The beauty in death Emily dickinson's I felt a by lmv20934


									Oct. 2007, Volume 4, No.10 (Serial No.46)                                Sino-US English Teaching, ISSN1539-8072, USA

       The beauty in death: Emily dickinson’s I felt a funeral, in my brain

                                                       CHEN Jie
                     (School of Foreign Languages, Lanzhou Jiaotong University, Lanzhou 730070, China)

     Abstract: As one of the greatest female poets in the nineteenth century of American literature, Emily
Dickinson depicted the beauty in death with the unique secluded touch. Death, the most recurrent theme of her
poems, is adequately unfolded in her I felt a funeral, in my brain. The beauty of death is revealed from visual and
auditory perspectives.
     Key words: death; beauty; visual; auditory

      1. Introduction

     Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), the daughter of a prominent lawyer and politician, was born in Amherst,
Massachusetts, on December 10th. Her life was seemingly eventless, for she stayed quietly at home and lived in
almost total seclusion for the last twenty-five years, remaining unmarried. Because of her secluded life, she was
able to create a very personal and pure kind of poetry in which we find no mention of the Civil War or the other
national events. In effect, two of the greatest American poets lived in this period: Walt Whitman and Emily
Dickinson, but only the voice of the former was heard then, while the latter’s poems seem to belong to the 20th
century rather than the 19th. Emily Dickinson herself ever said: “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so
cold, no fire can ever warm me, I know that it is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off,
I know that it is poetry.” It suggests that poetry in its best sense is something intensely emotional. Most of her
poetry is a natural flow of personal feeling and experience far from society. Her poems are short, many of them
being based on a single image or symbol. But within her little lyrics, Miss Dickinson writes about some of the
most important things in life. She writes about love and a lover, whom she either never really found or else gave
up. She writes about nature. She writes about mortality and immortality. She writes about success, which she
thought she never achieved, and about failure, which she considered her constant companion. She writes of these
things so brilliantly that she is now ranked as one of America’s great poets. However, death is the most recurrent
theme of her poems, the number of which amount to over five hundred, exceeding one third of the total. The poem
chosen here is no exception. Maybe just because of her extraordinary life experience, her poems are filled with
special originality—witty, lively, fresh, pure, creative…. The poem chosen here may be the best example of it with
the Chinese translation version done by the author.

      2. The Poem and Its Translation

        I Felt a Funeral, in My Brain
                   Emily Dickinson (1830—1886)
          I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,

  CHEN Jie, female, M.A., dean of English Department, associate professor of School of Foreign Languages, Lanzhou Jiaotong
University; research fields: discourse/text analysis, second language writing studies.

                            The beauty in death: Emily Dickinson’s I felt a funeral, in my brain

          And Mourners to and fro
          Kept treading—treading—till it seemed
          That Sense was breaking through—

          And when they all were seated,
          A Service, like a Drum—
          Kept beating—beating—till I thought
          My Mind was going numb—
          And then I heard them lift a Box
          And creak across my Soul
          With those same Boots of Lead, again,
          The Space—began to toll,
          As all the heavens were a Bell,
          And Being, but an Ear,
          And I, and Silence, some strange Race
          Wrecked, solitary, here—

          And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
          And I dropped down, and down—
          And hit a World, at every plunge,
          And Finished knowing—then—

     3. The Analysis of the Poem

     The theme of this poem given above can be easily ascertained through the title—Death. The poem is
composed of four stanzas, which are developed from one to one in the narrative style. So the narrator “I” is the
participant in the whole procedure of the imaginary “funeral”. It is better for one to imagine that he is sitting in the
theater, waiting for a drama to be staged on if he intends to fully appreciate the poem. The first stanza depicts the
chaos and disorder before the service—funeral. It can be sensed by these words—“to and fro” and
“treading—treading”…. The first crucial moment of the whole process does not come until the last line of the first
stanza—“Sense was breaking through”. It suggests that the soul is about to be divorced from the body. With the
approaching disappearance of the body, the soul, the sense try to break through the body, standing still there. After
the dash “—”, nothing more is added to the concrete description about the “Sense”. It gives veins to our
imagination—after breaking through the shackles of the body, the soul will ascend gently into the air and look
down at the progress of the funeral as a witness of his own funeral, detached and calm. You are about to be wholly
immersed in the following scenes that are to be vividly presented. The beauty of Death commences to show.
     The second stanza is the prelude and some part of the development of the funeral, which is like the first act of
a drama with the drawing back of the curtain. After all the mourners were seated, then the beating sound of a
“drum” can be heard. “Drum” used here announces the beginning of the service, since “drum” is something
indispensable on some occasions, such as ritual services. So it serves as a symbol—something serious and solemn.
It adds the color of sanctity to the ceremony. Meanwhile it can stand for the funeral music and the monotonous
beat of the drum indicates that the approaching steps of death are more and more pressing. The “Box” apparently

                            The beauty in death: Emily Dickinson’s I felt a funeral, in my brain

stands for the Coffin that contains “my” body. “Lead” suggests the heavy steps of the mourners. With the further
development of the funeral, several depictions are used here to exaggerate the atmosphere of the funeral—the
monotonous rhythm of the drum, the creaking sound of the coffin being put into the grave and the heavy steps
made by mourners’ “Boots” till the second crucial moment comes—“The Space began to toll”. It just conveys the
gentle sorrow of the hero. “Toll” is used to intensify the beauty of Death. He knows every detail of the service and
how he feels at that moment, since his sense is still conscious and his soul is the witness of it.
      The third stanza delineates what follows after the burial. The sound of a “Bell” is heard from the heaven. The
image of the “Bell” is used here to declare the end of the service, just like the wedding ceremony—when the bell
rings, it suggests the end of the ceremony. The appearance of the “Ear” further illuminates that “I” am not losing
the total consciousness and vague sense still exists, but at present, the third crucial moment comes. The hero is
further aware of the fact that he now belongs to the strange “Race” with the company of “Silence”. “Wrecked”
and “Solitary” are the representation of the “Race”. “Here” suggests that he is trying to accept the prospective way
of existence. It is a quite different place—“here” without description about the place just to serve as a foil of his
self-possession and detachment.
      The last stanza is the epilogue of the funeral. The last part of the funeral has close correlation with another
aspect of worldly life. The hero is feeling that he is on the way of losing the reasoning ability. “Broke” suggests
that his state of ever-existence is collapsing and is about to be nothingness. It anticipates the total destruction, as if
the sound of the plank being cracked could be heard. Then it approaches the final crucial moment that he finally
reaches the other World. It is not directly pointed out whether it is the Heaven or Hades. The repetition of the
word “down” gives us a vivid picture of the journey towards the place “he” is supposed to belong to as if Death
just led you away through the tunnel of the impartial Time. With the sudden and violent descending process, he is
ultimately led into the destination—the new “World”. Then the sense is nothingness.

      4. The Visual and Auditory Effects of the Poem

      In addition to the beauty in the narrative style mentioned above, another originality of the poem lies in the
fact that it is a poem written for the eyes and ears, which cannot be ignored at all events. Emily Dickson was an
expert at creating images by visual and auditory effects. Firstly, the graphics and the use of punctuation are
arranged in a unique style so that readers will be deeply attracted at the first sight. The frequent capitalization of
some of the key words really gives the readers the clear thread of the crucial scenes and lays the emphasis on the
process—the disappearance of consciousness. It also supplies readers with a frame within which the visual power
is easily sensed and obtained. Dash “—” appears in every stanza. With regard to the last stanza, the dash after
“down” leaves the vivid impression that the readers fall with the hero down to another world. The dash delineates
an invisible path through which everyone will drop to the other end of the world—the ultimate home. The dash
seems to draw a sharp and invisible ray of light which reflects the distorted face and body of the person leaving
for his destination. The dash suggests it is a long way to go; on the way, the sense of the hero is about to vanish.
As to the second stanza, the two dashes after “beating” makes people hear the echo of the monotonous beat of the
drum. The effect is achieved in the first stanza as well. The dash highlights the monotony, dullness, heaviness and
suffocation of the funeral. When readers come to the line with the dash, they can clearly sense the drag of the
voice as if the hero just makes a sign with emotions. The use of it demonstrates the delay and the prolonging of
the voice so that the readers can clearly hear the hero’s suspiration in helplessness, thus achieving the auditory

                           The beauty in death: Emily Dickinson’s I felt a funeral, in my brain

effect as well. What’s more, Emily Dickinson was famous for her startling and original diction in her poetry. The
choice of certain words instead of others gives the power to the auditory effect. For instance, the “treading” in the
first stanza—the sound of the steps— resounds in the ears. The “beating” and “toll” of the second stanza make the
sound linger around. “Plunge” in the third stanza can even let the readers imagine the sound of hitting the ground
of the other World— the heavy plump. In addition, some of the wording actually builds up the strong dramatic
effects. For instance, “treading”, “beating”, “toll”, “silence”, “broke”, “down”… throw dark shadow upon the
image of Death and exert a kind of heavier sense. The heavy atmosphere can be sensed strongly and directly from
the diction. “I dropped down, and down—” instead of “rising up” conveys the sorrow and helplessness of the hero.
The dash after “down” throws doubt and uncertainty on the path to the other World. The journey is likely to be in
a perilous and uncertain state. The atmosphere is richly intensified in this way. The beauty of Death is, thus,
embodied adequately. It is self-evident that readers will be completely moved by the visual and auditory effects of
the poem.
      Generally speaking, no rigid rhyme scheme is employed in this poem. It is a free verse on the whole, since
the lines are of different lengths and switch abruptly from one rhyme to another, but readers can trace the strong
rhythm of the poem. Once read, the poem displays a special rhymes and melodious flow of sound. Readers will be
amazed by the title of the poem. Anyone who can conjure his own funeral with no fear really shows that he is so
detached and relieved with the doubtless fact that man is mortal. We can imagine how peaceful “I” am in the very
bottom of the heart about the truth—no one can escape from death nor can he stop the approaching steps of Death.
In this poem, Death is depicted as the process of losing consciousness. You and Silence will co-exist in the other
World. As the stanzas are unfolded, Death is coming closer and closer to the hero “I”. Death is a journey during
which people gradually come to lose the sense, though it may be a perilous and uncertain journey, yet in the end
people will reach a World across Styx—the river across which the soul of the dead are ferried. You will be
welcome and find it is the new way home, since it is the way everyone will follow, so you will find the new home
that you eternally belong to. “Death” is depicted with a gentle sadness, but not in a horrible picture. Mortality is
the beginning of immortality which displays the eternal beauty. “I” exhibits perfect self-possession, though it is an
imaginary process; still it is so real and sweet that we cannot help believing it. The name of a novel suddenly
occurs to me—To the lighthouse written by Virginia Woolf. The journey, which ensures the safe arrival to the
other World, resembles the way to the Lighthouse, the destination of which is the other shore of Styx. Everything
may be in a chaotic condition, but once the traveller steps on the shore, the eternal beauty and peace will be
unfolded in front of his eyes and that is the world of perfection and immortality.

     5. Conclusion

     There is no doubt that the solitary Miss Dickinson of Amherst, Massachusetts, is a writer of great power and
beauty. As the saying goes—if something is poetry to us, it sends an invigorating current through our blood; if it
leaves us unmoved, it is not poetry to us. The famous poet of American—Carl Sandburg ever said: “Poetry is the
opening and closing of a door, leaving those who look through to guess what is seen during a moment” (CHENG
Ai-min, 1996, p. 3) .What I did is just a glimpse through the door, but it makes me a quite different human being
out of it. That may be the joy of reading poetry. Poets create for us the meaningful poetic experience out of the
chaotic details of life. They say what we want to say from our own hearts, from our own experience and lead us to
new perceptions, new feelings and experiences of which we have not previously been aware. Once fully immersed

                            The beauty in death: Emily Dickinson’s I felt a funeral, in my brain

in the poetry, we can get the magic and power and joy of it, since great poetry creates not only experiences but
also new people out of its readers. It is true that Emily Dickson did not shine with her contemporaries in her time,
but the talented star radiates the brilliant rays of light permanently afterwards.

CHENG Ai-min. 1996. A reading course in American literature. Nanjing: Nanjing Normal University Press. (in Chinese)
GUI Yang-qing & WU Xiang-lin. 1995. Selected readings in American literature. Beijing: China Translation & Publishing
    Corporation. (in Chinese)
WANG Yu-long. 1996. English rhetoric and writing. Qingdao: Qiangdao Press. (in Chinese)
WU Wei-ren. 1990. A history of American literature and selected readings (Book II). Beijing: Foreign Language Teaching and
    Research Press. (in Chinese)

                                                                                   (Edited by Doris, Robert, and Jessica)


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