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Major Themes in Emily Dickinson's Poems: Death

written by: Trent Lorcher • edited by: SForsyth • updated: 1/20/2012

One major theme in Emily Dickinson's poems is death. Here I've looked at several of Emily Dickinson's poems exploring death with my own analysis and commentary on specific poems.

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    An Analysis of Death in Emily Dickinson's Poetry: A Theory

    You probably know someone who is preoccupied with death: in kindergarten, he severed limbs off Play-dough statues; in second grade, he drew pictures of car accidents and decapitated heads spilling brains on the freeway; in 5th grade, he wrote stories about driving a semi through the carnival midway and running over anyone in his way; in middle school, he only wore shirts with dead rockstars on the front; and in high school, he dyed his hair black, dressed like Marilyn Manson, got a skull tattoo on his neck, and pierced his face in 27 places.

    As an adult he wrote an analysis of death in Emily Dickinson's poetry, addressing one of the major themes she explores.

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    Examples

    Many of Dickenson's poems deal explicitly with concepts of death.

    Poem: "A Death blow is a life blow to some"

    Analysis: A belief in eternal life affects much of Dickinson's death poetry. In "A Death blow is a life blow to some," Dickinson uses paradox to assert that physical death is the beginning, not the end.

    Poem: "After a hundred years"

    Analysis: Dickinson uses the central image of a tombstone overgrown with weeds to comment on the shortness of life.

    Poem: "Because I could not stop for death"

    Analysis: Dickinson personifies death as a kind stage coach driver taking its visitor, not to some ghastly abode, but toward eternity with Immortality. Notice the precise description of a grave in the fourth stanza; it's Dickinson at her descriptive best.

    Poem: "Death is a dialogue between"

    Analysis: Dickinson tries her hand at dramatic poetry with a conversation between Death and Spirit. In this poem, death is a defeated enemy.

    Poem: "Drowning is not so pitiful"

    Analysis: Don't let the image of a drowned man floating face up haunt you to the point of missing the paradox in the last four lines: death is an eternal resting place, yet few of us are in a hurry to get there.

    Poem:"Dust is the only secret"

    Analysis: Dickinson personifies and employs a list of adjectives to describe death. In this example, Death is once again the enemy, who is time and time again thwarted by the mercy of Christ.

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    Poem: "If anybody's friend be dead"

    Analysis: Dickinson comments on the grief experienced by those who have lost loved ones.

    Poem: "If I should die"

    Analysis: Dickinson reverses the roles in "If I should die." She declares that if she dies, life goes on, and she is, therefore, relieved that those left behind will continue to experience life.

    Poem: "Not any higher stands the grave"

    Analysis: Dickinson uses the central image of a grave and the sameness of distance from all graves to the heavens as a metaphor for man's relationship with the Creator.

    Poem: "So proud was she to die"

    Analysis: Dickinson uses irony to describe the living as jealous of one who is dying. Although some may regard the dying woman in the poem as suicidal, the context indicates that the dying woman has been on the brink of death for quite some time and welcomes the end of Earthly pain.

    Poem: "Each that we lose takes part of us"

    Analysis: Dickinson's belief that all humans are connected and that when one dies or suffers we all die or suffer is the theme of "Each that we lose takes part of us." She uses the image of the tides, producing an image of the ocean, representing the souls of all flowing in tune with nature.

    Do you have any further examples of poems dealing with death? Why do you think Dickinson was so obsessed with death anyway? This would make a great topic for a paper!

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    Emily Dickinson Online

    For a complete alphabetical listing of these and other poems by Emily Dickinson, click here.

    For teachers looking for lesson ideas for teaching Emily Dickinson's poetry, check out the Teaching Emily Dickinson's Poems page at Brighthub.com.

Emily Dickinson Study Guide

When I was in high school, my English teacher made us read Emily Dickinson. I loathed it. I'm older now and enjoy Emily Dickinson's poetry. I, however, don't want you to suffer as I did, so I made this Emily Dickinson study guide.
  1. Major Themes in Emily Dickinson's Poems: Death
  2. Emily Dickinson Quotes: An Analysis of Emily Dickinson Poetry
  3. An Analysis of Selected Love Poems by Emily Dickinson
  4. An Analysis of Emily Dickinson's Poems
  5. An Analysis of Selected Emily Dickinson Nature Poems