Death is an unavoidable part of life; and it is true that everyone is well aware of the fact that the circle of life includes both a beginning and an ending. Emily Dickinson and John Keats accept the fact that death goes hand and hand with life, and write about it in their poetry as their own way of dealing with it. While both use death in their poetry they use it in different ways. For Dickinson, both her poems, “I like a look of Agony” and “Split the Lark – and you’ll find the Music”, show how death is a way to find the truth of a person. However, for Keats, in his poem “Ode to a Nightingale” death is feared but also seems to be the better option, compared to the suffering and pain life seems to bring. Both poets use their works to express their feelings and views of death.
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During the Civil War, Emily and her family, were especially affected because friends of the family were often killed in battle. Death of close friends was a significant feature of Emily’s life; many close to her were taken away. This consequently heightened her interest, fascination and perhaps fear of death, which appeared in so much of her poetry, including “I like a look of Agony” and “Split the Lark – and you’ll gind the Music” (Tandon 123). Death, the final experience one has, is for Dickinson the best benchmark; it reveals the ultimate truth or reality. In her poems “I like a look of Agony” and “Split the Lark – and you’ll find the Music”, Dickinson shows the reader how the real truth of a person is found and seen in death.
Here she is wishing pain on another, watching them in anguish in the final moments of life leading to death, doing so just so she can trust them. It is impossible to pretend or fake, so she finds out the real truth through the agony of the dying person. Dickinson turns the agony of death into a positive, because it is one of the few things that an observer can see and trust; to her it is a rare moment of undoubted truth.
The detailed specifics of this poem make it clear that she has watched someone in agony, and by her own admission, has enjoyed it, which makes the poem even more disturbing. She doesn’t just need tears of agony to trust someone, she wants a “Convulsion,” “a Throe,” glazed over eyes, “Beads upon the Forehead.” These are all symbols of the worst kind of pain, a pain that ends in death. This just goes to show how much Dickinson values the truth. The awful details of the ending of a life are to her valuable details because they are the proof that what she sees, hears and feels are real and true. This truth is a connection for her and the person dying because she can trust them fully, in most ways that she cannot trust others.
The second poem by Dickinson, “Split the Lark – and you’ll find the Music” has much of the same meaning of death. In this poem, the death of the lark reveals the truth, that the bird is in fact capable of sound and music. But the death of the bird comes with a price, after you have found the truth, that it is in fact capable of music, it is dead and can never sing again. Here Dickinson questions whether finding the absolute truth is worth the price of death. She begins the poem in the first stanza by explaining to the reader:
By “split the lark” Dickinson means just that by cutting the lark open, you will easily find the bits and pieces that make the music “bulb after bulb”. She goes onto say, that if you want to make absolutely certain that it is true you can dissect it. Her description of the “scarlet experiment” and the “gush after gush” is the blood of the bird from being dissected and pulled apart. In the last stanza Dickinson also addresses one who, like Thomas, lacks belief and faith in what is true. Thomas in the Bible refused to believe that Christ had risen, that he lived, he lacked the faith in what was true, just like person killing the Lark. In both of Dickinson’s poems, death is used to find the ultimate and final truth, something, which to her seems vitally important.
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John Keats views death differently in his poem “Ode to a Nightingale”. While Dickinson views death as a way to find truth, Keats fears death and wishes to live vicariously through the nightingale, who is, in his opinion, immortal. If he cannot live as a happy nightingale, Keats claims during the poem that he would like to die listening to the song of the nightingale and escaping the pain of life. Keats explains the pains of life to the nightingale in the third stanza saying:
Surrounded by the nightingale’s song, the speaker thinks that the idea of death seems richer than ever, and he longs to die in the night with no pain while the nightingale pours its soul joyfully out. If he were to die, he explains that the nightingale would continue to sing, but he would “have ears in vain” and no longer be able to hear. Keats explains that the nightingale was “. . .not born for death . . .” but is an immortal bird and the reader can sense how he longs to be like the bird, happy in no pain and in no fear of death.
Both poets use death in different ways to cope with their own understanding, interest, fascination and fear of it. They invite the reader in to see what death means to them and how they see it should be viewed. While Emily Dickinson views death as a way to find the truth about something or someone, Keats see’s death as a fearful event but also a freeing one, which releases a person from the pain and suffering of life. While they are different in the way the use death in their poems, as well as, how the view death, they are both effective in conveying their feelings and emotions on the subject to the reader.
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