Enigma Of Death “Pale Death with impartial tread beats at the poor man’s cottage door and at the palaces of kings.” Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus, 65-8 B.C.) Death eventually comes to everyone, and yet it is a phenomenon shrouded in mystery. Scholars and scientists try to understand it, philosophers pose theories and conclusions about it, artists try to capture it between streaks of paint across a canvas, while poets like Emily Dickinson explore it’s meaning and influence through verse. Death is like an outward rush into the unknown where there is nothing recognizable and nothing to cling to. The unknown is always feared, and since nothing is known about death or an afterlife, people fear it. What Dickinson’s poetry delves into is the undeniable power of death to detach one from life and the pain and sorrow that accompanies it like a dark cloud above it’s head.
In There’s a Certain Slant of Light , Dickinson uses nature as the backdrop for her description of death, and the elements to describe the silent pain that it brings with it. The poem appears to create some sort of setting for the reader in order to portray this. The sight of a funeral procession entering a cemetery is probably an apt description of this setting. The slant of light is used to portray a heavenly beam that falls on the earth and brings a gloomy feeling with it. It could be the finger of God beckoning to the deceased to come to the heavenly abode or a divine path showing him the road to heaven. However, the light possesses a sort of weightiness: “That oppresses, like the Heft / Of Cathedral Tunes-“.
This heaviness in the light may refer to the undecipherable feelings that one has, when you lose someone close to you. The second and third stanzas of the poem bring out the true profundity of these mixed emotions. “Furthermore, both light and air are portrayed as symbolic of God, so that they become agents through whom God imposes His Heavenly Hurt upon the speaker, or maims her with His imperial affliction” (Griffith 27). The “Heavenly Hurt” may be described as the deep sorrow and pain that one feels when faced by the death of one’s near and dear ones. The hurt is not physical, but emotional and psychological.
It is probably deep within the speaker’s heart “Where the Meanings, are-“. For, when someone is lost in love, deeply hurt or excessively happy, it is hard to describe what one exactly feels or understand where exactly these feelings are coming from. “She still cannot pinpoint the source of her anxiety. It comes quietly, seemingly ‘Sent us of the Air-‘ . . .” (GaleNet LRC).
Coming back to the setting of the cemetery, we can envision the speaker standing a short distance away from the grave watching the procession on its way. She beholds before her the entire landscape as she watches the mourners approaching. She captures the solemnity and motionlessness of death by implying that time appears to stop for death. “When it comes, the Landscape listens- / Shadows-hold their breath-” What Dickinson is trying to say is that death is an irrefutable fact of life. It comes to everyone (as Horace says) and the stagnancy of time revealed in the quote above is only a depiction of her thoughts.
Dickinson brings the reader face to face with reality. While death is often ignored as a biological phenomena that does not influence one individual’s daily life, nature is accepted as the creator that sustains life on this planet. But, Dickinson provides a new insight into this by describing nature as the force that brings death to its subjects when the time has come. “As Nature bring their weight of pain to bear upon the speaker, they are shown to have injured and oppressed with a conscious will” (Griffith 28). She describes to the reader the crude side of nature: the reality of life and the suddenness of death. Contrary to common belief, “Mother Nature” is not quite described as a loveable and caring person.
” . . . Poets have grown accustomed to thinking of Nature as a cuddly companion . .
. Emily Dickinson’s Nature is no less personal or dynamic than this – and no less a Nature read by the light of pathetic fallacy. It is simply that she sees as tigers what others have mistaken for pets” (Griffith 28). This analogy of pets and tigers describes Dickinson’s contrasting views on life, death and nature as compared to other historical and contemporary poets. Another poem that illustrates this viewpoint like no other is Because I Could Not Stop for Death . This poem is an example of the personification of Death as a character.
However, it shares an obvious bond with There’s a Certain Slant of Light in more ways than one. Certain beliefs and impressions that are embedded in Dickinson’s mind permanently force themselves out in her poems and they can be linked together if one scrutinizes her disquieting verses. In this poem, the author indicates that Death is a kindly gentleman who stops by to escort her into her afterlife. “Because I could not stop for Death- / He kindly stopped for me-” She describes her slow ride towards what she deems to be eternity “I first surmised the Horses Heads / Were toward Eternity-” But, as the poem goes on, she realizes the truth and inevitability of death. Her thoughts grow deep and in the third stanza, she realizes that her life is flashing past her eyes. She sees children playing at school, “fields of Gazing Grain” and the “Setting Sun” that indicate the three stages of life: childhood, adulthood, and old age where one nears death.
This poem also brings out one of Dickinson’s typical thoughts on time and death. “Time has stopped for her, and the fields of grain do the gazing, not her” (Semansky: GaleNet LRC). The idea that the poet wishes to put across to the reader is that she is in a world where time has no reference. She is past the land of the living where the sun and the fields of grain are mere participants in the process of supporting life. She uses these elements of nature to describe the stillness of time and the affect death has on the surroundings. As it grows “quivering and chill-“, the author describes the inadequacy of her clothing and conveys the coldness that surrounds death.
“This response suggests not only literal coldness . . . but also the emotional coldness that occurs when approaching one’s own death” (Semansky: GaleNet LRC). The setting that the poet has managed to set very effectively is the approach to death and eternal nothingness. This can be compared to the funeral procession in There’s a Certain Slant of Light that slowly marches the dead towards his ultimate resting place.
Her chariot-ride is a slow one and as she draws to the climax of her journey, the surroundings become grayer, colder and gloomier indicating a dark end to a colorful life. As she approaches “A swelling of the Ground”, which is acceptably her grave, she is struck by the purpose of the whole journey. Not for the first time, Dickinson’s poetry portrays very successfully the inevitability of death. “The domestic nature of the grave’s description and the fact that there is no door, only a roof (the coffin’s lid), suggests that there is no escape from Death” (Semansky: GaleNet LRC). She looks back at her whole journey and sees how the colors of life depicted by the sun and the fields have now faded in to the gray gloom of the grave and its headstone. The long, long journey, which she first thought was to Eternity, seems to have passed in flash.
” . . . she finds the human’s lot of the realization of death to be so overwhelming that it makes time stand still” (Joyner: GaleNet LRC). Suddenly, in one final burst, the reader is able to decipher the gist of the poem.
The author now realizes that her suitor (Death) who so politely took her away from her home and from her life has deceived her. Dickinson herself represents all of mankind who believes that death brings with it some sort of salvation either in the form of heaven or some other divine abode. But, it is all a faade! “She has, therefore, apparently been tricked, seduced, and then abandoned” (Twayne’s U.S. Authors). She conveys to the reader and to the people of this world that there is nothing to look forward to in death and that all it leads to is a void: an emptiness that lasts forever. Death is not a release from a life of hard work or some sort of salvation.
It is cold obliteration. Dickinson portrays death as a harsh and crude force that is uncompassionate to human feelings and emotions. It strikes with deadly exactness and brings with it an envelope of grief that suffocates even the hardiest of human beings. It is the primary truth of life. If you live today, you will die someday. If not tomorrow, may be the day after.
When the time of reckoning arrives, there is nothing that one can do to prevent one’s own destruction. Bibliography Dickinson, Emily Selected Poems New York: Dover Publications, Inc. 1990 GaleNet Literature Resource Center “Overview: There’s a Certain Slant of Light, by Emily Dickinson” GaleNet Literature Resource Center. http://www.galenet.com (10/19/99) Griffith, Clark The Long Shadow: Emily Dickinson’s Tragic Poetry Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1964 Joyner, Nancy Carol “Because I Could Not Stop for Death: Overview” GaleNet Literature Resource Center. http://www.galenet.com (10/19/99) Semansky, Chris “An Overview of Because I Could Not Stop for Death” GaleNet Literature Resource Center. http://www.galenet.com (10/19/99) Twayne’s United States Authors “Personification of Death: Emily Dickinson Chapter 3: The Mortal Life. http://rosie.menlo.edu. (10/16/99).