Death in the Poems of Emily Dickinson and William Butler Yeats

The two poems under investigation in this paper, Death is a Dialogue by Emily Dickinson and Death by William Butler Yeats are short commentaries on death and what it represents for human beings. As it shall be seen, the poems evince a similar approach to the death theme, although they also show the marks of different historical contexts. Both poets are extremely original in their thinking and writing, nevertheless it is possible to identify the influences that molded their work. In her poem, Dickinson regards death as a mere separation between the body and the spirit before the passage into the afterlife.

The brief poem has the form of a dramatic sequence, being structured as a dialogue between death and the human spirit. Yeats’ poem also speaks of death in derisive and ironic terms. Although the tone of the poem is indisputably ironic, the poem is severed by inner tensions: man seems to be able to conquer death but, at the same time, death holds absolute sway over his life. Essentially, the two poems are comparable in their view of death, each transposing the ceaseless battle between the proud and lofty human spirit and the merciless death.

Dickinson’s poem imagines a contention between death and the human spirit. The ‘dust’ is a metaphor for the material world that has only limited power when compared to the world of eternity. Dickinson shows death to have a limited scope: it can only act within the domain of matter and it cannot touch the human spirit:

Death is a Dialogue between

The Spirit and the Dust.

‘Dissolve’ says Death — The Spirit ‘Sir

I have another Trust’ – (Dickinson 217)

The term “trust” is very significant, pointing to Dickinson’s desire to establish belief in the afterlife. The death of the body is inevitable, but the spirit will triumph over the coarse matter in the end. Trust is opposed in the next stanza to “doubt”. This contrast enhances even further the idea of the ultimate victory of the spirit:

Death doubts it — Argues from the Ground —

The Spirit turns away

Just laying off for evidence

An Overcoat of Clay. (Dickinson 217)

Death “argues from the ground”, being therefore nailed down in the material world and able to bring only scientific arguments in its own favor, while the spirit proudly produces the ultimate evidence for its triumph: it strips off the coat of clay, i.e. the body, and wanders away.  According to Thomas W. Ford, this dramatic sequence shows Dickinson’s desire to believe in eternity and heaven and to reject the rational, scientific proof: “The ‘Spirit’ in the dialogue represents Emily Dickinson’s desire to believe in eternity, the ‘Dust’ represents the observed facts” (Ford 126). The battle between the rational and irrational is obvious in these lines.

Dickinson twists the argument in favor of the human spirit, letting irrationality show its evidence and denying the validity of the scientific approaches to death. Thomas W. Ford observes that Dickison’s attitude towards death was markedly influenced by her tensioned relationship with religion, especially Puritanism. As the critic notes, Dickinson’s inner struggle with ultimate acceptance of religion is obvious in some of her letters and throughout her work: “Dickinson early in life was seriously worried over being left out of “Christ’s love” since she had never personally experienced any form of conversion.

Her interest in death was an aspect of a continuing and profound concern over her own salvation” (Ford 39). Dickinson’s personal struggle with the acceptance of faith and the influence of Puritanical thought are both reflected in her poem. It can be even said that the struggle portrayed in the poem resembles the battle between rational thought and faith, which took place in Dickinson’s own mind.

Yeats’ poem Death was published in the verse collection The Winding Stair and Other Poems that appeared in 1933. Yeats is one of the most influential modernists and he is well known for his endeavor to create his own mythology in his works. The poem under analysis seems to be severed in two parts. The first part shows man’s permanent struggle with death and his tendency to pile all his hopes and fears around the concept of death. The second part brings the opposite view to light: man is also a murderer and he dominates death through his consummate knowledge of its inner workings. The first part of the poem compares the reaction of animals and that of humans in front of death:

Nor dread nor hope attend

A dying animal;

A man awaits his end

Dreading and hoping all… (Yeats 3)

While animals are indifferent to the meaning of death and only react to it as they would to any other natural phenomena, man is constantly tormented by the thought of death. Yeats observes the paradoxical attitude of man in front of death: on the one hand, man clings to the thought of death with all his hopes and dreams and, at the same time, he associates death with his greatest and darkest fears. The second part of the poem almost reverses the initial perspective on death: man is the master of death, through his intimate knowledge of it:

A great man in his pride

Confronting murderous men

Casts derision upon

Supersession of breath;

He knows death to the bone –

Man has created death. (Yeats 3)

The last line of the stanza might seem an overstatement, at first glance. Yeats’ liberal assertion that “man has created death” has many different implications. On the one hand, man is able to be a murderer and thus he “knows death to the bone”. This is not the sole explanation however. The creation of death is obviously a paradox. In his pride, man does not fear death and is even able to deride. Harold Bloom contends that the poem implies death does not exist in fact, as Yeats had also argued in A Vision (Bloom 372). In this sense, the idea proposed by Yeats seems to be very similar to that of Emily Dickinson.

However, on a closer look, the Irish poet entertains a somewhat different view of humanity’s relationship with death. As a modernist, he sees the resourcefulness of man’s creative spirit as apt to face death and defeat it. Man proudly ignores biological death not because he knows his soul will go to a Christian heaven afterwards, but because he believes in the impossibility of death. According to Yeats, man does not find salvation in the divinity as such, but in the creative forces that animate everything. The poet explores death from a modernist and aesthetic perspective: man is an inventor and a dauntless spirit and for him death does not exist.

Thus, Dickinson’s and Yeats’ poems reveal different views of the same theme, each being influenced by the historical context in which he or she created. Both explore death from the point of view of man’s contention with biological constraints. However, the poets reach different conclusions: Dickinson takes refuge in the idea of salvation while Yeats advocates for man’s artistic powers.