After Emily Dickinson’s death in 1886, her family and friends discovered hundreds of her poems. Today, if one were to read these poems, two themes would be prominent: love and death. Though these themes seem common to many poets, they were not simply themes to Emily Dickinson. Circumstances and situations in Emily Dickinson’s life, such as her Puritan upbringing, a string of difficult deaths, and relationships with those outside of her family, strongly influenced the themes of love and death in her poems “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” and “The Soul Selects Her Own Society.” Though Dickinson’s poetry may seem simple to the naked eye, closer inspection reveals a much deeper side to the emotionally complex poet.
Emily Dickinson was born on December 10, 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts. She was raised by a stern father, and her mother was ill for most of Dickinson’s life, making her emotionally absent. Dickinson was raised with Puritan beliefs, and refused to convert to “conventional” Christianity. However, there were a few aspects of the Puritan religion that Dickinson questioned and pondered over, such as the existence of the soul after death. Dickinson experienced several deaths in her life from the years of 1874 and 1883, such as her mother, her father, and a handful of close family friends. As Dickinson grew up, she had a small handful of gentlemen friends, but one sticks out among the rest. In 1855, while on a trip to Philadelphia, Dickinson met Reverend Charles Wadsworth, a married minister of a church in the area.
Over the next few years, the two kept in touch, and it was even rumored that Dickinson had grown to be quite romantically fond of him. When he moved to the West Coast in 1862, these rumors were, in a way, proved, when Dickinson withdrew from the public. Wadsworth was also one of the deaths Dickinson had to suffer between the years of 1874 and 1883. After 1862, Dickinson rarely left her home or accepted visitors. Here, in the peace and quiet of solitude, Dickinson wrote her poetry, which very little of was discovered or published until after her death in 1886.
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One of Emily Dickinson’s most analyzed poems is a prime example of her most common theme: death. “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” is written from the perspective of someone who has already passed away and is recalling the day that she died. The speaker recalls death kindly picking her up and taking her on a carriage ride to the grave. Death carries the speaker past several settings, such as children playing and the sun setting. These scenes could be seen as a reminder that life continues to go on after one’s death, but they could also be referring to stages of life, beginning with childhood and ending with the setting sun, as if, perhaps, her life is “flashing before her eyes.” The poem ends with her arrival at the cemetery and a brief thought that as the days after death go by, each seems shorter than the first (Dickinson “Because I Could…”).
Death and love are combined in this poem, because death is portrayed as a gentleman caller (Faulker 289). Despite death’s depiction as someone “kindly”, irony comes into play when the speaker must drop everything she is doing to satiate Death. He does not wait for her. He does not let her know when he is coming. He simply does. Despite her own preoccupation with life, she must drop everything because of his “grim determination” to take her to her death
This reflects the reality that one cannot fight death; it simply comes when it wishes. The painful truth of this aspect of the poem can very easily be related to the several deaths that Dickinson experienced in a very short period of time. Dickinson was obsessed with the idea of death and eternity, and though the many deaths that she experienced in her lifetime may have contributed to this, it could also be as a result of the Puritan religion’s ideals of death. The one that Dickinson found most intriguing and questionable was the survival of the soul after death. Did everyone live on after death, or only those with “great” souls? How would one experience life after death? Would it be just a long, dreary process, or was there really a heaven or hell for people to be sent to? After people have passed away, do they remember details from their life, or is all forgotten? Dickinson often pondered these questions and the Puritan beliefs they were associated with, despite her faith in her religion, which can be linked to the nature of the speaker in “Because I Could Not Stop for Death”. Dickinson experiments in this poem, trying to answer all of those questions.
While all of her death-themed poems are somewhat different, many, such as this one, have the speaker speaking from the dead. In poems such as this, the speaker tells of something they remember from their life (Xiao-Chuan 1). Though this is important, Dickinson’s real interest in death could be linked to her relationship with Edward Hitchcock. Hitchcock was a scientist who attempted to understand death through science. Being one of Dickinson’s mentors, he shared his findings and interests with her, which invoked her interest. However, she was “simultaneously approving and skeptical” of his work. His work then began to be found in her poems, which simply strengthens the obvious truth: Dickinson didn’t simply write about death; she was almost obsessed with it (Wilson 2). Between experiencing a large quantity of deaths close to her, her already skeptical views of Puritan ideals concerning death, and Edward
Hitchcock sharing his own ideals about death with her, death was something she often thought of, which inevitably caused the large number of poems with the theme of death to be penned by her. In “The Soul Selects Her Own Society”, the speaker is telling of a woman, or soul, that is in love. However, as one continues to read the poem, they see that saying the woman is in love is an understatement. Her “soul” is so set on this one man that she no longer sees anyone else. She has closed her heart to others, and no-one, not even emperors “kneeling” on her mat can faze her. The woman has “closed the valves of her attention”. The reference to valves could possibly be a reference to the heart, which, as some believe, is closely tied to the soul, who is the subject of the poem. The poem ends with a firm declaration that once the “soul” has made up its mind, nothing can change it. The reference to stone solidifies this (Dickinson “The Soul Selects…”).
Dickinson is much like the woman in this poem. She had grown fond of Reverend Charles Wadsworth, and her decision was firm, as shown in the way she shut herself off from the world when he moved away. She didn’t see many people after that time period, and had “closed the valves of her attention” (Dickinson “The Soul Selects…”) to others who may have even attempted to gain her attention. As one scholar says, Dickinson “could not get married with her lover in earthly world. She had to turn to poetry to seek comfort.” (Jian-Hua and Su 2). Dickinson often wrote poems in which the speaker’s lover was unreachable, and this is just one of those examples. This could very easily be tied back into Dickinson and Wadsworth. He was not only married, but a minister. In times like the time when Dickinson grew up, this was the equivalency of being “out of her league”, which overall, made him twice as unreachable to Dickinson. Even if Dickinson wasn’t quite as fond of Reverend Wadsworth as many people believe, he could still be given the credit
for some of her poetry, including “The Soul Selects Her Own Society”. Perhaps she wrote this poem wondering what it would feel like if she did love him as the speaker of this poem does. How would it feel to be in love so strongly that not even emperors with jewels and money could turn you away from the one you loved? Perhaps Dickinson was attempting to answer this question in her poem. No matter what her reasons, the theme of love in this poem can easily be connected to circumstances in Dickinson’s life.
Emily Dickinson was obsessed with death and curious about love. Puritan ideals that she was practically forced to learn, her difficult life, and relationships with those such as Edward Hitchcock and Reverend Charles Wadsworth affected the subjects and themes in Dickinson’s poetry, especially death and love. As Dickinson went through her life and faced everything she faced, she asked herself questions. Does the soul exist after death? Is it possible for a woman to be so deeply in love that nothing can faze her? Though Dickinson may or may not have ever been able to answer these questions, writing poetry, perhaps, was simply her way of attempting to answer those difficult questions that she faced, or perhaps she simply needed a way to express not only her emotions, but her beliefs. Either way, Dickinson didn’t simply write about love and death. She thoroughly experienced both, and this contributed to the prominence of the two themes in her poetry.
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Unveiling Emily Dickinson’s Poetry: Love and Death as Influential Themes After Her Demise. (2023, Jun 21). Retrieved from https://phdessay.com/unveiling-emily-dickinsons-poetry-love-and-death-as-influential-themes-after-her-demise/
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