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Emily Dickinson and Perspectives on Death

Updated on August 14, 2014

Emily Dickinson's Perspectives on Death

The question of what happens when one dies is as old as consciousness. Emily Dickinson explored ideas about death and consciousness through her poetry. A particular facet of her exploration was the idea of the existence of consciousness after death. Did the consciousness survive after death? If so, what was it like? Poems “465” and “712” both paint a picture in which the speaker’s consciousness survives after death, but the techniques used to reach this conclusion are unique to each poem.

Poems “465” and “712” both deal with the subject of consciousness after death. Both are stories told from the perspective of a speaker who has died, indicating that the speaker’s consciousness is still alive. “465” talks about the process of the speaker’s death, and “712” tells the story of what happened after the speaker’s death. In “465,” past tense verbs are used to illustrate that the speaker is recalling the story afterwards, such as “when I died…The Stillness in the Room/Was like…The Eyes around—had wrung them dry…Be witnessed…I willed…then the Windows failed” (1-11). The reader realizes that the speaker is dead, and yet the speaker is remembering her death.

In “712,” death is a character who drives a carriage in which the speaker rides. The first two lines, “Because I could not stop for Death—/He kindly stopped for me—” indicate that the speaker is dead. In the carriage, the speaker and Death pass by children at recess, fields of grain, a setting sun, and a dilapidated house that time has collapsed. In the end of the poem, the speaker discusses the subject of time in, “Since then--‘tis Centuries—and yet/Feels shorter than the Day” which demonstrates that time is advancing very quickly and yet does not seem to be passing at all (21-22). The speaker is dead and describing eternity, so her consciousness must still be alive somehow.

The structures of the two poems are similar. Both poems are at least four stanzas long, with four lines to each stanza. Both poems also have a symbolic break in the rhythm—for example, in “465” the meter breaks in the second stanza with, “And Breaths were gathering firm/For the last Onset—when the King” (6-7). In “712” there is a fairly consistent meter, although the syllable count is off in the beginning of the fourth stanza, “Or rather—He passed Us—” (13). This break in the continuity and rhythm of the poems may symbolize the irregularity of a stream of consciousness, which creatively ties back into the subject of the poems, consciousness after death. Both poems are also written in the first person and the past tense, which helps to demonstrate that the speakers are dead and yet are consciously thinking or remembering events. This is most clearly shown in “465” in “when I died” (1). It is shown in “712” in “Because I could not stop for Death—/He kindly stopped for me—” (1-2).

The tones of the two poems are somewhat different, however. “465” remains consistently somber and serious, whereas “712” has a hint of sarcasm to it. The lines “Because I could not stop for Death—/He kindly stopped for me—” are sarcastic because the speaker wasn’t actually happy that Death ‘kindly stopped’ for her (1-2). The line “For his Civility—” is also sarcastic because the speaker is mocking Death by referring to him politely (8). Use of differing emotions is just one way that Dickinson altered her techniques between the two poems, while still reaching the same conclusion.

The stories the speakers tell are also quite different. “465” recalls the process of the speaker’s death, how she was surrounded by weeping loved ones, how she thought of how she had willed her possessions away, and the interference of a buzzing fly in the peaceful, somber scene. It basically focuses on the last moments of the speaker’s life, what she was seeing and experiencing. However, “712” describes the first moments after death, and does not mention loved ones or those the speaker is leaving behind.

Also, in the last stanza “465” mentions how the speaker’s eyes closed and her consciousness was separated from her body, cut off from her senses, and lapsed into nothingness. “And then the Windows failed—and then/I could not see to see—” (11-12). The ‘windows’ are the speaker’s eyes, and not being able to see represents how she was cut off from her body and her physical senses. However, nowhere in “712” is this process of being separated from the body mentioned—the poem begins after this has already occurred. Thus, the scenes actually described in each poem are different, but Dickinson still makes the same argument about the existence of consciousness after death.

Even the conditions of consciousness after death are different between the two poems. In “465” the speaker is cut off from her sight and her other physical senses entirely in, “And then the Windows failed—and then/I could not see to see” (15-16). In “712,” however, the speaker feels wet and cold, and can obviously see things, because she sees a setting sun, children at recess, and fields of grain. “The Dews drew quivering and chill—/For only Gossamer, my Gown—” (15-16). These lines show how after the sun sets, dew sets in and the air grows colder, and the speaker feels cold because she is only wearing a gossamer gown. Thus, in one poem the speaker loses all access to her physical senses and in the other, feeling, sight, and the other senses are still retained by the speaker’s consciousness, even though it has been separated from her body. These poems represent different spins on the same idea of the existence of consciousness after death.

The use of language differs slightly between the two poems as well. For example, “465” contains a few ambiguities that “712” doesn’t have. For instance, in “465,” the fly is an ambiguous metaphor that may either represent nature or decay. It could be that the speaker perceived that nature got in the way of her having a peaceful death, or that the decay of her body was what finally separated her consciousness from her body. During the second stanza there is another ambiguity—the character of the king. Does the king represent God, or does the king represent death? Either could be said to be witnessed in the room around a person who is dying. Also, in the last stanza, the fly gets “Btween [sic] the light—and me—” (14). This may represent how nature or decay got between the speaker and her faith or her access to the afterlife. The ‘light’ that the speaker sees would seem to represent some sort of faith, but what does the fly getting in between the speaker and the light mean? Poem “712” doesn’t have these kinds of ambiguities, as it is much more literal and straightforward.

Thus, one can see how Dickinson used different techniques to make a similar argument about the existence of consciousness after death. Among the different techniques that Dickinson used are: various tones and literal subject matter, various levels of ambiguity, and slight variations to the argument being explored. Although the basic idea that Dickinson was examining was the existence of consciousness after death, she used unique and creative ways to explore this concept in two different works. This is significant because anyone can tell the same story over and over again—it takes a skillful writer to be able to make the same argument in different and unique ways each time.

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