The Victorian era is named after Queen Victoria, who reigned from 1837 to 1901. However, it is ironic that this era is named after a woman because most women in this era had no power. Women were expected to desire to have a husband and be married in their early twenties (Hughes). While men had the freedom to receive an education and vote, women’s lives were centered around domestic life and church. They lived a highly restrictive life based on cultural norms of the time. For most people in America during this time period, their primary focus was on religion. They were churchgoers who read their Bible and lived God-fearing lives. Emily Dickinson was not your typical Victorian woman. Emily Dickinson rebelled against the expectation that women were to be submissive and devout.
Emily Dickinson was born in 1830. With the exception of a few months of traveling, Dickinson stayed in Amherst, Massachusetts for the entirety of her life (Bloom, Bloom’s Major Poets, 11). During her youth, she had a stereotypical Victorian upbringing; her prominent family was very sociable and opened their home to the community. She studied at Amherst Academy, then went on to Mount Holyoke Female Seminary; however, Emily returned home without ever finishing her studies (Bloom, Bloom’s Major Poets, 11). She then removed herself from society and spent almost all of her time at her family estate, the Homestead. Throughout her lifetime, she only published seven poems. She sent a few of her poems to Thomas Higginson to get his advice on her work. He thought her poems were inspirational, but since they were so different from the poetry of the Victorian era, he advised her not to publish them (Bloom, Emily Dickinson, 6).
Yet, after her passing in 1886, her sister Lavina found nearly a thousand of her unpublished poems hidden. After she had them edited, Dickinson’s unreleased poems were published and quickly became popular. During the Victorian era, people had to be ready for death to happen at any moment. Illnesses and misfortunes were more common than they are today. Therefore, Emily Dickinson was very familiar with death. Her mindset on death throughout most of her poems could be considered gloomy to today’s society, but it was not unusual for people during the Victorian era. During the 1880s, she endured the loss of several close friends (Emily Dickinson and Death). Most people during the Victorian era died at a young age. Even Dickinson had a typical Victorian-era death. She passed away at the young age of 55, after almost three years of ill health (Emily Dickinson and Death). No one can officially determine how she died; yet, researchers think she had high blood pressure. Her poems about death, such as, Because I could not stop for death, I Felt a Funeral, in my Brain, and I heard a Fly buzz- when I died are typical of Dickinson’s preoccupation with death and the afterlife. Her theme of the mystery of death is expressed best in these three poems.
In the poem Because I could not stop for Death, death is depicted as a suitor who drives a carriage. The carriage holds death, Immortality, and the speaker- a woman who has not made time for death, so death has come for her. The speaker comments that since she was too busy for death, he stopped to pick her up. Death takes the speaker on a ride that symbolizes her life. During the ride, they pass her school and a field of grain. The school symbolizes her life as a child, and the field of grain symbolizes the blossoming, growing moments in her life. As they pass the setting sun, it symbolizes the end of her life. As the sun is setting, she senses her life drawing to a close and a chill overtakes her (Bloom, Bloom’s Major Poets, 37). She realizes that the gown she is wearing is very thin and it can no longer protect her. Death then stops the carriage so the speaker can view her new home, which is her grave. In the last stanza, the speaker explains that it has been centuries since her ride in the carriage, and since then, she has been laying in her grave. However, she believes that a century of laying in her grave is shorter than the one day she rode in the carriage because the ride towards death is long.
Dickinson’s interpretation of death in Because I could not stop for Death is unusual. Death is a mannerly, but powerful being. Dickinson purposely personifies death as a suitor in Because I could not stop for Death, rather than portraying death as something dark and terrifying. Instead, she portrays him as a kind and considerate gentlemen caller. Death was nice enough to stop for the speaker, even though she was too busy to stop for him. He is also kind enough to bring along a chaperone, Immortality, along for the ride. He drives slowly in order to keep them both comfortable. He is such a clever, sweet talker that she does not need to worry about work or even leisure activities because he has everything taken care of. For the majority of the ride, she thinks her suitor is kind, but she does not realize where he is taking her. She is startled when she sees that he has brought her to her own grave. Ironically, in its depiction of Death on one hand as the courtly suitor and on the other as the fraudulent seducer, the poem reflects a basic ambiguity toward death and immortality characteristic of Emily Dickinson (Ferlazzo, This Mortal Life). Dickson’s interpretation of death in Because I could not stop for Death as a pleasurable but powerful being is representative of her use of universal themes.
In I Felt a Funeral, in my Brain, the speaker’s approach to death is much different. The speaker is deceased and explaining her internal experience. She explains her experience with death as a funeral going on in her brain. The mourners are walking back and forth, and for a moment, she thinks she understands what is happening to her. Then, as the service begins, she feels her mind become numb. The boots that the mourners are wearing are as heavy as lead. When they carry the coffin across her soul, she loses her sanity. The speaker’s mind is a completely claustrophobic affair, where the narrator is at the center of the experiences, yet completely detached from it (Pineiro). She finds herself alone with the loss of any sanity or stableness that she once had (Pineiro). The speaker explains it as a Plank in Reason broke/ and I dropped down and down (Dickinson, I felt a Funeral, 9-10). The poem ends in a puzzling way because the speaker dies in mid-sentence. She is trying to explain that she is finished knowing something (Dickinson, I felt a Funeral, 20); however, the speaker never articulates what she came to realize.
Death is explicated completely different in I felt a Funeral, in my Brain than in I could not stop for Death. In I felt a Funeral, in my Brain, death is chaotic. Death is portrayed as a terrifying and bewildering experience that is hard to understand. The speaker is confused by the process of death; therefore, the only way she can describe it is the feeling of a funeral going on inside her brain. The speaker is terrified and completely loses her sanity. This poem, describes the end of sanity, the loss of reason, relevance, and self-control with a formerly familiar environment (Ferlazzo, The Struggle for Sanity). By using a funeral for the setting, it creates a sad and somber mood. The mourners walking back and forth, in the first stanza, represents the sudden confusion and commotion in her mind. The coffin that the mourners carry symbolizes her soul being prepared for death. This poem signifies the uncertainty and confusion that the speaker feels towards death.
In I heard a Fly buzz- when I died, the speaker is on her deathbed. There is a quietness all around her, like the air between the Heaves of Storm (Dickinson, I heard a Fly buzz, 4). The family has gathered around, anxiously awaiting the speaker’s last words. The speaker is expressing her final wishes. When she is signing away her valuables, there interposed a fly (Dickinson, I heard a Fly buzz, 12). During her final moment, which is supposed to be filled with hope and confirmation of an afterlife, she is interrupted by a fly. It is annoying and continues to distract the speaker. It gets in the way of the speaker and the light in the room. Then, as she tries to see the light, the windows failed (Dickinson, I heard a Fly Buzz- when I died, 15) and her opportunity was gone. She then could not see, and her eyes began to close. Her eyes closing signifies her passing.
The speaker in I heard a Fly buzz- when I died is preparing to die. She is signing away her prized possessions and is peacefully saying her goodbyes when a fly interposed (Ferlazzo, This Mortal Life). Yet, by the end of the poem, the fly has a deeper significance than just being bothersome. When the speaker is awaiting the presence of Jesus, she gets the fly instead. The fly is a symbol for the distractions that come between Jesus and worldly things. As the fly buzzes around, the speaker becomes distracted and does not solely focus on the arrival of the king. Therefore, the speaker’s fixation on the fly suggests that it somehow compromised the speaker’s death- and perhaps her afterlife (Bouson 109). Also, the fly gets between the speaker and the light. The light that Dickinson is referring to is the light of God (Ferlazzo). The speaker’s mood towards death then changes from content to fear. Now that she cannot see and concentrate on the light, she is unsure about death; yet, it is too late. Her window of life closes and the speaker is confused as to where she is going eternally.
Poetry matters; yet, in today’s society, it is underrated. On the surface, a poem may seem like it has no meaning. However, by reading it over again and analyzing it properly, it has a much deeper meaning. Dickinson defined poetry like this: If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me, I know that is poetry (Tips for Reading Dickinson’s Poetry). This definition explains how poetry can be an emotional and powerful being. A simple twelve-line poem can convey more feelings than a novel can. It can make the reader feel complicated emotions that they have never felt, or even an emotion they did not know they have. Also, poems capture feelings that are universal. In Dickinson’s’ writing, she uses universal themes that can apply to every reader’s life.
Dickinson’s preoccupation of death is universal and timeless. Even though people during the Victorian era could relate to her poems, many people in today’s society can too. Death is a mystery that science and technology cannot explain. Dickinson’s poems display a variety of emotions about death. In Because I could not stop for Death, death is personified as a tender and kind being. In I Felt a Funeral, in my Brain, death is portrayed as confusing and terrifying. In I felt a Fly buzz-when I died, the fly is a symbol of distractions between the world and eternal life. Dickinson explores every emotion towards death in these three poems. Death is indeed an inevitable cycle of life. It is universal, and one cannot escape it. It can be expected, or it can sneak up on one as unexpected as the night sky falling. It also can be portrayed as any of the symbols that Dickinson included in her poems to support her theme of death. Death, much like modern-day poetry appreciation and Dickinson’s life, can be personified in the same way: known, but not vividly thought of enough.
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