Themes of Death in Emily Dickinson’s Paper
Emily Dickinson, as a poetic writer, composed most of her works with the theme of death, the entirety of which can be categorised into three different periods of writings; the earliest mainly contained the themes of death and immortality, personifying death and elegiac poems and lacked the intensity and urgency of her later poems or their fascination with the physical aspects of death (VAN DAESDONK 2007).
Because of Dickinson’s immense fascination with this subject it is interesting to compare her pieces against each other to see how her view of death changed over the years of her writing. ‘The Only Ghost I ever saw’, written in 1857-62, is an example of the earlier period of Dickinson’s writing. There are many different interpretations of this piece, the most obvious one is that the poem centers on an individual who has encountered the spirit of a person and is shocked by the meeting.
A deeper analysis shows the possibility of the poem being about how the persona, or Dickinson, is forced to reassess her loyalty or belief of Christianity through the encounter of a ghost. In contrast ‘How many times these low feet staggered’, written 1890, can be recognised to belong in her later period as its theme centres on the viewing of the corpse of a mundane housewife and the physical aspects of her death.
The poem itself is in the first person persona and contains a grotesque dreary tone; and from the poem’s fascination with the corpse we can see Dickinson’s frustration and obsession with death. Concerning the form and structure of ‘The Only Ghost I ever saw’, the piece is a ballad, one of the two main forms of narrative poetry, as the poem uses the traditional ballad metre, which is made up of rhyming quatrains of alternative four-stress and three-stress lines.
It is written in Iambic metre which gives the poem a soft flowing, lilting rhythm, this along with the many pauses throughout the poem cause the pace to become slow and smooth, much like the movement of the poem’s subject, a ghost, would be. ‘How many times these low feet staggered’ differs from this in that the metre of the poem is iambic, the first syllable of each line is unstressed followed by a stressed one, however the first line of he poem intentionally breaks this pattern.
‘How many times these’ makes the rhythm disjointed and gives the impression that the sentence itself is staggering like the line is trying to describe the housewife staggering over her work. The hyphen at the end of this line also helps to throw the rhythm off as it makes us pause in our reading, but, it also gives us time to stop and envision what the life of this drab housewife would have been like, and how hard it must have been if she would be ‘staggering’ her way through it.
The idea about contemplating the dead woman’s life could be linked to the words ‘low feet’ as they are such usually unnoticed things to note about a dead person when normally a person would be looking at the face, it gives the impression that the persona of the poem is staring at the corpse’s feet in her death bed and wondering about how her life was life and what she must be feeling in death. The poetic voice of ‘The Only Ghost I ever saw’ has a dreamy tone to it which shows Dickinson’s feelings about death to be innocent, almost naive, in that she seems to view death and something peaceful and or sublime.
However, in the final stanza the persona’s tone changes from the earlier dreamy quality of when they were speaking about the ghost and snaps to a harsher, berating tone, where the the persona never wants to remember meeting the ghost, which could be an indication of Dickinson’s realisation that the afterlife isn’t as simple and innocent as she first viewed it to be. Throughout the first three stanzas the lines all finish in a rhyme; ‘so’ and ‘snow’, ‘roe’ and ‘mistletoe’, ‘breeze’ and ‘trees’, which gives the poem a smooth flowing rhythm to it and a dream-like quality.
However the final stanza breaks that pattern using ‘shy’ and ‘day’ which don’t rhyme, ruining the original lilting rhythm that the poem previously had, the breakage in the pattern accentuates the change in tone from dreamy to harsh. In contrast to the dreamy tone of the earlier poem, ‘How many times these low feet staggered’ has a distinctly more realistic and macabre tone to it. The mention of ‘flies’ gives us the image of decomposing meat as though the corpse were rotting which helps establish the more realistic side of what physically happens when a person dies, i.e their bodies rot.
However the flies also clarify how monotonous the dead woman’s life and the tone of the poem is, as flies are known to continuously bang themselves against a window in their attempt to get out though them in what is obviously a futile effort which might have been what this woman’s life was like. The mention of the window also helps to create the idea that her death is the window of freedom she needed to finally escape such a droll life, emphasising the macabre tone by making death seem better than life.
The phonology of ‘The Only Ghost I ever saw’ is mainly used to create the atmosphere and help with the imagery of the Ghost. The first simile of the poem in line three shows the reader the qualities of the ghost; ‘stepped like flakes of snow’ showing that his footsteps were light and pure, the delicacy of ‘flakes of snow’ also links back to the line about his clothes being ‘Mechlin’ which is lace, a delicate and intricate material (VAN DAESDONK 2007).
Also in this line is sibilance the ‘s’ sounds of the ‘flakes’, ‘stepped’ and ‘snow’ help to emphasise the delicacy and how incorporeal the ghost is and give us a softer interpretation of it. In the sixth line the alliteration in ‘rapid like the Roe-’ ironically enough slows down the sentence creating a paradox, in that a line about ‘rapid’ movement is spoken so slowly, this is like the previous line ‘His Gait- was soundless’ which is also a paradox as it seems unnatural for any type of movement to be truly ‘soundless’.
The paradoxes in the poem help to create an other-worldly atmosphere, which ties in well with the subject of this poem as a ghost could most definitely be described as an other-worldly creature, which belongs better in the spiritual plane rather than the mortal plane. Contrasting this, ‘How many times these low feet staggered’ uses man-made physical images to describe death, In line two Dickinson describes the dead woman’s mouth to be ‘soldered’, this imagery gives the conception that her mouth has been welded shut like metal and also gives the rather repugnant notion of how rigor-mortis has set into her body.
These images link up to the idea of how in death this woman is unable to communicate with us, the living. The long vowel sounds in this sentence like in the words ‘only’, ‘soldered’ and ‘mouth’ cause the reader to to use excessive mouth motions which helps to create a contrast between us and our ability to pronounce these words and the dead woman who is so unable to move her mouth at all. In line 5 the two monosyllables ‘hot’ and ‘so’ give the line a seriousness and weight to it that tries to sober the mind and thoughts of the reader.
The line talks of how the housewife was so often hot and sweaty from her long day of work and it links back to the earlier idea of staggering and again reminds us of how hard this woman’s life was. Another contrast between the two poems is the lack of nature, aside from the mention of a fly, in ‘How many times these low feet staggered’. Nature, which seems to be another favoured subject of Dickinson’s as we can see from her other poems such as ‘I taste a liquor never brewed’ and ‘Blazing in Gold’, is often referred to in ‘The Only Ghost I ever saw’.
For instance the paradox of line five about the soundless movement would seem wholly unnatural were it not for the simile that follows after; ‘like the Bird’ this connects the paradox with nature and causes what would normally seem unnatural to feel perfectly normal and natural. Also because the poem has been set in winter time, ‘flakes of snow’, using birds in the line makes it seem far more realistic that the movement soundless because in winter time there is a substantial lack of birds, so there would be no movement and thus it’s ‘soundless’.
In terms of the poem’s lexis, the use of the word ‘appalling’ in the final line of ‘The Only Ghost I ever saw’ is interesting because if you look up the word ‘appalling’ in the dictionary you’ll see that the definition is ‘causing dismay or horror. ’ However if you look up the origin of the word from 1810-20 the word comes from the Middle English ‘appallen’ taken from the Old French ‘apalir’ : ‘a’, to + ‘palir’, to grow pale (Howell, no date).
This could be connected with the image of the ghost, who would stereotypically be a pale apparition, and would it in well with the interpretation of the poem being about how the ghost tests the persona’s faith in religion, The way Dickinson uses the word ‘adamantine’ to describe the corpse’s fingers in ‘How many times these low feet staggered’, whilst again showing us how rigor-mortis has set in, also gives the impression of how the corpse is precious to the persona as adamantine refers to “adamantine lustre of a diamond”.
The dead woman could have been precious to the persona; in life by how useful she was in looking after the house, or that in death the dead woman is precious as her body is the persona’s link into the world of death and the afterlife. The two poems themselves have very little in common with each other which is rather unusual considering that they circle the same subject and are written by the same person.
‘The Only Ghost I ever saw’ seems to show a young Dickinson’s innocent fascination with death shown though the dream-like tone and links to nature and therefore life, the final four lines break this by bringing about a harsher tone through the broken rhyme, which could be said to show Dickinson’s fist steps towards the frustration and macabre fascination she shows towards death in her later works. Of which we see a lot of in ‘How many times these low feet staggered’, a more grotesque and dreary poem of death, seen through the referrals to man-made objects such as ‘handle’ and ‘hasps’ and the physical state of the housewife’s corpse.
The changes in tone and view of death could have been brought on by age, as they were written about 30 years apart, and it’s inevitable that time could have matured Dickinson’s feelings about death, whether by the Civil War she lived though, and her brother fought in (VAN DAESDONK 2007), or the fact that in aging she was approaching the end of her life itself, thus creating an urgency in the need to understand what the next stage of life would entail for her. Bibliography: VAN DAESDONK H.
2007 Emily Dickinson Notes Teignmouth College, unpublished Dickinson, E. (1997) Emily Dickinson (Everyman Poetry) Phoenix The Only Ghost I ever saw (Wayne Howell, no date) Available at:http://www. 8georgetown/. edu/centers/endls/applications/postertool/index. cfm? fuseaction=poster. display (Accessed on: 21 February 2011) Optical properties of rocks and minerals (2004) Available at:http://www. rockcollector. co. uk/opticalprop. htm (Accessed on: 21 February 2011) Appendix:
274 – The only ghost I ever saw 1 The only ghost I ever saw Was dressed in mechlin, —so; He wore no sandal on his foot, 4 And stepped like flakes of snow. His gait was soundless, like the bird, But rapid, like the roe; His fashions quaint, mosaic, 8 Or, haply, mistletoe. His conversation seldom, His laughter like the breeze That dies away in dimples 12 Among the pensive trees. Our interview was transient, — Of me, himself was shy; And God forbid I look behind 16 Since that appalling day!
187 – How many times these low feet staggered 1 How many times these low feet staggered— Only the soldered mouth can tell— Try—can you stir the awful rivet— 4 Try—can you lift the hasps of steel! Stroke the cool forehead—hot so often— Lift—if you care—the listless hair— Handle the adamantine fingers 8 Never a thimble—more—shall wear— Buzz the dull flies—on the chamber window— Brave—shines the sun through the freckled pane— Fearless—the cobweb swings from the ceiling— 12 Indolent Housewife—in Daisies—lain!