Cynthia Griffin Wolff

Cynthia Griffin Wolff: On 712 ("Because I could not stop for Death")

The speaker is a beautiful woman (already dead!), and like some spectral Cinderella, she is dressed to go to a ball: "For only Gossamer, my Gown--/MyTippet—onlyTule--." Her escort recalls both the lover of Poe's configuration and the "Bridegroom" that had been promised in the Bible: "We slowly drove--He knew no haste / And I had put away / My labor and my leisure too, / For His Civility--." Their "Carriage" hovers in some surrealistic state that is exterior to both time and place: they are no longer earth-bound, not quite dead (or at least still possessed of consciousness), but they have not yet achieved the celebration that awaits them, the "marriage supper of the Lamb."

Yet the ultimate implication of this work turns precisely upon the poet’s capacity to explode the finite temporal boundaries that generally define our existence, for there is a third member of the party--also exterior to time and location--and that is "Immortality." True immortality, the verse suggests, comes neither from the confabulations of a mate lover nor from God's intangible Heaven. Irrefutable "Immortality" resides in the work of art itself, the creation of an empowered woman poet that continues to captivate readers more than one hundred years after her death. And this much-read, often-cited poem stands as patent proof upon the page of its own argument!

From The Columbia History of American Poetry. Ed. Jay Parini. Copyright © 1993 by Columbia University Press.

Cynthia Griffin Wolff: On 280 ("I felt a Funeral, in my Brain")

At the end of "I heard a Fly buzz—" the speaker has been winnowed by death, and the integral self is scattered outward and destroyed by dispersal; that poem concludes when vision has failed. Another of the proleptic poems, "I felt a Funeral, in my Brain," begins after the power of seeing has been lost altogether.

[. . . .]

Here the process of annihilation is inverted: the fragile membrane that separates "self" from "outer world" has been ruptured, and the surroundings flood into consciousness with a force like that of sexual violation. There are no distinct "others" (not even the anonymous "Eyes" that had indicated mourners to witness death in "I heard a Fly buzz--"), nothing but a lone speaker whose mind has been filled with a jumble of sensations, as if it were no more than an empty vessel. Throughout, the speaker seems to strain after coherence, and the poem's compelling attraction derives in large measure from its ability to lure the reader into joining the speaker in this pursuit. It even seems apparent that Dickinson intends this prolonged and unresolved tension: at the beginning we are given to hope that "Sense was breaking through," and this expectation is not undercut until the end, when "a Plank in Reason, broke." The poem taunts with its invitations and frustrations, and ultimately forces us to ask what we know, how we know--whether "life" and "death" are susceptible to understanding.

The poem is taut in its movement, for there are at least three forces at work to set the verse in motion and structure its course. The one that is clearest and most available to the reader is the step-by-step scenario of "Funeral," a familiar ritual whose configuration has been decreed by society. All Congregationalist funerals followed very much the same outline, and few readers will have difficulty in recognizing it: the mourners who pay their respects, the church service, the removal to graveyard and burial, the tolling of the bell as friends and family leave to resume the pursuits of the living. What makes this poem startling, of course, is that the ritual observed in real life by the mourners is reported here by the deceased itself.

Although it is an impossible feat, seeing one's own funeral and reading one's own obituary are among the most common fantasies of our culture, and they have become stock components of our literature as well. Congregationalist ministers enjoined the members of their congregations to reflect upon the moment of death as a spiritual exercise, to imagine how family and friends would feel (would they be confident of meeting the deceased in Heaven, or would they fear an eternity of separation because the life of the deceased had given no signs of saving Grace?). Mark Twain played humorously with the remnants of this religious notion in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; and in the twentieth century Thornton Wilder's Our Town dramatized the pathos in life by using a proleptic narrator who sees, among other things, her own funeral. The premise behind all of these is the same: from the absolute vantage of death, we will be able to ascertain what is really important in life--what events were significant, what values are enduring. At last, perhaps, we can know what people really thought of us or how God will ultimately judge us: seeing our funeral might allow us finally to understand our "self." This poem is grotesque, and deliberately so, principally because Dickinson's rendition of the convention turns all the usual advantages of these literary devices against themselves. No information about life or self can be gathered from this funeral. The mourners are silent, muffled figures whose movement, though constant, "treading--treading," leads only "to and fro"; the funeral service has no sound but the relentless "beating--beating" of the unmusical, toneless "Drum." One horror, then, is the hollow abstraction of this retrospective view. Instead of confirming the importance of certain particular events and values, instead of revealing the true feelings of people for a specific soul now deceased, it suggests that nothing and no one can have enduring value. The only lasting value is the unvarying ritual itself as ritual, and both the reader and the proleptic Voice cling to the formal, abstract structure of the ceremony that alone seems capable of imposing order upon death.

In ironic juxtaposition to the regularized, conventional progress of the funeral rites is the second force in the poem, the disruptive capacity of death--a jumbling together of all categories that apply to the speaker and serve to define identity. The funeral is "felt"; the "Mind" becomes "numb"; the coffin is lifted "across" the soul; being is reduced to "an Ear," as speaker and "Silence" become members of the same "strange Race" of creatures. The speaker's plight in the penultimate stanza of the poem recollects Dickinson's assertion that Immortality is "the Flood subject," for even the possibility of consciousness after death becomes confused and terrifying when both speaker and "Silence" find themselves "Wrecked, solitary, here." The "Plank" of reason in the last stanza may seem cryptic to a modern reader; however, a contemporary reader might well have recognized Dickinson's allusion to the iconography of conservative, mid-nineteenth-century religious culture. In Holmes and Barber's Religious Allegories(1848), there is an emblem called "WALKING BY FAITH" (modeled on the passage from II Corinthians 5:7, "For we walk by faith, not by sight"). It depicts a man "just starting from what appears to be solid ground, to walk upon a narrow plank [with the word 'FAITH' imprinted on it], stretched across a deep "gulph" and which ends nobody knows whither." On one side is life, and on the other is Heaven; only the plank of "FAITH" can provide transport--so this emblem asserts. Yet having renounced faith, Dickinson substitutes a "Plank in Reason," which breaks because no rational explanation can be adequate to bridge the abyss between earth and Heaven. The poem concludes with a fall that is an apotheosis of confusion. Perhaps it recapitulates that first fall into Hell (the poem's recourse to the emblem tradition supports this inference); perhaps it is the horror of a residual self, dropping endlessly through infinite, interstellar space ("And hit a World, at every plunge," seems to confirm this reading)--no Heaven or Hell, just unbounded and eternal loneliness; perhaps it is a surrealistic fall into some dark, endless, undefined interior of being (the initial placing of the funeral "in my Brain" encourages this inference). And of all these possibilities, the first is perhaps the most comforting because the resort to a familiar mythic world makes it at least partially comprehensible.

This is an extraordinarily self-conscious piece of verse, with Dickinson making both artifice and the relationship between art and life explicit concerns of the poem. Thus two forces, the familiar order of ritual and the expanding disjunction of categories that are used to define the speaker's existence, function to balance each other in some measure. Without the systematic, articulated ceremony of the funeral rites, a reader might have no idea what the speaker was describing, and the poem would lack coherence and unity; without the steady distortion of the terms by which self is defined, the reader could not apprehend the full experiential anguish of the process. Yet they work together in one respect: each in its own way tacitly argues that human beings must create their own order, for we live in a universe that has an imperative only for annihilation.

The ultimate horror is this: that the inescapable activity of destruction derives much of its fearsomeness from being tied to the laws of unvarying and intractable movement--time, the third major force at work in the poem. And whereas the sequential order of the funeral and the violating disorder of disrupted categories are conveyed through diction, time's indifferent ruthlessness is rendered less directly--through absences and through syntactic and rhythmic structures. Thus the reader feels the force of time in the poem more keenly than he or she apprehends it intellectually.

We feel it first because of the oddities in the account of the funeral. In the latter-day Puritan culture of Emily Dickinson's Amherst, funeral services were forms of proto-narrative: since the ceremony was stylized, different portions of it were not of equal importance, even though they might take equal amounts of time to enact. The "narrative structure" of the funeral rite was dominated by the sermon, which summed up the life of the deceased and served as the centerpiece of the ritual: everything that preceded it was merely anticipatory; everything that followed was anticlimactic. A funeral told the tale of transition from earth to afterlife, and its sermon was the dead person’s final "earthly appearance." Drawing upon a tradition of many centuries, the minister would begin with a suitable text from the Bible; he would then select the most significant events in the dead person's life in order to reveal his or her essential Christian nature; finally, he would draw a conclusion concerning the spiritual state of the newly deceased--sometimes even estimating the chances for salvation. Although soul had been severed from body at death, society's formal recognition of this event did not occur until this moment, when the body lying in the casket was explicitly distinguished from both the mortal being who had lived on earth and its soul, now departed. The invariable chant at the graveside--"ashes to ashes, dust to dust"--gives articulation to this recognition. Pivoting upon the sermon, then, the funeral service balanced hope against apparent loss: all that was essential to the nature of he departed had moved to an afterlife, saved (it was hoped) by the merciful sacrifice of Christ; the mortal remains were thus no occasion for grief, for the "fall" into the grave could be canceled by the "rise" into Heaven. Funeral sermons were so important as exemplary renditions of Christian character and explicit instances of God's mercy that they were very often printed and published, to be read devotionally. Many of Heman Humphrey's and a number of Edward Hitchcock's still survive in this form.

Any accurate recapitulation of the funeral "narrative," then, would be shaped to mirror this structure, and such a recapitulation would of course reflect the crucial significance of the sermon as final exegesis of identity. A merely sequential movement of the verse would have to be modulated to highlight the central importance of this moment. However, such is not the case n Dickinson's version here. There is no narrative center to this poem. Quite the opposite: there is a curiously detached, even clinical tone, an apparent determination to tell only "what happened" in orderly, impartial, and merely temporal sequence, a fading out at the end into terrible uncertainty. Thus, although Dickinson employs the successive stages in the funeral ritual to establish a recognizable sequence in the poem, she does not "shape" this temporal arrangement to make the sermon take precedence: the "Service" is but one event among many, each of apparently equal consequence. This is a brutal violation, this flattening of the narrative so that temporal sequence provides the only order; and it accomplishes one part of its effect merely through a felt absence. There is no sermon in this service. The proleptic speaker's individual character does not dominate even her own funeral.

The second way a reader feels time's force in this poem, however, is probably its prominent feature: immutable clock-time conveyed grammatically through the driving, implacable forward movement of parataxis. Events occurring without pause, without yielding insight, without any logical relationship to one another, without any ordering of importance: life is swept remorselessly along in the swift current of time, swept over the edge, perhaps to come to rest in some unfathomed end, perhaps merely to fall forever. There is virtually no syntactic subordination in this poem; the few instances are either hypothetical ("As [if]") or, more commonly, temporal ("till ... when ... till ... then ... then ... then"). The insistent beat of "when" and "then" merely reinforces the drumming tattoo of ticking time, which becomes more insistent with each stanza and climaxes with the paratactic thumping of "And" that is concentrated in the fifth stanza ("And ... And ... And ... And") as the Voice recounts its final, undefined descent beyond understanding. It is thus that the reader is propelled forward by the driving force of time: urgent, impatient, uncaring. Here, the metrical dominance of "eights and sixes" hymnal cadence, serves as bitter irony--the hope offered by Christ utterly forsworn by the bleak vision of the verse; and probably Dickinson intended a trope for metrical foot in the image of "those same Boots of Lead, again"--death busy about his usual work of blight and annihilation.

The somber implication of paratactic movement is by no means confined to this one poem: it is rendered unmistakably (though unobtrusively) in "A Clock stopped--" by "Nods from the Gilded pointers--/ Nods from the Seconds slim--"; and the irony in that poem is that God is as completely entrapped by the inflexible nature of His invention as mankind is. Indeed, throughout Dickinson's work, the use of parataxis almost always signals the inexorable drive toward death.

From Emily Dickinson. Copyright © 1988 by Cynthia Griffin Wolff.

Cynthia Griffin Wolff: On 465 ("I heard a Fly buzz--when I died--")

Throughout, the "eye /I" of the speaker struggles to retain power. Ironically, although the final, haunting sentence has to do with sight, "I could not see to see--," at no time in the course of the poem can the speaker maintain an ordered visual grasp of the world. "The Ear is the last Face," Dickinson wrote to Higginson. We hear after we see." Thus is it in this work. We begin this poem about seeing—with sound.

In the first stanza, the "I" can still assert straightforward utterances of fact in a comprehensive manner; however, the faculty of sight has already begun to slip away. In the following stanza, "Eyes" belong only to others—ghostly, anonymous presences gathered to attest to God’s action. The speaker no longer retains either an autonomous "I" or the physical power of eyesight. A volitional self is recollected in stanza three, but the memory is one of relinquishment, the execution of the speaker’s last "will" and testament. Indeed, one element of the poem’s bitter contrast is concentrated in the juxtaposition of the ruthless will of the Deity, Who determines fate, and the speaker’s "will"—reduced by now to the legal document that has been designed to restore order in the aftermath of dissolution. And at this moment of double "execution," when tacit acknowledgement of God’s ineluctable force is rendered, identity begins to fritter away. The speaker formulates thought in increasingly strained synecdochic and metonymical tropes. The possessions of the dying Voice are designated as the "portions of me [that] be / Assignable--," not as discrete objects that belong to someone and are separate from her, but as blurred extensions of a fraying self that can no longer define the limits of identity. The "uncertain" quality that inheres in the speaker’s eyesight is assigned to the "stumbling Buzz" of the fly; it is the speaker’s faculties that have "failed," but in the verse, the speaker attributes failure to the "Windows." The confusions inherent in this rhetorical finale of the poem aptly render the atomizing self as the stately centrifugal force of dissolution begins to scatter being and consciousness.

Like many other proleptic poems, "I heard a Fly buzz—" serves several functions. It does provide a means of "Looking at Death"; in addition, however, it strives to define both death and life in unaccustomed ways. Thus it is centrally concerned to posit "seeing" as a form of power: "to see" is to assert authority and autonomy—the authority to define life in ways that will be meaningful not only to oneself, perhaps, but to other as well, and autonomy to reject the criteria and limits God would force upon us, even if such an act will inevitably elicit God’s wrath. Death robs us of all bodily sensations; more important, however, it wrests this autonomous authority from us, the final and most devastating wound, "I could not see to see--." Ironically, the strategy of the poem mimics God’s method, for a reader is enabled to comprehend the value of "sight" here principally by experiencing the horror of its loss. Moreover, the poem even suggest that some ways of engaging with the world during "life" may be no more than forms of animated death. Eating, sleeping, exercising the physical faculties—these alone do not describe "life"; and many pass through existence with a form of "blindness" that fatally compromises the integrity of self. Thus the poem offer a counsel to the living by strongly implying the crucial importance of daring "to see" while life still lasts, and one way in which the poet can be Representative is by offering a model of active insight that is susceptible of emulation.

From Emily Dickinson. Copyright © 1988 by Cynthia Wolff.