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The Large and Skeptical Mind of Emily Dickinson

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Picture of Space Galaxies and Stars--Emily Dickinson's mind is unbounded.

Ranging the Cosmos: The Large and Questing Mind of Emily Dickinson

A Mind Unbounded

For most of her adult life, Emily Dickinson stayed within the bounds of her family home and garden, but her poetry declares that her mind knew no boundaries. Her compact poems may begin with humble domestic details, but suddenly expand into questioning life, the universe, and our human position on a cosmic scale. We could look at many of her nearly 1800 verses to find examples, but I’m going to pick two of my favorites, both well-known but both widely misunderstood: “Because I could not stop for Death,” and “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain.” Feeling brave enough to visit the edge of a cosmic existential void? Then click and read the poems, and we’ll take a closer look.

Dickinson’s Poetic Method

Before we plunge in, let’s talk a bit about Dickinson’s poetic methods. Few were the existential assumptions she did not dare to interrogate, but her poetry doesn’t usually make a head-on assault against the Calvinist and other cultural pieties that her family and neighbors accepted. Instead, she is wry and sly. Poems begin with domestic pictures that don’t seem at all alarming, but after a few odd but deft and startling word choices, underlined by ironic understatement, readers come to realize that Dickinson has just yanked the rug out from another comforting belief or cultural assumption.

She wrote all of her poems in the form and meter commonly used for hymns in her time. Using the well-known form of Christian songs to question religious and other certainties is, in itself, a big irony. Also known as common or ballad meter, this type of poem has four lines in each stanza, with alternating lines of four and three iambic beats. That’s why (as you probably know) you can sing all of her poems to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” the “Theme of Gilligan’s Island,” or any other song written in ballad meter. If you want to stop reading for a minute and try it out, have at it!

Green Coach pulled by two brown horses. Brings to mind Dickinson's strange carriage ride.

The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.

The Last Carriage Ride: Calm Acceptance, or Not So Calm?

So now we’re back, and ready to talk about “Because I could not stop for Death.” Over the years, a lot of my students have interpreted this poem as Dickinson’s acceptance of death. The speaker of the poem gets into the carriage quietly, Death is not a monster but a polite gentleman, they drive slowly and calmly to the “House” in the “Ground,” and “the Horse’s Heads” are pointed “toward Eternity.” No one is kicking, weeping, or screaming (yet). Also, as quite a few students have noted, Immortality is in the carriage, so doesn’t that suggest Dickinson believes in an afterlife?

Readers who see this poem as a calm acceptance of Death, in my view, have fallen for Emily Dickinson’s poker face. Recall that Dickinson’s method is to begin by painting the picture according to accepted cultural views, but then proceed to undercut it. In this poem, pulling against the surface calm, we can find enough horrifying scary details to remake the graveyard scene in Carrie.

In the first place, the poem’s speaker does not really want to get in the carriage. I was too busy to die, she says, but Death pulled right up to me, so politely. How kind! I couldn’t say no—so I “put away” everything I really wanted to do, both labor and leisure. Immortality is there in the carriage, so it must be OK—right? Death doesn’t say where he is driving her. Only at the end of the poem, she reveals that she did not really know their destination,  trying to “surmise” where they were headed as they drove.

Close-up of Wheat Grains in the field, like those passed on Dickinson's strange carriage ride with Death

Gazing Grain

In any case, Death keeps driving, and driving, right past all the major stages of life: wrestling children, the “Gazing Grain,” produce of mature years, and right past the end-of-life setting sun. But oops, they don’t pass the sun; the speaker realizes they have stopped, while the sun, signaling the forward passage of time, goes on without them. That’s when the speaker realizes she is dressed in light fabrics that may be appropriate for a living lady who is making a polite afternoon call, not for a dying one who is headed for a cold, damp place. This is one of the most chilling details of the poem, both literally and figuratively.

The House in the Ground

When they get there, she sees they have come to a house of which “the Roof was scarcely visible,” with everything else below the ground. This is where she has been since “’tis Centuries.” Yet these Centuries seem shorter than the one momentous day she has just described in this poem. Why? Because that is the day she realized what  Death who had caught up with her was really like. Her progress through time would simply stop. The sun would go on without her.

But what about Immortality? Wasn’t he there? As I see it, this poem offers no picture of a happy afterlife where the speaker rejoins lost loved ones or translates into a higher existence. Eternity passes right there at this “house in the ground,” which is an apt description, according to critic Collamer M. Abbott 1, of nineteenth century New England burial vaults.

I don’t think Immortality even got out of the carriage, or if he did, he wasn’t anything like the speaker had been led to believe.

Are you screaming yet?

“Because I could not stop for Death” shows the speaker beginning her journey toward death having accepted the teachings of her faith and culture: death is kind, Immortality is right next to Death during the process, and the Final Destination is a mysterious but a happy one. While this poem does not directly contradict those ideas, it shows plainly that Dickinson at least finds them highly questionable.

Even Bigger Losses: Death of Reason?

“Because I could not stop” questions widely-held beliefs about the nature of life and death, a big enough topic for anyone’s mind, but the topic of “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” is even more cosmic, questioning the very basis of human knowledge and agency.

The poem begins with a funeral going on in the speaker’s mind. A funeral means someone or something has been lost. What loss is this speaker mourning? Many people answer, “her sanity.” This idea makes some sense—she seems to be describing how “Sense” tries to break through to her mind during this internal funeral, and in the last stanza, “a Plank in Reason, broke.” That sounds like the speaker has passed from a state of Reason and Sanity into some opposite state. Other stanzas of the poem could describe the desolation she feels after the loss of her reason.

I, however, don’t think this poem is about the speaker’s loss of reason, or anything nearly so personal. I think the poem is about Dickinson’s loss of Belief in Reason itself. What if Human Reason is useless, powerless, weak, or mistaken? What, in that case, can we really know? On what beliefs can we plant a foot with certainty? If we have no reason, what do we have left? These are frightening thoughts, especially to an intellectual mind like Dickinson’s.

Once when I explained this interpretation of the poem to a class, one of my students looked up from the book, shook her head, and said, “I just don’t want to go there.” Can’t say I blame her, but I think Dickinson did go there. Do you want to? Let’s go at least far enough to glean a few more ideas from this poem, looked at from this perspective.

The Funeral for Reason

In the first stanza, mourners are treading through her Brain with a maddening, plodding cadence, “till it seemed / That Sense was breaking through—.” What might Dickinson mean by “Sense”? In the nineteenth century, (according to the historical Oxford English Dictionary) the word “Sense” had a double meaning, as it still does today. It could mean some kind of mental intuition, such as “moral sense”  or “common sense,” but it also could be interpreted as referring strictly to physical sensations like sight and sound, which would make it an opposite term to Thought or Reason (which can go on in the brain in absence of sensations).

I think Dickinson is using the second meaning. No one in this room in her brain is reciting any words to make this death meaningful or interpretable. Instead they are merely moving and making noise. “Sense,” in this case mere sensation, is breaking through Dickinson’s mental concentration. Soon her experience of the drumbeat sound, pure sensation without thought, makes her Mind feel numb. She cannot think, only experience.

When ability or belief in human reason is gone, then Space itself becomes nothing more than a giant noisemaker. The Universe is just one great source of Sensation, with no Reason or Idea anywhere within it. She, as human who prizes her Reason above all else, becomes an alien in the universe, “wrecked solitary,” because nothing within her mind can effectively connect to anything in the world of sensation “out there.”

How Many Worlds Lost?

When the “Plank in Reason, broke,” the speaker  begins hitting “a World, at every plunge.” The scale of this short little poem has gone from a single person’s mental experience, to picturing all the Space in the universe as a meaningless collection of sensations, to a fall, down and down, through a huge Cosmos of multiple worlds, universes that each have become meaningless because Reason cannot interpret them.

And indeed, once belief in Reason is dead, how many worlds that rely on thought and idea must be lost? There goes Science, Religion, History, Government, Psychology, and more, and more. There also goes Dickinson’s sense of herself; a person whose main quality is Mind loses everything if she cannot use it to interpret the physical world meaningfully. I think that is what the speaker finishes “knowing”: that if Reason is invalid, any means humans have to interpret the world is lost .

Tired? Not Surprising. Final Thoughts on Dickinson

Glass of iced tea with lemon and straw-refreshment after following Dickinson.

Glass of Iced Tea to Refresh Ourselves after tracking Dickinson’s Mind.

Whew, I am getting a little tired of bouncing around the Cosmos and wondering if my Reason is useless. I’m feeling more like getting a glass of iced tea, and maybe a sandwich—something based on sensation that I don’t have to think too much about. Maybe you feel the same way, so I’ll end this post with two observations:

  • One, I don’t think Dickinson felt this way all the time. She used this poem to explore this idea while she was entertaining it, but other poems go on to try to reframe the world in ever fresh, probing, and iconoclastic ways.
  • And Two: When you read Dickinson, don’t be fooled by the surface calm or the sweet little domestic details woven through her works. This woman’s mind was huge; it ranged through the Cosmos. She might be one of the most intellectually daring writers America has produced.
Have a thought? Please leave a reply! 
This Garden of Poppies could have been in Dickinson's back yard--humble starting place for her intellectual leaps.

This Garden of Poppies could have been in Dickinson’s back yard–humble starting place for her intellectual leaps.

Notes:

1Collamer M. Abbott from The Explicator  58.3 (Spring 2000) quoted on the Modern American Poetry website published by Univ. of Illinois.

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20 Comments

  1. Arthur Rankin

    May 23, 2017 at 11:44 am

    You have a powerful analysis of Dickinson here. I would like to share it with my students.

    • MJ Booklover

      May 23, 2017 at 11:50 am

      Thanks for your encouraging comment, Arthur! Dickinson has long been one of my favorite American poets, so I have read, taught, and thought a lot about her most famous poems for quite a while. By all means, share this post, and the website, with your students. I welcome their comments on this and other posts!

  2. Hi Im a student of Dr. Rankin. I love your interpretation of her poem as death rode up to her in the carriage she does say he is a gentleman and that he was willing to come to you if you were to busy to come to him. I like how she might have had a poker face to the approach of death. I thought she was awaiting death but the way you broke this poem down makes me believe it was her front on how to understand that death is always coming for you whether you are ready or not. Thank you. ~Angela Shaw Odessa College

    • MJ Booklover

      July 25, 2017 at 10:54 pm

      Hi Angela! I like the way you put it: “death is always coming for you whether you are ready or not.” That fits the way I interpret the poem. Thanks for commenting!

  3. Another pair of eyes is always helpful to see the meaning of a poem’s direction. I appreciate opening my eyes to see the pattern and symbolism of the wording. It can be difficult to figure out of someone’s writings such as Emily Dickinson. I would never given thought to using a ballad meter such as Gilligan’s Island theme to set Emily’s poetry. Even using the setting of the sun as a clock for death.
    ~Delana Gales -Odessa College

    • MJ Booklover

      July 28, 2017 at 3:17 pm

      Hi Delana! I’m glad you got a new perspective on Dickinson from the post. Yes, I think Dickinson used ballad meter as a sly way of making a little fun of the stern version of religion her family adhered to, which she couldn’t help but question sometimes. The meter of her poems was the same as the meter of the hymns they would have sung in church. I like your phrase “using the setting sun as a clock for death.” I’m thinking that Dickinson was probably not the first poet to do that, although no earlier poem that does that comes to my mind right away. Anyone out there know of an earlier poet who uses the setting sun to symbolize the ending of life? If so, please comment.

      Thanks for your response, Delana!

      • I’d was curious bout one more thing on Emily’s poetry. The first poem you reflect on, I was wandering if she has an erotic thing for death cause of the clothes she mentions the person wearing? The thin and light weight gown with a scarf. How bout the “Dews drew quivering and cold”? Could this be a sign of a stage of death? I looked up dew and it reflects to night when it collects. Asking for opinion.

      • MJ Booklover

        July 28, 2017 at 3:39 pm

        Delana, that is an interesting idea. I’m not sure about the erotic thing, although you might make a case for that. I think her clothes were the kind of thing a lady would wear on a nice warm afternoon to make a call on someone, but of course, when the dew appears at night, especially in New England where she lived, the air would be getting chilly, so she would wish she had her warmer shawl on. So yes, I think the “quivering and chill” dew would be symbolic of feeling death coming over her.

  4. Marisol Rodriguez

    July 28, 2017 at 4:14 pm

    Hello.
    I am doing an analysis over Emily Dickinson and your information has been very helpful. I had thought before that the poems of Emily where very calm and everything seemed to flow due to the many pauses. I could of never imagined that the poems could be sang but it does make sense. I also found it quite ironic for Emily to describe death as someone patient. Typically death is seen as something evil and the complete opposite of patient. I think that in this poem death is a person instead of a thing making the thought of death a little more frighting!

    • MJ Booklover

      July 28, 2017 at 4:34 pm

      Hello! I agree with you that Death being a person is more frightening. Also, making Death seem endlessly polite and patient is actually creepier than making him seem like a mean guy who is chasing you. If someone is chasing you, you just might get away, but if Death is someone who just waits, as long as it takes, he is sure to get you in the end. BTW, I don’t think Dickinson intended for her poems to be sung, but since the meter is a common one that lots of songs are written in, we can have a little fun with the poems that way! You might have fun thinking of other poems and songs you know that are written in ballad meter. I bet there are a lot of them. Thanks for your comment.

  5. Corina Sanchez

    July 28, 2017 at 8:59 pm

    Hi
    I’m a student in Mr. Rankin’s class. This was a great interpretation of Dickenson’s poems. When I first read her poems I thought she might have a mental illness but after learning so much about her I think she’s using poetry to express her fears. Death is the one thing in life we’re guaranteed. No matter how faithful or religious we are. We don’t know when or how it’s going to happen or what happens after. It really is terrifying and the only way to deal with the thought of death is to just not think about it cause there’s nothing you can do about it. The fact that she expressed her thoughts about it shows how amazing her mind really was.

    • MJ Booklover

      July 28, 2017 at 9:43 pm

      Hello! You made a great point, that Dickinson faced her fears and doubts head on, not just in these two poems, but in poem after poem. And she wrote more than 1700 of them! I think of her as having a truly courageous mind. Thanks for leaving a comment!

  6. HI!
    You made a very powerful explanation for “I Felt a Funeral, in my Brain”! When I first read this poem, I understood it as the speaker of the poem describing her sanity die before her as she is spectating her own death. Your interpretation is well supported and it is always good to see a new perspective on thought provoking poems such as these. You mentioned that the speaker plunges through the worlds of thought and idea in which she ceases to “know”. If this is the case why does Emily Dickinson leave a sort of ominous tone at the end of the poem as if there is something else yet to be mentioned by the speaker. On a side note, my third interpretation of this poem was that the speaker was realizing the insignificance of human thought, idea, and emotions at the time of one’s death when the individual(s) realizes the universe is much greater and incomprehensible by human reasoning.

    thank you for reading!
    -OC student

    • MJ Booklover

      August 1, 2017 at 8:27 pm

      Hello! I really like your “third interpretation” that the speaker could be “realizing the insignificance of human thought . . . at the time of one’s death. . . .” I think your idea would fit the text and the mood of the poem very well, and might be a common thought for many people as they absorb the reality of death. To your other point, that there is a sense at the end of the poem that the thought is unfinished, that there is more to be said–good point! Dickinson does seem to leave the poem dangling without fully completing the thought. Maybe the idea that rationality is unreal and that the universe is unknowable is too frightening to fully state; or perhaps the disappearance of reason leaves her without the ability to use language to explain anything, since in effect, she gives up thinking at all (since thinking and reasoning are not meaningful). What more can you say when everything is unknowable, except that it’s unknowable? There could be other reasons she leave the poem dangling. Ideas? Thanks for your response!

  7. Hi!
    My name is Xiao Han from Dr. Rankin’s class. I really enjoyed your blog! It is very powerful and deep fronded explanation of Emily Dickinson. I think her poems are all very dark and sad but in a way very meaningful to make people think about what death really it is to them. I think she is afraid of death and she try to find out the death afterwards. She leave many of her poems open up and let readers to analyzes and think of themselves. I think death is not scary or something to be afraid of instead is something nice and peaceful as most religious people say to go to heaven are about. I believe she is very smart person but why would she stay at home all the times? Is she has depression or something she is really sad about? I totally agree with you that I think sometimes that her intelligent that many people cannot understand at that time might make her feel like dead inside already and have nobody to talk to or express her believes.
    Thanks for reading!
    -Xiao Han-Odessa College

    • MJ Booklover

      August 4, 2017 at 12:32 pm

      Hello! I agree that Dickinson leaves her poems somewhat open to interpretation. In a lot of them, she expresses her own skepticism that the things people were told in church were literally true, but she doesn’t shut down any possibility entirely–as you say, she gets readers to consider possibilities so they can think for themselves. As for her staying at home, many biographers have speculated about it. Today she might have been diagnosed with some type of anxiety issue that made her feel more comfortable at home. In my opinion, and that of a couple of her biographers, she may have suffered from anxiety but more than that, she was a very intense and intellectual person who felt a true calling to be a poet. Staying within her home and garden having just a few visits from outsiders allowed her to focus her laser-like mind on her ideas and on her writing, with no distractions. She wrote nearly 1800 poems before she died at age 53. That is a lot of poems! And by the way, not all of them are dark or about death. Many are about nature, or offer wisdom about life, and are more upbeat. Check out some more of them sometime! Thanks for your comment.

  8. Hello, I am also one of Professor Rankin students! The poem “Because I could not stop for death” is one we read and talked about during class. I actually agree with many other readers on where they believe that this is Dickinson’s acceptance of death and talking about an after life. Throughout this poem she seems to show her willingness to go with death. Also, when she states “he kindly stopped for me” I took that as her way of saying that death is unexpected in many situations. One day you leave your house and expect to get to work okay, but something along the way could happen and life just ends. It’s sad, but it happens like that at times.

    Ibeth M.

    • MJ Booklover

      August 5, 2017 at 1:59 pm

      Hi! I think you make some good arguments in favor of your interpretation! As you know from reading my post, I don’t read the poem as you do, as a simple acceptance of death; but I think there is a good case for your perspective. We both agree on one thing: Dickinson’s observation that death can catch us in the middle of doing something else, when we don’t expect it. Thanks for your comment! Enjoy reading more Dickinson poetry!

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