Two Poems. Two Ideas. One Author
Two of Emily Dickinson’s poems, Because I Could Not Stop For Death
and I Heard A Fly Buzz-When I Died, are both about one of life’s few
certainties: death. However, that is where the similarities end.
Although both poems were created less than a year apart by the same
poet, their ideas about what lies after death differ. In one, there
appears to be life after death, but in the other there is nothing. Only
a number of clues in each piece help us determine which poem believes in
In the piece, Because I Could Not Stop For Death, we are being told
the tale of a woman who is being taken away by Death. This is our first
indication that this poem believes in an afterlife. In most religions,
where there is a grim reaper like specter, this entity will deliver a
person’s soul to another place, usually a heaven or a hell.
In the fifth stanza, Death and the woman pause before …a House that
seemed A Swelling of the Ground- The Roof was scarcely visible- The
Cornice in the Ground- (913). Although the poem does not directly say
it, it is highly probable that this grave is the woman’s own. It is
also possible the woman’s body already rests beneath the soil in a
casket. If this is at all accurate, then her spirit or soul may be the
one who is looking at the house. Spirits and souls usually mean there
is an afterlife involved.
It isn’t until the sixth and final stanza where the audience obtains
conclusive evidence that Because I Could Not Stop For Death believes
in an afterlife. The woman recalls how it has been …Centuries- and
yet feels shorter than the Day I first surmised the Horses’ Heads were
toward Eternity- (913). To the woman, it has been a few hundred years
since Death visited her, but to her, it has felt like less than 24
hours. Since the body cannot live on for hundreds of years, then it must
be none other then the soul who has come to the realization that so much
time has passed. The final part with the horses refers to the horse
drawn carriage the woman was riding in when she passed away. In those
two final lines, the horses seem to be leading her into Eternity,
possibly into an afterlife.
It is just the exact opposite is Dickinson’s other poem, I Heard A
Fly Buzz-When I Died, With this particular piece of literature, the
clues which point to the disbelief in an afterlife are fewer and not as
blatant, but are all still present. In this poem, a woman is lying in
bed with her family standing all around waiting for her eventual death.
While the family is waiting for her to pass on, she herself is waiting
for …the King… (914). No, we’re not talking about Elvis, but
instead this King is some sort of omnipotent being, a god. Later as the
woman dies, her eyes (or windows as they are referred to in the poem)
fail, then she …could not see to see- (914). When she says this,
what she seems to mean is she could not see any of the afterlife or
Kings she expected to be there. The woman’s soul drifted off into
nothingness with no afterlife to travel to.
To conclude, the beliefs of the two Dickinson poems in regards to life
after death differ significantly. In one, life does exist, in the other
it does not. To determine which poem believes in what, one must dig
through the clues in each.