Month: November 2013

Emily Dickinson’s Ride with Death

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One of the most influential, broadest topics of study is “Death”. The father of physics, Albert Einstein, proclaimed death as being life’s greatest mystery (as well as humanities greatest fear). Now, the majority of people who fear death see it as a force in which rips one away from their loved ones. Popular country artists’ The Band Perry, in “If I Die Young,” depict Death as a “[…] sharp knife of a short life.” Sacred texts, like the Bible, illustrate death as a shadow i.e., “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” However, Emily Dickinson interpreted Death as gentle. Emily Dickinson viewed Death, in “Because I could not stop for Death,” (with a capital D) as the symbol of kindness.

“Because I could not stop for Death, / He kindly stopped for me”
We are a culture of death. That is to say, the majority of people are afraid to grow old and die. Worse, the majority have bound themselves to time. We speak of time as fleeting, as slipping away, and as of the essence. I remember being told, as a child, time was the one thing I spent, but could never get back. The questions which followed my life’s lessons were, “How do I spend my time and do I spend it wisely?” It has been said no one knows the “time nor hour” of when they will die. Hence, there is an inexplicable yearning to find the answers to life’s perplexing questions i.e., why am I here and where will I go when I die? In Dickinson’s poem, Death (personified) becomes the eternal distraction in which puts a halt on life. Beyond our power, since all life is in motion, Death will stop for us all (whether we willed it to be or not).

“The carriage held but just Ourselves and Immortality”
In Ancient Egypt, deceased Kings and higher officials were buried with food and priceless jewels so they, the ones buried, could sustain the afterlife. Likewise, ancient cultures buried their dead with soul disks placed on the body after death, so that the soul could pass through the small hole made in the disk. But according to Dickinson, we leave behind many things i.e., our labor, and our leisure. In other words, we leave behind our family ties, our responsibilities, our possessions, our talents, our memories…. This list of what a deceased person leaves behind is endless. When we die, we are not going to be taking our money or our pride to the grave. We are not in a race to prove how much stuff we can acquire since acquiring things marks foolishness (and in retrospect to the soul disk– there’s not much one can take with them through the eye of a soul disk). Once inside the carriage, you will meet with Immortality (a third but important wheel) “[knowing] no haste,” to “a swelling of the ground.”

“And I had to put away/ My labor, and my leisure too”
When Death comes, our labor and our leisure will stop. In the novel, The Lovely Bones, Susie Salmon, was caught in the in-between world after being raped and murdered, her anger for her young life being taken so quickly caused dissonance, paranoia, and confusion in the life of her father still holding on. For the survival of the dead and the living, Susie must let go of the physical world to accept she has died. In the end, Susie let go of her killer, her family, and the life she was never able to fulfill i.e., she had to put away her unfinished life and she had to put away the longing to grow up and become a woman. But, Life catches up with the killer, years and years after Susie chooses to leave the realm of the living, wishing the reader “a long and happy life.” Compassion is the only way to leave the realm of this world. Again, agreeing with Dickinson’s Death as kindness. “I had to put away/ My labor, and my leisure too, / For [Death’s] Civility.” We cannot leave this world without Death nor can we walk out on this Life alone. We take a final ride with Immortality in which we are not prepared rendering Life as unfair—but Death as kind.

“We passed the fields of gazing grain, / We passed the setting sun”
The gazing grain and the fields of gold are Heaven. The fields of grain have inspired famous painters as Van Gogh in his Wheat Field series. Van Gogh saw the gazing grain as a symbol of “health and restoration” under the troubled skies! In Gladiator (2000), the Elysium Fields, aka the afterlife, are a Heaven for fallen heroes meeting up with loved ones passed. The afterlife, according to Dickinson consists of a ride across life, going in the opposite direction of the “sun,” to a “swelling of the ground.” On this ride, the narrator passes “the setting sun” meaning the afterlife is not in the realm of the living. If you are passing over the sun (minus space travel in a rocket ship) then you are truly gone from this world. I found this line to be the most powerful. For, time does not exist when we die. Time is one of the greatest burdens we have ever created (have ever chained ourselves to). Though time helps us get to work, meet appointments, and stand by our commitments–it constrains us too. The speaker is aware they are experiencing a different type of time. In this case, this separation of self from “time” seems sad, since we build our lives around time. Days are not numbered anymore in Dickinson’s poem. The speaker has no sense of time. Time is forgotten. Only two things remain: 1. Death is in its own realm and the living are operating on the other side and, 2. The reality of life is over and we are limited, in only a glimpse of it, as we ride on.

“For only gossamer my gown, / My tippet only tulle.”
The clothing we wear in Death is fragile. The narrator is conscience of what they are wearing and if it will be appropriate for their journey since the journey they are on is getting colder. Most journeys require time and preparation and a bag or two. However, a journey with Death requires only you. Imagine how it would be if you were stripped of everything of this world. Would you still love yourself and respect who you are? Are you strong enough to lose everything? For, our earthly bodies and earthly cares are not eternal. Some bury their dead in the most beautiful clothing to respect them. But the most beautiful fabrics become part of the ground. The Ancient Egyptians spent so much time embalming their priests and high authorities. People will go into dept to bury their loved ones in a casket where the worms and dirt cannot get in. They spend so much time preserving the dead body so it will not lose its vitality. In the Bible, Jesus spoke to “let the dead bury themselves.” Those who have died are gone from this world—nothing can change that. Nor, can we live our lives obsessing how or when we will die. We are bodies in motion and cannot control the balance between Life and Death. No matter how big and beautiful our brains are our bodies are flesh and blood. Death is inevitable and it is our duty to accept its “civility.”

“We paused before a house that seemed/ A swelling of the ground”
After we die, our new home is a swelling in the ground. We go from one womb to the next—our mother’s womb at birth to the mother earth’s womb. In Dickinson’s poem, the final resting place is the “swelling of the ground.” What happens after, we do not know. The narrator does go on to say, “[…] tis’ centuries, and yet each/ Feels shorter than the day.” Apparently, time goes on in the realm of the dead. However, the narrator does not explain what happens after they are put into the ground. Our final resting place does not silence us nor end our final thoughts (or steal from us our memories). In the end, the narrator can only “surmise” they are headed to Eternity. Concluding with the only piece of evidence we have on Death: Kindness. And such kindness cannot hold much trickery. Such kindness will take us to where we need to go, right? Maybe, in the end, Death is just the delivery man. Maybe in the end, there are two sides to Eternity. Maybe Death is neither our advocate nor our salvation (which leads us down another road of discovery!). Death may be kind but will Eternity be kinder?

“Since then ‘tis centuries, and yet each/ Feels shorter than the day/ I first surmised the horses’ heads/ Were toward eternity”
In After.Life (2009), (a Schrödinger cat montage), is a supernatural horror where the viewer must decide if the lead character, Christina Ricci, is alive or being manipulated by a menacing mortician (Liam Neeson) in believing she is dead. The movie, After.Life, brings up new issues on being dead. Issues such as: Will I be cognizant of my death? Will I truly be dead when I die? Will I accept death when death comes to me? No wonder Dickinson stressed how the carriage ride took its rounds before riding off to Eternity. The carriage ride typifies the narrator’s road to acceptance. A ride is visual and stimulating. It gives the narrator one last look of their life. The narrator can see the outside world move on without them. Also, Dickinson notes in another work how “the soul which carries us is fragile.” Our soul is the vehicle in which drives us home. From Dickinson we learn the carriage is our soul. Most take a rocket ship, a shooting star, a drink of purple Kool-Aid, or a toboggan into a steamy, hot volcano to get to Eternity quicker. But, most are taken by surprise. Most are taken before they ever have a chance to say goodbye. Taken on a ride with Life’s companion, Life’s counterpart—Death. In the end, it was only one ride, a one way trip to an endless mystery. One of the greatest mysteries we will never solve until we die.