Dickinson and Plath: Two Twists on Death
Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for Death” (1863) and Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazarus” (1962) both feature first-person narrators who reflect on a common theme, death. Much of the poetry of Dickinson and Plath revolves around this universal subject with different effects. While Dickinson is largely known for her often ambivalent and curious perspective on death, Plath is better known for her angry resentment toward both her physical and emotional existence. Dickinson often likens “Death” to a gentleman suitor fit to gratify, as evidenced in her poems “Because I could not stop for Death” and “Death is the supple Suitor.” In contrast, Plath does not romanticize “Death,” but earnestly strives for it, as verified in “Lady Lazarus” and “Cut.” Written about one hundred years apart, the poems by Dickinson and Plath express two unique perspectives on death via the usage of tone, imagery, and symbolism.
Dickinson’s famous poem “Because I could not stop for Death” “draws on the sentimental idea of death as a gentle lover escorting his love to a new and blissful home” (Martin 101). In this peaceful rendering of a journey to the afterlife, Dickinson seems to imply that, far from being troubled by her inevitable death, she is readily open to it. This poem stands in stark contrast to one’s general perspective on death, and proves almost startling when death is equated with romantic notions such as civility and kindness. By describing the morbid subject of death with these surprising epithets, Dickinson approaches death in an unusual manner. Critic and poet Allen Tate marvels at Dickinson’s simple tone of casualness and word choice: “If the word great means anything in poetry, this poem is one of the greatest in the English language; it is flawless to the last detail” (87).
While “Because I could not stop for Death” indicates the narrator’s calm acceptance of death, it is inaccurate to assume that Dickinson herself was truly at ease with the concept. According to Wendy Martin, author of The Cambridge Introduction to Emily Dickinson: “Death was the problem for Dickinson, a riddle she could never solve but which she always explored…” (97). Although Dickinson lived in a culture that “attempted to make death familiar and even comfortable” (Martin 97), her poems are replete with uncertainty and timidity toward the notion of death. Martin claims: “[Dickinson’s] project is not necessarily to clarify death but to explore its silence, mystery, and unknowability as well as to record the range of emotions that the frightening mystery of death awakens in the human heart” (97).
The poem’s understated casualness of tone is clearly expressed in the narration of a polite, reserved woman who equates her death journey to a pleasant carriage ride, a common activity of the nineteenth century. As the poem progresses, however, the tone of Dickinson’s speaker subtly changes from that of calm acceptance to mild disbelief. The description of the country cemetery, the narrator’s final resting place, seems to make her pause with distrust of the situation. As the carriage halts before “a House that seemed a Swelling of the Ground,” she appears to be convincing herself of the reality before her. The poem originally conveys an optimistic tone, but ends less cheerfully, suggesting that the narrator was “ironic[ally] surprise[d]” (Ferlazzo 56) at her final destination.
The poem’s tone shows a successful shift in regularity through the use of poetic imagery. Dickinson’s choice of transportation is especially important in understanding the true allusion to death and burial. Critic David Baker emphasizes that “a carriage is a heavy four-wheeled vehicle, suitable for cumbersome loads (like a hearse), compared to a buggy, more likely for a spin taken by lovers” (216). With the realization that a carriage is much more suitable for a funeral procession than a ride down lover’s lane, readers perceive the narrator’s suspicion of the situation more sympathetically. “The Dews drew quivering and chill—For only Gossamer, my Gown—My Tippet—only Tulle—” (Dickinson 603), provokes a strong sense of the narrator’s fragility and vulnerability to death, facts she may not have acknowledged until the viewing of her tombstone. As the speaker realizes that she is dressed too lightly for the journey, she alters her tone of confidence by implying that she feels quite unprepared for it. Upon reaching “A Swelling of the Ground,” she pauses to signify her sudden indifference to the situation. The speaker concludes by suggesting that “true eternity lies in the single day in which we recognize death and thus capitalize on the present moment, which is itself infinite” (Martin 102).
Dickinson’s poem relies heavily on symbolism, an element which adds much depth to the poem. As discussed earlier, the concept of death is clearly personified as an attractive, gentleman suitor. Whereas readers would typically envision “Death” represented by the Grim Reaper, Dickinson portrays him instead as a person of tenderness. The carriage, a major symbol of the poem, represents not only the literal mode of transportation, but also the method by which an individual approaches death. Be it illness or natural aging, one achieves the threshold of death somehow. The references to the life processes, including “the School, where Children strove,” “the Fields of Gazing Grain,” and “the Setting Sun” (Dickinson 603), all symbolize the universal life progression. The speaker’s paper-thin clothing, mentioned earlier, denotes her exposure to death. The use of the word “House” in relation to the grave reminds us that Dickinson’s narrator has conflicted feelings about dying; on the one hand, she knows it should feel comfortable, like a homecoming. On the other hand, she allows that arriving at death is not an entirely comfortable feeling. Dickinson’s poem can be interpreted as both a meditative and ambiguous reflection on certain death.
Sylvia Plath’s poem exhibits frustration and mockery toward an elusive death. Written shortly before her death by suicide, Plath’s infamous “Lady Lazarus” reveals a woman’s struggle to live but also her struggle to die by her own hand. In this autobiographical poem, Plath marvels at her ability to reach the brink of death and not actually succumb to it. The poem asserts that—for Plath, at least—death is as suitable as an article of clothing that fits her well. Plath’s hopeful reliance on suicide certainly strikes an unfamiliar chord in most readers, as such madness is a dreadful occurrence. As indicated in Dickinson’s poem of civilized death, Plath’s attitude toward her self-inflicted demise contrasts greatly with readers’ general viewpoint of death.
Although several of Plath’s poems speak of a desire to escape the pain of her emotional life, much of her poetry is applicable to universal human suffering. Critics argue that Plath was particularly sensitive to the misery of females, especially those forced to live in a restricted patriarchal society. According to Lisa Narbeshuber, it is understood among Plath critics that she was troubled by “the problem of female selfhood” (185). Plath’s aggressive writing has led many readers to assume she was revolting against life and death but also against established social institutions, power politics, and other forms of human subjugation. In addition to the concept of death, “Lady Lazarus” also stresses elements of oppression, suffering, rebellion, and rebirth. “Lady Lazarus” is generally best described as a woman’s struggle to find her “balance on the ‘razor edge’ of the opposing forces of life and death” (Martin 198).
Although the overall theme of “Lady Lazarus” remains debatable, the tone of the poem is steadily contemptuous and bitter. The complexity of the poem indicates both the narrator’s delight in and distaste for her past suicide attempts. She muses that she is “A sort of walking miracle,” equipped with both the burden of wanting to die and the burden of living. Plath’s speaker both mocks and applauds herself throughout the poem, first by describing herself as “a smiling woman,” then later by declaring that “Dying is an art, like everything else. I do it exceptionally well” (571). A strong sense of irony is evident in the speaker’s decision to display her mental and emotional instability to others as if she were an onstage spectacle. Although a sense of shame underlies some of her positive commentary, the speaker returns several times with an irate tone to remind readers that she alone is responsible for her life—and also her death.
“Lady Lazarus” demonstrates several allusions to imagery, most notably through its use of Holocaust metaphors and physical descriptions. The narrator exposes her victim mentality at the opening of the poem by declaring her skin “Bright as a Nazi lampshade” (570), and her face “a featureless, fine Jew linen” (571). The ensuing portrayal of her appearance strongly appeals to the senses: “The nose, the eye pits, the full set of teeth? The sour breath Will vanish in a day” (571). She vividly expresses her physical deterioration with “Soon the flesh The grave cave ate will be At home on me” (571). She labels the man who returns her to life as “Herr Doktor” and “Herr Enemy,” further implying the German influence over the Jews. As she bemoans her physical existence as “Ash, ash―,” at which “You poke and stir,” she richly warns that she will conquer death and those who kept her from it soon enough: “Out of the ash I rise with my red hair. And I eat men like air” (572).
Plath’s poem includes much inherent symbolism, most apparent in the title. Plath’s title draws its origin from the Biblical character of Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the grave. The use of the word “Lady” in the title asserts that she is basically a female version of Lazarus. Furthermore, Plath’s narrator compares her struggle for life and death to the struggle of the Jews during World War II. Axelle Black observes: “The references to the holocaust are [the speaker’s] way [of demonstrating] how she imposes, like the Nazis, her will to commit suicide on her body, which withers beneath her willpower, like the Jews” (2). She is a victim, but unlike the Jews, she is a victim of herself. She uses a familiar analogy and claims that “like the cat I have nine times to die” (571), and categorizes this current suicide attempt “Number Three,” a certain celebration. The narrator insists that those who have criticized her past attempts have forced her into the awkward position of being center stage under the spotlight. She reveals herself to the crowd in a “big strip tease,” symbolizing the perversion of her actions. The speaker’s so-called “comeback” represents her physical recovery from every attempt to end her life thus far and suggests that she is a celebrity of sorts. Finally, she uses the symbolism inherent in the mythological phoenix, a sacred firebird which, after being reduced to ashes, finds its way back to life through rebirth.
Dickinson and Plath produce a common imagery in much of their poetry, which directs the reader’s attention to death as a natural extension of life rather than a lifeless turn. Both poems display the poets’ unique perspectives on death, especially through the use of symbolism. Dickinson’s portrayal of death as a mysterious, chivalrous gentleman asserts her uncertainty that death is kind but also relies on the faith that it might be. Plath’s depiction of death as a warranted relief from her delicate reality expresses her conviction that death is not only an escape from the tortures of life but truly a rebirth in itself. Both representations of death establish the tones of their work. Dickinson and Plath have been lauded for their poetic achievements, most notably for the poems evaluated here. However, the proof of their poetic value lies in their wonderful ability to interpret the same subject matter by such vastly differing means.
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