Emily Dickinson and the Civil War’s Relationship with Death

by Chanina Wong

Emily Dickinson’s most celebrated poem “Because I could not stop for Death” has its narrator recall the day Death finally collected her to take her to the afterlife in the form of “Eternity”. Death is personified as a carriage driver, considerate for the speaker’s reluctance to take the journey to the grave with him. The journey to eventual eternity is slow, but the speaker and death complete their journey as they recall her life before death:

“We passed the School, where Children strove

At Recess – in the Ring –

We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –

We passed the Setting Sun –“ (Dickinson 9-12).

This stanza symbolizes the passing of different stages of life: being in school as a child (childhood), the grain that grows to be harvested (maturity and adulthood), and eventual death with the “Setting Sun”. The imagery of the process of dying is not abrupt or harsh, it is tranquil and slow, significant through the portrayal of a carriage ride that demonstrates the time that passes until its end, or the end of the journey with Death.

Little information is found regarding actual inspiration of Dickinson’s work and her overall relation to 19th century American life. She wrote a large majority of her work during the span of the Civil War, and though it is difficult to gain evidence of the direct influence the war had on her work, her many letters refers to her relationships with those involved with the Civil War, proving it affected her, too (“Emily Dickinson and the Civil War”). The Civil War marked the U.S.’ “new relationship with death, entering into a civil war that proved bloodier than any other conflict in American history” (Faust xi). Americans in the 19th Century were concerned with their ideals of death and salvation after the occurrence of death, signifying the strong belief in the importance of an afterlife that is to be eternal. The Civil War, with its sheer amount of deaths and carnage, violated “prevailing assumptions about life’s proper end—about who should die, when and where, and under what circumstances” (Fuast xii). It was commonplace for Americans during the Civil War to speak of the newly percieved “work of death”, meaning what is means to kill, coming to terms that the soldier’s job is to take life, but also consciously anticipating death, which requires participation and action. Dickinson’s work is thematically centered around death and its occurrence, similarly concerned with the responsibility of the process of actually dying like most Americans that experienced the Civil War.

Soldiers started anticipating their death, as displayed by their writing of condolence letters to their family, providing the “good death” where their loved ones were “virtual witnesses to the dying moments they had been denied” (Faust 15). Similar to how Dickinson wrote in her poetry the final moments before death, camp hospital nurses and doctors administered the important final rituals one’s family would perform on their dying loved one, focusing on the finality of life as the person dying expresses their last words. Death is meaningful due in part of the process of closure, while still maintaining the humanity of the dying into the eternal afterlife.

Trademark to Dickinson’s work is her constant use of dashes. Seemingly more powerful than a comma, the dash causes one to pause—to halt the smooth rhythm typical of a poem that one craves. But Dickinson also utilizes the dash immediately after the very last word of the poem, suggesting that the poem is still to continue and to never stop:

“I first surmised the Horses’ Heads

Were toward Eternity—“ (Dickinson 23-24).

There is irony in eternity after death, which is actually caused once the opposing temporary mortal life is over, and her dashes emphasize such contradiction. Death may require closure for the living, but it is also believed to be the start of the continuation of a different type of living. They reinforce “a visual sense of the gap between the two worlds, the earthly and heavenly, and emphasizes the endlessness of infinity” (Clews). Death is to be meaningful as it is the entrance into an eternal afterlife, a different type of living. When Civil War soldiers would die, they would die in a distant battlefield from their family and be left to rot with maggots and deformed by bullets. This new form of dying signifies its uncertainties of the afterlife. Did disfigurement of the body affect how the body is in heaven? Is the peace of the afterlife affected by the desolation of the war? And due to these uncertainties, the perception of death and life after death changes and altars according to tradition and time. The Civil War changed that perception, and Dickinson’s work reflects such concern as death touched every side of the war.

 

the-dream-the-bed

Frida Kahlo’s The Dream (The Bed), 1940, she represents death through the separate perception of Mexican culture, which is celebrated instead of mourned for, as seen in the holiday Dia de los Muertos. Kahlo’s own life was marred with heartache through her tumultuous relationship with her unfaithful husband, Diego Rivera, and multiple health problems caused by a bus accident when she was eighteen. She awaited death as she mirrors the skeleton atop the canopy of her bed, laced with fireworks waiting to explode. Similar to beliefs surrounding the Civil War, the afterlife brings a sense of renewal from a desolate life, as signified through the green leaves and plants that surround a dying Kahlo, symbolizing the rebirth of life.

Works Cited

Clews, Helen. “The panther in the glove: Emily Dickinson: Helen Clews offers some ways of approaching this fascinating but difficult American poet.” The English Review 13, no. 4 (2003): 14+. Literature Resource Center (accessed November 6, 2017). http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=LitRC&sw=w&u=new67449&v=2.1&it=r&id=GALE%7CA99908886&asid=eeeea01510a413d5c6791244b98e0a7a.

Dickinson, Emily. “Because I could not stop for Death (476).” Poets.org. July 05, 2016. Accessed November 06, 2017. https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/because-i-could-not-stop-death-479

“Emily Dickinson and the Civil War.” Emily Dickinson Museum. 2009. Accessed November 06, 2017. https://www.emilydicksinsonmuseum.org/civil_war.

Faust, Drew Gilpin. This Republic of Suffering: Death and The American Civil War. New York: Vintage Books, 2009.

Kriedler, Michele L. 2009. “Emily Dickinson “Because I Couth Not Stop for Death.” Literary Contexts in Poetry: Emily Dickinson’s ‘Because I Could Not Stop For Death’ 1. Literary Reference Center, EBSCOhost (accessed November 6, 2017).

“The Dream (The Bed), 1940 – by Frida Kahlo. 2011. Accessed November 06, 2017. https://www.fridakahlo.org/the-dream-the-bed.jsp.

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