Nature, God, Hereafter and Death in the Poems of Emily Dickinson
“It is all I have to bring today, this and my heart next to it, this and my heart and all the fields, and all the wide meadows” (33). These are the words of Emily Dickinson, a woman revered as one of America’s greatest poets. During his life, he lived a life of seclusion, but in this seclusion he composed more than 1,700 poems whose excellence very few can match. Within his poems, Dickinson developed a unique writing style, in which he resorted to the use of simplistic language and childlike innocence to convey complex ideas. Such complex ideas were expressed through the use of nature, God, eternity, and death. Throughout her poems, Emily Dickinson uses nature, God, the afterlife, and death to convey complex messages or ideas while expressing her thoughts in simple language.
Nature is an element that frequents Dickinson’s poems as a means of transmitting messages of life. By including familiar aspects of wildlife, such as bumblebees and flowers, you can paint a picture that portrays the hopes and anxieties encountered throughout everyday life. One of those poems begins: “A wounded deer jumps higher, I have heard the hunter say; it is nothing but the ecstasy of death, and then the brake stops” (62). In this stanza, Dickinson compares the injured deer to a human being who has been injured, either emotionally or physically in his past. The wounded deer, which has been shot or wounded on a previous occasion, jumps higher as a means to ensure that it will not be hit a second time. Like the deer, an emotionally or physically injured human will also unconsciously deviate from the path to avoid being hurt again.
This fear instilled in broken humans can play out on various levels, from something as simple and bodily as a broken limb, to something as emotional or spiritual as a broken heart. Dickinson, in the simplest words and through the eyes of nature, is clearly capable of conveying the concept of a deep emotional wound. A second poem says: “God made a little gentian; he tried to be a rose and failed, and he laughed all summer” (127). This poem, composed in elementary terms, emphasizes the idea of individuality for the reader. She warns her not to be like the little blue flower, which tries to become something it is not and is mocked by the surrounding station. Dickinson’s message is clear: People should be comfortable with who and what they are, and they shouldn’t want to be something completely foreign to them. Just as the gentian can only be the gentian, a person can only be what he is and what he is, and there is nothing wrong with being oneself. In a third poem, Dickinson uses nature to portray life and death. She begins with: “I’ll tell you how the sun came up, one ribbon at a time. The steeples swam in amethyst, the news spread like squirrels” (104). This first stanza is intended to symbolize birth and the beginning of life. The rising sun is often a common symbol of new life, and Dickinson employs it here in conjunction with the gentle innocence that conveys “one tape at a time.” To contrast this stanza, Dickinson writes in a later stanza:
“But how the sun set, I don’t know.
It looked like a purple style
What little yellow boys and girls?
We were climbing the whole time
Until they reached the other side
A dominie in gray
Gently lift the bars of the night,
And he carried off the flock. “(105)
The setting sun is used in this situation to symbolize death, the end of life here on this earth. This death is further reinforced in the next stanza when the dominie, or clergyman, “gently lifted the evening bars and carried off the flock” (105). Dominion is a direct parallel to God, leading the new recipients of eternal salvation away from earth and into heaven.
Another identifiable element throughout Emily Dickinson’s poems is her combination of traditional and unique views on God and eternity. An excellent example of Dickinson’s individuality and creativity in the field of religion is his poem “Some keep the Sabbath by going to church.” This delightful work explains how, instead of attending a Sunday service, Dickinson sanctifies the Sabbath by staying at home. In one verse, she explains her Sunday by saying, “God preaches, a remarkable clergyman, and the sermon is never long; so instead of finally getting to heaven, I go all the time!” (110). With simple language and sophisticated humor, Dickinson explains that the word of God does not have to be preached in a chapel, but can be found in any area of life. God is portrayed as a personal and loving being, contradictory to the God of fire and brimstone that was often preached during the 19th century. It also reveals an inner belief of hers that, contrary to what was believed in his day, going to heaven is not an arduous task of trying not to sin or be a good person, but rather a journey. “I go all the time!” she proclaims with confidence and joy, as if God has told her that there is a place for her in his kingdom. This idea of eternity is a common recurrence in many of Dickinson’s poems. Another piece illustrating Dickinson’s belief in the afterlife says: “This world is not a conclusion; a sequel is beyond, invisible, as music, but positive, as sound” (135). There is not the slightest sense of uncertainty anywhere within these lines. “This world is not a conclusion,” instills Dickinson. There is a life after this world, and although it may be invisible, like music to the eyes, it is a definite and positive reality, like sound to the ears.
As in previous poems in which Emily Dickinson affirmed her belief that there was indeed an afterlife, another style found throughout her poems is the questioning of the unknown that comes with life after death. death. She displays a childlike curiosity for what the afterlife will hold for her and how it will compare to the land and soil in which she has spent her life. This curiosity is most evident in his poem “What is – ‘Paradise’-“, which says:
“What is – ‘Paradise’ –
Who lives there –
They are farmers’?
They ‘hoe’ –
You know this is ‘Amherst’ –
And that I – I’m going too –
Do they wear ‘new shoes’ – in ‘Eden’ –
Is it always nice?
Won’t they scold is when we feel homesick?
Or tell God – how angry we are – “(99)
The first stanza begins with a general question about what eternity is, which is immediately followed by “Who lives there?” This question triggers a series of other unanswered questions about whether there is work in heaven. The next question that is asked, which says, “Do you know that this is’ Amherst – and that I – I’m going too -” refers to the consciousness of the souls in heaven? When you get to heaven, do people realize that they are part of eternal salvation? Are they aware of the world they left behind and, if so, do they know which souls will join them in salvation? With these simple words, most of which are two syllables or less, Dickinson can pose complex questions whose answers the human mind cannot understand. In the second stanza, Dickinson introduces the reader to his childish curiosity, which in this case is mixed with his unmistakable humor. He wonders if heaven will be pleasant, which is lovely because with the idea of heaven comes a vision of eternal happiness; To ask such a question about the joys of eternal salvation seems most ridiculous. Dickinson then follows this question by wondering if a celestial body is nostalgic for its life on Earth. This idea, brimming with childlike innocence, adds a completely different dimension to the poem. Once in heaven, is it possible for a being to want to return to earth? Do members of the celestial community long for the people, places, and things they encountered in their previous lives? These seemingly unanswered questions are the essence of Dickinson’s desire to understand the unknown beyond.
Finally, death is a component of Dickinson’s copious poems, ambivalently personified. For example, one of his poems begins:
“Because I could not bow down to death
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but only us
We drove slowly, he didn’t know the rush
And I had saved
My work and my free time too
For his courtesy “(151).
In this simple but vivid portrait that Dickinson paints, death is not portrayed as gruesome and terrible, but personified as a gentleman suitor who has just arrived to take her on a date. Following the traditions of this time, the date is accompanied by the personification of immortality. In the next stanza, the carriage is described as driving slowly and unhurriedly. This corresponds to the timeless state of being that accompanies death; the time that was once so precious on Earth loses its meaning as you enter the afterlife. Along with the unimportance of time, Dickinson emphasizes that there is no work and therefore no leisure after life by stating: “And I quit my job, and also my leisure, for your courtesy” (151). So, out of respect for Death, he withdraws from his work and leisure and simply enjoys the journey with Death for Immortality. However, the courteous Death of the last poem is completely unrelated to “I heard a fly buzz when I died”, which in one of those stanzas reads: “With blue buzzing, uncertain, wobbly, between the light and me; and then the windows failed , and then I couldn’t see “(132). Death in this scenario, although at first glance it may seem peaceful, it is actually quite terrifying. Dickinson masterfully employs the fly as a symbol of the gruesome side of death, as flies are often depicted as creatures that feed on decaying meat. As instinctively drawn to the death of the narrator, the idea of the fly destroying his flesh is the only thing that stands between the end of his life on Earth and the salvation of the light.
Emily Dickinson’s poems use simplistic language to express complex ideas through nature, God, the afterlife, and death. This unique style that she created herself has become synonymous with her name along with her poems. Although very few were shared during her lifetime, today Dickinson’s poems depict a woman who fused her talent and passion for poetry to create some of the best works America has ever seen. No one can describe Dickinson’s poetry better than herself, so in conclusion:
“This is my letter to the world,
That you never wrote to me
The simple news that nature told,
With tender majesty.
Your message is compromised
To hands that I cannot see;
For the love of his sweet countrymen,
Judge me tenderly! ”(102).