Emily Dickinson’s Obsession with Death
Emily Dickinson is one of the most outstanding and prominent poets of American
Romanticism whose rather significant body of work employs themes and motifs
characteristic of the movement brushing them off with her unique treatment of visionary
nature. Her poetry revolves around several binary oppositions such as life and death, eternity
and immediacy, earthly and divine, body and soul that undergo various speculations for
Emily Dickinson approaches them as if she were an eye-witness, sometimes dragged into
transcendental states and later sharing her persona’s experiences with the reader. Three
poems of Emily Dickinson were chosen for the analysis, namely “Death is a dialogue
between…”, “Death sets a thing significant…”, and “Let down the bars, o Death!” which
explicitly state the purpose of the analysis: examining the concept of death and its
manifestation in works selected.
Working within romantic paradigm Emily Dickinson allows certain configurations
within common structural oppositions. Her poems reflect the struggle between metaphysical
and dialectical strategies of Weltanschauung. Taking into account these two propositions the
first inference comes into place: poetess chooses one conventional opposition which expands
upon the basis of two ambivalent notions and introduces the third member, which turns the
metaphysical contrastive pair into a dialectic triad.
Let us apply a close reading technique to the first poem. The opening lines of the
poem read: “Death is a dialogue between / The spirit and the dust”. To the limelight comes
classical binary opposition in structuralist sense – spirit::dust which is figuratively
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immovable but adding the third element – Death – gives an impulse of eternal motion to the
pair, where the spirit becomes a thesis, the dust – an antithesis and Death is a synthesis which
signifies a passage from state to movement, from metaphysics to dialectics. The form of the
dialogue corresponds to the above discussed scheme, for it presupposes the exchange
between two entities and results in a movement of ideas in time and space, and Death is the
substance for this dialogue.
The dialogue captures two different realities, equal in their importance: the life itself
and the afterlife correspondingly where the Death is the personification of the latter. Death as
represented in collective unconscious is something rather inevitable when it puts its foot
down there is no way to fight it back. However, in the frame of the poem the Death is
haggling with the vital Spirit; even though it uses imperative mood: “Dissolve”, commands it,
the Spirit has a right to make a choice and parry with another blow: “Sir, I have another
trust”, which is a polysemantic word meaning either “belief”, “hope” or “reliability”. Either
way this synonymous range implies that there is a possibility of choice and nothing may force
the Spirit make it rather than itself.
Moreover, moving on to the next stanza another important discovery is to be made:
two different realities are clearly separated from one another and the margin is the ground
from which the Death speaks. Speaking in contemporary terms the Death is quite
discriminated because its word is underestimated and not to be taken seriously. The power of
the Death is of verbal quality only and, what is more, it is delineated by spatial restrictions –
the ground.
The poem here draws on two different modes of Weltanschauung – mythological and
religious. Mythological is represented by the personification of the Death and designation of
the place where its existence is possible; furthermore, three abstract notions taken in their full
gamut acquire human features and physical characteristics: they can speak and reveal the
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work of the second signaling system; they can also make choices. Religious component
comes brightly into place by means of the last two lines of the poem: “Just laying off, for
evidence, / An overcoat of clay.” Clay is a Biblical material from which man was made; it is
also an evidence of the Divine Providence and a connection between human and his creator.
However, clay as a sign of origin is also a constant reminder of mortality and nothingness, so
the Spirit chooses to shake it off, to be free for good.
Mythological and religious modes thus come in appeasing symbiosis resulting in the
personification of death, restriction of its authority and such diminution comes from
substitution of the regular binary opposition with a triad of dialectics.
Yet another embodiment of death is found in Emily Dickinson’s poem “Death sets a
thing significant…” where it becomes clear, how powerful and categorical its imperatives
are. The opposition between life and death is vaguely represented by culturally accepted
images of the former and implicit presence of the latter and does not appear that important as
the opposition of life and afterlife. The poetess applies here characteristic of her style
speculations of ability to be speaking from beyond the grave not being dead. Human life is
manifested in the chain of labor activities all aimed at production of something new, or, in
other words, leaving traces of one’s existence in a material form.
The poem begins from beyond the grave, and “a perished creature” that
underestimated the significance of death, because its “eye had hurried by”, missed the
moment of death in a rush, did not pay attention to it and, henceforth, was unable to leave
anything behind in the world of living people. It is an appeal to all the humanity, and the
message bids not to waste time and use skill to create some artifacts or at least regular things.
The materials vary: “in crayon or in wool”; words “thimble”, “stitches” and “closet shelves”
imply tailoring and sewing clothes. Although the message seems very reassuring and giving
hope Emily Dickinson brings into play an almost transparent thread of finiteness for
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everything a man creates in the course of his life falls prey to dust, covered by the mantel of
oblivion. The creation is detached from its creator, there is no vital connection anymore, and
the artifact becomes pointless and means nothing anymore. A parallel between God and man
as His creation suggests itself, but it is rather inappropriate due to the fact that a man is a
living being and never an object, therefore, may this suggestion be dropped for good.
Death brings a void into one’s past by means of extracting the Spirit or the Soul out of
it. However, the persona of the poem seems to find the way of keeping the deceased one’s
soul alive in life after death. This is a specific medium of a word – a book, where the remarks
of the deceased friend are left “whose pencil, here and there, / Had notched the place that
pleased him, – / At rest his fingers are.” Books and what is written there is one level of
presence – the presence of the actual story, its plot and characters, to put it simply, the
fictional world of literary text. On the other level there is reader’s interpretation, his response
to the text which reflects itself in underlining of certain places – another typical romantic
strategy introduced by Friedrich Schlegel – the world is endless, there is no way to grasp it in
its entirety, so fragments are only possible modes of approximation towards the Absolute. On
the third level in the example lines there is another interpretation of the persona who says:
“Now, when I read, I read not / For interrupting tears / Obliterate the etchings / Too costly for


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