Nature, God, Afterlife, and Death in Emily Dickinson’s Poems


“It’s all I have to bring to-day, this and my heart beside, this and my heart and all the fields, and all the meadows wide” (33). These are the words of Emily Dickinson, a woman who is revered as one of America’s greatest poets. During her lifetime, she lived a life of seclusion, but in this seclusion she composed over seventeen hundred poems whose excellence very few qcan match. Within her poems, Dickinson crafted a unique style of writing, in which she called upon the use of simplistic language and child-like innocence to covey 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 one element that frequents Dickinson’s poems as a means of conveying messages of life. Through the inclusion of familiar aspects of wildlife, such as bumble bees and flowers, she is able to paint a picture that portrays the hopes and anxieties found throughout everyday life. One such poem begins, “A wounded deer leaps highest, I’ve heard the hunter tell; tis’ but the ecstasy of death, and then the brake is still” (62). In this stanza, Dickinson is comparing the wounded deer to a human being who has been hurt, either emotionally or physically in his or her past. The wounded deer, which has been shot or injured on a prior occasion, jumps higher as a means to ensure that it will not be injured a second time. Like the deer, an emotionally or physically wounded human beings will also subconsciously go out of the way to avoid being hurt again.

This fear instilled into marred humans can play on several levels, from something as simple and corporal as a broken limb, to something as emotional or spiritual as a broken heart. Dickinson, in the simplest of words and through the eyes of nature, is clearly able pass on the concept of a deep emotional sore. A second poem reads, “God made a little gentian; it tried to be a rose and failed, and all the summer laughed” (127). This poem, composed in elementary terms, stresses the idea of individuality to the reader. It warns not to be like the little blue flower, who attempts to become something it is not and is mocked by the season around it. Dickinson’s message is clear: People need to be comfortable with who and what they are, and need not desire to be something completely foreign to them. Just as the gentian can only be the gentian, so to can a person only be what and who they are, and there is nothing wrong with being one’s self. In a third poem, Dickinson uses nature to portray life and death. She commences with, “I’ll tell you how the sun rose, – a ribbon at a time. The steeples swam in amethyst, the news like squirrels ran” (104). This first stanza is mean to symbolize birth and the beginning of life. The rising sun is often a common symbol for new life, and Dickinson employs it here along with the gentle innocence that “a ribbon at a time” conveys. To contrast this stanza, Dickinson writes in a later stanza:

“But how the sun set, I know not.
There seemed a purple stile
Which little yellow boys and girls
Were climbing all the while

Till when they reached the other side
A dominie in gray
Put gently up the evening bars,
And led the flock away.” (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, “put gently up the evening bars, and led the flock away” (105). The dominie is a direct parallel to God, leading the new recipients of eternal salvation away from earth and into Heaven.

Another element that can be identified throughout Emily Dickinson’s poems is her blend of traditional and unique views on God and eternity. A prime example of Dickinson’s individuality and creativity in the field of religion is her poem “Some keep the Sabbath going to church”. This delightful work explains how instead of attending a Sunday service, Dickinson keeps holy the Sabbath by remaining at home. In one stanza, she explains her Sunday by saying, “God preaches, – a noted clergyman, – and the sermon is never long; so instead of getting to heaven at last, I’m going all along!” (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 at any walk 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 nineteenth century. She also reveals an inner belief of hers that, contrary to what was believed in her day, going to Heaven is not an arduous task of trying not to sin or being a good person, but a journey. “I’m going all along!” she proclaims with confidence and elation, as if she has been told by God 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 which illustrates Dickinson’s belief in the afterlife reads, “This world is not a conclusion; a sequel stands beyond, invisible, as music, but positive, as sound” (135). There is not the slightest sense of uncertainty found anywhere within these lines. “This world is not a conclusion” Dickinson instills. There is a life after this world, and though 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 where Emily Dickinson asserted her belief that there was indeed an afterlife, another style found throughout her poems is that questioning of the unknown that comes with the afterlife. She displays a child-like curiosity to what the afterlife will hold and how it will compare to the dirt and soil on which she has spent her life. This curiosity is made most evident in her poem “What is – ‘Paradise’- “, which reads:

“What is – ‘Paradise’ –
Who live there –
Are they ‘Farmers’ –
Do they ‘hoe’ –
Do they know that this is ‘Amherst’ –
And that I – am coming – too –

Do they wear ‘new shoes’ – in ‘Eden’ –
Is it always pleasant – there –
Won’t they scold is – when we’re homesick –
Or tell God – how cross we are – ” (99)

The first stanza begins by a general question of what is eternity, which she immediately follows with “Who live there?” This question triggers a series of other answerless questions, concerning whether there is labor in Heaven. The next question asked, which reads, “Do they know that this is ‘Amherst – and that I – am coming – too – ” refers to the consciousness of the souls in heaven. When Heaven is reached, do people realize that they are a part of eternal salvation? Are they aware of the world that 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 is able to pose intricate questions whose answers cannot be fathomed by the human mind. In the second stanza, Dickinson introduces the reader to her child-like curiosity, which in this case is mixed together with her unmistakable humor. She questions whether Heaven will be pleasant, which is charming because with the idea of Heaven comes a vision of eternal happiness; to pose such a question about the pleasantness of eternal salvation seems all most ludicrous. Dickinson then follows up this query with wondering if a Heavenly body becomes homesick for it’s life back on Earth. This idea, overflowing with childish innocence, adds a whole other dimension to the poem. Once in Heaven, is it possible for a being to want to go back to earth? Do the members of the Heavenly community yearn for the people, places, and things found throughout their previous life? These questions, which seemingly have no answers, are the essence of Dickinson’s desire to understand the unknown of the afterlife.

Lastly, death is a component of copious poems by Dickinson, personified in an ambivalent manner. For example, one of her poems begins:

“Because I could not stoop for Death
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.

We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labor, and my leisure too,
For his civility” (151).

In this simple, yet vivid portrait Dickinson paints, Death is not portrayed as something gruesome and terrible, but instead personified on a gentleman suitor who has just arrived to take her on a date. Staying with the traditions of this time, the date is chaperoned by the personification of Immortality. In the following stanza, the carriage is described as driving slow and showing no haste. This corresponds with the timeless state of being that accompanies death; the time that was once so precious on Earth loses it’s meaning upon entering the afterlife. Along with time’s lack of importance, Dickinson stresses how there is no labor, and therefore no leisure after life by stating, “And I put away my labor, and my leisure too, for his civility” (151). So out of respect for Death, she removes herself from her labor and leisure and just enjoys the ride with Death for Immortality. However, the courteous Death of the last poem is completely foreign to “I heard a fly buzz when I died”, which in one such stanza reads, “With blue, uncertain, stumbling buzz, between the light and me; and then the windows failed, and then I could not see” (132). Death in this scenario, though at first glance may seem peaceful, in reality is actually rather terrifying. Dickinson masterfully employs the fly as a symbol of the gruesome side of death, being as flies are frequently depicted as creatures that feed upon decomposing flesh. As if instinctively drawn to the narrator’s death, the thought of the fly destroying her flesh is the only thing that stands between the end of her life on Earth and the salvation of the light.

The poems of Emily Dickinson employ simplistic language to express complex ideas through nature, God, the afterlife and death. This unique style which she herself created has become synonymous with her name along with her poems. Although very few were shared during her lifetime, today Dickinson’s poems represent a woman who fused together her talent and passion for poetry to create some of the greatest works America has ever seen. No person can describe Dickinson’s poetry better than herself, so in conclusion:

“This is my letter to the world,
That never wrote to me, –
The simple news that Nature told,
With tender majesty.

Her message is committed
To hands I cannot see;
For love of her sweet countrymen,
Judge tenderly of me!” (102).

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