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Nature, God, Afterlife, and Death in Emily Dickinson’s Poems
“It is all I have to bear today, this and my heart beside, this and my heart and all the fields, and all the broad meadows” (33). These are the words of Emily Dickinson, a woman who is revered as one of the greatest American poets. During his life, he lived a life of isolation, but in this isolation he composed more than one thousand seven hundred poems whose excellence there are very few that match. In her poems, Dickinson created a unique style of writing, in which she called for the use of simplistic language and the innocence of children to convey complex ideas. Such complex ideas were expressed through the use of nature, God, eternity and death. Through her poems, Emily Dickinson uses nature, God, the afterlife, and death to convey complex messages or ideas while expressing her thoughts in simple language.
Nature is an element that frequents Dickinson’s poems as a means of conveying messages of life. Through the inclusion of familiar aspects of wildlife, such as bees and flowers, he is able to paint a picture that portrays the hopes and anxieties found in everyday life. Such a poem begins: “A wounded deer jumps higher, I heard the hunter say; it is but the ecstasy of death, and then the brake is still” (62). In this stanza, Dickinson compares the wounded deer to a human being who has been hurt, either emotionally or physically in his past. The wounded deer, which has been shot or wounded on a previous occasion, jumps higher as a means of ensuring that it will not be wounded a second time. Like the deer, an emotionally or physically wounded man even unconsciously steps out of the way to avoid being hurt again.
This fear instilled in the lost man can play out on many levels, from something as simple and bodily 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, is clearly able to convey the concept of a deep emotional wound. A second poem says: “God made a small gentian; he tried to be a rose and failed, and all summer laughed” (127). This poem, composed in elementary terms, emphasizes the idea of individuality to the reader. I would not be like the little blue flower, which tries to become something that it is not and is mocked by the season around it. Dickinson’s message is clear: People need to be comfortable with who and what they are, and they don’t need to be something completely foreign to them. Just as the gentian can only be the gentian, so a person can only be what and who they are, and there is nothing wrong with being yourself. In a third poem, Dickinson uses nature to portray life and death. She begins with: “I tell you how the sun rose, – a tape at a time. The bells swam in amethyst, the news like squirrels ran” (104). This first stanza is meant to symbolize birth and the beginning of life. The rising sun is often a common symbol for new life, and Dickinson employs it here with the gentle innocence that “one ribbon at a time” conveys. To contrast this stanza, Dickinson writes in a later stanza:
“But how the sun goes down, I don’t know.
It looked like a purple style
What yellow boys and girls
They were climbing all the time
Until they reach the other side
A domain in gray
Gently put the evening bars,
And he brought the crude. ” (105)
The setting sun is used in this situation to symbolize death, the end of life here on this earth. This death is further reinforced in the next stanza when the dominie, or clergy, “softly put the bars of the evening, and brought the flock” (105). The dominie is a direct parallel to God, who lead the new recipients of eternal salvation from earth and into heaven.
Another element that can be identified in all of Emily Dickinson’s poems is her mixture of traditional and unique views on God and eternity. A prime example of Dickinson’s individuality and creativity in the field of religion is her poem “Some keep the Sabbath by going to church.” This delightful work explains how instead of attending a Sunday service, Dickinson kept the Sabbath holy by staying at home. In one stanza, he explained his Sunday by saying: “God preaches, – a noted clergyman, – and the sermon is never long; so instead of reaching heaven at last, I will go all!” (110). With simple language and sophisticated humor, Dickinson explains that the word of God should not be preached in a chapel, but can be found in every way of life. God is portrayed as a personal and loving being, contradicting the God of fire and brimstone that was often preached during the 19th century. She also reveals an internal belief of hers that, contrary to what was believed in her day, going to heaven is not an arduous task to prove not to sin or to be a good person, but a journey. “I’m going all in!” she proclaims with confidence and elation, as if she was told by God that there is a place for her in his kingdom. This idea of eternity is a common recurrence in many of Dickinson’s poems. Another piece that illustrates Dickinson’s belief in the afterlife says, “This world is not a conclusion; a sequence lies beyond, invisible, like music, but positive, like sound” (135). There is not the slightest sense of uncertainty to be found anywhere in these lines. “This world is not a conclusion,” says Dickinson. There is a life after this world, and although it may be invisible, like music to the eyes, it is a definite and positive reality, like the sound to the ears.
As in previous poems where Emily Dickinson asserted her belief that there really was an afterlife, another style found in her poems is that questioning of the unknown that comes with the afterlife. She shows a childlike curiosity for what the afterlife has to hold and how it compares to the earth and the land on which she spent her life. This curiosity is more evident in his poem “What is – “Paradise” – “, which reads:
“What is – ‘Paradise’ –
Who live here –
Are “Farmers” –
it ‘hoes’ –
They know this is “Amherst” –
And what – I also come –
They wear “new shoes” – in “Eden” –
It’s always nice – here –
They don’t blame us – when we get homesick –
Or tell God – how cross we are – ” (99)
The first stanza begins with a general question about what eternity is, which she immediately follows with “Who lives here?” This question triggers a series of other unanswered questions about whether there is work in heaven. The next question asked, which says: “They know that this is ‘Amherst – and that I – also come -‘ refers to the consciousness of the soul in heaven. When heaven has come, people understand that they are a part of eternal salvation? Are they aware of the world they have left behind, and if so, do they know that souls join them in salvation? With these simple words, most of which are two syllables or less, Dickinson is able to bring intricate questions that the answers cannot be fathomed by the human mind. In the second stanza, Dickinson presents the reader with her child’s curiosity, which in this case is mixed with her unmistakable humor. She asks if heaven will be pleasant, which is charming because with the idea of heaven comes a vision of eternal happiness; to ask such a question about the pleasantness of eternal salvation seems all the more ridiculous. Dickinson then follows this question and asks if a celestial body becomes homesick for its life back on Earth.Quest the idea, above the childish innocence, adds another dimension to the poem. Once in heaven, is it possible for a willing being to return to earth? Do members of the Celestial community yearn for people, places, and things found in their previous lives? These questions, which apparently have no answers, are the essence of Dickinson’s desire to understand the unknown beyond.
Finally, death is a component of Dickinson’s copious poems, ambivalently personified. For example, one of his poems begins:
“Because I couldn’t hit for Death
He kindly stopped for me;
The car holds but only ourselves
We drove slowly, I knew no rush,
And I walked away
My work, and also my pleasure,
For his civility” (151).
In this simple but lively picture that Dickinson paints, Death is not portrayed as something macabre and terrible, but instead personified as a kind suitor who has just arrived to pick up a date. Staying with the traditions of this time, the date is chaperoned by the personification of immortality. In the stanza that follows, the chariot is described as driving slowly and unhurriedly. This corresponds to the timeless state of being that accompanies death; Time that was once so precious on Earth loses its meaning upon entering the afterlife. Along with the lack of importance of time, Dickinson emphasizes that there is no work, and therefore there is no eye after life saying: “And I put my work, and also my pleasure, for his civility” (151). Therefore, out of respect for Death, he turns away from his work and pleasure and simply enjoys the journey with Death for immortality. However, the polite Death of the last poem is completely foreign to “I heard a fly buzz when I died”, which in such a stanza reads: “With blue buzz, uncertain, stumbling, between the light and me; and then the windows. failed, and then I could not see “(132). Death in this scenario, although at first glance it may seem peaceful, is actually quite terrifying. Dickinson masterfully uses the fly as a symbol of the horrible side of death, as flies are often depicted as creatures that feed on decaying flesh. As if instinctively drawn to the death of the narrator, the thought of the fly destroying his flesh is the only thing that stands between the end of his life on Earth and the salvation of the light .
Emily Dickinson’s poems use simplistic language to express complex ideas through nature, God, the afterlife, and death. This unique style that she herself created has become synonymous with her name with her poems. Although few were shared during her lifetime, today Dickinson’s poems represent a woman who fused 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 herself, so in conclusion:
“This is my letter to the world,
That he never wrote to me, –
The simple news that nature told,
With tender majesty.
His message is engaging
At the hands I can not see;
For the love of his sweet countrymen,
Judge me tenderly! ” (102).
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