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The theme of life and death is one that is widely discussed in literature of all kinds

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    The theme of life and death is one that is widely discussed in literature of all kinds.  American literature is no exception.  In the poems “Thanatopsis” by William Cullen Bryant, “A Psalm of Life” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and “I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died” by Emily Dickinson, the themes of life and death are played out in very different ways.

    Both William Cullen Bryant and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow are heralded as romantic poets, so it makes sense that even in discussing death, their views are optimistic.  In fact, they choose to discuss more about life then death. When they do speak of death, it is seen as something comforting that is not to be feared but is more a part of life.  What they mostly do is provide the reader with ideas for how to live our lives so that when death approaches, we do not have to be scared.  We ease into it gently.  Bryant, who wrote this musing at only 17 years-old has provided comfort to many a generation of people.  In contrast, Emily Dickinson is a dissenter, caught in the time between romanticism and realism.  Her poem “I Head a Fly Buzz When I Died” provides the reader with neither comfort nor advice.  In fact, it trivializes the momentous moment of death by the narrator’s focus on hearing the fly.  She misses the revelation implied in death and can only hear a dirty fly buzz.

                In Bryant’s “Thanatopsis”, while the title means “a view of death,” the poem also contains much advice about life.  Bryant’s view of death comes across very clearly.  He believes that we are all part of the cycle of nature and that we will return to it when we die.  “Earth, that nourished thee, shall claim Thy growth, to be resolved to earth again,” (Bryant).  Even if we were alone in life, we can be comforted by the fact that everyone will be together in death, and that there will be no class distinction. “Thou shalt lie down
    With patriarchs of the infant world — with kings, The powerful of the earth — the wise, the good, Fair forms, and hoary seers of ages past, All in one mighty sepulcher” (Bryant).  Even those lonely people will finally be joined with others. “So shalt thou rest — and what if thou withdraw In silence from the living, and no friend Take note of thy departure? All that breathe Will share thy destiny” (Bryant).  Everyone will be level on the same playing field.  We will all become equal finally the way we never were in earthly life. He never mentions heaven or hell or any other ideas from religion.  That means that anyone can take comfort in this poem because it is free from theory of a particular religion.  While certainly followers of Christianity could find it reminiscent of some Bible verses, it is allusion at best.  For example, Psalms talk about death being the wings of morning and Bryant say that death is like lying down on a couch and covering ourselves with a blanket.  Bryant even goes so far to write “And make their bed with thee” as though death is nothing more than lying down and drifting off to sleep.  Any person from any religion can find comfort in this poem.

    However the poem is as much about life as it is about death.   In fact, it seems to me a view of life, not a view of death.  The very last part of the poem provides evidence about the way to live our lives.  This evidence follows:

    “So live, that when thy summons comes to join
    The innumerable caravan, which moves
    To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
    His chamber in the silent halls of death,
    Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
    Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
    By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave
    Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
    About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.” (Bryant)

    In other words, if we live our lives to the fullest, we don’t have to be taken out by death kicking and screaming.  We will be ready when the time comes and will be looking forward to the comforts that Bryant has provided us earlier.  If we live our lives in this way, we won’t fear death. “solitude and the silence of the woods.”  (poetseers)

    In Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life,” the author mentions death but chooses to focus on life.  For example, while death is mentioned, “Life is real !   Life is earnest!  And the grave is not its goal” (Longfellow).  The goal, according to Longfellow is to get further tomorrow than where we are today.  “Art is long, and Time is fleeting, And our hearts, though stout and brave, Still, like muffled drums, are beating Funeral marches to the grave (Longfellow). What this quote essentially say is that death is the end for everybody; it is something we will all face even if we do not know it or choose to recognize it.  Yet he continues on with advice about life.  For instance, don’t be dumb like cattle.  Be a hero instead.  Live in the present.   Don’t worry about the past or future.  We should live so that when we depart, we feel as though we have left our own unique mark.  “And, departing, leave behind us Footprints on the sands of time ;” (Longfellow).  Those footsteps or marks that we leave can, in turn, inspire others to live their lives as well.  We should always be in the process of living rather than dying or waiting for death.  We should strive until the bitter end.

    Longfellow makes no mention of what happens when we die or where we go, only of how to live while we are here.  In this way, he is like Bryant.  He does not box the poem in as belonging to a particular religion. He provides this advice to us all, and while the poem is certainly about death marginally, it is more about life and how to live it.  Whitman seems to play off this philosophy as well with his “carpe diem” attitude.  Longfellow does have other poems that while romantic are much more somber concerning the theme of death, such as “The Cross of Snow” that is about his grief and mourning at the loss of his wife.  However, in this poem, he chooses to focus on the living.

                In contrast to the other two, Dickinson’s poem “I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died” does focus on death and its goal is certainly not to give comfort.   It is rather to startle us and disgust us.  It is generally believed that the moment of death will be this powerful movement where our lives flash before our eyes and yet in this death, a fly arrives at the scene and becomes the only thing the speaker can focus on as she dies.  “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.  In other words, the mourners are all cried out.  They are waiting for her last breath, and the beginning of her eternal life.  Everyone in the room is just waiting for all of this to be over.  However, the fly interposes again.  Christianity is kind of alluded to in this poem as for Christian’s death is supposed to bring revelation about eternal life (Core Studies).  She is ready to die; she has prepared for it and willed away all that she could.  She has put her affairs in order, in other words.  While she waits for her revelation, a fly appears.  “And then the Windows failed- and then/I could not see to see-” (Dickinson).  The fly may be a symbol of death and decay; it may be just a trivial annoyance that forces this woman to lose out on the revelation that is supposed to happen in her death.  As Core Studies points out, the fly could be a symbol for the devil himself as he is often referred to as the king of the flies (Core Studies). Whatever the interpretation, the intrusion of the sly is not to be seen as optimistic or comforting.  While the image Dickinson provides us is not a scary view of death, it is unsettling to the reader.  A fly is not supposed to be our final focus in death with our family all gathered around.

                Dickinson’s poetry seems to be largely about death.  Her poetry never quite captures the romanticism and comfort of Bryant or Longfellow although it is also not solely realistic like the harsh tone of someone like Stephen Crane.  For example, “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” is a poem about death’ civility.  Death is not evil or scary, but the focus of the poem is about death nonetheless and does not provide comfort.

                The romanticism of Bryant and Longfellow is much more palatable to the reader than the more coldly realistic poem of Dickinson.  We would like to believe that, in fact, death does have significance and maybe even that truths will be revealed to us on our deathbeds, or at least we should get the visions of our lives flashing before our eyes.  It’s pretty depressing to think that our lives end by listening to a pesky fly.  Bryant provides us with a very romantic view of death in that we are going back to become a part of the earth that nourished us all through our lives.

    Works Cited

    Bryant, William Cullen.  Thanatopsis.

    Core Studies 6.   Emily Dickinson’s Death.  Retrieved Nov. 25, 2008 at

    http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/cs6/fly.html

    Dickinson, Emily. I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died.

    Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth.  A Psalm of Life.

    Poetseers.org.  William Cullen Bryant.  Retrieved Nov 25, 2008 at

    http://www.poetseers.org/early_american_poets/william_cullen_bryant

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