“Emily Dickinson: ‘Between the light – and me'” By Sergio Osnaya Prieto
In the early months of 1854, Rev. Edward Everett Hale of the Church of Unity, in Worcester, received a troubling letter. He was not familiar with the writer, nor vice versa; however, beyond the unusual correspondent, the most peculiar aspect was that, though familiar with the letter’s subject matter, he was not accustomed to such perturbing interrogations about death:
I think, Sir, you were the Pastor of Mr. B.F. Newton, who died sometime since in Worcester, and I often have hoped to know if his last hours were cheerful, and if he was willing to die. He often talked of God, but I do not know certainly if he was his Father in Heaven—Please Sir, to tell me if he was willing to die, and if you think him at Home, I should love much to know certainly, that he was today in Heaven. (Whicher 5)
The inquisitor was a young Emily Dickinson, before her historic poems were unearthed from her desk drawer after her death. This correspondence with Rev. Hale was merely one in a slew of letters written to extended family members, friends, and clergymen, exploring the nuances of death. She recurrently inquired with scientific curiosity over the deceased’s hue, their final sufferings, or the ghastly subtleties in their eyes (Whicher 12). Oddly enough, by the time Dickinson had written her inquiry to Hale, it had been seven years since her leaving the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. It was here where she first expressed great interest in the sciences, once writing to her brother, Austin, that she was “all engrossed in the history of Sulphuric Acid!” Furthermore, it was also this institution which categorized Dickinson as a student with “no hope” to profess her faith in God (“Emily Dickinson’s Schooling”). Such religious curiosity expressed in her letter may thus appear contradictory. Concern over her childhood mentor Benjamin Franklin Newton’s willingness to die and his place in Heaven exposed an obscure facet of the historic poet, one which was yet to renounce her faith in Christianity and her belief in an afterlife. However, her inquiries into the multitudinous facets of death were merely underpinnings of a lifelong poetic endeavor to harmonize the realist inquirer and the spiritual Calvinist within her. Nearly a decade after her correspondence to Rev. Hale, Dickinson began to unite both facets of understanding. Her death-related poems, “I heard a Fly buzz–when I died,” “I know that He exists,” and “The World is not Conclusion,” thus became an embodiment of her own unorthodox Christianity, in which a feeble faith battles the need for empirical realism.
Dickinson’s poem “I heard a Fly buzz–when I died” addresses such dichotomy of faith and realism through its deceased narrator, subtle religious imagery, and a macabre description of death. The first line, from which the title is derived, indicates the narrator is speaking from beyond the grave, hinting at Dickinson’s belief in an afterlife—not one in Heaven or Hell, but in close proximity to the deceased’s “former” life. However, the preceding image—the “Fly” (1)—immediately associates the narrator with the more gruesome aspects of death, specifically, the body’s decomposition. When paired with the image of a “King” (7) in the second stanza—which may be referring to God—, the Fly thus becomes a metonymical device for Beelzebub, the Lord of the Flies, or Satan. Moreover, the ambiguous allusion to a “King” as reference to God’s presence during an individual’s death tinges the poem with religious undertones. However, the meagerness of the “Fly,” along with the third stanza, in which the narrator “willed [her] keepsakes – signed away / what portion of me be / assignable” (10-13) removes all grandiosity from the Christian perception of death. Suddenly, “portions” of life are “assignable,” and can be “signed away;” thus, the poem adapts death to an ordinary, uneventful procedure with paperwork, only to become “interposed [by] a fly” (13). Furthermore, the repetition of “And then” (12, 16) three times towards the conclusion pervades the final scenes with a sense of lingering, as if death were a prolonged, painful experience. In the first line of the fourth stanza, “With Blue – uncertain – stumbling Buzz” (14), Dickinson’s dashes and alliteration of “Blue” and “Buzz” evoke the sensory disorientation felt by the narrator, and the “uncertain” nature of death. As Paula Bennett, a professor of English at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, asserts: “Before the poem is over, the buzz takes up the entire field of perception, coming between the speaker and the ‘light’ (of day, of life, of knowledge).” As the narrator loses such “light of day, of life, of knowledge,” the poem reflects the ignorance of humans towards death. Despite all arguments for the existence of an afterlife, or the “Onset [of a] King” (7) at one’s death, man may never prove it, and all understanding is only as great as a Fly allows. Thus, there is a playful, implicit dichotomy between Dickinson’s interpretation of man’s unsuccessful conjectures of the afterlife, and the definable ghastliness of mortality. When parsing “I reckon — When I count at all,” Daniel Orsini, English professor at the University of Massachusetts, encounters a similar dichotomy, asserting: “For Dickinson, the path to “the Further Heaven” (“569”) lies as much in the observable phenomena of this world as in the poet’s imaginative speculations.” Such intertwining of subtle religious imagery hints at Dickinson’s feeble, dying faith, and thus is hidden behind the more obscure, realistic events surrounding death.
Reversing the dichotomy of faith versus reality, “I know that He exists” embodies Dickinson’s unorthodox Christianity by beginning with a confident assertion of faith, which swiftly collapses by portraying life as an “instant’s play” (5). The poet portrays man’s relationship to God as a sort of game, and to encounter Him would be a “fond Ambush” (6). However, in the third stanza, Dickinson begins questioning that immortality might not be plausible, and that the “glee” (11) associated with unequivocal faith may fade when life faces “Death’s – stiff – stare” (12). By the final lines, the tone is one of panic, as Dickinson is overcome with the fear of God’s “jest [crawling] too far!” (14-15). As David Rutledge, English Professor at Case Western Reserve University, submits: “The earlier sense of life as a game that is fun, with a guaranteed happy ending, is abandoned in the final two lines. Life now appears to be something that crawls steadily forward, crawling like an infant, or a dying man, toward an uncertain fate.” Moreover, the descent into uncertainty is exemplified by the assertive “I know” from the poem’s opening,” to the troubled “Would not” of the penultimate line. This fall from a confident belief in God to absolute panic embodies Dickinson’s leaning towards an empirical reality which does not recognize an afterlife, over Christian orthodoxy.
At its most explicit, Dickinson’s death-related poetry best embodies her decaying faith in “The World is not Conclusion.” Similar to “I know that He exists,” the poem begins with an optimistic assertion; however, it is not explicitly about God’s existence, but simply, of an afterlife. Line 3 contrasts “Music” as a construct which, though real, is only effective on the human spirit; and “Sound,” which carries a scientific connotation (3-4). In Critical Companion to Emily Dickinson: A Literary Reference to Her Life and Work, Sharon Leiter relates this comparison to Dickinson’s past: “Dickinson the artist, who played the piano and composed music in her youth, knew that music was ‘real’; the science student in her knew that the existence of sound could be physically demonstrated. Thus, in these lines, art and science are called upon to affirm a single, hopeful tenet of faith.” In the following lines, however, Dickinson obscures her connections to the intellectual approaches towards death, contending: “Philosophy, don’t know -/ And through a Riddle, at the last -/ Sagacity, must go – / To guess it, puzzles scholars” (6-9). As in “I heard a Fly buzz – when I died,” Dickinson does not immediately align herself with the “scholars” who attempt to debunk the mystery of death. Instead, she satirizes their attempts, as “Philosophy” and “Sagacity” is rendered useless, and ignorance reigns over the empirical knowledge these “puzzled scholars” aim to achieve. By line 13, however, Dickinson explicitly addresses the frailty of the institution of faith, and, implicitly, religion. The author favors the empirical proof science may offer, and condemns faith which “Plucks at a twig of Evidence / And asks a Vane, the way” (13-14). The poet thus draws a subtle line between supporting the rightful quest for scientific knowledge, and the ubiquitous ignorance of man. Nevertheless, since faith stands unsubstantiated, Dickinson ends her poem harshly referring to it as “Narcotics” which “cannot still the Tooth / That nibbles at the soul” (19-20), in which the “Tooth” symbolizes the intellectual quest for knowledge and truth. Thus, “The World is not Conclusion” embodies Dickinson’s rejection of Christian faith and an explicit preference for empirical reality.
In Dickinson’s austere and secluded Protestant milieu, an unorthodox interrogation of religion and faith may be unexpected. However, it is this inquiry for which Dickinson’s poetry remains representative of its transitory time period: a time of changes in American values, defined by the divisiveness of the Civil War, the abandonment of Protestant austerity for industrial superfluity, and the internal conflict of religious faith versus empirical realism—inevitably leaning towards the latter. Moreover, it symbolizes an everlasting conflict within those willing to question the known, face the unknown, and struggle to find a balance—even if it entails questioning whether those we have lost are “today in Heaven” or not.
Bennett, Paula. “On 465 (“I heard a Fly buzz–When I died–“).” The Modern American Poetry Site, University of Illinois, 17 Aug. 2015, www.modernamericanpoetry.org/criticism/paulabennett-465-i-heard-fly-buzz-when-i-died.
Dickinson, Emily. “This World is not Conclusion .” Poetry Foundation, 1999, www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/47653.
—. “I heard a Fly buzz – when I died.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature, general editor, Nina Baym, 8th ed., vol. C, W.W. Norton, 2012, pp. 103-104.
—. “I know that He exists. .” Poetry Foundation, 1999, www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/52137#poem
“Emily Dickinson’s Schooling: Mount Holyoke Female Seminary.” Emily Dickinson Museum, 2009, www.emilydickinsonmuseum.org/mount_holyoke.
Leiter, Sharon. “‘This World is not conclusion’.” Critical Companion to Emily Dickinson: A Literary Reference to Her Life and Work, Critical Companion. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2006. Bloom’s Literature. Facts On File, Inc. www.fofweb.com/activelink2.asp?ItemID=WE54&SID=5&iPin=CCED137&SingleRecord=True.
Orsini, Daniel J. “Emily Dickinson and the Romantic Use of Science.” Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, edited by Jessica Bomarito and Russel Whitaker, vol. 171, Gale, 2006. Literature Resource Center, login.proxy189.nclive.org/login?url=http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=LitRC&sw=w&u=nclivewtcc&v=2.1&it=r&id=GALE%7CH1420072976&asid=917bfb5c020fda7dd5b5ca6661237127.
Rutledge, David. “Dickinson’s I Know that He Exists.” The Explicator, vol. 52, no. 2, 1994, pp. 81. ProQuest Central, login.proxy189.nclive.org/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/216772150?accountid=15152.
Whicher, George F. “Emily Dickinson’s Earliest Friend.” American Literature, vol. 6, no. 1, 1934, pp. 3–17. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2919683.