| Is Death as Frightful as It Seems? Essay

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Dickinson once put a question in a letter to Abiah Root, “Does not Eternity appear dreadful to you…I often get thinking of it and it seems so dark to me that I almost wish there was no Eternity. To think that we must forever live and never cease to be. It seems as if Death which all so dread because it launches us upon an unknown world would be a relief to so endless a state of existence”. Emily Dickinson was known as a “white hermit”. She did not leave the house during the last twenty years of her life, wore only white clothes, and talked even with rare visitors through the slightly open door. All her “quirks” emanated from her intimate life and the spiritual situation that, at those times, prevailed in America and New England. Actually, all the reasons were rooted in Romanticism as a form of protest against spiritual impoverishment and meanness of the world, which surrounded the poetess; the world with all its wars, struggles for social position, influence, and literary acceptance.

Dickinson’s poem Because I could not Stop for Death was written in 1862. There are several facts from the poetess’ life that might have caused her to write this poem. On April, 12, 1862 Thomas Wentworth Higginson received a letter from her, in which she asked his opinion about her poems and literary style. The poetess sent the famous critic four poems; one of these poems had been worked over many times. Hoping that her works would be accepted by such an outstanding figure as Higginson, Dickinson wrote an accompanying letter, asking the latter “to say if her verse was alive.” The excerpt from her letter that follows highlights her hopes, “Should you think it breathed—and had you the leisure to tell me, I should feel quick gratitude; If I make the mistake – that you dared to tell me – would give me sincerer honor – toward you” (Lowell).

The critic, however, was not impressed by the verses he received. His attitude towards Dickinson’s poetry could be characterized as scornful. This is what he has written in his letter to James T. Fields, Atlantic Monthly editor, “I foresee that “Young Contributors” will send me worse things than ever now. Two such specimens of verse as came yesterday & day before – fortunately not to be forwarded for publication!”. Although Higginson was interested in the poetess’ poems, he felt that they were “raw” enough – lacked good structure – and he could not imagine that those works could give birth to a published poet. That is why Higginson advised Dickinson to work harder and longer on her poetry before she tried to publish it. Presumably, this rejection of her literary personality might have influenced her decision not to be published at all; and, from this standpoint, Because I could not Stop for Death could stand for her death as an accepted poetess. At the same time, Dickinson responded to Higginson’s piece of advice in the following way, “I smile when you suggest that I delay “to publish” – that being foreign to my thought, as Firmament to Fin”.

Apart from this literary defeat of the poetess, one more real event might have served as the background for the poem in question. In 1855, Dickinson got acquainted with the Reverend Charles Wadsworth, and they fell in love (despite the fact that the man was married). They carried this reciprocal love throughout their lives – love consisting of continuous parting and love absolutely hopeless (as both were people with high moral principles). After an unexpected visit to Dickinson’s home in 1860, Wadsworth left for the West Coast in 1861 (some critics mention it happened in 1862). According to Dickinson’s biographers, exactly this event has made the poetess put on white clothes and start leading a secluded life. That is why it may be reasonably argued that the departure of Dickinson’s “dearest earthly friend” has caused her inner crisis and, presumably, death of hopes for proximity with the beloved person.

Trying to consider the poem in the frames of real life, one can draw parallels between the carriage ride with Death in the poem and the same carriage ride with Charles Wadsworth, who visited Emily unexpectedly in 1860. Surely, the poetess could not but join her beloved man; that is why she had “put away her labor and leisure.” Emily’s sister Lavinia was even afraid that Emily would go away with Charles, but both returned. This carriage ride has really had a profound negative influence on poetess’ health, both mentally and physically. Dickinson did not leave her room and stayed in bed during the week after the meeting. It seemed that she had experienced a shock; therefore, her family decided to call for a doctor. The latter told that Dickinson’s nervous system had suffered a shock, the causes of which could not be established. As a result of the experienced stress, the poetess’ eyesight started to decline rapidly. This is the source, where human innate weakness, which is depicted in the poem, emanates from.

Taking into consideration the abovementioned facts, which prove that Dickinson’s fate was deeply tragic (secluded life; death of the nearest people and the inability to incarnate her love dreams), there is no wonder that she welcomed death as a release from the cruel world that rejected and despised her. From this standpoint, it becomes clear as well why Dickinson personified death in the poem. As Richard Chase (1957) mentions, “the personification of death, however, is unassailable. In the literal meaning of the poem, he is apparently a successful citizen who has amorous but genteel intentions. He is also God”.