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Although she lived a seemingly secluded life, Emily Dickinson's many encounters with death influenced many of her poems and letters. Perhaps one of the most ground breaking and inventive poets in American history, Dickinson has become as well known for her bizarre and eccentric life as for her incredible poems and letters. Numbering over 1,700, her poems highlight the many moments in a 19th century New Englander woman's life, including the deaths of some of her most beloved friends and family, most of which occurred in a short period of time (Benfey 6-25).
Several biographers of Dickinson point out her methods of exploring several topics in "circumference," as she says in her own words. Death is perhaps one of the best examples of this exploration and examination. Other than one trip to Washington and Philadelphia, several excursions to Boston to see a doctor, and a few short years in school, Emily never left her home town of Amherst, Massachusetts. In the latter part of her life she rarely left her large brick house, and communicated even to her beloved sister through a door rarely left "slightly ajar." This seclusion gave her a reputation for eccentricity to
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the local towns people, and perhaps increased her interest in death (Whicher 26).
Dressing in white every day Dickinson was know in Amherst as, "the New England mystic," by some. Her only contact to her few friends and correspondents was through a series of letters, seen as some critics to be equal not only in number to her poetic works, but in literary genius as well (Sewall 98).
Explored thoroughly in her works, death seems to be a dominating theme through out Dickinson's life. Dickinson, although secluded and isolated had a few encounters with love, two perhaps serious affairs were documented in her letters and poems. But, since Emily's life was so self kept and private the exact identity of these people remains unsure. What is known, is during the Civil War , worried for her friends and families lives, death increased in frequency to be a dominant theme in her writings. After 1878, the year of her influential father's death, (a treasurer of Amherst college, and a member of the Congress), this theme increased with each passing of friend or family, peeking perhaps with the death of the two men she loved (Waugh 100).
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But, as documented by several critics, Dickinson viewed death, as she did most ideas, in circumference. She was careful to high light and explore all the paradoxes and emotional extremes involved with death.
One poem expresses her depression after discovering her two loves had passed away. She wrote, "I never lost as much as twice, and that was in the sod; Twice I have stood a beggar, Before the door of God," (Porter 170).
Some critics believe it was the suggestion of death which spawned Dickinson's greatest output of Poetry in 1862. After hearing from Charles Wadsworth, her mentor, and perhaps secret love, that he was ill, and would be "leaving the land," Dickinson made her withdrawal from society more apparent and her writing more frequent and intense. By then Dickinson was already in her mid thirties, and simply progressed from there to become more reserved and write more of death and loss, than of nature and love, as had been common in her earlier years (Whicher 39).
In the poem, My life Had Stood- A Loaded Gun, (since most of Dickinson's poems were unnamed, many are known by the first line of
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the poem, as in this case) Dickinson writes in the last stanza, " Though I than He (the owner of the gun in the analogy) - may longer live- He longer must- than I- For I have but the power to kill, Without-the power to die-." Critics state that here Dickinson, (writing during the Civil War, 1863 specifically) speaks of the importance of mortality and death, and highlights the pure foolishness behind killing (Griffith 188).
As stated above, Dickinson is known for encompassing many perspectives on a single topic. In, I could not stop for Death, also written in 1863, Dickinson writes of immortality and eternity, and although death does not "come in haste", his eventual coming is inevitable since death in eternal, " Since then-'tis Centuries-and yet, Feels shorter than the day, I first surmised the Horse's Head, Were toward Eternity-." (Porter 170).
Over all Dickinson's works can be seen as a study into the thoughts and emotions of people, especially in her exploration death. From its inevitable coming to its eternal existence, Dickinson explains her feelings and thoughts toward death in the full, "circumference" of its'
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philosophy. As she edged towards the end of her life, Dickinson gave the world new poetic perspectives into the human mind and its dealing and avoidance of death (Whicher 30).