Emily Dickinson


What is death one may ask? Many immediately think of death as an unknown void, a reality mixed and intertwined with religious or philosophical beliefs. Others believe its a decision left unto the ultimate creator and is set in stone for each person and theres nothing one can do to change. Of course, as of right now, no one knows for certain when and what shape death comes in, but one can, of course, ponder. For this very reason, a select few suffer great emotional fear of the occurrence of it and try to lead a minimal risk life giving contentment to their vulnerable hearts. This is known as necrophilia, which Dickinson was a case of. Thus, in the case of poem number 280 by Emily Dickinson, the exact subject matter of death is examined further into greater detail.

Before one shall delve further into this poem, one must consider the state of mind of the author. Emily Dickinson was an extreme introverted lady who questioned many big questions of life such as religion, afterlife, death, and pain. She wrote a large collection of such poems, which answered these questions in a poetic slant way leaving the reader baffled yet richly empowered by the use of her imagery. In this poem particularly, the person who is experiencing the actions as well as speaking them is Emily Dickinson herself. Throughout this poem, there are five stanzas each adding to the tone of the narrative. The lines that particularly add the tone are three, seven, and eleven.

Dickinsons poem line three reads,  Kept treading-treading-till it seemed(176). Furthermore line seven discloses, Kept-beating-beating-till I thought(176). Lastly line eleven mentions the tone by saying Boots of Lead, again,(176). In this case the keyword is again. This word helps reemphasize the quote from line three and seven of the repetitive treading. Thus, all three of these lines conclusively give the reader a suggestion of a slow, monotonous, dreary tone. This is done so that the readers as well as the speaker of the poem seem to be stuck in an endless ritual of her (Dickinsons) death. As far as the meaning of each stanza, the first stanza describes the setting of a ceremony and sets a tone. In the ending parts of the stanza, it lets the readers know that the speaker has realized that her death has occurred. This can be seen in the last line of the stanza (line 4).

It reads,  That Sense was breaking through(176). At the end of this line, the speaker has realized that she is experiencing death. Stanza number two describes the further processions of the ceremonies making the tone even more monotonous and routine with the annoying drum beat ringing through her ears. This is shown through lines five and six, which mention  A Service, like a Drum- (176). Kept beating-beating-till I thought (176). Moving on to the third stanza, the speaker realizes that through the sounds that mourners and well-wishers are gazing upon her dead body. Then with a sudden shift from a worldly to an unworldly place, the last line of the third stanza quotes The Spacebegan to toll (176).

Through this, one can see the oblivion of unconsciousness has begun. This will follow suit throughout the fourth stanza, which describes heaven. She describes it as Bells, Silence and mentions the loneliness and despair she is experiencing. Moving on to the last stanza, she regains consciousness and mentally arrives back on Earth and her surroundings. The main purpose of this stanza is to describe her final thoughts as the pallbearers lower her coffin from the planks above. Consequently, in the end, she realizes the truth of afterlife and ceases to exist. This is shown through the very last line stating And Finished knowing-then (176).

In this narrative, the senses that are being used throughout the poem are interestingly only the auditory sense. Dickinson, having a natural scientific aptitude, intentionally put in auditory interactions. This is because when one dies the last sense that is lost is the auditory sense. There was not one mention of seeing, smelling, touching, tasting. The one and only sense used was that of hearing. One would guess that all senses would be used in the unworldly plane (heaven) however, Dickinson chose to stick to just the single sense of hearing. The general effective theme of this poem basically aroused the question of what happens during death. Do all of the following occurrences occur?

In recalling past history, it has been said that as the beheadings of monarchs and noblemen occurred, many had the capability of experiencing the sense of sight after the beheading for about 20 seconds due to the oxygen reserve still preserved in the brain. If this were the case, one must presume that more than twenty seconds are given to a dead person as far as hearing is concerned when an entire body is buried with much more oxygen being supplied to the hearing area of the brain. Thus, it is quite conceivable the following accounts could be a harsh reality in what truly happens.

Thus, the general effective theme of this poem gives a direct insight of moments before loss of death with a hint of descent into afterlife. Also, one may argue that one truly isnt dead until buried in the grave. This poem showed how through the sense of Emilys hearing alone, she got a general idea of what was going around her. Each and every moment was deciphered with tact as the speaker (Emily) tries to comprehend the ceremony and the eeriness of it all. However, in the end, when the coffin is released from the planks and goes down into the ground, the life of the speaker ends and the afterlife seemed to just begin. This all takes places in the poem when suddenly the reader is taken aback by the abrupt ending of nothingness.


1. Dickinson, Emily. Poem 280. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym. New York : W W Norton & Company, 2003. 176.