A Word is Dead

August 26, 2020 by Essay Writer

A word is dead/ When it is said/ Some say/ I say it just/ Begins to live/ That day. (Dickinson, A Word is Dead) The poet who penned these words could not have described the impact her works had more accurately. As with other American writers of this century, Emily Dickinson’s literary works differ from her English counterparts in being less about society and more about the individual’s attempt to find their way in the physical or metaphysical environment.

Dickinson’s external life was restricted and secluded. Her internal life, however, was quite the opposite as she departed from the traditional and exemplified a literary independence and originality that has left its mark on the literary genre to this day. Although she was not recognized in life, Emily Dickinson is remembered in death for breaking the eighteenth-century expectations of poetic form in emphasis, tone and style. She exploited these poetic resources to convey complex emotions and states of mind and captures moments of feeling and thought into three or four stanzas.

The unconventional punctuation Emily Dickinson incorporated into her poetry is an example of her unique sense of poetic form and her accurate anticipation of the reader’s response to it. The first few lines of her poem, There’s a certain Slant of light/ Winter Afternoons, is an example of this as she only capitalizes ‘Slant’ and ‘Winter Afternoons’ as if to emphasize their importance. She also uses dashes in the middle of lines as if to slow down the rhythm of the stanzas and accentuate the poem’s musical tone. By characterizing this ‘Slant of light’ as ‘Winter Afternoons’, Dickinson uses imagery to elicit a feeling of cold oppressiveness also described as the ‘Heft of Cathedral Tunes’. The reference to the weight cathedral tunes may have been linked to her unorthodox views of Christianity which were as individual as her poetry.

The second stanza of the poem begins with the oxymoron of ‘Heavenly Hurt’ which refers to the Slant of light like the Heft of Cathedral Tunes. It continues, ‘Heavenly Hurt, it gives us / We can find no scar’, referring to internal pain and emotional struggle this light causes. This pain is such that it transcends our external senses and invades our hearts and minds so that there is no visible scar. ‘But internal difference / Where the Meanings, are’. Dickinson is describing the difference between external and internal pain using dashes in a way that adds depth, while conveying that our emotions and thoughts are where meaning lies. Our internal life is our truest form of reality because that is where we find our deepest sense of self. Her departure from the use of natural metaphors and imagery such as  Slant of light, Winter Afternoons and Cathedral Tunes, to the more abstract and nuanced descriptions such as ‘Heavenly Hurt’ and ‘Meanings’ mark her shift from the physical state to the emotional state of the individual.

Dickinson continues: ‘None may teach it Any Tis the Seal Despair An imperial affliction Sent us of the Air. She says that no one can manufacture any meaning from this internal pain which is the confirmed despair from ‘the Air’. This reference is capitalized for emphasis, but it is also used to denote spirituality, suggesting that this internal feeling of turmoil and darkness was sent from a higher power, making the struggle not only emotional but also spiritual. This emphasizes the transcendent tone of the poem through Dickinson’s unique style. By suggesting that Heaven sent this pain, she reveals her view of God as a remote, unsympathetic force that leaves humanity to wade through inner turmoil alone and isolated, and that this is a guarantee.

The poem concludes, ‘When it comes, the Landscape listens / Shadows hold their breath / When it goes, tis like the Distance/ On the look of Death’. Dickinson personifies natural elements, such as landscape and shadows, to illustrate how nature remains still, waiting in anticipation for the struggle to pass. This description strongly parallels with the Slant of light”being described as Winter Afternoons, showcasing the mysterious silence of nature in light of struggle. These metaphors, representative of suffering, also illustrate the severed bond suffering brought between the individual and nature. The dashes are used more frequently in the last stanza of the poem to increase the emotion and suspense as all of nature is suspended in silence.

The last line of the stanza ends with a dash rather than a definitive conclusion as it reaches a climax with the certain slant of light alluding to Death. This ambiguous conclusion leaves the reader questioning the fate of the suffering that has permeated every aspect of the victim’s surroundings. The last stanza’s change of tone resonates with the reader as the suffering is still felt (tis like the Distance) but is on the brink of death (On the look of Death). This word picture mirrors the emotional landscape of the reader and, in conjunction with dramatic punctuation, accurately describes the emotional journey of the suffering mind.

Emily Dickinson lived most of her life in isolation, maintaining contact with a select few from whom she derived creative inspiration. Consequently, her poems do not encompass a wide range of experiences but instead focused on the emotion of specific everyday experiences, making the mundane profound and the profound mundane. An example of this is found in the poem previously discussed as Dickinson successfully captures the emotion of suffering using natural imagery. She makes the complex mundane in her poem Because I could not stop for Death as she personifies death as a carriage driver and describes it as an everyday journey that we take for granted instead of the dark, mysterious threat that most assume it to be. As with most of her poems, there is no solution to the situation she presents. One can only contemplate such concepts of suffering and death by departing from the traditional ideas of moralism and rationality and relying on one’s free perception.

In the words of Helen McNeil, Emily Dickinson writes about emotions but ‘out of feeling she construct[s] a theory of knowledge not beyond feeling, or free from it but us[es] it as a kind of knowing’. In other words, Dickinson’s primary concern was to understand life and the expansion of this knowledge within her own mind and the minds of others was of principle importance as evidenced by her ability to address the most emotionally tormenting situations such as death and pain with calmness. Her poetry was more than a pastime; it was a passionate investigation that required the adoption of a narrative style in which she spoke to the reader and to herself. In this way, Emily Dickinson invites us on her journey of self-discovery driven by a desire to capture the depth and brevity of human emotion.

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