To Know Life Is To See Death

TO KNOW LIFE IS TO SEE DEATH. After selecting and reading numerous Emily Dickinson poems at random I began to see a pattern in that a majority of her poems were touching on the same subject in Death. Poem after poem death was her main focus and I didn’t know why. Being that I didn’t really have any previous knowledge of Dickinson’s work, besides the dialogue we had in class, I decided to look further into her life. I found that the later years of Dickinson’s life were primarily spent in mourning because of several deaths within the time frame of a few years. Emily’s father died in 1874, Samuel Bowles died in 1878, J.G.

Holland died in 1881, her nephew Gilbert died in 1883, and both Charles Wadsworth and Emily’s mother died in 1882. Over those five years, many of the most influential and precious friendships of Emily’s passed away, and that gave way to the more concentrated obsession with death in her poetry. After suffering the loss of so many important people in her life, it would seem like Dickinson would despise death, but instead I got the impression that she not only had come to accept death, but she also admired it in her own little way. This sounded very awkward at first, but after spending several hours of absorbing her poetry, I think I began to understand where she was coming from. I don’t mean to say that she completely became in love with death, but I do think that a very strange fascination came over her. In many of her poems she talked as if she were present while some of these people were on their deathbed. This is where I think that Dickinson separated herself from other writers of her time, in that she made sure that as a reader one would also feel present as things occurred.

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She demonstrated this best in her poems “I’ve Seen a Dying Eye,” and my favorite, “So Proud She was to Die.” In the poem “I’ve Seen a Dying Eye,” Dickinson first introduces us to the nature of death. Immediately a sense of uncertainty and uncontrollability over death seems to exist: I’ve see a dying eye Run round and round a room In search of something, as it seemed, Then cloudier become; And then, obscure with fog, And then be soldered down, Without disclosing what it be, ‘Twere blessed to have seen. The observer’s speech sounds hesitant and unsure of what he or she is seeing. The picture that goes through my mind as I read this passage is that of a person lying on their deathbed as family and friends are present. Dickinson is present, but she really isn’t that close to the dying.

I say this because of the way she describes this otherwise gut-wrenching scene. There seems to be no sentimentality involved what so ever. She seems as if she is simply in the background while all is happening, until something grabs her attention by surprise. What grabs her is the dying eye! It catches her attention as it dances around obviously in search of something. Here, it seems like Dickinson really seems to focus in on the eye, as she is able to see it become “cloudier” and “obscure with fog.” She sees that the expiring person seems to have no control over the clouds covering their eye.

It is frantically searching for something that it can only hope to find before the clouds completely consume it. The most important part of the poem comes in the end when the eye closes and ceases to search the room. “And then be soldered down, /Without disclosing what it be/’Twere blessed to have seen.” The eye, as discussed earlier, seems to be agitated and searching desperately for something. The failing person’s eye is then “soldered down” and fails to let its observers know what was seen. The use of the word “solder” implies to me that whatever answer the eye found beyond the clouds is now permanently sealed away from us, and the rest of the living world.

It seems that we sometimes, as in the case of this particular observer, envy a dead person because they have discovered the answer to that haunting question. The reality of the situation is that because we, the observer and ourselves, choose to ponder that question, we give death a certain power over our lives. That we spend our whole life in uncertainty about death could constitute a kind of “journey” towards death. The realizations and guesses that we make pertaining to death make up the various stops along the way with the destination being that moment when the truth is revealed. The uncertainty about death and what remains after controls those who are still traveling in their journey.

In the poem “So Proud She was to Die” Dickinson again harps on the notion of how we as living souls are in some way, shape, or form missing something in this so called thing that we cherish so much; life. The opening lines of this poem are similar to those of the previous poem “I’ve Seen a Dying Eye” in that once again we get the sense that during the last moments of this person’s life, people have gathered around them to witness the end. Unlike the last poem where Dickinson actually walked us through the expiring of her subject, this time we enter after all is said and done. So proud she was to die It made us all ashamed That what we cherished, so unknown To her desire seemed, So satisfied to go Where none of us should be, Immediately, that anguish stooped Almost to jealousy. Immediately following this person’s death Dickinson tells us that she and all that were present felt contrite.

I think that it took the death of this person to show Dickinson and the others that there is something beyond this life. I think that the deceased had come to terms with her fate and had accepted it and that was why she was “satisfied to go.” Where as before in “I’ve Seen a Dying Eye” we saw death as an almost uncontrollable force, that swept over the person before they had time to disclose what they were encountering. Even though Dickinson doesn’t use as many action-filled words as she did in the previous, we still get the same picture. What is different in this picture is that instead of seeing a wandering eye, we see a calm one. We see a woman that is seeing the light of her heaven, or maybe even the darkness of her hell.

What ever one it was she was content and for that reason she was happy. So happy that she took whatever feelings those looking on were having and brought them all “almost to jealousy.” In the end we are still left with many questions as to what waits for us after death. Knowing that no living being could possibly answer these questions Dickinson was more interested in how the observer, whether in her poem or in real life, dealt with the fact that what waits for us after death will always be unknown right until the final moment. On June 14, 1884 Emily’s obsessions and poetic speculations started to come to a stop when she suffered the first attack of her terminal illness. Throughout 1865, Emily was confined to bed in her family’s house where she had lived her entire life, and, on May 15, 1886, Emily took her last breath at the age of 56.

At that moment the world lost one of its most talented and insightful poets. At this point in time I’m sure that many felt the pain of this loss and were very sad. But on the other hand, I bet some felt happy for her because she finally had the answers to her all of her questions.


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