Both Rossetti and Dickinson wrote poetry that featured the point of view of the deathbed. But the way they approached it at times differed a bit. In "After Death" Rossetti paints a rather bitter almost vindictive portrait of the view from a beathbed:
He leaned above me thinking that I slept
And could not hear him; but I heard him say:
"Poor child, poor child:" and as he turned away
Came a deep silence, and I knew he wept....
He did not love me living; but once dead
He pitied me; and very sweet it is
To know he is still warm tho' I am cold.
This passage echos the notion of lost youth and missed opportunity, a notion that was prevalent in much of Rossetti's poetry. The "He" in the poem did not appreciate or love the speaker while she lived, but he wept once she was gone. And the idea of happiness that "He is still warm tho' I am cold" is another notion that appears more than once in Rossetti's work.
Emily Dickinson had been schooled in a "science of the grave"(J.519) by her upbringing in the Calvinist community where deathbed behavior was taken as one of the barometers by which one could maesure the rise or fall of the individual soul. If such behavior was characterized by calm acceptance and Christian composure, the chances were good that the soul could be sure of its election and that it was destined to join the saints; if the dying person railed against death and abjured a hope of heaven, eternal hellfire and brimstone seemed equally imminent. For this reason one of the leitmotifs of emily Dickinson's letters concerning death is her formulaic query, "Was he (or she) willing to die?" since willingness to die was a certain sign of one's confidence in a heavenly destiny.
We trust that she was willing —
We ask that we may be.
Summer &mdash Sister &mdash Seraph!
Let us go with thee! [J 18]
Many times Dickinson witnessed deathbed behavior, but she could never be sure exactly what "Visions" were vouchsafed the dying person:
I've seen a Dying Eye
Run round and round a Room —
In search of Something &mdash as it seemed &mdash
Then cloudier become &mdash
And then &mdash obscure with Fog &mdash
And then &mdash be soldered down
Without disclosing what it be
`Twere blessed to have seen — [J 547]
She could trust only fact, the microscopic or clinical evidence of her own observation. Though what the dying eye saw could not be seen by the living eye of the watcher, that watcher might still record as minutely and objectively as possible the behavior of the dying eye, that is, how things were rather than how they seemed to be.
Death later became for Emily an all or nothing proposition. Rather than a vision of light, of Jesus, or her lover, deathbed throes might bring only a trivial deliverance from pain; rather than a grand test of her philosophy of heavenly compensation, dying might be the ultimate indignity; rather than opening the door to Hades or paradise, "The Spoiler" might simply conduct her toward an oblivion that invalidated all faith as well as reason;
I heard a Fly buzz — when I died —
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air &mdash
Between the Heaves of Storm &mdash...
I willed my Keepsakes- Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable &mdash and then it was
There interposed a Fly &mdash
With Blue — uncertain stumbling Buzz &mdash
Between the light — and me &mdash
And then the Windows failed — and then
I could not see to see —
Is the "light" obscured by the fly in the final stanza a "divine and supernatural light," the brightness of the day-star as seen by a pious Christian, or is it merely the "light of common day" that illuminates the fallacy of hope? Dickinson takes the cliches of nineteenth century popular culture and turned them in on themselves: "I heard a Fly buzz &mdash when I died" is similar to hundreds of mortuary effusions that dwell on the details of deathbed scenes, including the standard descpition of earthly vision in Sigourney's "The Passing Bell":
To Beauty's shaded room
The Spoiler's step of gloom,
Hath darkly stole,
Her lips are ghastly white
A film is o'er her sight
Pray for the soul.
The telling difference is that Dickinson makes a shorthand of conventional imagery while also questioning the whole meaning of the spiritual significance of material things. While she boldly appropriates the fancy coffin furniture of her times she uses it to construct her own streamlined poetics.
St. Armand, Barton L. Emily Dickinson and her Culture: The Soul’s Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.
Last modified 1989