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Dickinson, Death, and the Sublime

From: The Emily Dickinson Journal
Volume 9, Number 1, Spring 2000
pp. 1-20 | 10.1353/edj.2000.0002

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The Emily Dickinson Journal 9.1 (2000) 1-20

In 1882, near the end of her life, Emily Dickinson wrote a poem beginning with the striking words: "Of Death I try to think like this - "

Of Death I try to think like this -
The Well in which they lay us
Is but the likeness of the Brook
That menaced not to slay us,
But to invite by that Dismay
Which is the Zest of sweetness
To the same Flower Hesperian,
Decoying but to greet us -
I do remember when a Child
With bolder Playmates straying
To where a Brook that seemed a Sea
Withheld us by its roaring
From just a Purple Flower beyond
Until constrained to clutch it
If Doom itself were the result,
The boldest leaped, and clutched it -


The persona in this poem is a thinker whose thoughts first evolve purposefully through several rhetorical figures but then seem to stray -- perhaps they follow a hidden logic -- to a vivid memory of a childhood moment, a specifically communal moment when a playmate confronted "Doom itself" by leaping over a brook for a flower. At a distance of some forty years, biographically speaking, the bold actions of that child are still powerful enough to govern an attempt to "think of death" as death draws near and presents itself.

Of death I try to think like this. Typically, Dickinson's use of the present tense is difficult, both an indication of recurrence -- "of death I always try to think like this, this is my general approach to death, my most advanced thinking on the subject" -- and an expression of immediacy: "of death I'm trying, now, to think like this." Since Dickinson conspicuously neglects authoritative cultural sources, preferring to let a single, personal childhood experience elucidate her thought, the first line may also be read as a humble, self-effacing preface: "here, er, is my opinion of death." In any case, this poem is another of Dickinson's efforts to think the limit of being, this time without developing the perspectival fiction of having experienced it. The try is daring and uncertain, a try of both thought and poetry which is ultimately figured in the way the child separates from the group and tries for the flower.

For at least three reasons, it is hard to see everything that is involved in this try:

1) For many readers, the main achievement of the poem will be the way it mitigates the fear of death through the power of thought. Recall Socrates's argument: "the state of death is one of two things: either the dead man wholly ceases to be and loses all consciousness or, as we are told, it is a change and a migration of the soul to another place" (Plato 47). In either case, according to Socrates, death is nothing for a logical mind to fear. Dickinson, however, relies less than Socrates on the resources of pure rationality and instead turns the process of thinking of death into an example and an analysis of a sublime moment. Indeed this deceptively simple reminiscence poem cannot be said to offer a meaning. Rather it invites us to initiate our own thought-experiment and to follow the path of figural transformations of the presentation of death. Of course all "thinking of death" threatens to veer into commonplaces, received wisdom, and sentimentality, but this poem's "try" is unorthodox in a very controlled way: as is also true of the philosophical and literary traditions of the sublime, its emphasis is not on the success or failure of reasoning but on the extreme effort of thought. Significantly, thought takes place in this poem not as a principled reach for apodictic certitude but as the imposition of a figure, the making of a detailed analogy, or the selection of an interpretation: thinking "like this" rather than "like that." The poem represents neither the analytic process of eliminating every illusory understanding of death in the interest of finding the right one nor the creative attempt to construct death's best or most beautiful figural elaboration. It is neither a summary nor a critique of what the persona has heard or learned of death...

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