Awareness at the moment of death–the elegiac and the factual, Tennyson and Dickinson

Two of the most beautiful short poems in the English language have been written by two different poets, one the paternalistic Poet Laureate of England during Queen Victoria’s reign, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and the other the dainty highly realistically-imaged wordsmith Belle of Amherst, Emily Dickinson.  And in both poems, the moment of death is of key concern and is a centralized concept, with the tenses and surrounding matter in the two poems suggesting that there is life after death from which to survey the moment itself.

In the first (1847), Tennyson writes “Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean,/Tears from the depth of some divine despair/Rise in the heart and gather to the eyes,/In looking on the happy autumn-fields,/And thinking of the days that are no more.”  This all seems fairly normal, and highly elegiac, though in the second stanza we get “Fresh as the first beam glittering on a sail,/That brings our friends up from the underworld,” and thus the poem speaks of the life after death for the first time, since this “underworld” is not our contemporary one of goblins and demons, but the classical one with which Tennyson was familiar, one from which Aeneas’s or Dido’s ghost might rise to speak or sign.  But the really emphatic moment of death sequence occurs in the lines “Ah, sad and strange as in dark summer dawns/The earliest pipe of half-awakened birds/To dying ears, when unto dying eyes/The casement slowly grows a glimmering square;/So sad, so strange, the days that are no more.”  In the last stanza, in fact, there is even an ambiguous line with the comparison “Dear as remembered kisses after death,” with the ambiguity residing in the question of who exactly is doing the remembering, the dead person or the living person!  And of course the poem ends with the the clincher of the “we are immortal though perpetually separated and saddened” argument, “O Death in Life, the days that are no more!”  It seems at first as if the elegiac mournful tone itself has simply transported the poet into imagining that he has once been dead and has experienced the sensory input of “dying ears” and “dying eyes,” and yet the whole gist and force of the poem resides in calling to life, desperately, longingly, things that once have been.  They are “no more,” but live on in memory, and as I’ve noted, it is unclear who exactly is doing the remembering, the dead or the living (or both).

In Emily Dickinson’s poem, “I heard a Fly buzz–when I died–” (1896), the poet takes another tack entirely.  As is usual with Dickinson, she selects not the grand high tone of Tennyson, but a simple domestic image, that of a fly buzzing and bumbling around in the room in the midst of some solemn human doings.  There is, of course, the element of grand belief:  “The Eyes around–had wrung them dry–/And Breaths were gathered firm/For that last Onset–when the King/Be witnessed–in the Room–” though whether the “King” here is God or Death is in Dickinson’s own style uncertain, as either is a possibility, given the frequency with which both appear in her poems.  She talks briefly of making a will at the moment of death, then continues with the simple, factual statement (in which the Fly is both only itself and a symbol of something much larger and more final):  “–and then it was/There interposed a Fly–/With Blue–uncertain stumbling Buzz–/Between the light–and me–And then the Windows failed–and then/I could not see to see–“.

In both cases, the poems go not to a Christian heaven or an afterlife reference, so my readers may be wondering why I am so emphatic that the two poems signify a point beyond that of death as the poetic speakers’ locale.  My answer is this:  in the Tennyson poem, Tennyson generalizes about what dying ears and eyes see and encounter, which suggests that the speaker is knowledgeable about the general experience of having been a dead or dying person, and has “lived” to tell about it (in this poem).  In the Dickinson poem, the very tense of the initial verb and the whole verb sequence of the poem tells its tale:  “I heard a Fly buzz–when I died–”  provokes the question (which is answered), “Yes, and what happened then?”  The fact that the speaker says what she says from the past tense suggests that she is speaking from a point further along in time (and Dickinson has adopted this tactic elsewhere too, as in “Because I could not stop for Death–” and “My life closed twice before its close”).

Thus, the similarity in the two poems is in the positioning of a character’s awareness in a person lying in bed dying, though with Tennyson, the whole experience is a meditation on “the days that are no more,” and a more generalized sense of loss; with Dickinson, the sparse, dry tone impresses by its very lack of mourning, and its sense of loss only comes to a head with the lines “And then the Windows failed–and then/I could not see to see,” a loss not of memories or of days long past, but of the very sense and capacity of sight.  “Windows” as images of the eyes are of course a poetic staple, but in this case, the poet hangs on until the very last moment to the realistic and the sense of symbolism only surfaces when one has entirely finished the poem.

Both of these poems have long been favorites of mine, and I hope that this short post will cause you to look them up in their entirety if they are previously unknown to you, and will make them favorites of yours as well.  They are easily located, both appearing in almost every short collection and anthology of the two poets.

As you may have noticed, I am easing my way back in gradually to doing my posts, not having done more than one or two in the last two weeks since I took a brief hiatus.  I do plan to resume doing more, but I am in the process of covering several works upon which I want to write, and none of them are done yet, so that will have to be my excuse.  I want to thank all of you who have been keeping up with my blogsite and welcome you if you are a new follower.  Onward and upward!


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4 responses to “Awareness at the moment of death–the elegiac and the factual, Tennyson and Dickinson

  1. Though I studied English Literature back in my high school days (My 2nd best subject after accounting), poetry was what I could never learn to fully appreciate. Something so subjective was hard for me to get my head around.

    Do you think that no matter how full one’s life is, they will always think more could have been done when death is imminent?


    • Poetry is far easier to appreciate if you (and/or somebody else) read it aloud. I don’t mean for the sheer sound and melody and rhyme of the words, which is certainly there too, but somehow the sense of it comes through more when you read it aloud. Even just to yourself. As to regrets at the moment of death, yes, I imagine everyone will think or does think of things they wish they could have completed before dying–it’s human nature to wish for more, always more!


      • Wonderful, Victoria. I have been on a Keats jag myself, so I totally identify. The Romantic poets feed me, feed my soul, or something, and I need them, badly, sometimes. All prose writers benefit from reading poetry. And, as you say, read aloud is best.


      • Thank you, Richard. I feel deprived in a way because I no longer write poetry as frequently as I do prose. In fact, it’s been about a year since I’ve written a poem–but I did used to find that the more poetry I read, the more poetry I wrote, so maybe there’s a direction correlation that I need to take advantage of.


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