Death & Poetry Part 3: Because I Could Not Stop For Death

(Note: this is the third post about Poetry and Death based on a research project that I recently finished for my Medical Humanities class in Fall 2016. This post analyzes “Because I Could Not Stop For Death” by Emily Dickinson and attempts to highlight how this poem enables readers to cope with death. I hope that you will find this post interesting and thought provoking.)

Rather than speaking as someone still alive, Emily Dickinson, in her poem “Because I Could Not Stop For Death,” writes from the perspective of someone who already died. She highlights the complex nature and inevitability of death, and encourages her readers to accept it, but realize that it is not the end. After all, “death is normal [and] it is also the natural order of things” (Gawande 8). While she does not go so far as to say death is good or something worth looking forward to, Dickinson portrays death as moderately annoying but nothing extremely terrible. And because of the inevitability of death, we are better off accepting it than fighting it.

Similar to Thomas, Dickinson’s beginning lines bear significant weight and set the tone for the rest of the poem. She writes, “Because I could not stop for Death –  / He kindly stopped for me – ” (Lines 1-2). Dickinson implies that individuals are often too busy and preoccupied with life to die, yet death is merely an interruption, a “kind stop” of sorts. Further, “by anthropomorphizing Death as a kind and civil gentleman, the speaker particularizes Death’s characteristics with favorable connotations” (Shaw 20). Compared to commonly held negative views of death, Dickinson’s perspective is unique and potentially refreshing. However, one possible explanation for the speaker’s view of death is that we, as humans, “seem to fear and deny the reality of death. […] We use euphemisms, we make the dead look as if they were asleep, we ship the children off to protect them from the anxiety and turmoil” that surrounds the death process (Kübler-Ross 6). So while the speaker’s perspective might seem pleasingly positive, this euphemistic personification might be an attempt to deny the reality of death’s awfulness.

In another sense, however, these opening lines subtly acknowledge a component of death’s dreadfulness. Dickinson declares that individuals cannot decide when they die; therefore, this stopping is not discretionary. After all, “it is simply not her nature to stop for Death,” meaning that death is inevitable and quite deviant from human nature (Engle 74). Throughout this poem, Dickinson’s view of death comes across as multifaceted, which is admirable given death’s complex nature.

The next few lines highlight the complicated and intriguing view of death that Dickinson possesses. She implies that existence continues beyond death when she writes, “The Carriage held but just Ourselves –  / And Immortality” (Lines 3-4). Reiterating the inevitability and uncontrollability of death, she notes, “We slowly drove – / He knew no haste” (Line 5). Death operates at its own speed and does not change its course based on the whims of its victims. In the next lines the speaker discusses some of the multifaceted effects of death, saying, “And I had put away / My labor and my leisure too, / For His Civility – ” (Lines 6-8). Death marks the end of both work and leisure, which, if work is difficult and leisure is enjoyable, means death’s effects are net neutral.

Dickinson observes that death allows us to remember the past when she writes, “We passed the School, where Children strove / At Recess – in the Ring –” (Lines 9-10). She believes that death gives individuals an opportunity to consider the nature of life. She says, “We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –  / We passed the Setting Sun –” (Lines 11-12). The phrase “fields of gazing grain” seems to symbolize the beginning of life, while the “setting sun” seems to symbolize the end of life. Therefore, it seems that death offers a comprehensive view of and appreciation for life and its brevity.

Continuing, Dickinson employs interesting imagery as she writes, “Or rather – He passed us – / The Dews drew quivering and chill – / For only Gossamer, my Gown – / My Tippet – only Tulle –” (Lines 13-16). These lines employ cryptic imagery, making their meaning difficult to determine. However, it is apparent that the speaker feels cold and potentially underprepared in the face of death. Dickinson, consequently, shows that by advocating acceptance, she does not assume the absence of fear or unpreparedness. By nature, death instigates some level of uneasiness. Nevertheless, Dickinson’s tone shifts slightly as she recommends acceptance in the following lines, “We paused before a House that seemed / A Swelling of the Ground – / The Roof was scarcely visible – / The Cornice – in the Ground –” (Lines 17-20). This description spins death’s effects quite positively. If a grave is a home, then death marks a homecoming of sorts and should be welcomed.

Although the speaker’s situation was previously alluded to, it becomes apparent in the following lines when Dickinson writes, “Since then – ‘tis Centuries – and yet / Feels shorter than the Day” (Lines 21-22). These words make it clear that the speaker has already died and is commenting on the nature of life, death, and eternity. It seems that “viewing the progression of these stages – life, to death, to eternity – as a continuum invests these isolated incomprehensible events with meaning. From the eternal perspective, the speaker comprehends that life, like the ‘Horses Heads’ (23), leads ‘toward Eternity’ (24)” (Shaw 20). Undoubtedly, death has brought forth a greater meaning and significance to life, which can often feel brief or confusing. The final lines emphasize that death transports individuals to eternity, which is the final the destination, “I first surmised the Horses’ Heads / Were toward Eternity – ” (Lines 23-24). Death and life are merely vehicles; eternity is the endpoint.

As far as the stylistic structure of this poem goes, Dickinson made a number of choices to accentuate the themes of the poem. The frequent dashes and unpredictable breaks in the lines highlight the interrupting and impulsive nature of death. Using a rhythm similar to a drumbeat, this poem emphasizes the systematic, indefatigable human march from life to death to eternity. Although this poem portrays the human experience of death, it employs a “nonlinear, dream-like progression,” which is fitting because humans may experience death or other traumatic situations in a nonlinear form (Engle 75).

To summarize this poem we must note that Dickinson’s complicated perspective describes death as a slight aggravation, but nothing close to an enemy. Because death interrupts life, individuals should acknowledge the brevity and value of life. Ultimately, death, as our benevolent chauffeur, transports us from life into eternity, which is where we belong. Thus, acceptance is the appropriate response to death. If there is an afterlife, then “death may be kind in taking us from a world of proverbial woe into one of equally proverbial eternal bliss” (Hoepfner 96). Dickinson alludes to some sort of religious beliefs as she advocates for acceptance of death because it is not the end.

 

For further reading, check out the following sources:

Dickinson, Emily. “Because I Could Not Stop For Death.Poets.org. Academy of American Poets, n.d. Web. 23 Oct. 2016.

Engle, Patricia. “Dickinson’s BECAUSE I COULD NOT STOP FOR DEATH.” Explicator 60.2 (2002): 72. Academic Search Premier. Web. 21 Sept. 2016

Gawande, Atul. Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. New York: Metropolitan , Henry Holt, 2014.

Hoepfner, Theodore C. “Because I Could Not Stop For Death.” American Literature 29.1 (1957): 96. Academic Search Premier. Web. 21 Sept. 2016.

Kübler-Ross, Elisabeth. On Death and Dying. New York: Macmillan, 1969.

Shaw, M.N. “Dickinson’s Because I Could Not Stop For Death.” Explicator 50.1 (1991): 20. Academic Search Premier. Web. 21 Sept. 2016.

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I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Feel free to leave a comment or shoot me an email with your reactions to this post. I’d love to hear what you have to say and thanks for reading!

Death & Poetry Part 2: Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

(Note: this is the second post about Poetry and Death based on a research project that I recently finished for my Medical Humanities class in Fall 2016. This post analyzes “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas and attempts to highlight how this poem enables readers to cope with death. I hope that you will find this post interesting and thought provoking.)

Thomas writes “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” from the perspective of a son speaking to his dying father. He implores his father to vigorously fight despair at the end of life. In other words the speaker is “advocating active resistance to death immediately before death, not sad mourning after it” (Westphal 113). Thomas seems to believe that those who fail to resist death helplessly welcome despair and mourning. This poem describes death as an enemy and encourages a posture of animosity towards death.

The situation that Thomas speaks into is both serious and common. After all, “it is inconceivable for our unconscious to imagine an actual ending of our own life here on earth, and if the life of ours has to end, the ending is always attributed to a malicious intervention from the outside by someone else. In simple terms, in our unconscious mind we can only be killed; it is inconceivable to die of a natural cause or of old age” (Kübler-Ross 2). Given the psychological struggle that mankind has with dying in this particular way, Thomas’ words bear even more weight.

Thomas begins this poem with the famous phrase, “Do not go gentle into that good night” (Line 1). Through this line, Thomas urges his father (and his readers) to not bear of a posture of complacency and acceptance but to struggle in the face of death. He interestingly describes death as a “good night,” which stands paradoxically in contrast with his urges to “not go gentle.” Thomas continues, “Old age should burn and rave at close of day; / Rage, rage against the dying of the light” (Lines 2-3). Just because an individual is old does not mean that person’s life should be any less passionate or vigorous than before, Thomas says. Life should always flourish, but death brings an end to this flourishing, and therefore, because it is unnatural in this sense, death should be resisted.

Further accentuating this unpleasantness, death in the modern era has characteristics that make it “more gruesome in many ways, namely, more lonely […] because the patient is often taken out of his familiar environment” (Kübler-Ross 7). Even surrounded by family death is inherently lonely because it cannot be experienced collectively. The brutality of death becomes exponentially more apparent once we realize that each of us must face death alone.

Based upon the reality of death’s ruthlessness, Thomas continues his exhortation of his father, “Though wise men at their end know dark is right, / Because their words had forked no lightning they / Do not go gentle into that good night” (Lines 4-6). These lines use some peculiar imagery and their meaning is by no means obvious. However, it appears that the speaker is noting that the wise acknowledge the imminence of death when he writes that they “at their end know dark is right.” Despite this knowledge, the wise still do not complacently go towards death; rather, their understanding enables them to resist death all the more.

Continuing with the descriptive imagery Thomas says, “Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright / Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay, / Rage, rage against the dying of the light” (Lines 7-9). The speaker singles out another group of people, “good men,” and say that they know that their lives could have been significant and beautiful if not cut short. For this reason he urges them to rage against the ending of life.

Life is short. Thomas notes, “Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight, / And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way, / Do not go gentle into that good night” (Lines 10-12). Using the metaphor of the sun, the speaker describes how men, in the same instant that they celebrate life, also mourn death. Because of the natural brevity of life, death should be resisted.

As he continues, Thomas presents his father with an example of what life at the end could look like. He writes, “Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight / Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay, / Rage, rage against the dying of the light” (Lines 13-15). Even those with “blinding sight” (presumably the elderly) have the opportunity to “blaze like meteors and be gay.” Age is no excuse to give in to death and those who resist death have the opportunity to use their last moments productively.

Thomas follows up this example with a final exhortation to resist complacency at the end of life. He implores, “And you, my father, there on the sad height, / Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray. / Do not go gentle into that good night. / Rage, rage against the dying of the light” (Lines 16-19). In the face of death, the son begs his father for any sort of action. The giving of a blessing or even of a curse would be better than doing nothing. Thomas knows that all life deserves good stewardship and begs his father to seek to use his time well, even at the end of life.

Through the structure of this poem, Thomas further accentuates these themes. If one were to read this poem out loud, the listeners would likely notice the disjointed rhythm that these lines display. The pace of this poem does not resolve the way listeners might like, which mirrors the point that life rarely ends the way individuals would like. Considering that most of the lines are in groups of three, this poem’s rhyme is fairly unpredictable. This structural decision emphasizes that death is unpredictable and seldom behaves the way that we might like it to behave. These mechanical decisions highlight the ways that poetry can communicate uniquely and effectively, and the way that Thomas applied them to this subject matter.

In summary Thomas instructs his readers to deal with death by fighting it to the very end. In the face of death’s inevitability, Thomas commends attempting to make best possible use of every moment of life. A subtler theme in this poem is the idea that “death often brings with it a profound gratitude for life” (Burch 1896). Thomas emphasizes that, because it is the end of life, death often creates a sense of regret, or at least recognition of life’s true value and potential. It is also interesting to reemphasize that this poem is written from the perspective of a son to his father. This poem is not written by someone in the process of dying but rather by someone who is experience the secondary effects of death. But this fact serves as a reminder that death’s greatest negative effects are often on those left behind. As noted earlier, death creates isolation and “the real terror in death, for those dying as for those left behind, is the loneliness of it” (Burch 1896).

 

For further reading, check out the following sources:

Burch, Druin. “On Death.” Lancet 360.9348 (2002): 1896. Academic Search Premier. Web. 21 Sept. 2016.

Kübler-Ross, Elisabeth. On Death and Dying. New York: Macmillan, 1969.

Thomas, Dylan. “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” Poets.org. Academy of American Poets, n.d. Web. 23 Oct. 2016.

Westphal, Jonathan. “Thomas’s Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” Explicator 52.2 (1994): 113. Academic Search Premier. Web. 21 Sept. 2016.

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I hope you found this post to be informative and relevant. Please leave your thoughts in a comment below or send them to me via email. And again, thanks for reading!

Death & Poetry Part 1: Poetry as a Communication Medium

(Note: this is the first of four posts about Poetry and Death based on a research project that I recently finished for my Medical Humanities class in Fall 2016. This post outlines some unique characteristics of poetry as a method of communication, while the following posts will look at specific poems on the topic of Death. I hope that you will find this post interesting and thought-provoking.)

Assuming that writings that describe the human condition related to death bear importance, what makes poetry uniquely suited to enable individuals to cope with death? Poetry stands as a distinctive form of communication for a number reasons, and these distinctions allow to poetry to aid individuals in inimitable ways.

First, poetry uses figurative language, which allows for the speaker to express ideas, which would be difficult to articulate via normal vocabulary. Barry Klassel in the article “The Two-Headed Calf: Poetry and the Experience of Being Human” writes, “Poetry is the art form that conveys aspects of human experience through a concentrated and precise use of language” (Klassel 2). Poetry utilizes many literary devices such as metaphors, similes, extended imagery, and rhymes, which set it apart from other types of communication. These characteristics allow poetry to express the human condition in figurative language, which is more effective in instances where literal explanations fall short. Poetry communicates “what is deeply felt and essentially unsayable; that is the paradox on which the poem necessarily turns. A poet uses language as a painter uses color, a primary material out of which to make art” (Alexander 18). Traumatic events like illness or death that might be difficult for the speaker to describe in normal terms can be retold through a medium such poetry, which allows for the manifestation of feelings and not just literal occurrences. Poetry provides the poet with a medium through which to manipulate language in unconventional ways.

Second, poetry allows the readers to experience what they would be unable to experience otherwise. Klassel again notes, “The power of poetry opens us to realms of experience we couldn’t visit otherwise (except, perhaps, through another art form such as film). And while good poetry has an immediate effect, it’s also multidimensional in its ability to evoke layers of meaning beyond first impressions” (Klassel 2). Poetry connects individuals to people and events, which they would be unable to experience, or even understand, otherwise. Events like traumatic illness and death can be described in understandable, relatable terms through poetry. Also, as this quote notes, the figurative language of poetry often leads to a multitude of potential meanings, indicating that poetry can instruct people in numerous ways. The same poem can impact the same individual in several ways over time, as these manifold meanings are uncovered. In a similar manner, “the poem in its act of meaning-making turns away from the literal, its truth bound to what can be evoked” (Alexander 18). For different listeners, different truths can be derived from poetry, giving this medium an extensive and diverse range of influence.

All of these characteristics make poetry uniquely suited to enable individuals to cope with death.

 

For further reading, check out the following articles:

Alexander, Meena. “What Use Is Poetry?.” World Literature Today 87.5 (2013): 17-21. Academic Search Premier. Web. 23 Sept. 2016.

Klassel, Barry. “The Two-Headed Calf”: Poetry And The Experience Of Being Human.” Humanist 68.4 (2008): 30-33. Academic Search Premier. Web. 23 Sept. 2016.

 

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I’d love to hear what you think about this post. Feel free to leave a comment or send me an email. Also, stayed tuned for the next three post, which will expound on these ideas further.

The Parking Garage Dilemma

I’ve been studying a lot of economics lately and have been intrigued by a field known as “Behavioral Economics.” While I am far from an expert in this field, from my understanding this area of study seeks to explain why individuals make many of the decisions that they do, based on economic theory. This field is rooted in the concept of “rationality” which assumes that individuals weigh costs and benefits when making decisions.

Being a student of economics, and this area in particular, has lead me to try to apply what I’ve learned to some areas of my everyday life. (It is really interesting, as you get into this area of study, to look at and analyze the different decisions that you make on a daily basis. Oftentimes, you will begin to notice that you subconsciously weigh the costs and benefits of decisions without even explicitly thinking about it.)

One such area that I have been wrestling with is the concept of where one should park in a parking garage. I’ve been working in downtown Louisville for the past two years and utilize a parking garage on a weekly basis. Honestly, as I drove into work, I didn’t put too much thought into where to park. I generally would pick the first open spot I could find, so as to limit the amount of time I would spend driving out of the parking garage.

If everybody behaved this way, this topic would be quite uninteresting. After a couple months of parking in this manner, however, I started to notice that cars would drive past me and other open parking spots and head further up the garage in search of other open spots. To be honest, I could not make sense of this decision. Why would somebody pass up perfectly good spots on, say the fourth floor, in order to obtain open spots on the sixth floor? It made no rational sense to me.

Although I didn’t put too much effort into solving this puzzle, it did stick with me and annoy me on occasion. Finally, I obtained some clarity on a day when most of the lower level spots were filled. I drove up to the fifth level and noticed that all of the spots near the elevator were filled. I kept driving past many open spots until I got to the sixth level and also noticed that all of the spots near the elevator were filled. Suddenly, it occurred to me – these people were not trying to minimize the amount of time spent leaving the parking garage, but were trying to minimize the amount of time spent walking to and from the elevator! While I was willing to sacrifice a short walk to the elevator (cost) in exchange for a short drive out of the parking garage (benefit), these other people behaved the opposite way.

(Since writing this initial post in December, I’ve been able to take an “Urban Economics” class, which deals with city structure, transportation, and many other issues, and has given me a few tools to more eloquently explain this situation. Here is a more bit of a more technical explanation of the situation:)

When thinking about the “costs” of travel, economists consider both explicit monetary costs, as well as time costs. These time costs can be further broken down into “access time” costs and “in-vehicle time” costs. Access time cost is merely the disutility that an individual undergoes in order to enter a vehicle (i.e. waiting for a subway, walking to a bus stop, etc.), while in-vehicle cost is the disutility that an individual undergoes during an actual trip (i.e. sitting in traffic, sitting in a crowded bus, etc.).

Generally, to decrease access time, in-vehicle time would have to be increased. For example for a light rail system to decrease access time, the operators would have to add stops to the system. These more frequent stops would, however, increase in-vehicle time for those who were already on the light rail.

Empirical research shows that people actually dislike access time more than in-vehicle time. So, most individuals would rather get on a vehicle quickly, even if the trips itself were to take longer.

This actually lines up consistently with my observations in the parking garage. While I tried to minimize my in-vehicle time by parking in the first spot I saw, these people who kept driving to upper levels were trying to minimize their access time by parking close to the elevators. Apparently, my “ground-breaking” observations can be very easily explained by existing economic theory. Nevertheless, I thought these ideas were worth sharing.

To wrap this up, economics is a fascinating topic and can be used to explain many seemingly confusing aspects of human behavior. I hope this post was interesting and/or beneficial to you.

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If this post piqued your interest or if you believe that this is really too petty of a subject to be discussed, please leave a comment or send me an email. Thanks for reading!