begs the dead to return.

But whatever is left of vitality in the aspects of the dead person refuses to exert itself. The residues of time that this "clock-person" incorporates suddenly expand into the decades that separate it from the living; these decades are the time between the present and the shopman's death, when he will join the "clock-person" in eternity. The arrogance of the decades belongs to the dead because they have achieved the perfect noon of eternity and can look with scorn at merely finite concerns.

In the early poem "Just lost, when I was saved!" (160), Emily Dickinson expresses joyful assurance of immortality by dramatizing her regret about a return to life after she — or an imagined speaker — almost died and received many vivid and thrilling hints about a world beyond death. Each of the first three lines makes a pronouncement about the false joy of being saved from a death which is actually desirable. Her real joy lay in her brief contact with eternity. When she recovers her life, she hears the realm of eternity express disappointment, for it shared her true joy in her having almost arrived there. The second stanza reveals her awe of the realm which she skirted, the adventure being represented in metaphors of sailing, sea, and shore. As a "pale reporter," she is weak from illness and able to give only a vague description of what lies beyond the seals of heaven. In the third and fourth stanzas, she declares in chanted prayer that when next she approaches eternity she wants to stay and witness in detail everything which she has only glimpsed. The last three lines are a celebration of the timelessness of eternity. She uses the image of the ponderous movements of vast amounts of earthly time to emphasize that her happy eternity lasts even longer — it lasts forever.

"Those not live yet" (1454) may be Emily Dickinson's strongest single affirmation of immortality, but it has found little favor with anthologists, probably because of its dense grammar. The writing is elliptical to an extreme, suggesting almost a strained trance in the speaker, as if she could barely express what has become for her the most important thing. The first two lines assert that people are not yet alive if they do not believe that they will live for a second time that is, after death. The next two lines turn the adverb "again" into a noun and declare that the notion of immortality as an "again" is based on a false separation of life and an afterlife. The truth, rather, is that life is part of a single continuity. The next three lines analogize death to a connection between two parts of the same reality. The ship that strikes against the sea's bottom when passing through a channel will make its way over that brief grounding and enter a continuation of the same sea. This sea is consciousness, and death is merely a painful hesitation as we move from one phase of the sea to the next. The last three lines contain an image of the realm beyond the present life as being pure consciousness without the costume of the body, and the word "disc" suggests timeless expanse as well as a mutuality between consciousness and all existence.

"Behind Me — dips Eternity' (721) strives for an equally strong affirmation of immortality, but it reveals more pain than "Those not live yet" and perhaps some doubt. In the first stanza, the speaker is trapped in life between the immeasurable past and the immeasurable future. Death is represented as the dark of early morning which will turn into the light of paradise. The second stanza celebrates immortality as the realm of God's timelessness. Rather than celebrating the trinity, Emily Dickinson first insists on God's single perpetual being, which diversifies itself in divine duplicates. This difficult passage probably means that each person's achievement of immortality makes him part of God. The phrase 'they say' and the chant-like insistence of the first two stanzas suggest a person trying to convince herself of these truths. The pain expressed in the final stanza illuminates this uncertainty. The miracle behind her is the endless scope of time. The miracle before her is the promise of resurrection, and the miracle between is the quality of her own being — probably what God has given her of Himself — that guarantees that she will live again. However, the last three lines portray her life as a living hell, presumably of conflict, denial, and alienation. If this is the case, we can see why she is yearning for an immortal life. But she still fears that her present "midnight" neither promises nor deserves to be changed in heaven. These doubts, of course, are only implications. The poem is primarily an indirect prayer that her hopes may be fulfilled.

It is hard to locate a developing pattern in Emily Dickinson's poems on death, immortality, and religious questions. Clearly, Emily Dickinson wanted to believe in God and immortality, and she often thought that life and the universe would make little sense without them. Possibly her faith increased in her middle and later years; certainly one can cite certain poems, including "Those not live yet," as signs of an inner conversion. However, serious expressions of doubt persist, apparently to the very end.

Emily Dickinson treats religious faith directly in the epigrammatic "'Faith' is a fine invention" (185), whose four lines paradoxically maintain that faith is an acceptable invention when it is based on concrete perception, which suggests that it is merely a way of claiming that orderly or pleasing things follow a principle. When we can see no reason for faith, she next declares, it would be good to have tools to uncover real evidence. Here, she finds it hard to believe in the unseen, although many of her best poems struggle for just such belief. Although "Drowning is not so pitiful" (1718) is a poem about death, it has a kind of naked and sarcastic skepticism which emphasizes the general problem of faith. The poem's directness and intensity lead one to suspect that its basis is personal suffering and a fear for the loss of self, despite its insistence on death as the central challenge to faith. Its first four lines describe a drowning person desperately clinging to life. In the next four lines, the process of drowning is horrible, and the horror is partly attributed to a fear of God. The last four lines bitingly imply that people are not telling the truth when they affirm their faith that they will see God and be happy after death. These lines make God seem cruel. Emily Dickinson's uncharacteristic lack of charity suggests that she is thinking of mankind's tendency as a whole, rather than of specific dying people.

Emily Dickinson sent "The Bible is an antique Volume" (1545) to her twenty-two year-old nephew, Ned, when he was ill. At this time, she was about fifty-two and had only four more years to live. The poem might be less surprising if it were a product of Emily Dickinson's earlier years, although perhaps she was remembering some of her own reactions to the Bible during her youth. The first three lines echo standard explanations of the Bible's origin as holy doctrine, and the mocking tone implies skepticism. It then quickly summarizes and domesticates scenes and characters from the Bible as if they were everyday examples of virtue and sin. Lines nine through twelve are the core of the criticism, for they express anger against the preaching of self-righteous teachers. In conclusion, she pleads for literature with more color and presumably with more varied material and less narrow values. The poem may be a complaint against a Puritan interpretation of the Bible and against Puritan skepticism about secular literature. On the other hand, it may merely be a playful expression of a fanciful and joking mood.

Given the variety of Emily Dickinson's attitudes and moods, it is easy to select evidence to "prove" that she held certain views. But such patterns can be dogmatic and distorting. Emily Dickinson's final thoughts on many subjects are hard to know. With this caution in mind, we can glance at the trenchant "Apparently with no surprise" (1624), also written within a few years of Emily Dickinson's death. The flower here may seem to stand for merely natural things, but the emphatic personification implies that God's way of afflicting the lowly flowers resembles his treatment of man. The happy flower does not expect a blow and feels no surprise when it is struck, but this is only "apparently." Perhaps it does suffer. The image of frost beheading the flower implies an abrupt and unthinking brutality. The personification of Frost as an assassin contradicts the notion of its acting accidentally. Nature in the guise of the sun takes no notice of the cruelty, and God seems to approve of the natural process. This implies that God and natural process are identical, and that they are either indifferent, or cruel, to living things, including man. The subtleties and implications of this poem illustrate the difficulties that the skeptical mind encounters in dealing with a universe in which God's presence is not easily demonstrated. The poem is strangely, and magnificently, detached and cold. It makes an interesting contrast to Emily Dickinson's more personal expressions of doubt and to her strongest affirmations of faith.

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