Poe and Dickinson: The Poets
The poets Edgar Allan Poe and Emily Dickinson had many similarities in their lives, both were born in the state of Massachusetts, both were very interested in history and literature, and both had early losses in their lives that haunted them throughout their lifetimes, and both dealt with their tragedies in destructive ways. Poe used alcohol and various drugs, committing a slow suicide over time, dying early at the age of forty. Dickinson used emotional and physical isolation, choosing to close herself in loneliness, fearing love and friendship because of its potential loss. Both Poe and Dickinson created beauty with their poetry, putting images and pictures in the reader’s mind, of nature and romance, capturing these emotions. But it is their darker side that they are most similar, the side of their writing that deals with sorrow, loss, terror, and the final step death. They conveyed a Gothic writing style that could pull the reader into their nightmares.
Edgar Allan Poe was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1809 and was raised both in England and America; he was a writer of short stories, prose, and poetry, inspiring the horror and detective genre. He wrote both in light and graceful and in dark and macabre,being able to put beautiful and inspiring love poems down on paper like “Helen“, while being able to scare and disturb the reader with tales and prose of torturous death and the fear of the unknown like “The Premature Burial“. Poe’s focus on death seems to be the fear of not knowing its true nature, when and how it will happen, and are we really dead when they put us in the coffin and then the darkness of our grave. He also questions what happens to our souls when death comes, is there a Heaven and Hell, do we reincarnate, or do we stay with our body and suffer through the aftermath of decay. This picture is made clear in the poem “The Conqueror Worm”.
Out-out are the lights-out all! And, over each quivering form, The curtain, a funeral pall, Comes down with the rush of a storm, While the angels, all pallid and wan, Uprising, unveiling, affirm That the play is the tragedy, “Man”, And its hero the Conqueror Worm “ (Edgar Allan Poe).
In “The Conqueror Worm”, Poe is putting us in the grave literally and its reality. Where our bodies are being consumed by nature, a natural, but disturbing process that most of us do not want to think about or talk about. The old saying “Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust”, is how a so called polite society views it, without facing the real picture, which is a scientific reality but too disturbing for most. Poe’s focus is the fear that we must endure and witness this consumption of our flesh. That the numbness of death is just a perceived condition, and that we are aware of everything that is happening in the grave and in its darkness, when the body is decaying and returning to earth. That the soul is trapped until this process is done, seeing and feeling it all, experiencing its tortures. This picture is very terrifying because it has happened throughout history, people in the past have been buried alive, and many cultures in the world go through different ceremonies to prevent the soul’s entrapment in the body after death. This is a very real universal human fear that Poe puts to paper, making us face it upfront without covering it up with societal niceties.
Emily Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts in 1830; almost all her poetry was published and read after her death, only having less than a dozen poems published while she was alive. She wrote poems of love and beauty and of morbidity and death. Dickinson’s view of the world seemed to be shadowed by the fear of loss and the feeling that judgment and death was following her, stalking her all her life; that they were underneath the surface of everything. This made her pick isolation, fearing judgment from others and the unknown more than the loneliness of her choosing. This showed strongly in her writings, in “Much Madness is Divinest Sense”, she is questioning what insanity is, and how it is judged and measured in society. What is normal? Dickinson also had a happier lighter side that showed beauty and love, in her poem “Wild Nights -Wild Nights!” she even shows a bit of playfulness. But death was her ongoing friend or foe, whichever way you look at it, who she believed was with her always. In “Because I Could Not Stop for Death”, Dickinson writes of death meeting her for the eternal road trip. Because I could not stop for Death -He kindly stopped for me-The Carriage held but just Ourselves-And Immortality” (Emily Dickinson).
This road trip in “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” that Dickinson envisioned is like many of her poems, it was both her dream and nightmare, at times she seemed to have almost suicidal tendencies, welcoming the final trip, and at other times she feared the prospects of death, wanting it to just go away. Dickinson is speaking here of being taken away from the physical world, by an appointment that none of us can ignore, it is predetermined, it is destiny. Death (capitalized to show it as a being), comes on its own terms and plan, we must go with it. She also writes of the vulnerability that one would feel in front of a being so strong and powerful as Death, and so ancient, “The Dews drew quivering and chill- For only Gossamer, my Gown- My Tippet - only Tulle-” (Emily Dickinson), the feeling of being totally exposed spiritually, having no secrets. As such a private person as Dickinson was, this prospective of total openness must have been terrifying; she had been so closed to most human contact, especially the older she got. But she also seems to welcome it completely at the end of the poem, “Since then - ‘tis Centuries - and yet Feels shorter than the Day I first surmised the Horses’ Heads Were toward Eternity-” (Emily Dickinson),speaking of Death as the final relief, where time is stopped, and worries are no more.
Edgar Allan Poe and Emily Dickinson both had tortured souls, still possessing beauty and kindness, and deepness in thought. They both were not only writers, but philosophers in their own ways, having spiritual sides that were hard to understand, even by them themselves. In their writings they ask many questions about what lies behind the final curtain “Death” that we all ask at some point in our lives, young or old, male or female. Is it a Heaven or a Hell? Do we come back for other lifetimes, recycled by a spiritual force? Or is there just darkness and nothingness? These questions will be answered for all of us at the end of our lives, and like Poe and Dickinson we must wait for the answer.
Edgar Allan Poe, http://poestories.com
Emily Dickinson, http://www.answers.com/topic/emily-dickinson