The themes of death and immortality occupy pivotal roles in many of Emily Dickinson’s major works. For the purposes of this paper, the focus will be on two: Because I Could Not Stop for Death, and I Died for Beauty, but was Scarce.
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This paper compares these two poems to the play Hamlet, William Shakespeare’s tragedy. The basis of comparison herein dwells on the conflicting views toward death and immortality espoused by the three works. Dickinson’s poems personify Death as a male, and a gentleman, in her eyes, attractive, cultured, and refined.
Both Because I Could Not Stop for Death, and I Died for Beauty, but was Scarce depict death as a pleasurable state, one to be wished for and sought after. Dickinson’s view of immortality, similarly, envisions a painless Eden, where both time and worldly cares dissolve into peace, conversation, and companionship. There is a cleaving toward death in Dickinson’s poems, and a view of immortality as an infinite gift.
Conversely, in Hamlet, Shakespeare treats the themes of death and immortality in a more conventional manner. The author describes death as the “undiscover’d country,” the unknown, and as a state to be feared and despised (DiYanni, 2007). The main character Hamlet fears death to the point of paralysis.
Shakespeare also personifies Death in Hamlet, however it arrives through the form of Hamlet’s murdered father, who demands revenge, a request that lays waste to Hamlet’s peace of mind and eventually his life. Indeed, Hamlet knows full well the moment the ghost arrives that his life is forfeit. Regicide, the revenge the ghost exacts, will be Hamlet’s doom. Immortality, in Hamlet’s eyes, resembles the “eternal blazon” that his father describes, full of darkness, punishment, fire, and retribution (DiYanni, 2007).
Thus there is a shrinking from death in Hamlet, in utter contrast to Dickinson’s longing for the grave, and a view of immortality as an infinite curse. The reason for this discrepancy, as this essay will prove, lies in religion. Shakespeare’s tragic hero holds a religious view of death and immortality, one which is punishment focused, while Dickinson’s view of death and immortality, utterly devoid of religion, is much more personal and individual.
Let us begin the discussion with the treatment of the theme of death in these three works. Emily Dickinson’s poem Because I Could Not Stop for Death begins with the lines “Because I could not stop for Death – He kindly stopped for me” (DiYanni, 2007).
While this line certainly alludes to the inevitable quality of death, in that it will stop for all of us, whether we have time for it or not, there is something deeper to note in the language itself. To apply the descriptor “kindly,” especially, is noteworthy. This word immediately generates an image of Death in the reader’s mind as first and foremost, a man, and secondly, a gentleman.
Dickinson employs genteel language to describe Death in decidedly non-threatening terms, and firmly locates Death as a common fixture of the social order. There is nothing strange or frightening in his portrayal. In fact, the complete absence of fear in Dickinson’s voice roots her depiction of Death as tender, kind, obliging, neighborly, and quite friendly.
The next line of the poem reads, “The Carriage held but just Ourselves –” (DiYanni, 2007). Again, the calmness of the voice and the soothing quality of the language underscores Dickinson’s view of death as a pleasurable, desirable state. Dickinson also hints at the intimacy that she shares with her traveling companion when she employs the term “just Ourselves,” further emphasizing the closeness of the exchange with the capitalized “Ourselves” (DiYanni, 2007).
Hamlet, by contrast, in his first encounter with the ghost of his father, expresses a more conventional view when he asks: “Why thy canonized bones, hearsed in death, Have burst their cerements; why the sepulchre, Wherein we saw thee quietly inurn’d, Hath oped his ponderous and marble jaws, …What may this mean, That thou, dead corse, again in complete steel, Revisit’st thus the glimpses of the moon, Making night hideous; and we fools of nature, So horridly to shake our disposition, With thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls?” (DiYanni, 2007).
Note the harshness of Shakespeare’s descriptors, specifically the use of the words bones, jaws, horridly, corse, and the phrases “make night hideous” and “shake our disposition” (DiYanni, 2007). Shakespeare’s language contrasts sharply and definitively with Dickinson’s depiction of the quiet, calm afternoon carriage ride steeped in politesse.
In Dickinson’s poems, a certain intimacy seems to be achieved with, and perhaps as a result of, spending time with Death, or through the act of dying. We see this in I Died for Beauty, but was Scarce most noticeably. The poem’s second stanza reads, “He questioned softly why I failed? “For beauty,” I replied. “And I for truth, -the two are one; We brethren are,” he said” (DiYanni, 2007).
The significance here lies in the use of the word brethren, a word that connotes intimacy, companionship, camaraderie, and trust, and the personification, once again, of the dead neighbor as a gentleman who speaks “softly,” and assures Dickinson that “the two are one,” a reference not only to their proximity in the grave, but also to their shared loved of literature (DiYanni, 2007).
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The poem goes on to create an image of friendship and solidarity: “And so, as kinsmen met a night, We talked between the rooms” (DiYanni, 2007). Dickinson speaks of her kinsman almost as a lover.
The phrase “we talked between the rooms” especially symbolizes closeness and shared harmony. Hamlet, again in complete opposition, nearly vomits when he finds the skull of the former court jester Yorick: “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rims at it” (DiYanni, 2007).
The difference between how Dickinson views death, almost as a lover, and how Hamlet views it, as something “abhorred” and sickening, creates a clear delineation between the three works in regards to how death is portrayed and understood.
At this point in the paper, let us turn our attention to several interesting similarities that exist between Dickinson’s view of death and Hamlet’s, particularly when we analyze Hamlet’s view as espoused through the soliloquies. In Because I Could Not Stop for Death, the lines “We slowly drove – He knew no haste, And I had put away, My labor and my leisure too, For His Civility” make mention of the peace and tranquility that death brings (DiYanni, 2007).
The lack of haste here represents the release of death. In these lines, Dickinson points to the pleasure found in the dropping of all worldly cares and concerns. The next line, “We passed the School, where Children strove,” offers a fascinating perspective on the idea that death releases us from the struggles and tribulations of life (DiYanni, 2007).
Note that when Dickinson and Death pass the school where children “strove,” the insinuation resembles empathy and compassion (DiYanni, 2007). Dickinson feels some pity and sadness for these striving children, for all of their efforts and competitions, because she now knows that Death will eventually nullify all of them.
The character of Hamlet echoes these very thoughts in his Act Three, Scene One soliloquy, following the departure of Claudius and Gertrude: “To be, or not to be: that is the question: Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer, The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And by opposing end them?
To die: to sleep; No more; and by a sleep to say we end, The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks, That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation, Devoutly to be wish’d” (DiYanni, 2007). With these words Hamlet ponders the release of death, as does Dickinson, and he clearly glimpses the attraction death offers as means to finally be free of the “thousand natural shocks” that life affords the living (DiYanni, 2007).
Much like Dickinson, Hamlet wishes for it. Similarly, in the soliloquy where we first meet Hamlet in Act One, Scene Two, Hamlet expresses a desire for death, if only as means to escape the pain of his father’s death and Gertrude’s marriage, when he exclaims “O that this too too solid flesh would melt, Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!” (DiYanni, 2007). Through these examples we learn that Dickinson’s view of death and Hamlet’s share some commonalties.
The discussion now moves on to the treatment of the theme of immortality in these three pieces. In Because I Could Not Stop for Death, immortality rides in the carriage alongside death and Dickinson. Although it is quiet, there is no sinister element implied by its silence. In fact, once immortality is introduced, it becomes incorporated into Dickinson’s “we” (DiYanni, 2007).
Toward the end of the poem, Dickinson describes being placed in the ground, where she still remains: “We paused before a House that seemed, A Swelling of the Ground, The Roof was scarcely visible, The Cornice – in the Ground. Since then – ’tis Centuries – and yet, Feels shorter than the Day, I first surmised the Horses’ Heads, Were toward Eternity” (DiYanni, 2007). It is vital to note that the poem does adopt a slight chill in these lines, when compared to its opening stanzas.
However, Dickinson’s language still retains the calm sense of peace and tranquility that infuses the entire poem. Here, her view of immortality as unending bears analysis. Essentially, by ending the poem with the words “since then,” Dickinson offers her view of immortality as a place where the dead continue to live, if only to comment on the living (DiYanni, 2007).
Dickinson’s immortality holds that she has preserved her consciousness and insight into the human condition, even though she no longer breathes. We see that in Dickinson’s immortality, the experience of time is much different, as centuries feel like a day. However, the poem alludes to no punishment, no pain, no torment, and no real death, in the sense that she does not end. She simply watches.
The treatment of immortality in I Died for Beauty, but was Scarce follows the same course. Dickinson’s immortality includes a friendly, literate neighbor who remains at her side throughout: “And so, as kinsmen met a night, We talked between the rooms, Until the moss had reached our lips, And covered up our names” (DiYanni, 2007). There is no punishment, no fire, and no fear. Instead, she has a companion who stays with her. In eternity, she is not alone.
When we look at Shakespeare’s treatment of immortality in Hamlet, we find a wholly different view of eternity, one that concerns itself with punishment, pain, torment, and retaliation. When Hamlet witnesses the ghost of his father, he asks what has “cast thee up again” (DiYanni, 2007).
This implies that Hamlet assumes his father has been in hell. The ghost uses terrifying descriptors to impart his experience of immortality to his son: “My hour is almost come, When I to sulphurous and tormenting flames, Must render up myself” (DiYanni, 2007).
Again, when laying out the terms of its revenge, the ghost’s depiction of immortality remains rife with images of pain and punishment: “I am thy father’s spirit, Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night, And for the day confined to fast in fires, Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature, Are burnt and purged away” (DiYanni, 2007). Shakespeare’s descriptions of immortality contrast penetratingly with those of Dickinson’s.
Not surprisingly, Hamlet’s musings on immortality following the encounter with the ghost of his father emphasize its penalizing nature: “To die, to sleep; To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub; For in that sleep of death what dreams may come, When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, Must give us pause” (DiYanni, 2007).
Hamlet’s fear of what the after life holds for him is enough to stay his suicide, as evidenced in his Act Three, Scene One soliloquy: “Who would fardels bear, To grunt and sweat under a weary life, But that the dread of something after death, The undiscover’d country from whose bourn, No traveller returns, puzzles the will, And makes us rather bear those ills we have, Than fly to others that we know not of?” (DiYanni, 2007).
How do we explain the conflicting views of death and immortality in these three works? For the purposes of this paper, let us focus on one plausible elucidation: religion.
The ghost speaks of the torment he undergoes as a result of losing his life before the benefit of confession: “Thus was I, sleeping, by a brother’s hand, Of life, of crown, of queen, at once dispatch’d: Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin, Unhousel’d, disappointed, unanel’d, No reckoning made, but sent to my account, With all my imperfections on my head: O, horrible! O, horrible! Most horrible!” (DiYanni, 2007).
Examples of Hamlet’s religious leanings proliferate the play. When Hamlet finds Claudius alone and at prayer, he stays his own hand and forgoes the opportunity for vengeance on religious grounds: “Now might I do it pat, now he is praying; And now I’ll do’t. And so he goes to heaven; And so am I revenged. That would be scann’d: A villain kills my father; and for that, I, his sole son, do this same villain send
To heaven” (DiYanni, 2007). Hamlet so believes in the conventional religious interpretation of immortality as a place where sinners pay for their transgressions, that he decides instead to kill Claudius while in the midst of sin: “Up, sword; and know thou a more horrid hent: When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage, Or in the incestuous pleasure of his bed; At gaming, swearing, or about some act, That has no relish of salvation in’t; Then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven, And that his soul may be as damn’d and black, As hell, whereto it goes” (DiYanni, 2007).
When Hamlet contemplates suicide in his Act One, Scene Two soliloquy, he refutes his own desire to end his life on religious grounds, wishing that “the Everlasting had not fix’d, His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter!” (DiYanni, 2007).
Dickinson’s poetry, by contrast, lacks entirely any modicum of religious sentiment or explanation. Though the subject matter of her poems covers the same terrain as that of Hamlet, particularly death and the experience of immortality, there are no direct references to religion, God, or the church in either Because I Could Not Stop for Death, or I Died for Beauty, but was Scarce (DiYanni, 2007). In Because I Could Not Stop for Death, the focus of the poem is the personification of Death and the journey from one of the living to one of the dead, albeit the immortal dead (DiYanni, 2007).
Dickinson’s Death is one of us – he is not described as an ethereal being. He bears more resemble to a man. Dickinson places herself as both Death and Immortality’s equal, through her constant use of the word “we” when describing the carriage ride. Death is a part of the world, in Dickinson’s poetry; he notices “the School, where Children strove, At Recess – in the Ring” (DiYanni, 2007).
Death traverses the “Fields of Gazing Grain,” and passes the “Setting Sun,” with no connotation of fear, punishment, sin, or judgment (DiYanni, 2007). Dickinson does not mention the need for confession in the poem. Similarly, in I Died for Beauty, but was Scarce, no religious symbolism exists (DiYanni, 2007). The notion of punishment is absent.
Therefore, Dickinson’s view of death and immortality remains informed by something decidedly personal and idiosyncratic. The absence of a religious element in Dickinson’s work offers an explanation for the qualitative difference in language when used to describe death and immortality. Because Dickinson does not believe that immortality equates to everlasting punishment, she fears neither it nor death.
In conclusion, death and immortality are important themes in many of Emily Dickinson’s major poetic works. For the purposes of this paper, the focus was on Because I Could Not Stop for Death, and I Died for Beauty, but was Scarce (DiYanni, 2007).
The comparison between these two poems and William Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet concerned conflicting views toward death and immortality espoused by the three works, with an eye to why these differences arose, and what these differences tell us about the individual authors as well as the works (DiYanni, 2007). Dickinson’s poems personify Death as a gentleman, a neighbor, and a part of the human landscape.
Both Because I Could Not Stop for Death, and I Died for Beauty, but was Scarce depict death as a pleasurable state (DiYanni, 2007). Dickinson’s view of immortality, similarly, envisions a painless afterlife where both time and the perils of living vanish into timelessness, peace, companionship, conversation, and reflection. Dickinson’s poems cleave toward death, and her view of immortality is as an infinite gift.
In Hamlet, Shakespeare treats the themes of death and immortality in a more conventionally religious manner (DiYanni, 2007). The paper illustrates, through Shakespeare’s language principally, how immortality, in Hamlet’s eyes, resembles the “eternal blazon” that his father describes, full of darkness, sin, judgment, punishment, fire, and retribution.
Thus there is a shrinking from death in Hamlet, in utter contrast to Dickinson, and a view of immortality as an infinite curse (DiYanni, 2007). The reason for this discrepancy, as this essay proves, lies in religion. Hamlet maintains a religious view of death and immortality, centered on punishment, while Dickinson’s view of death and immortality, utterly devoid of religion, is idiosyncratic and self-generated (DiYanni, 2007).
DiYanni, R. (2007). Literature: Reading Fiction, Poetry, and Drama (6th ed.). Boston: McGraw Hill.