Death in Dickinson’s Poems

Death in Dickinson’s Poems

            Emily Dickinson is considered as one of the most influential poets of the 19th century - Death in Dickinson’s Poems introduction. She was one of the pioneers in non-conformation to the standard structure. She was one of the first poets who utilized dashes, and a sudden shifting in letter cases or sizes in the process of writing poetry. She was very unconventional. Her poetry deviated from the typical rhyming meter, which allowed for better expression of imagery (“Emily Dickinson”).

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            Dickinson did not only earn her fame from the unconventionality of her works but also from the metaphors she used in her works. She writes vividly, giving life even to concepts that are considered elusive such as death. In three of her famous poems that featured death as the theme, she conveyed the concept in a manner that was unique for each poem.

In the poem, “I heard a Fly Buzz– when I Died”, it represented death as something that is painless yet in some way unwelcoming, almost gruesome. On the other hand, in the poem, “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers”, death was portrayed as a beautiful occurrence in which a person may rest peacefully in the most glorious manner. In the third poem, “Because I could not Stop for Death”, Dickinson, personified death as someone who had been awaiting her coming, a kindly gentleman. This made death as something who can decide for its own. As such, inevitable and may never be calculated.

“I heard a Fly Buzz– when I Died”

            In this poem, death is portrayed as an occurrence that is painless yet gruesome and expressed through metaphors and other elements in the poem. The persona or the character who is speaking is knowledgeable of an impending death. In the last moments, there is silence in the room with only the buzzing of a fly being heard. The silence gives emphasis to both the presence of the fly and the sound that it is making. This may point to the fly being a central element in the entire poem.

“I heard a fly buzz when I died;
The stillness round my form

Was like the stillness in the air
Between the heaves of storm.”

(Dickinson 324)

The buzzing, which is the only sound heard by the speaker in the poem, may be considered as a summoning sound. It is of common knowledge that the sound of flies may direct a person to either a pile of rotting garbage or a pile of rotting flesh. In the case of the poem, it is a pile of rotting flesh, signifying death that is nearing the speaker in the poem.

The silence does not only symbolize emphasis on the buzzing sound of the fly. It also points to peacefulness and painlessness of repose. The word stillness in the second and third lines reinforces the suggested placidity of the manner in which the speaker is dying.

The phrase, “heaves of storm” (Dickinson) pertains to the last breaths that the speaker was drawing. Heaving is a chest movement that is suggestive of difficulty. Followed by the word storm, this may be interpreted as life being full of hardships, and death is like experiencing the calm and sunshine after a great storm.

Following the interpretation that there had been difficulties in life, death which is coming is freely accepted despite sadness.

“The eyes beside had wrung them dry,
And breaths were gathering sure
For that last onset, when the king
Be witnessed in his power.”

(Dickinson 324)

The eyes pertained by the first line, are the eyes of relatives and loved ones who have come to accept the persona’s death. They gather around the dying and wait for the “last onset”. The “last onset” is an anti-thesis used to describe death as it is both the end and beginning. It is the end of mortality, at the same time the beginning of eternal life, which people during the time of Dickinson strongly believed (Melani). The king, who is the one being waited for, may mean death or God, while power may mean the capacity of God or death to end mortality at its will.

The third line further reinforces the acceptance of death that was presented in the preceding stanzas. The persona tells that everything that needed to be let go had been forgone. The foregoing of possessions may be interpreted as the readiness to leave. As such, the fly which symbolized death, has come and slowly, the soul is eased out of the body.

The windows mentioned in the last stanza pertained to the eyes which are known as the windows of the soul. As people leave, they shut the windows of their homes. As the soul leaves the body, the eyes, which are the windows that are shut down to never see again.

From this, it may be found that the entire poem, spoke of a peaceful and painless death, a death that has long been accepted and made ready for. However, there is an irony presented in the poem. The presence of the fly also conveys death as an occurrence that is in some way gruesome and not appealing as it may not be denied that in death, the physical body decays to nothing.

“Safe in their Alabaster Chambers”

            As the poem “I heard a Fly Buzz– when I died”, spoke of death as something that may be both painless and dreadful, the poem “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers” spoke of death as something that may be experienced beautifully and gloriously. It described death as a place of tranquility and safety. In death, sickness or loneliness can never touch a person. However, death as it is the opposite of mortal existence, accompanies indifference.

            In the first lines of the poem, the dead people were addressed and considered protected from age and time. The sleep that was mentioned pertains to the repose that took place upon the departure of the soul from the body. The dead were also called members of resurrection as there is also the belief that after death, the dead may be reincarnated. It may also refer to the resurrection of the soul from mortal death to eternal life.

Rafter of satin, and roof of stone.

 Light laughs the breeze in her castle of sunshine

(Dickinson 314)

The beauty in death was described by the given lines. The rafter of satin pertains to the satin lining of coffins. It also symbolizes grandeur. The roof of stone is the tombstone that is put up as a marking for the place under which the dead was buried. This may also point to wealth because during Dickinson’s time, only the rich people can afford a burial place with a tombstone.

Light laughs the breeze in her castle of sunshine;
Babbles the bee in a stolid ear;
Pipe the sweet birds in ignorant cadence,–
Ah, what sagacity perished here!

(Dickinson 314)

As the preceding lines spoke of death as something that may be beautiful and grandiose, the lines that came after speaking of death is something that nature is indifferent about. Again, Dickinson raised an irony about death. The above given lines described how the creatures lived and died surrounding the place where the dead is sleeping and yet they never bothered about death. Even as the years passed and changes took place, death is stagnant.

As much as death can protect a person from time, from aging, it also traps the person in that certain time, when death has touched him. The grandiosity of death cannot mask the truth that there is nothing beyond it. As sleep deprives man from knowledge of events taking place around him, death is capable of the worst, as it is a sleep from which one may never wake up from.

From this it may be derived that Dickinson presented death in another manner. From being something that can be peaceful yet gruesome, the poetess introduced death as something grand yet cold. The title of the poem speaks for the theme of the entire poem.

Death is like alabaster which is a very expensive material. It symbolizes wealth and grandeur. However, it is also cold as death accompanies indifference of the nature surrounding the dead. It makes one untouchable from time, while unfortunately also unreachable for change.

“Because I could not Stop for Death”

            In the poem, “I could not Stop for Death”, the poetess presented yet another characteristic of death. From being peaceful and horrific, to grandiose and indifferent, death in this poem has now become inevitable and uncontrolled. Dickinson personified death in this given poem, guised as a suitor patiently waiting for the decision of the object of his affection; death was given a mind of its own and a decision when to act. From this it has become something with free will and as such out of the people’s hands.

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.


As may be seen from the given first stanza of the poem, the concept of death as a person was immediately introduced. This may point to the writer’s intent to immediately express that death, as people are, has a mind of its own and may never be eluded from. Even when things seem to be all smooth sailing ahead, death may come. No matter how much man wants to continue living, death the patient suitor, may come. And it shall take nothing else, not any material possession that may have been acquired in an individual’s lifetime, nor will it take the family that has been built.

We passed the school, where children strove
At recess, in the ring;
We passed the fields of gazing grain,
We passed the setting sun. (Dickinson).

Death can come slow and patient. It may allow a person to become a child, grow up and reach the prime of life, which is symbolized by the school and the setting sun. As may be remembered, old age to dying period is considered as the twilight of one’s life and the setting sun is the boundary between youth and old age.

Or rather, he passed us;
The dews grew quivering and chill,
For only gossamer my gown

My tippet only tulle.


However, death may also come sudden. It may come in one’s sleep as symbolized by the lines “for only gossamer my gown, my tippet only tulle”. This may be considered as a metaphor for death coming unexpectedly, leaving an individual unprepared and yet not having capabilities to object.

            After describing the ways in which death may come, Dickinson conveyed the destination of the trip through the metaphors in the stanza that came after. This further reinforced the personification of death. Not only is it a patient suitor but a gentleman as well that took the speaker in the poem to the destination.

We paused before a house that seemed
A swelling of the ground;
The roof was scarcely visible,
The cornice but a mound.


As may be seen, the house pertains to the burial place of the persona. The swelling of the ground is a depiction of the mound that is created after digging the soil and putting it back; the way it is done during burials. It may also be the tombstone which marks the grave. This is the one described by the last and second to the last line. The tombstone is buried almost halfway, as such the root is barely visible. The cornice is the curved top of the stone on which the epitaph is written.

            With such, the journey stops for while only to move again to another destination which based on what may be interpreted, remains uncharted. “I first surmised the horses’ heads, Were toward eternity” (Dickinson). Eternity has always been a vague concept. In the case of this poem this points that after death there may be another life, which unlike mortality, has no end. In this Dickinson, again expressed the probability of eternal life after death as she described in her other two poems.

            The author pointed that death is inevitable and that life may be compared to a journey that requires a place to stay for a while for rest. Death is this rest. Given that in this poem it was personified, it becomes inevitable as the different lodges scattered across cities. It is uncontrollable as fatigue is to people who work hard.


            With the analysis of each poem given above, it may be found that the three given poems have similarities as well as distinguishing characteristics. The similarity of the poems is not only the author, Emily Dickinson, and the structure which is non-conventional. Another important aspect in which they are alike each other is through their theme. All three poems spoke of death and how a person may perceive it. In the case of Dickinson, it is probable that she sees death in three different ways.

First, the way she conveyed it in the poem, “I heard a fly-buzz when I died”, as something that may be peaceful yet undeniably dreadful. The symbols that were used in the poem vividly described this. The sleep speaks of a peaceful rest while the fly points to decay of the physical body which the soul leaves behind.

            Second, is the manner that she introduced death in the poem, “Safe in Their Alabaster Jars.” Here, death was portrayed as something that can be grand and beautiful. However, it also meant indifference both from the dead person and to the nature or things surrounding him and of nature and time. It is a like a great wall that separates the dead from any changes and events in the land of the living.

            The third way in which Dickinson views death is conveyed through the poem, “Because I cannot stop for Death”. In this poem, the great poetess personified death and gave it its own free will. As such, it made death as something inevitable and uncontrollable. It is something that may come late in a person’s life or as early and untimely, like one’s sleep.

            From this it may be concluded that Emily Dickinson, has different perspectives on death. This may be influenced by her puritan beginnings. She sees death and writes about it basing on the manners in which a person or a loved one succumbs to it. The three poems may be likened to a testimonial by Dickinson. Only it utilized metaphors and irony to show that even though all three have death as a theme, each sees death uniquely from the other.

Works Cited

Dickinson, Emily, Meyer, Michael (ed). Poetry: An Introduction . New York: Bedford, St.

Martin, 2007.

 “Emily Dickinson”. (2009). the Literature Network. 30 March 2009

<> .

 Melani, Lilia. “Emily Dickinson”. (2009). Department of English Lilia Melani. 30 March

2009 < >.


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