Quest for Eternity in the Poetry of Dickinson
Over the past few decades, a considerable number of comments have been made on the idea of eternity in Emily Dickinson's poetry. The following are several examples: Robert Weisbuch's Emily Dickinson's Poetry (1975), Jane Donahue Eberwein's Dickinson: Strategies of Limitation (1985), Dorothy Huff Oberhaus' Emily Dickinson's Fascicles: Method and Meaning (1995), and James McIntosh's Nimble Believing: Dickinson and the Unknown (2000). However, opinions vary as to how Dickinson explored the question regarding eternity; much ink has still been spent on the issue. This paper, therefore, provides another discussion of the idea of eternity depicted in Dickinson's poetry. I will discuss the issue by considering how her poems describe the process through which the poet finally reaches the belief in eternity-overcoming the feud between Christianity and scientific knowledge and that between Romanticism and existentialism.
As a beginning, let us look closely at one of the poems in which Dickinson gives a detailed account of a deathbed scene: The last Night that She lived
It was a Common Night
Except the Dying-this to Us
Made Nature different
We noticed smallest things-
Things overlooked before
By this great light upon our Minds
As We went out and in
Between Her final Room
And Rooms where Those to be alive
Tomorrow were, a Blame
That Others could exist
While She must finish quite
A Jealousy for Her arose
So nearly infinite-- (P-1100)
It is presumed that Dickinson wrote this piece of verse in circa 1886. In May of that year, Laura Dickey, the wife of Frank W. of Michigan, died at the parents' home in Amherst. Although there is no document which shows that Dickinson was with the woman at her death, the event might have inspired the poet to write this poem. Whatever the fount of inducement, she sets down, in this narrative, a profound moment of death and its impact on the living, whereby she couches her belief and doubt in the next world.
Though it is a "Common Night" when the woman dies, the speaker says, there is something unnatural in the air, because what people usually disregard or avoid is emphasized ("Italicized") by death ("great light"). The moment of death is a "Compound Vision" (P-906) for Dickinson. While, on the one hand, the dying woman steps forward to the presence of God, on the other hand, the living go in and out of "Her final Room" vigorously. In the meantime, two differing emotions-"a Blame" and "a Jealousy"-seize the speaker: she is filled with anger against the absurdity of death which snatches away the woman alone to the "Undiscovered Country" (L-752); at the same time, she is envious of the woman's fate in that the dying woman can now go through the great adventure and see the world beyond death.
So far, the speaker observes the...