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张俊杰:Death in the Eyes of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman

发布日期: 2013-12-23   作者:   浏览次数 353

       Death is a big issue about which so many writers have been deeply concerned. They have been probing into questions like: Why should there be death against life? What on earth does death mean? Where is man after death?

       Walt Whitman (1819-1892) and Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) are the two greatest poem writers in the 19th century America and perhaps in the whole American literary history as well. They both wrote a lot of poems on death. A comparison and analysis of their deep insight into death might reveal something, interest a little, and enlighten us a lot.

       Both Whitman and Dickinson wrote so many poems on death which are not so easy to read because of the untold latencies that their poems contain. Whitman declares in his Leaves of Grass:

              … a book I have made,

                   The words of my book nothing, the drift of it everything,

                   A book separate, not link’d with the rest nor felt by the intellect,

                   But you yet untold latencies will thrill to every page.

While Dickinson delights in telling all the truth but telling it “slant” because:

              The truth must dazzle gradually

              Or every man be blind

       Their poems suggests rather than tells so that their own age failed at first to see the value of both their poems, especially that of Dickinson’s, which only begins to be really understood more than a hundred years later.

      

       Walt Whitman generally holds an optimistic attitude toward death. He thinks there is death in life and life in death, and there is no sadness in death, and death is such a “lucky” thing as life is. For example, in Song of Myself, he writes:

                   The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,

                   And if ever there was it led toward life…

       And later in his life, poetry became a medium for him to face up to the conflict between life and death. He welcomed death – psychic death, emotional loss, creative exhaustion, and served as a spokesman for reconciliation of death and life. Death is an integral element in the on-going process of life, as is depicted in his Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking. Like the other transcendentalists, Whitman thought of death as merely a further phase of life.

       In When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d he not only accepts but even rejoices in death. In The Sleepers, he suggests that nonexistence is the absolute horizon of being.

 

       By far the largest portion of Emily Dickinson’s poetry concerns death and immortality, themes which lie at the center of her world. In fact her greatest lyrics are on death, which she typically personifies as a monarch, a lord, or a kindly but irresistible lover, yet her moods varied widely from melancholy to exuberance, grief to joy, leaden despair to spiritual intoxication. Much oftener, she stands in between.

       Death, in most times, is desired, although sometimes feared. She even begs God for death: “Twice have I stood a beggar /Before the door of God!” She somewhat expects the life hereafter: “Behind Me – dips Eternity – /Before Me – Immortality – …” With her recurring obsessive anxiety over death, she frequently expresses a desire for death, and may even consider suicide as an escape from future pain. In The Heart Asks Pleasure – First, she begs to be granted “the privilege to die”.

 

       To Whitman, the journey to death is the ascent of the soul to immortality, as he described in the title poem of the Whispers of Heavenly Death volume and some other poems.

       To Dickinson, death is the last passage through which she seeks for an escape. She even began to conceive the process of dying in poems such as I heard a fly buzz – when I died. She also believes in immortality, as is reflected in her poems like Mine – by the Right of White Election, and Because I could not stop for death. In short, the journey to death, in her eyes, is not pain:

                   To die – takes just a little while –

                   They say it doesn’t hurt – It’s only fainter – by degrees –

 

       And they both mourned death, and sang songs of death, though of course, in their own ways. There is some bereavement, but also some romance in death in their poems. From different perspectives, they viewed immortality in an optimistic way. With their different voices, they sang eulogies, or requiem, of death.