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Nature, God, Afterlife, and Death in Emily Dickinson’s Poems
“All I have to bring today is this and my heart with me, this and my heart and all the fields and wide meadows” (33). These are the words of Emily Dickinson, a woman revered as one of America’s greatest poets. During his lifetime he led a solitary life, but in this solitude he composed more than seventeen hundred poems, the excellence of which is matched by few. In his poems, Dickinson developed a unique style of writing that called for the use of simple language and childlike innocence to convey complex ideas. Such complex ideas were expressed through the use of nature, God, eternity and death. In all of her poems, Emily Dickinson uses nature, God, the afterlife, and death to convey complex messages or ideas while expressing her ideas in simple language.
Nature is a frequent element in Dickinson’s poems as a means of conveying life’s messages. By incorporating familiar aspects of wildlife such as wild bees and flowers, he is able to paint a picture that depicts the hopes and anxieties found in everyday life. One such poem begins: “A wounded deer leaps to the top, I heard the hunter say; tis’ but from the ecstasy of death, then the brake stops” (62). In this stanza, Dickinson compares the wounded deer to a person who has been hurt either emotionally or physically in their past. A wounded deer that has been shot or wounded before jumps higher as a means of ensuring that it will not be wounded a second time. Like deer, people who have been hurt emotionally or physically will subconsciously go out of their way to avoid being hurt again.
This fear instilled in vulnerable people can play out on several levels: from something as simple and physical as a broken limb, to something as emotional or spiritual as a broken heart. Dickinson, in the simplest of words and through the eyes of nature, clearly conveys the concept of deep emotional wounds. The second poem says: “God created a small race; she tried to be a flower and failed and laughed all summer” (127). Composed with elementary expressions, this poem emphasizes the idea of individuality to the reader. It warns not to be like the little blue flower that tries to become something it is not and mocks the season around it. Dickinson’s message is clear: People should be comfortable with who and what they are, and not want to be something completely alien to them. Just as a gender can only be a gender, a person can only be what and who, and there is nothing wrong with being one’s self. In his third poem, Dickinson uses nature to describe life and death. He begins with “I’ll tell how the sun rose, a tape. On the amethyst the steeples floated, The news ran like a squirrel” (104). This first verse is meant to symbolize birth and the beginning of life. The rising sun is often a common symbol of new life, and Dickinson uses it here in conjunction with the tender innocence conveyed by “a ribbon.” In contrast to this paragraph, Dickinson writes in the following paragraph:
“But I don’t know how the sun sets.”
A purple style appeared
What little yellow boys and girls
They were climbing all the time
Until you reach the other side
Lay the evening bars gently,
He also took the herd” (105).
The setting sun is used in this case to symbolize death, the end of life on this earth. This death is reinforced in the next stanza when the domini, or priest, “raises his evening bars gently and drives the flock away” (105). Dominie is a direct parallel to God leading new recipients of eternal salvation out of earth and into Heaven.
Another element that can be identified in Emily Dickinson’s poems is her blend of traditional and unique views of God and eternity. A clear example of Dickinson’s individuality and creativity in the field of religion is his poem “Some Take the Sabbath to Church.” This delightful work tells how Dickinson kept the Sabbath day holy by staying home instead of attending Sunday service. In one stanza he explains Sunday: “God preaches,” said a well-known clergyman, “and the sermon is never long; therefore, instead of going to heaven at last, I always go!” (110). With simple language and subtle humor, Dickinson explains that God’s word does not need to be preached in church, but can be found anywhere in life. God is depicted as a personal and loving being, in contrast to the God of fire and brimstone often preached in the nineteenth century. He also reveals his inner conviction that, contrary to the belief of his time, getting to Heaven is a journey, not an arduous task of not sinning or being a good person. “I always go!” he declares with confidence and joy, as if God had told him that he had a place in His Kingdom. This idea of eternity recurs frequently in many of Dickinson’s poems. Another work that demonstrates Dickinson’s belief in the afterlife states: “This world is not an end; the sequel is invisible as music, but stands positive, as sound” (135). There is not the slightest sense of uncertainty anywhere in these lines. “This world is not an outcome,” Dickinson instills. There is a life after this world, and though it is as invisible to the eye as music, it is as definite and positive a reality as sound to the ear.
Another style found in Emily Dickinson’s poems is the questioning of the unknown that comes with the afterlife, as in her earlier poems where she claims that there is indeed an afterlife. He shows a childlike curiosity about what the afterlife will hold and how his life will compare to the dirt and dust he spent. This interest shows itself more prominently in his poem “What is – “Paradise” -“.
What is “Heaven” –
Those who live there –
Are they ‘farmers’?
Do they ‘hey’ –
Do they know it’s ‘Amherst’?
I also – come –
Are they wearing ‘new shoes’ in ‘Eden’?
It’s always nice – there –
Will they not scold—when we long for home—
Or tell God how we are on the cross” (99)
The first stanza begins with a general question about what eternity is, and it immediately turns to “Who lives there?” This question leads to a number of other unanswered questions about whether there will be labor in Heaven. “Do they know that this is Amherst and I’m coming—” the next question refers to the consciousness of the souls in heaven. When people get to heaven, do they realize that they are part of eternal salvation? Are they aware of the world they are leaving behind, and if so, do they know which souls will join them in salvation? With these simple words, most of them two syllables or less, Dickinson is able to ask complex questions that the human mind cannot comprehend. In the second stanza, Dickinson introduces the reader to a childlike curiosity, which in this case is mixed with his unusual humor. He asks if Heaven will be pleasant, which is tempting because with the idea of Heaven comes an image of eternal happiness; It seems very ridiculous to ask such a question about the pleasantness of eternal salvation. Dickinson then continues this inquiry, wondering if the Celestial would long for life on Earth. This idea overflowing with childish innocence adds a completely different color to the poem. Is it possible for a being once in Heaven to want to return to earth? Do members of the heavenly community long for people, places, and things found in their previous lives? These unanswerable questions are at the heart of Dickinson’s desire to understand the unknowns of the afterlife.
Finally, death is an integral part of many of Dickinson’s poems, which he vaguely personifies. For example, one of his poems begins:
“Because I could not stand before Death
He kindly stood in my place;
The wagon caught, but only ourselves
We drove slowly, he was in no hurry,
And I had put it aside
My work and my rest
Because of his culture” (151).
In this simple but vivid portrait by Dickinson, Death is depicted not as something terrible and terrifying, but rather as a gentleman suitor who comes to take her on a date. True to the traditions of this era, history is accompanied by the personification of Immortality. In the following stanza, the carriage is described as driving slowly and showing no haste. It corresponds to the timeless existence that accompanies death; time, which was once very precious on earth, loses its meaning when it enters the hereafter. In addition to the insignificance of time, Dickinson emphasizes the absence of leisure after labor and therefore after life when he states, “And I lay aside my labor and my leisure for its civility” (151). Thus, honoring Death, he removes himself from labor and rest and simply enjoys walking with Death for Immortality. However, the polite Death of the latter poem is quite alien to “When I was dying I heard a fly buzzing,” a line that reads “Blue, uncertain, with stumbling buzzing, between me and the light; then the windows failed, and then I could not see” (132). Although death in this scenario may seem peaceful at first glance, it is actually quite terrifying. Dickinson skillfully uses the fly as a symbol of the horrible side of death, flies are often depicted as creatures that feed on decaying flesh. As if instinctively drawn to the narrator’s death, the idea of a fly destroying his flesh is the only thing standing between the end of his life on Earth and the salvation of the light.
Emily Dickinson’s poems use simple language to express complex ideas through nature, God, the afterlife, and death. This unique style created by him has become synonymous with his name as well as his poems. Though little shared during her lifetime, Dickinson’s poems today represent a woman who combined her talent and passion for poetry to create some of the greatest works America has ever seen. No one can describe Dickinson’s poetry better than himself, ultimately:
“This is my letter to the world,
Who never wrote to me, –
Nature’s simple message,
With graceful majesty.
His message is faithful
To the hands I can’t see;
For the love of sweet countrymen,
Judge me kindly!” (102).
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