Category Archives: Poetry & Death – American

Brief Analysis of Emily Dickinson’s, “Because I could not stop for Death”

Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886) was born in Amherst, Massachusetts. After studying at the Amherst Academy for seven years in her youth, she briefly attended the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary before returning to her family’s house in Amherst. Dickinson never married, and most friendships between her and others depended entirely upon correspondence. For most of her life, she lived as a recluse.

While Dickinson was a prolific poet, fewer than a dozen of her nearly 1,800 poems were published during her lifetime. Although her acquaintances were probably aware of her writing, it was not until after her death that her younger sister discovered Dickinson’s cache of poems. Today most experts consider Dickinson to be one of the greatest American poets. Here is probably her most well-known poem, followed by a brief analysis.

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –

And Immortality.

We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –

Or rather – He passed Us –
The Dews drew quivering and Chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground –

Since then – ’tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity –

Analysis – In this poem, Dickinson speaks from beyond the grave about death—personified as a gentleman who picks her up in a carriage. They drive along slowly, as she ceases to work and views the world she is leaving behind. She grows cold as the dusk falls, and they stop at her burial-place, marked by a small headstone. In the final stanza, we learn that her ride with Death took place centuries ago, but seems to her as if it happened yesterday. When she took that ride with death she first realized that the horses and carriage were taking her to an afterlife.

Commentary – When reading this poem I visualize a deep and introspective woman imagining that she will find recompense for the loneliness of her life in a beautiful afterlife. This is touching, but the philosopher in me doubts any of this is true. Of course, I could be wrong.

Longfellow’s “Morituri Salutamas” – A Poem About Old Age

In 1875, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807 – 1882) accepted an offer from the American Civil War hero Joshua Chamberlain to speak at Longfellow’s fiftieth reunion at Bowdoin College. There he read his poem “Morituri Salutamus.” (The title of the poem means, “We who are about to die, salute you.”) The poem begins with a Latin quote by the Roman poet Ovid which reads: “Tempora labuntur, tacitisque senescimus annis, Et fugiunt freno non remorante dies.” (“The times slip away, and we grow old with silent years, and the days flee unchecked by a rein.”) (Here is a link to  Chamberlains’s letter inviting Longfellow.)

The poem expresses Longfellow’s belief that while we cannot stop the inexorable march of time, we can mitigate its effects by learning as we pass through life—for maturity allows for insights unachievable in youth. He also voices his belief that there is much left to do in old age. While it is true that most of us won’t do our best work in old age, perhaps if we have learned something in life we will become better people as we age.  And while many criticized the simplicity of Longfellow’s simple rhymes, I find them comforting.

The final stanzas of Longfellow’s poem exhort his fellows to continue to work and dream even as they age.

But why, you ask me, should this tale be told
To men grown old, or who are growing old?
It is too late! Ah, nothing is too late
Till the tired heart shall cease to palpitate.
Cato learned Greek at eighty; Sophocles
Wrote his grand Oedipus, and Simonides
Bore off the prize of verse from his compeers,
When each had numbered more than fourscore years,
And Theophrastus, at fourscore and ten,
Had but begun his “Characters of Men.”
Chaucer, at Woodstock with the nightingales,
At sixty wrote the Canterbury Tales;
Goethe at Weimar, toiling to the last,
Completed Faust when eighty years were past.
These are indeed exceptions; but they show
How far the gulf-stream of our youth may flow
Into the arctic regions of our lives,
Where little else than life itself survives.

As the barometer foretells the storm
While still the skies are clear, the weather warm
So something in us, as old age draws near,
Betrays the pressure of the atmosphere.
The nimble mercury, ere we are aware,
Descends the elastic ladder of the air;
The telltale blood in artery and vein
Sinks from its higher levels in the brain;
Whatever poet, orator, or sage
May say of it, old age is still old age.
It is the waning, not the crescent moon;
The dusk of evening, not the blaze of noon;
It is not strength, but weakness; not desire,
But its surcease; not the fierce heat of fire,
The burning and consuming element,
But that of ashes and of embers spent,
In which some living sparks we still discern,
Enough to warm, but not enough to burn.

What then? Shall we sit idly down and say
The night hath come; it is no longer day?
The night hath not yet come; we are not quite
Cut off from labor by the failing light;
Something remains for us to do or dare;
Even the oldest tree some fruit may bear;
Not Oedipus Coloneus, or Greek Ode,
Or tales of pilgrims that one morning rode
Out of the gateway of the Tabard Inn,
But other something, would we but begin;
For age is opportunity no less
Than youth itself, though in another dress,
And as the evening twilight fades away
The sky is filled with stars, invisible by day.

Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life” – A Poem About the Passage of Time

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron in 1868.jpg

The passage of time steals our youth, our vitality, and any permanence that we might hope for. How best to respond to our situation? Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) tried to answer this question in 1838 in his poem “A Psalm of Life.” They contain some of my favorite lines of poetry.

What The Heart Of The Young Man Said To The Psalmist.

Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.

Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each to-morrow
Find us farther than to-day.

Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;

Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.

Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.

Epilogue – Still, as I have argued in my recent book on the meaning of life, the wisdom that may come with age makes death even more tragic. The wisdom which took so much time and effort to achieve vanishes with our passing, since it is mostly ineffable—incapable of being transmitted to the young. They have to learn it on their own … as they age.

So for now, until we have eliminated death, the passage of time drives us inexorably toward our end. And this is a reason to lament our fate … and battle to defeat it.

Philip Appleman: Poem About His Mother’s Dying


A Young Version                                                  Today, in his late 80s

Philip D. Appleman (1926 –  ) is an American poet and Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. I first became acquainted with him when I read his edited collection, Darwin (Norton Critical Editions), which is a classic in the field. Here is a quote from an essay he contributed to that book:

Looking back at a million years of our struggle to be human, at our errant and painful attempts to be a special kind of animal—the animal who thinks, the animal who creates—it seems to me that despite our shortcomings, we have some cause for satisfaction … We are worth keeping because, given our remarkable past, we may continue to hope that we have, as Darwin surmised, “a still higher destiny in the future.”

I recently became aware that Appleman, as he nears the age of ninety, has published a new book: The Labyrinth: God, Darwin, and the Meaning of Life.

Here is a quote from the book which exemplifies his beautiful prose, “Religion stalks across the face of human history, knee-deep in the blood of innocents, clasping its red hands in hymns of praise to an approving God.” And here is an exemplar of his deep thinking:

Religion says: console yourself, there will be another chance, another life. Two things are wrong with this. First, there is not a shred of evidence for it and, second, it is a sop, consciously intended to blunt our rage and regret, thus dehumanizing us. Our anger at death is precious, testifying to the value of life; our sorrow for family and friends testifies to our devotion.

I find the final sentence particularly moving. It reveals as noble, not egocentric, the wellspring of the idea that death is a great evil. Appleman’s most moving poem about death and religion concerns his mother’s dying. I’ll let it speak for itself.

“GERTRUDE”
Gertrude Appleman, 1901-1976
God is all-knowing, all-present, and almighty.
— A Catechism of Christian Doctrine

I wish that all the people
who peddle God
could watch my mother die:
could see the skin and
gristle weighing only
seventy-nine, every stubborn
pound of flesh a small
death.

I wish the people who peddle God
could see her young,
lovely in gardens and
beautiful in kitchens, and could watch
the hand of God slowly
twisting her knees and fingers
till they gnarled and knotted, settling in
for thirty years of pain.

I wish the people who peddle God
could see the lightning
of His cancer stabbing
her, that small frame
tensing at every shock,
her sweet contralto scratchy with
the Lord’s infection: Philip,
I want to die.

I wish I had them gathered round,
those preachers, popes, rabbis,
imams, priests – every
pious shill on God’s payroll – and I
would pull the sheets from my mother’s brittle body,
and they would fall on their knees at her bedside
to be forgiven all their faith.

Robert Frost and Edward Thomas

                                                           Edward Thomas and Robert Frost

Robert Frost’s poem,”The Road Not Taken,” is probably America’s best-loved poem. It is a lyrical delight and I long ago committed it to memory. What is less well-known is the origin of the poem:

Frost spent the years 1912 to 1915 in England, where among his acquaintances was the writer Edward Thomas. Thomas and Frost became close friends and took many walks together. After Frost returned to New Hampshire in 1915, he sent Thomas an advance copy of “The Road Not Taken.”[1] The poem was intended by Frost as a gentle mocking of indecision, particularly the indecision that Thomas had shown on their many walks together. However, Frost later expressed chagrin that most audiences took the poem more seriously than he had intended; in particular, Thomas took it seriously and personally, and it provided the last straw in Thomas’ decision to enlist in World War I.[1] Thomas was killed two years later in the Battle of Arras.[2]

The tragedy of this misunderstanding is poignant. Thomas was himself a wonderful writer. Here are the final lines from his short story “The Stile.”

I knew that I was more than the something which had been looking out all that day upon the visible earth and thinking and speaking and tasting friendship. Somewhere — close at hand in that rosy thicket or far off beyond the ribs of sunset — I was gathered up with an immortal company, where I and poet and lover and flower and cloud and star were equals, as all the little leaves were equal ruffling before the gusts, or sleeping and carved out of the silentness. And in that company I learned that I am something which no fortune can touch, whether I be soon to die or long years away. Things will happen which will trample and pierce, but I shall go on, something that is here and there like the wind, something unconquerable, something not to be separated from the dark earth and the light sky, a strong citizen of infinity and eternity. The confidence and ease had become a deep joy; I knew that I could not do without the Infinite, nor the Infinite without me.

Edward Thomas was killed on the first day of the battle of Arras, Easter 1917, surviving just over two months in France. He was survived by his wife and three young children. War is useless.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.