NOTE: The two poems dealt with in this essay are I died for beauty -- but was scarce and I heard a fly buzz-- when I died--. Both of these poems are already noded, and as I have no wish to supercede those nodes, they will not be reprinted here. All direct references to these poems are linked accordingly. It may be helpful to the reader to open these two poems in seperate windows while reading this essay.

BS

Bruce Seaton
Prof. Cotsell
ENGL 341-American Lit
Paper #1

The Potent Agency of Dead Poets


A common theme in Emily Dickinson’s poetry is the exploration of death--an often personified entity which is given a mysterious agency in much of her work. This kinetic death sometimes seems to suggest a death wish on Dickinson’s part, sometimes dread of the inevitable, sometimes uncertainty about what happens when we die, but in any case, it seems that she uses the agency of death and of the dead to assert that death is not only a natural and necessary part of life, but that the dead can continue to affect the living after they have passed.

Two poems that seem particularly to suggest this “living dead” theme are poem 465 (I heard a fly buzz-- when I died--) and poem 449 (I died for beauty -- but was scarce). These two poems represent two scenes that could be from the life (or, rather, afterlife) of the same speaker. I heard a fly buzz is a deathbed scene, and I died for beauty -- but was scarce is a scene that begins just after the internment of the speaker.

In I heard a fly buzz, the buzzing fly seems to be a kind of harbinger of death, waiting for the last breaths of the speaker to pass, and buzzing like a death beetle. Flies, being carrion eaters, are an effective symbol of active death, since anyone who has ever encountered a animal dead on the side of the road, bloated and writhing with maggots, knows that the dead, even the long dead, need not be still and silent.

Before the speaker passes, however, she speaks of a “Stillness in the Air--/ Between the Heaves of Storm--” which could have any of several connotations. One possible interpretation of the storms which surround the speaker, currently in the proverbial “eye of the storm,” are the storms of life and death/afterlife. If these are the storms, the act of dying would be much like the eye in the middle of those storms, waiting to pass from one to the next. As a storm, then, death is not only active, but filled with a primal and natural energy. Another interpretation of the storms, suggested by the next line of the poem, is more simple, and simply relates to the grief of those mourning the loss of a loved one. As a person is slowly dying, many tears will be shed, but often by the time a person actually dies, those around him or her will be strangely tearless, perhaps from exhaustion, perhaps from simply being “all cried out.” After the person dies, there will be more crying, but at the moment of the speaker’s death, “The eyes around” have “wrung them dry.”

The next three lines seem to be the speaker preparing for death, gathering breaths “For that last Onset” to witness the King, presumably God, who will come to collect the speaker when she dies. The speaker has willed away her “keepsakes,” symbols of her life, to those around her. She considers these possessions to be a “portion” of her, and perhaps signing those things over to others represents the speaker letting go not simply of her life, but of her identity, as well. It is after the speaker has taken care to let go of the last things holding her to this world that the Fly interposes.

The fly’s buzz is Blue--a suitably and classically symbolic color for death--a sound which is also uncertain and stumbling, reminiscent of language modern writers use to describe the “living dead”--the shambling horrors we encounter in any zombie book or movie ever made. The fly comes between her and the light. Whether this is the light from the sun, or the light from an awaiting heaven is unclear, but in either case, this fly seems to have been given some sort of power over the speaker; a great power would need to be bestowed for any fly to be able to interpose on a human soul. When the fly comes between the speaker and the light, “the Windows failed.” The Windows here seem to be the speaker’s eyes, which can no longer sense light, and the speaker moves into the blackness of death, and we are left with questions unanswered.

If the speaker of these two poems is the same person, however, I died for beauty -- but was scarce contains some possible answers to those questions left with the reader in the previous poem. Although the identity of the speaker is left uncertain, it seems she was a poet in life, for who else would die “for Beauty,” or even make such a claim, other than a poet? Soon after being laid in the tomb, she is joined by another poet, “One who died for Truth,” who is laid “In an adjoining Room.” This may mean they are buried near each other, and that the rooms are simply gravesites, but the word “room” suggests rooms of the dead--crypts. A crypt creates a far more active impression to a reader than a grave. In a crypt the dead still have homes, and rooms in which they can move about, rather than the claustrophobic box of a casket.

The claim that her fellow makes--that truth and beauty are the same--recalls John KeatsOde to a Grecian Urn, in which he states “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know” (ll. 49-50). Perhaps, then, the speaker’s kindred spirit is Keats himself, who died young and was not widely known until after his death. This fact further implies the agency of the dead; Keats, who died a young and ‘romantic’ death, and who was almost unknown and roundly disliked by many of his contemporaries, became one of the most respected wordsmiths in the English language by later generations. Keats had to die in order to be remembered and to have an effect on later writers.

The moss in the final passage of the poem seems to contradict the idea of lasting agency for the dead, as it covers the names of the two dead souls, but it is also important to note that moss is a very slow-growing and long-lived symbol of peaceful nature. It also has qualities of bedding--it is soft, cushiony stuff. In his La Belle Dame sans Merci, Keats’s hero and his lover “slumber’d on the moss” (l. 33). Perhaps when the moss reaches the spirits’ lips and names they will finally be able to rest. Using Keats as absolute proof that the dead can continue to affect the living, Dickinson seems to argue that at least poets, (in whom she finds more value than all other things--listing them as superior to the “Heaven of God” in I reckon, when I count at all), have a power over the living long after their bodies are covered over in moss.

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