Emily Dickinson's Two Poems on Death

1. A biographical note: Emily Dickinson (1830-86) was born into a proper New England family in Amherst, MA.  Although she spent her seventeenth year a few miles away, at Mount Holyoke Seminary, in the next twenty years (1847-67) she left Amherst only five or six times, and in her last twenty years (1867-86) she may never have left her house.
2. A letter Dickinson wrote around the time she wrote "I Heard..."

   "...I had a terror--since September--I could tell to none--and so I sing, as the Boy does by the Burying Ground--because I am afraid--...When a little Girl, I had a friend, who taught me Immortality--but venturing too near, himself--he never returned--Soon after, my Tutor, died--and for several years, my Lexicon--was my only companion--Then I found one more--but he he was not contented I be his scholar--so he left the Land."

3.   Other info. about her life and personality:

By the age of thirty she was retreating to her room when old friends called and listening to their voices from upstairs.  The next year she inaugurated the habit of dressing exclusively in white that she was to maintain for the rest of her life.  The same year she begged her Boston cousins to take her place at a commencement tea at her home because she felt too "hopeless and scared" to face to visitors.
What he told his wife of Emily Dickinson caused her to refer to Emily as "insane," and he himself wrote that he considered her "partially cracked."  "I never was with anyone who drained my nerve power so much...without touching her, she drew from me.  I am glad not to live near her."

Emily and Sue and Austin

p. 256  In her unconscious fantasy Austin's sexual possession of Susan represented the consummation of the erotic element in the relationship of the two women.  ...Also the poet's love for Austin contained unconscious erotic elements derived partly by displacement of heh infantile longing for  her father, which arose with compensatory force when her mother failed her.
symptoms before her nervous breakdown
depression, anxiety, estrangement, avoidance of gratification, extraction of pleasure from privation, preoccupation with death, withdrawal from social intercourse, agoraphobia, fear of loss of emotional control, preternatural awareness of the mind's unconscious depths...weakness of ego boundaries, and night fears.....(261-62)
A. Basing yourself on these pieces of information, why do you think Emily Dickinson is so concerned with death?

B. From these two poems (written respectively in 1862 and 1863), can you try to analyze the poet's view about death?

Dickinson and Death

[Freud's view of death:
Though recognizing the certainty and inevitability of death, the ego nevertheless strives to circumvent the irrevocability of mortality  by assuring itself that life can be preserved against the inevitability of dissolution.  Thus the fear of annihilation, much like the fear of separation, is one of the most basic primal anxieties in forming human existence.  It elicits a massive gesture towards self-preservation in an effort to conquer or at least to control death.]

Emily Dickinson's Death theme

T. Ford.  "One of the major reasons for her interest in death, then, was its close relation with religion, as she viewed it.  The relationship between death and religion became for her, in fact, a circular one.  Her basic feeling about immortality were ones of doubt and apprehension."

Other factors:

The death theme owed its burgeoning to many springs.
1)  New England puritanism and 19th-c romanticism were both obsessed with death...
2) the omnipresence of death--the many fatal diseases
3) a. fear of abandonment
   b. projection of anger
  Unloved by her mother, abandoned by her girl friends, devalued as a female, discouraged in her literary aspirations, importuned to accept a religion that offered her no haven, she felt herself a seething volcano.
   c. guilt over Emily's rejection of her mother
Dickensen's presentation of death:

--the juxtaposition of the concrete with the abstract, the homey with the heavenly, the housefly with eternity.
Death--cold; as a lover and a bridegroom; as a king, a tyrant or some kind of royalty; as a democrat, an equalizer, a leveler; associated with sleep, night or darkness; equated with parting or separation; Death personified