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  • The Many Deaths of Emily Dickinson
  • Peter Nesteruk (bio)

And the purpose of the many stops and starts will be madeclear:Backing into the old affair of not wanting too growInto the night, which becomes a house, a parting of thewaysTaking us far into sleep. A dumb love.

("Song" John Ashbery)

Death is all-powerful, keeping watch even in the hour of the highest happiness, living and longing and mourning in us.

("Conclusion," Rainer Maria Rilke)

That oblique Belief which we call ConjectureGrapples with a Theme stubborn as SublimeAble as the Dust to Equip its featureAdequate as DrumsTo enlist the Tomb.

(Poem 1221, Emily Dickinson)

Death was important to Emily Dickinson. Out of some one thousand and seven hundred poems, perhaps some "five to six hundred" are concerned with the theme of death; other estimates suggest that the figure may be nearer to a half.1 Among these are many of her best loved and critically acclaimed poems, for example, "Because I could not stop for Death." The reason why the death theme was so important to Emily Dickinson remains a topic for criticism and debate. As do the influences that [End Page 25] inform it: aspects of a general cultural inheritance, including the Bible, seventeenth-century American Puritanism and the English 'metaphysical' poets, the religious reformer Jonathan Edwards, and the ethical legacy of nineteenth-century reform sentiment with its links to Transcendentalism. Or we may look to more personal circumstances: a self-immurement, geographical, physical, existential, and strategic. The answer remains a matter of critical emphasis. Whatever the reasons, Emily Dickinson's poems of death remain amongst the most powerful and well-known of her work.

Critics differ on the general role and meaning of death in Dickinson's poetry. Thomas H. Johnson, her editor and biographer, suggests that, for the poet, death is a mystery to be explored, but he maintains that Dickinson remained undecided as to a solution throughout her work.2 Poetry as the exploration of limits is a central aspect of Jane Donahue Eberwein's, Dickinson: Strategies of Limitation (1985); she finds the poet fascinated with death as the ultimate form of limitation and transformation: "Death as circumference dominated her thoughts" (Eberwein 199). Eschatology, the doctrine of last things of which death is but the first, is given, in Virginia H. Oliver's Apocalypse of Green (1989), as the frame within which Dickinson tests her religion, her faith, and her belief through the medium of her poetry (7).

However, the theme of death need not only point towards last things. Katharina Ernst, in "Death" in the Poetry of Emily Dickinson (1992), perhaps the most thorough-going discussion of death in the poetry of Emily Dickinson so far, finds the poet's exploration of death to be at the service of life.3 Ernst's reading may itself be taken in two ways: as a particular strategy of writing (or of reading) with death as a rhetorical tool, a means to an end; or as the general condition of all terms described as being somewhere "outside." Indeed, however hard the author (or reader) may try, those terms (such as "death"), which may be said to denote an "otherside," remain steadfastly "this-side" when the content of their deixis is examined. They remain a figure, or mirror, of the condition that they are said to escape. My reading of "death" in Emily Dickinson's poetry will pursue an aspect of this dilemma. I will begin with some critical typologies of "death" in Emily Dickinson and examine the problems of the representation of death in general, then proceed to the poems themselves, focusing upon "I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—," where I will show that a sub-division of the concept of death, taken together with careful attention to temporal categories, suggests an ordering of the poem's "events" that differs from accepted readings. [End Page 26]


In Emily Dickinson: An Interpretative Biography (1960), Thomas H. Johnson suggests that we divide Emily Dickinson's poems on death into three categories (203-204). First, there are the poems dealing with the "physical demise of the body"; with the...


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