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Enigma Of Death

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Enigma Of Death Essay, Research Paper

"Pale Death with impartial tread beats at the poor man’s cottage door and

at the palaces of kings." Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus, 65-8 B.C.)

Death eventually comes to everyone, and yet it is a phenomenon shrouded in

mystery. Scholars and scientists try to understand it, philosophers pose

theories and conclusions about it, artists try to capture it between streaks of

paint across a canvas, while poets like Emily Dickinson explore it’s meaning and

influence through verse. Death is like an outward rush into the unknown where

there is nothing recognizable and nothing to cling to. The unknown is always

feared, and since nothing is known about death or an afterlife, people fear it.

What Dickinson’s poetry delves into is the undeniable power of death to detach

one from life and the pain and sorrow that accompanies it like a dark cloud

above it’s head. In There’s a Certain Slant of Light , Dickinson uses nature as

the backdrop for her description of death, and the elements to describe the

silent pain that it brings with it. The poem appears to create some sort of

setting for the reader in order to portray this. The sight of a funeral

procession entering a cemetery is probably an apt description of this setting.

The slant of light is used to portray a heavenly beam that falls on the earth

and brings a gloomy feeling with it. It could be the finger of God beckoning to

the deceased to come to the heavenly abode or a divine path showing him the road

to heaven. However, the light possesses a sort of weightiness: "That

oppresses, like the Heft / Of Cathedral Tunes-". This heaviness in the

light may refer to the undecipherable feelings that one has, when you lose

someone close to you. The second and third stanzas of the poem bring out the

true profundity of these mixed emotions. "Furthermore, both light and air

are portrayed as symbolic of God, so that they become agents through whom God

imposes His Heavenly Hurt upon the speaker, or maims her with His imperial

affliction" (Griffith 27). The "Heavenly Hurt" may be described

as the deep sorrow and pain that one feels when faced by the death of one’s near

and dear ones. The hurt is not physical, but emotional and psychological. It is

probably deep within the speaker’s heart "Where the Meanings, are-".

For, when someone is lost in love, deeply hurt or excessively happy, it is hard

to describe what one exactly feels or understand where exactly these feelings

are coming from. "She still cannot pinpoint the source of her anxiety. It

comes quietly, seemingly ‘Sent us of the Air-’ . . ." (GaleNet LRC). Coming

back to the setting of the cemetery, we can envision the speaker standing a

short distance away from the grave watching the procession on its way. She

beholds before her the entire landscape as she watches the mourners approaching.

She captures the solemnity and motionlessness of death by implying that time

appears to stop for death. "When it comes, the Landscape listens- /

Shadows-hold their breath-" What Dickinson is trying to say is that death

is an irrefutable fact of life. It comes to everyone (as Horace says) and the

stagnancy of time revealed in the quote above is only a depiction of her

thoughts. Dickinson brings the reader face to face with reality. While death is

often ignored as a biological phenomena that does not influence one individual’s

daily life, nature is accepted as the creator that sustains life on this planet.

But, Dickinson provides a new insight into this by describing nature as the

force that brings death to its subjects when the time has come. "As Nature

bring their weight of pain to bear upon the speaker, they are shown to have

injured and oppressed with a conscious will" (Griffith 28). She describes

to the reader the crude side of nature: the reality of life and the suddenness

of death. Contrary to common belief, "Mother Nature" is not quite

described as a loveable and caring person. " . . . Poets have grown

accustomed to thinking of Nature as a cuddly companion . . . Emily Dickinson’s

Nature is no less personal or dynamic than this – and no less a Nature read by

the light of pathetic fallacy. It is simply that she sees as tigers what others

have mistaken for pets" (Griffith 28). This analogy of pets and tigers

describes Dickinson’s contrasting views on life, death and nature as compared to

other historical and contemporary poets. Another poem that illustrates this

viewpoint like no other is Because I Could Not Stop for Death . This poem is an

example of the personification of Death as a character. However, it shares an

obvious bond with There’s a Certain Slant of Light in more ways than one.

Certain beliefs and impressions that are embedded in Dickinson’s mind

permanently force themselves out in her poems and they can be linked together if

one scrutinizes her disquieting verses. In this poem, the author indicates that

Death is a kindly gentleman who stops by to escort her into her afterlife.

"Because I could not stop for Death- / He kindly stopped for me-" She

describes her slow ride towards what she deems to be eternity "I first

surmised the Horses Heads / Were toward Eternity-" But, as the poem goes

on, she realizes the truth and inevitability of death. Her thoughts grow deep

and in the third stanza, she realizes that her life is flashing past her eyes.

She sees children playing at school, "fields of Gazing Grain" and the

"Setting Sun" that indicate the three stages of life: childhood,

adulthood, and old age where one nears death. This poem also brings out one of

Dickinson’s typical thoughts on time and death. "Time has stopped for her,

and the fields of grain do the gazing, not her" (Semansky: GaleNet LRC).

The idea that the poet wishes to put across to the reader is that she is in a

world where time has no reference. She is past the land of the living where the

sun and the fields of grain are mere participants in the process of supporting

life. She uses these elements of nature to describe the stillness of time and

the affect death has on the surroundings. As it grows "quivering and

chill-", the author describes the inadequacy of her clothing and conveys

the coldness that surrounds death. "This response suggests not only literal

coldness . . . but also the emotional coldness that occurs when approaching

one’s own death" (Semansky: GaleNet LRC). The setting that the poet has

managed to set very effectively is the approach to death and eternal

nothingness. This can be compared to the funeral procession in There’s a Certain

Slant of Light that slowly marches the dead towards his ultimate resting place.

Her chariot-ride is a slow one and as she draws to the climax of her journey,

the surroundings become grayer, colder and gloomier indicating a dark end to a

colorful life. As she approaches "A swelling of the Ground", which is

acceptably her grave, she is struck by the purpose of the whole journey. Not for

the first time, Dickinson’s poetry portrays very successfully the inevitability

of death. "The domestic nature of the grave’s description and the fact that

there is no door, only a roof (the coffin’s lid), suggests that there is no

escape from Death" (Semansky: GaleNet LRC). She looks back at her whole

journey and sees how the colors of life depicted by the sun and the fields have

now faded in to the gray gloom of the grave and its headstone. The long, long

journey, which she first thought was to Eternity, seems to have passed in flash.

" . . . she finds the human’s lot of the realization of death to be so

overwhelming that it makes time stand still" (Joyner: GaleNet LRC).

Suddenly, in one final burst, the reader is able to decipher the gist of the

poem. The author now realizes that her suitor (Death) who so politely took her

away from her home and from her life has deceived her. Dickinson herself

represents all of mankind who believes that death brings with it some sort of

salvation either in the form of heaven or some other divine abode. But, it is

all a fa?ade! "She has, therefore, apparently been tricked, seduced, and

then abandoned" (Twayne’s U.S. Authors). She conveys to the reader and to

the people of this world that there is nothing to look forward to in death and

that all it leads to is a void: an emptiness that lasts forever. Death is not a

release from a life of hard work or some sort of salvation. It is cold

obliteration. Dickinson portrays death as a harsh and crude force that is

uncompassionate to human feelings and emotions. It strikes with deadly exactness

and brings with it an envelope of grief that suffocates even the hardiest of

human beings. It is the primary truth of life. If you live today, you will die

someday. If not tomorrow, may be the day after. When the time of reckoning

arrives, there is nothing that one can do to prevent one’s own destruction.

Dickinson, Emily Selected Poems New York: Dover Publications, Inc. 1990

GaleNet Literature Resource Center "Overview: There’s a Certain Slant of

Light, by Emily Dickinson" GaleNet Literature Resource Center. http://www.galenet.com

(10/19/99) Griffith, Clark The Long Shadow: Emily Dickinson’s Tragic Poetry

Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1964 Joyner, Nancy Carol

"Because I Could Not Stop for Death: Overview" GaleNet Literature

Resource Center. http://www.galenet.com (10/19/99) Semansky, Chris "An

Overview of Because I Could Not Stop for Death" GaleNet Literature Resource

Center. http://www.galenet.com (10/19/99) Twayne’s United States Authors

"Personification of Death: Emily Dickinson Chapter 3: The Mortal Life.

http://rosie.menlo.edu. (10/16/99)

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