Research Paper: Expectation of Death Largely Contribute

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¶ … expectation of death largely contribute to Emily Dickinson's style of writings?

The aesthetics of surprise:

The diction of three 'death' poems of Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson is celebrated today as a great, minimalist poet yet she was not widely recognized during her lifetime as a great artist. Dickenson's idiosyncratic diction and her use of irregular capitalization and frequent dashes conflicted with the prevailing sentiments of her era as to what constituted the 'correct' way to write poetry. Her unflinching perspective of death, as expressed using these techniques, is illustrated starkly in three of her poems: "I felt a funeral in my brain," "I heard a Fly buzz when I died," and "Because I could not stop for Death." All three poems are ambiguous about the afterlife and the human place in the cosmos. Humble sights and sounds of the everyday are paired with the transcendent. This creates what has been called the 'aesthetics of surprise' in Dickinson's poetry, particularly poetry about death, in which the experience of death can be perceived and rendered into words quite easily, although what death and the afterlife truly is remains unanswerable and outside the realm of the verbal (Lee 175).

"Emily Dickinson's poems are full of surprises -- from formal inventions that violate expectations of totality, syntax, and sense, to gender assertions that belie the conservative surface of her life, to antinomian revelations for which no believer or skeptic can fully prepare, to movements when perceptual and rational faculties are all of a sudden overwhelmed"(Lee 175). This can be seen in the apparent ambiguity of the beginning phrases of "I felt a Funeral, in my Brain... / And Mourners to and fro." The words are simple, but what does it mean to 'feel' a funeral in one's brain? Dickinson takes the point-of-view of the corpse and narrates what she 'sees' even though the funeral is supposedly only 'felt' in the brain. It is as if she is a half-dream state, in the liminal period between life and death. "And then I heard them lift a Box / And creak across my Soul." The ordinary details of the funeral take on extraordinary significance as they are narrated from the corpse's eye-view, recording its sensations and perceptions. The first lines leave the reader guessing as to whether the funeral is literal or figurative. "Most powerfully, she enacts a theory of surprise-one that wonders how consciousness encounters the world, how the unconscious comes suddenly to light, how surprising experience might be poetically rendered, and how it feels to abandon one's self to surprise and the unsettling moments that frame it" (Lee 175). The poet takes a dispassionate attitude to what we should fear (or, in the case of some religious faiths, celebrate and welcome). There is no explicit emotion or religious judgment in her observations yet the narration is startling from beginning to end.

The strangeness of the atmosphere created by Dickinson's poems and the creation of such a concrete theology belies the idea that the scope of lyric poetry is always personal in nature, despite Dickinson's frequent use of homely physical objects as metaphors. "Lyric poetry…has often been considered an irrational genre, more expressive than logical, more given to meditation than to coherent or defensible argument" (Zwicky 234) For Dickinson, even her most meditative poems contain a kind of argument interwoven within their textures. Her use of capitalization likewise personifies certain words and suggests a philosophical quality, giving a metaphysical texture to the work. "Dickinson's epistemology can in this sense be taken as post-Romantic: the subject does not dominate the object to the point of solipsism, egoistic imperialism, or transcendental oneness but rather recognizes open-ended and contingent relations with things outside the self" (Lee 175). Although the poem is intensely personal and narrated by the 'I,' there is a universal quality to Dickinson's 'death' poems, given that few identifying details are given about the narrator's life, even though the actual structure of the poem is purely factual. In her even more famous poem "Because I could not stop for Death," not only is Death a personified subject, but Immortality itself: "The Carriage held but just Ourselves -- And Immortality." Death awaits the speaker in a carriage like a funeral director or minister along with Immortality. And yet the poem remains uncertain as to what this Immortality means, even while it is clearly observed with Dickinson's poetic 'I.' Dickinson suggests a theory about death but does not finally resolve the issues she raises.

At the end of the poem "I felt a funeral in my brain" there is some tenuous confidence in a transcendent reality -- the dead speaker seems to be talking from beyond the grave. Yet due to Dickinson's famous use of dashes, which are particularly evident in the diction of this poem, it is not certain if the speaker has ended his or her journey or if it is just beginning. "And then a Plank in Reason, broke, And I dropped down, and down -- And hit a World, at every plunge, And Finished knowing -- then -- " The poem ends on a dash, a literal, incomplete note that goes on and on, but into what the speaker refuses to say or cannot say. The speaker is not allowed to say what the final revelation is, or there is nothingness and knowing itself is finished after the grave -- the surprise is that the reader can never know or be told by the poet.

This uncertainty about the future can also be seen in "Because I could not stop for Death." In this poem, Death is personified as a kind of gentlemanly figure, "kindly" stopping for the poet. Her final resting place is not sublimely beautiful but looks very much like a house. "A Swelling of the Ground -- / The Roof was scarcely visible -- / The Cornice -- in the Ground-. " Yet the use of capitalization once again gives a kind of holy significance to things such as a roof and the ground itself. And once again the end is very ambiguous. Rather than a concrete heaven in which the speaker enjoys paradise, her life after death is still quite physical in nature. It is located in temporal sensations and is still focused upon the mundane details of the common funeral, rather than higher matters. "Since then -- 'tis Centuries -- and yet / Feels shorter than the Day / I first surmised the Horses' Heads / Were toward Eternity -- " The diction seems to confirm eternity -- something that goes on and on with a dash, even while the poetic speaker's voice is suddenly, terrifyingly cut abruptly short. Grammatically, the end is as harsh and quick as the end sometimes feels.

Dickinson's poems seem superficially simple yet in reality are quite complex in their metaphysical implications and uncertainty. There is a "complex structure in which events are arranged in an emotional or metaphysical hierarchy" even while the narrative is quite simple, such as the progression of a funeral, the closing of a coffin (Zwicky 236-237). The less complex the words, the more straightforward the diction, the more the reader questions -- who is narrating this poem? A dead person? A dreaming person? And if death is so easily transcended by prose, why does it end with nothingness. Even though death is not a surprise, the manner in which it is addressed suggests simultaneously its ordinariness and its opaqueness.

Even "I heard a fly buzz when I died," which would seem to be purely descriptive in its matter-of-factness, ends in an open-ended fashion. Because this poem is the most 'realistic' in the sense that Death and Immortality does not make a physical appearance, it is also the most uncertain about the prospect of heaven as a human… [END OF PREVIEW]

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