Compendium of Horror, Fear, and the Grotesque

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Death in Literature and Poetry

Leslie A. Fiedler wrote the definitive American classic in literary criticism called Love and Death in the American Novel. Fiedler's premise is that American literature is pathologically obsessed with death and simply cannot address adult sexuality in a mature fashion. Fiedler does an excellent job of joining a historical literary perspective with a peculiarly American psychology that intermingles sexuality and death.

Emily Dickinson's poems rehearse death as a way of desensitizing her to it. One of her most popular is poem 465:

I heard a Fly buzz--when I died--
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air--
Between the Heaves of Storm--

The Eyes around--had wrung them dry--
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset--when the King
Be witnessed--in the Room--

I willed my Keepsakes--Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable--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--

Dickinson's treatment of death in much of her poetry reveals a kind of neurotic approach to the subject and supports the contentions of some critics that she probably suffered from agoraphobia. But if nothing else, we can at least see from her poetry that she was obsessed with death and dying. Witness poem 692:

The Sun kept setting--setting--still
No Hue of Afternoon--
Upon the Village I perceived--
From House to House 'twas Noon--

The Dusk kept dropping--dropping--still
No Dew upon the Grass--
But only on my Forehead stopped--
And wandered in my Face--

My Feet kept drowsing--drowsing--still
My fingers were awake--
Yet why so little sound--Myself
Unto my Seeming--make?

How well I knew the Light before--
I could see it now--
'This Dying--I am doing--but
I'm not afraid to know--

Walt Whitman's thoughts about death are less neurotic and much more philosophical. His views are closer to those of some eastern philosophers when he says in "Song of Myself":

And as to you Life I reckon you are the leavings of many deaths,
(No doubt I have died myself ten thousand times before.)

In the same poem Whitman tells the reader:

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

So Whitman's sense of death is a continuation of life, whether by physical reincarnation or through the enduring universality of his poetry.

Edgar Allan Poe's writings show various views of death. The first is a Romantic concept that Poe discusses in his essay "The Philosophy of Composition." In it he claims that he is searching for the most melancholy topic available to the writer. He writes that "Of all melancholy topics, what, according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy?" Death — was the obvious reply." He goes on to say that "the death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world."

Obviously in Poe's less "poetic" writings his view of death seems to take an opposing turn. Death in his poem, "The Conqueror Worm," is a subject of finality and loss. In a tale like "The Tell-Tale Heart" death is the resulting action of a madman with no apparent motive; and death or mind disintegration is closely linked with the actions of many of his characters. In these stories, death appears to be the absolute end of life.

But Poe also toys with the idea of death as a portal to another world. In this sense, death is not necessarily final. In "Mesmeric Revelations" the narrator has hypnotized a man on the verge of death. He speaks with the dying man to try to get a glimpse of what might exist beyond the physical plane. The story ends with this wonderful revelation:

I observed on his countenance a singular expression, which somewhat alarmed me, and induced me to awake him at once. No sooner had I done this, than, with a bright smile irradiating all his features, he fell back upon his pillow and expired. I noticed that in less than a minute afterward his corpse had all the stern rigidity of stone. His brow was of the coldness of ice. Thus, ordinarily, should it have appeared, only after long pressure from Azrael's hand. Had the sleep-waker, indeed, during the latter portion of his discourse, been addressing me from out the region of the shadows?