Emily Dickinson The Last Night That She Lived Essay

Emily Dickinson’s Death Poetry

After the first two volumes of Emily Dickinson’s poems appeared posthumously in 1890 and 1891, there were many negative reviews of her work, such as,

If Miss Dickinson’s disjecta membra are poems, then Shakespeare’s prolonged imposition should be exposed without further loss of time … Miss Dickinson’s versicles have a queerness and a quaintness that have stirred a momentary curiosity in emotional bosoms. Oblivion lingers in the immediate neighbourhood.[i]

Today, however, Dickinson’s poetry is widely regarded as a milestone in American literature. Dickinson has become a classic, famous for her vivid, powerful imagery and innovative style. In fact, some critics consider her ‘the finest American woman poet’[ii] and claim that ‘[h]er accomplishment is so radically original that the entire model of what poetry can know (and write) changes when her work is taken into account.’[iii] There is an extensive range of criticism on Emily Dickinson’s poetry, many of which focuses on her treatment of five dominant themes, that is, life, death, immortality, love and nature. Dickinson’s early editors as well as critics including Ruth Flanders McNaughton group the poems in these categories. According to Henry W. Wells, about one quarter of Dickinson’s poems deals chiefly with the theme of death.[iv] This part of Emily Dickinson’s poetry will be in the centre of this essay. The essay will, first of all, explain why the theme is so important for the poet. Why does Dickinson appear to be preoccupied with death? Is it natural for her to make death one of her central topics? As she examines death from many different angles, a multitude of attitudes towards death and dying can be found in Emily Dickinson’s poetry. Some of her ideas can be seen as highly ambivalent. For example, some poems deal with man’s inability and unwillingness to comprehend the reality of death whereas others accept it as an inevitable part of life. Several of Dickinson’s works even embrace death and deal with getting ready for it. These three different attitudes will be examined in this essay. They will be illustrated by examples taken from poems such as ‘Oh give it Motion -- deck it sweet’ and ‘The last Night that She lived.’

First of all, it is important to understand why Emily Dickinson made death one of her central topics. In fact, due to the lack of advanced medicine, death was omnipresent in the nineteenth century. Infectious diseases were increasingly common as cities began to grow and medical science had little understanding of them, let alone effective ways of treating or preventing their spread. Adult, childhood, and childbirth mortality rates remained quite high until the end of the century. One should also keep in mind that Emily Dickinson wrote during the time of the Civil War, and even though it did not affect her directly, one can see the emotional turmoil of the time shine through in some of her works. Not only Emily Dickinson, but also poets such as Walt Whitman and the British writers Robert Louis Stevenson, Christina Rossetti and Emily Brontë deal with death in their works. For instance, in ‘Reconciliation,’ which belongs to the collection Drum Taps, Whitman writes about his Civil War experiences and describes how ‘the sisters Death and Night incessantly softly wash again, / and ever again, this soiled world.’[v] This serves as an illustration of the fact that illness, the deathbed and funeral scenes were quite common in nineteenth-century literature. Moreover, Emily Dickinson experienced the death of many loved ones. In fact, in Dickinson’s later years, several of her closest friends and relatives died within the time frame of a few years. In 1974, her father Edward died. Four years later, Dickinson lost her close friend Samuel Bowles. In 1881-82, J.G. Holland and Charles Wadsworth, also good friends of the poet, and Emily’s mother died, and in 1883, she had to experience the death of her nephew Gilbert. This period of Emily Dickinson’s life was spent primarily in mourning. As the poet suffered the deaths of many friends and members of her family and as she lived in a time when death was much more present than it is today, one can conclude that is was only natural for her to make death one of her principal themes

How did Emily Dickinson approach the theme of death? As mentioned before, her attitude towards dying is at times ambivalent and shifts from denial to acceptance and, finally, embracement. To begin with, a large number of her poems deal with man’s inability to accept the reality of death and the confusion and disbelief that he experiences in its presence. For example, Dickinson expresses this feeling of incredulity in poem #981:

As Sleigh Bells seem in

Or Bees, at Christmas show --

So fairy -- so

The individuals

Repealed from observation --

A Party that we knew --

More distant in an

Than Dawn in Timbuctoo.[vi]

Those who are dead or ‘repealed from observation,’ as Dickinson writes, are no longer real; they only exist in our minds. At the moment someone dies, ‘in an instant,’ he or she becomes distant and unreal, as unreal ‘as sleigh bells seem in summer.’ Man, Emily Dickinson states, is confused in the face of death. He is unable to grasp what is going on

Similarly, poem #1527 deals with man’s desire to resuscitate the departed:

Oh give it Motion -- deck it

With Artery and Vein --

Upon its fastened Lips lay words --

Affiance it

To that Pink stranger we call Dust --

Acquainted more with

Than with this horizontal

That will not lift its Hat --[vii]

The speaker wishes ‘this horizontal one,’ a dead person, to come to life again. ‘Artery and Vein’ are, according to McNaughton, ‘carefully chosen symbols of vitality.’[viii] ‘Dust’ should become the ‘pink stranger’ again, that is, flesh. Dickinson’s characteristic playfulness shines through in this poem in the comic image of the dead one lifting ‘its Hat.’ However, the wish for resurrection is futile. The ‘horizontal one’ will never ‘lift its Hat’ again and stay what it is – dust. In fact, if one compares this poem to poems such as #214, ‘I taste a liquor never brewed,’ one can assume that the reason for Dickinson’s unwillingness to accept the fact of death may be found in her love of life. In ‘I taste a liquor never brewed’, the poet describes her intoxication with life and nature. Poem #214 is a lighthearted and playful account of how one can become ‘Inebriate of Air’ and ‘Debauchee of Dew.’[ix] Moreover, Emily Dickinson told Thomas Wentworth Higginson in one of her numerous letters that she finds ‘ecstasy in living.’[x] However, the poet’s attitude towards death and dying is far more complex than this simple explanation suggests. Therefore, the following paragraphs will deal with poems that convey a feeling of acceptance of even embracement of death

There is no denying the fact that death is inevitable, Dickinson states in several of her poems, including #390. She writes:

It's coming -- the postponeless Creature --

It gains the Block -- and now -- it gains the Door --

Chooses its latch, from all the other fastenings --

Enters -- with a "You know Me -- Sir"?

Simple Salute -- and certain Recognition --

Bold -- were it Enemy -- Brief -- were it friend --

Dresses each House in Crepe, and Icicle --

And carries one -- out of it -- to God --[xi]

Dickinson personifies death as ‘the postponeless Creature,’ a creature from which one can neither hide nor run away. Death enters the house without even knocking on the door and expects to be recognized. The speaker describes death as ‘Bold -- were it enemy’ and ‘Brief-- were it friend’ and thereby makes the reader wonder which of the two it is. The last line ‘And carries on --out of it -- to God --’ suggests that death is, in fact, a friend. Being taken to God is desirable. In line seven, ‘Crepe’ is used as a metaphor for mourning while ‘“icicle” chills us to the bone.’[xii]

Moreover, in a poem which, according to Power, deals with the death of Emily’s mother, the poet also conveys a feeling of resignation and acceptance of the inevitability of death.[xiii] Poem # 1100 deals with the night in which a loved one dies and the helpless waiting for death

The last Night that She

It was a Common N

Except the Dying -- this to U

Made Nature

We noticed smallest things --

Things overlooked

By this great light upon our M

Italicized -- as 'twere

As We went out and

Between Her final R

And Rooms where Those to be

Tomorrow were, a B

That Others could

While She must finish

A Jealousy for Her

So nearly infinite --

We waited while She passed --

It was a narrow time --

Too jostled were Our Souls to

At length the notice came

She mentioned, and forgot --

Then lightly as a R

Bent to the Water, struggled scarce --

Consented, and was dead --

And We -- We placed the Hair --

And drew the Head erect --

And then an awful leisure

Belief to regulate --[xiv]



[i] Anonymous, ‘The New Pastoral Poetry,’ The Atlantic Monthly, 69, January 1892, p.144, quoted in Ruth Flanders McNaughton, The Imagery of Emily Dickinson, Norwood Editions, 1970, p.

[ii] David Porter, Dickinson: The Modern Idiom, Harvard University Press, 1981, p.1, quoted in Helen McNeil, Emily Dickinson, Virago Press, 1986, p.1

[iii] Helen McNeil, Emily Dickinson, Virago Press, 1986, p.1

[iv] Henry W. Wells, Introduction to Emily Dickinson, Hendricks House, 1958, p. 94

[v] Walt Whitman, ‘Reconciliation,’ Drum-Taps, Baym, Gottesman et.al., eds., The Norton Anthology of American Literature, sixth edition, 2002, vol. B, p. 2225

[vi] Emily Dickinson, ‘As Sleigh Bells seem in summer,’ http://www.americanpoems.com /poets/emilydickinson/981.shtml>

[vii] Emily Dickinson, ‘Oh give it Motion -- deck it sweet,’ <http://www.americanpoems. com / poets/emilydickinson/1527.shtml>

[viii] Ruth Flanders McNaughton, The Imagery of Emily Dickinson, Norwood Editions, 1970, p. 48

[ix] Emily Dickinson, ‘I taste a liquor never brewed,’ <http://www.americanpoems.com/ poets/emilydickinson/214.shtml>

[x] Emily Dickinson, Letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, quoted in Ward, Trent, et.al., eds., The Cambridge History of English and American Literature, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1907-21, vol. XVII, Bartleby.com, Jan. 2000, <http://www.bartleby.com/227/ 0302.html>, 12 Dec 2002

[xi] Emily Dickinson, ‘It’s coming -- the postponeless Creature,’ <http://www.american poems.com/poets/emilydickinson/390.shtml>

[xii] Ruth Flanders McNaughton, Op. Cit., p. 49

[xiii] Sister Mary James Power, In the Name of the Bee, The Significance of Emily Dickinson, Biblo and Tannen, 1970, p. 87

[xiv] Emily Dickinson, ‘The last night that She lived,’ <http://www.americanpoems.com/ poets/emilydickinson/1100.shtml>

An Annotation of Emily Dickinson's The Last Night that She Lived

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An Annotation of Emily Dickinson's The Last Night that She Lived

Dickinson's The Last Night that She Lived presents a meditation on the reaction of the speaker and those with her while they are confronted with the death of a female friend. Strangely, in dealing with the subject of death, Dickinson steers away from the metaphysical aspect of such a heavy situation and remains firmly anchored in the tangible world. The speaker makes no references to God or the afterlife, and her allusions to nature are fleeting. The poem is anything but an attempted justification of the death of her friend, rather it is resembles a catalogue of the human responses of those who remain in the earthly realm after the death of a loved one.

The Last Night that She Lived
by Emily Dickinson

The last Night that She Lived
It was a Common Night
Except the Dying--this to Us
Made Nature different

We noticed smallest things--
Things overlooked before
By this great light upon our Minds
Italicized--as 'twere.

As We went out and in
Between Her final Room
And Rooms were Those to be alive
Tomorrow were, a Blame

That Others could exist
While She must finish quite
A Jealousy for Her arose
So nearly infinite--

We waited while She passes--
It was a narrow time--
Too jostled were Our Souls to speak
At length the notice came.

She mentioned, and forgot--
Then lightly as a Reed
Bent to the Water, struggled scarce--
Consented, and was dead--

And We-We placed the Hair--
And drew the Head erect--
And then an awful leisure was
Belief to regulate--

It is noted immediately that nothing spectacular is taking place within the speaker's natural surroundings in response to the situation. The universe has not paused for the departing soul of a woman, or those left behind. It is clear from the first lines that the Dickinson will make no leaps to paint nature as an intelligible or responsive force.

The speaker is all too aware that it is the confrontation with the death of a loved one that causes "Those to be alive" to view their surroundings with a different slant. The event of death has jarred them into a state of heightened awareness. Previously inevident things; "smallest things" have been brought into focus. It is not the world that has changed, but their perception of it.

It is also important to note that the speaker refers to "Us". For the remainder of the poem she will only refer to herself as part of a collective. The word "I" is absent from the poem.

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According to the speaker, there seems to be a communal understanding of emotions which serves as a testament to the fact that their responses are all closely linked within the bounds of the human condition.

The living respond to the situation with a feeling of unfairness. As they move between the room encasing her deathbed and the "Rooms where Those to be alive tomorrow were" it is as if they are moving between two contrasting worlds. Although the woman is not yet dead, there is already a sense of distinct separation. Her close and certain death has placed her in a state of limbo, wavering between two juxtaposing realms. The finality of this premature separation, made increasingly vivid as they move between the two different kinds of rooms, evokes a brand of quiet anger towards what seems an unjust situation.

Dickinson seems to strip away theological and universal pondering to concentrate on the most basic emotions of those effected. The speaker addresses the fact that there is a feeling of jealousy; but it is unspecified as to who or where this anger is directed. Why had this women been marked for death while others lived on; they are feeling cheated in some way? Dickinson is not compelled to intellectualize within the poem as to which force it is that these people are addressing,What is important, whether logical or not, is what the speaker and those afflicted with the same events feel in response to the same situation.

The characters sit in quiet helplessness as they are unable to liberate their friend from the grasp of an inevitable death. Their worlds have been jolted out of their normal state, and their souls are in such a state of upheaval, that they have lost the ability to speak. As their primary action is waiting, their collective response is a heightened awareness of time.

Dickinson consciously utilizes a simile instead of an all out metaphor because she does not wish to shift the focus from the humans in the poem to nature. Thus, she maintains the barrier status of a comparison. A contrast must remain, lest the two subjects become synonymous. The living compare death to something as equally unfathomable; nature. Even when symbols of nature are directly used, they are personified. They are tools for the description of a human death used by those witnessing the event.

The last stanza reveals that the ordeal is finished for the dying woman, she has passed on. But it is not finished for the living who are at a loss of how to respond to something so final. They do what is customary by placing the hair and the head. After that, however, they are left alone with their thoughts. It can be ascertained that these thoughts are none to pleasant by the use of "awful".

It is essential to the ultimate objective of the poem that the speaker offers no words of closure or reconciliation; she simply states what they did. Even after the death, the speaker speaks of no comtemplations of the afterlife. The personality of the dead women remains unrevealed. The poem is about the response of the living as their loved one lay dying and now that the death impending death has been completed so has the poem.

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