Zsófia Anna Tóth received her PhD in British and American literature and culture from the University of Szeged and is currently a senior assistant professor at the Department of American Studies, Institute of English and American Studies, University of Szeged, Hungary. Her general research interests are film studies, cultural studies, gender studies, literary theory, humor theories as well as British and American literature and cinema. Her main research field is concerned with the representation of female aggression and violence in American literature, culture and specifically film. Her other main fields of interest include Jane Austen (her works, their adaptations as well as her legacy, her ‘afterlife’), the New Woman (her representation and historical, cultural and academic reception), American women writers especially Sandra Cisneros as well as Disney and Pixar animations. Her first book, which was based on her PhD dissertation, entitled Merry Murderers: The Farcical (Re)Figuration of the Femme Fatale in Maurine Dallas Watkins’ Chicago (1927) and its Various Adaptations, was published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing (UK) in 2011. Her current research topics are humor theories, humor and gender, women’s humor, and especially the work(s) (and the phenomenon) of Mae West. Email:
Abstract: The paper discusses how Emily Dickinson, with the help of humor and catachresis – both of which work with the logic of defamiliarization/refamiliarization –, tries to reinterpret death as an experience, as a state of being or as an E/entity that we all encounter inevitably. The paper argues that Dickinson refused to be intimidated by the traditional concepts of death/Death and she consciously approached it/It with humor as well as through catachresis to shake our notions and force us to see the whole issue from a new perspective. For Dickinson, death was never a final destination, it was always a door and a new avenue for greater knowledge, wisdom and exciting adventures. The paper analyzes some of her most unorthodox (and well-known) poems about death and dying to support these claims after overviewing the scholarly research on her death poetry (that traditionally also treated it as tragic and there were only occasional instances when her humor was pointed out) as well as some theoretical arguments about the workings of humor, catachresis and some reflections on the relationship between women and humor.
Keywords: humor, catachresis, death, consciousness, Emily Dickinson
The treatment of the theme of death is rarely comic or humorous, yet Emily Dickinson consciously and purposefully does exactly this in her poetry. One can hardly find any poem concerning this topic in her oeuvre which is not irreverent, mocking, light-hearted and they might also be called slightly disrespectful, insolent, impertinent or even ‘cheeky.’ It is a fascinating feast to witness her courage and wit in these specific pieces of poetry discussing dying and death – both of which are treated as something normal, entirely ordinary occurrences in someone’s life (which they are) – except humans are usually terrified of death and do not usually look upon the dying experience as if they had just had dinner. Dickinson consciously ‘undigifies, unterrifies, undivines’ the dying experience as well as death itself. There is nothing extraordinary or otherworldly about it. With the help of humor Dickinson brings death down to the level of the ordinary, to the common, to the everyday. The topic is also complex from another point of view since it combines the issues of ‘comedy and the body’ as these poems often discuss the bodily aspects of dying and the ‘supposed’ state of being dead in comic ways while ethical questions are also raised exactly because of her approach to the theme of death, afterlife as well as the intentional ignoring and profaning of the supernatural as well as the divine/‘Divine.’
Humor, most often than not, is about irreverence, disrespect, questioning, challenging, disrupting, transgressing, criticizing, and even if being complicit/conservative and revolutionary at the same time (i.e. eventually it restores the original order that it temporarily challenges – although not exactly to the same state since there always remains the mark of that disruption (Sypher 242; Bronfen 406), humor is rarely about decency, decorum or political correctness. In accordance with this, Emily Dickinson is especially not PC in her treatment of Death and the Divine, what is more, she doubles her resistance by being mock-decent and fake-decorous in her encounter with them. Hence, Dickinson’s death poetry is a unique treasury for scholars researching humor and comedy. Although, many scholars have addressed the issue of death in Dickinson’s poetry since it is a vast segment of her oeuvre and a central/major topic for her, they rarely touch upon the fact that Dickinson is actually ‘having fun with/making fun of’ death with these poems.
The other “tool” I would like to discuss briefly in connection with Dickinson’s poetry, apart from humor, is catachresis, and also highlight what is common between these two devices of generating and/or changing meanings. Enikő Bollobás, in her inaugural speech at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, points out one of the striking specificities of catachresis that especially allies it with humor (because they are in the same boat) i.e. it is too common – Bollobás also suggests that probably that is the reason why researchers do not pay enough attention to this unique trope because it seems to be unassuming and insignificant because it is so common, yet, it is too nuanced, multilayered and complex with a multitude of possibilities (2020, 30 sec). Humor works the same way and that is one of the reasons why humor research also had such a long and circuitous way to academic acknowledgement since, similarly, humor is seemingly also very simple (and easy/light) while actually being too complex, intriguing, exciting and difficult to define/theorize/explain/analyze. Hence, both catachresis and humor are elusive while they work in unexpected and surprising ways, probably that is why Dickinson loved to use both of them in her poetry to achieve rhetorical exuberance and create new meanings or change our views of things. Both catachresis and humor work with defamiliarization as well as refamiliarization, they both create a new sensus communis out of and old sensus communis through dissensus communis. As Bollobás defines it, catachresis is actually an abuse of meaning, it is a confusion of signifiers and signifieds creating a collision of meanings and in classical rhetorics it is usually viewed as a failure while what it does is to expand/extend meanings (Bollobás 2020, 1 min 30 sec). Humor actually has the same working mechanism, it is only seemingly a failure of communication, it intentionally causes disturbance to make way for the new meanings. As in this paper I would like to argue, Dickinson often used both catachresis and humor to change our perception of death as well.
Catachresis actually ‘borrows’ an already existing meaning and through the expansion of that meaning gives it to something else hence the secondary meaning involves a semantic enlargement and conceptual expansion (Bollobás 2020, 6 min). This way, meaning and a name can be given to things that have never been named, and as a result they are supposedly known through this process. Another possibility is when you rename something in this manner. Humor works similarly since it approaches the unknown or the already known things from a new perspective, plays with meanings, signifiers as well as signifieds thus achieving the same effect as catachresis through the “abuse” of meanings as catachresis is a “trope of abuse” as Bollobás defines it based on Du Marsais and Fontanier (2012 a, 272).
Catachresis fits into the linguistic, poetic, and rhetorical “patents” on poetic invention identified by Roland Hagenbüchle, Lynn Keller and Cristanne Miller, Brita Lindberg-Seyersted, Sharon Cameron, Josef Raab, and Shira Wolosky in their various discussions of Dickinson’s poetic language. What these critics focus on—and also defines catachresis—is a process of creating connections between signifiers without anchoring signs in the realm of the signified, thus making room for startling innovations and the creation of concepts formerly unthought. (Bollobás 2012 b, 25)
Consequently, the end result is productive and useful since we will have a name and a grasp on something we did not have before through avoiding fixed meanings and anchored signs with the help of clever tricks and games with/of signifiers. Or as Bollobás argues, even known words get new meanings, new semantic layers hence enriching them (Bollobás 2020, 6 min 58 sec). In her opinion, primarily, the aim of catachresis is to fill in linguistic and conceptual gaps (Bollobás 2020, 11 min 20 sec; Bollobás 2012 a, 272). It is also mentioned that catachresis functions with shifts and extensions (of meaning) rather than (finding) analogies, parallels, correlations and similarities (Bollobás 2012 b, 26). Based on de Man, Bollobás suggests that catachresis “dismember[s]” reality and rearranges it, while based on Foucault, she also claims that it “subverts the order of things” (Bollobás 2012 b, 27). Humor mechanisms achieve the same results as disruption/subversion and reorganization are all the specificities of humor as well.
Another important aspect of catachresis, according to Bollobás based on Ricoeur, is that it works best if it is not forced but it is born out of the moment, out of a situation (meaning it is spontaneous), as a result of inventiveness, resourcefulness, ingenuity and cleverness, (Bollobás 2020, 12 min 49 sec). “Catachresis has served as the most general trope of innovation and imagination. Indeed, it has been termed as “the most free and powerful of the tropes” by Renaissance rhetoricians” (Bollobás 2012 a, 273). Thus, it is the mental child of witticism, it is intellectual bravado, which allies it with humor again since humor is also best if it is the result of everything mentioned above. And a final note on its uniqueness and possible major impact is also mentioned – which is again in accordance with humor mechanisms – is that catachresis is actually a radical means of breaking conventions (Bollobás 2020, 49 min 56 sec). And all this means that both catachresis and humor are powerful, that is why they are not insignificant. So, these seemingly unassuming modes of communication can both initiate major changes on various levels.
Enikő Bollobás, in Vedégünk a Végtelenből (2015) – a fascinating book dedicated to reveal the multifaceted aspects of Emily Dickinson’s poetry –, also pays quite much attention to the topic of death but she also mentions it only in passing that Dickinson is “coquettish with death” in one of her poems, and in connection with another poem about death that it is parodistic (100). In Bollobás’ opinion, Dickinson does not try to understand death and she deals with it recurringly because only death can bring knowledge while the “condition humaine” is the non-knowledge and incomprehension, which Dickinson accepts (2015, 11) – with all of which it is hard to agree. Although Dickinson accepts that you cannot reveal truth and access knowledge head-on, only circuitously and in slant ways (Bollobás 2015, 160), but she always tries to get to the bottom of things and tries to understand everything, even death. That is the reason why she starts this topic again and again because she wants to know and conquer even this – that is supposedly beyond human cognition, however she considers and registers metaphysical reality differently from average human beings. As Susan Manning (1999) also opines, Dickinson is very keen on going to the limits (or even beyond them) and examining “the disruptions of human experience at the edges of forbidden inquiry” (315) also adding that Dickinson masterfully specializes in how the consciousness is able to “catch the process in the act, in the arrested moment of perception” (317). In the meantime, Dickinson is very well aware that everything she does with/through her consciousness is a dangerous game (even if precisely with death or any other sensory and/or cognitive experience/process): “in her writing the dangerousness of this activity is never in doubt” (Manning 318).
Bollobás also adds that Dickinson “vulgarizes” the supposedly sublime encounter with death when the fly becomes the central feature in one her dying poems thus “mocking” even the logic or order of dying and death (2015, 12, 181). According to Bollobás, this dying experience with the fly both encompasses ontological as well as epistemological exclusion from cognition, understanding, existence and reality while calling “epistemological radicalism” what Dickinson performs with this scene, because her conclusion is that, maybe, there is nothing to know after all and Dickinson also knows this (2015, 12). I agree with the concept that Dickinson is an epistemological radical and a nonconformist (Bollobás 2015, 115) but not because she knows that there is nothing to know but her epistemological radicalism is exactly the reason why she always tests the limits of ontological as well as epistemological existence/knowledge/boundaries and cognition because she knows that there is more to know, and this is the reason why she does not accept non-knowledge and tries to go even beyond the human possibilities to know, experience and register everything that is possible. In her article entitled “Troping the Unthought: Catachresis in Emily Dickinson’s Poetry,” Bollobás also discussed the theme of death through catachresis briefly. Here she states that “Dickinson also redefines the concept of death by means of catachretic expansion. […] Catachretic extension allows the concept of death to include a state of acute consciousness.” (Bollobás 2012 b, 48) So, in Bollobás’ opinion, Dickinson tries to redefine and reinterpret death through catachresis, which is a possibility but probably also through its combination with humor, or separately using the two modes. However, what is even more important is that the death/dying is “for Dickinson this experience became a fascinating journey heightened by a renewed sensorial awareness.” (Bollobás 2012 b, 49) hence, death is much rather interpreted as a (new) form of consciousness, a renewed awareness, thus the catachrestic/humorous treatment of death changes our conceptions of the experience/state itself. Still, Bollobás insists that it is only a “superb intellectual effort of imagining one’s own death” (ibid) and does not consider it as an actual experience or possibility that Dickinson might have “lived” (through it).
Interestingly, Bollobás later also discusses Dickinson’s idea of circumference, which she defines as a certain kind of mental-intellectual-spiritual state, in which the person reaches the farthest limits of time and space, additionally, even moves beyond those limits out into humanly unknown spheres of time and space (2015, 161; Bollobás 2012 b, 28-29) thus possibly suggesting that death might not be the final destination – at least, for Dickinson it is evidently not. Bollobás also adds about circumference in another article that “with the self leaving its own peripheries in order to dissolve in the limitlessness of space and time” the experience of being is expanded by also moving out of the self while watching that very self (Bollobás 2012 a, 272). Additionally, Bollobás states that “[p]oems on perception, consciousness, and psychological states provide arresting instances of (heliotropic) master concepts catachretically expanded.” (Bollobás 2012 a, 282) This is especially relevant in the case of the death poems and how Dickinson treats the state of being dead because she catachretically expands our understanding of death. Susan Manning also cites one of Dickinson’s letters, in which she denies that anybody can ever be “finished” – with all of the possible connotations of meaning – also ascertaining that we never cease to be “mentally permanent” – and Dickinson claims this all in relation to death (325). Manning even connects Dickinson’s “resistance to ending” with “an immortality of selfhoods in the absence of deity” and evidently cites the famous death poem in which Dickinson narrates how she is travelling with Death and Immortality in a nice carriage suggesting that she might have become immortal by the end of the poem (327). So, the carriage ride with Death turned out to be not dying itself but much rather a transformation into an immortal being.
Consequently, for Dickinson, being obedient to the order and rules of Death and the Divine – as it is supposed to happen within Christianity – are out of the question. She is even willing to bring e.g. a fly into the picture (literally) to desacralize the moment and to refuse to follow the orders of those supposedly in control. With her ridiculous ideas she takes control over the situation and makes her own rules – even about death and dying. Bollobás also adds – although concerning Dickinson’s rhythmic patterns, verse form/structure as well as her multidimensional production of poems – that she uses all these to “defamiliarize” what is familiar (2015, 182). Defamiliarization is again one of the central functions of humor, through this process humor makes us see thing anew. Simon Critchley also opines that a “true joke […] lets us see the familiar defamiliarized, the ordinary made extraordinary and the real rendered surreal” (10) and vice versa. Critchley even calls humor “a form of critical social anthropology,” which defamiliarizes, demythologizes and inverts the common sense (65). Thus, Dickinson, with her humorous take on death, also defamiliarizes, demythologizes and inverts the experience and makes us look at it anew, makes us see it differently because it shakes our accepted common sense notions and reorganizes them.
Bollobás later also claims that Dickinson makes an attempt to get to know death on various occasions in her poems, and she seems to be emotionless as if she tried to understand it with scientific curiosity while being absolutely open to the experience and looking at it as if it was just a switch in time dimensions (2015, 100). It is presented as nothing final or terminal, juts a passage from point A to point B or point A’ or point A’’ etc. This seems to be the exact opposite of the suggestion at the beginning of Bollobás’ book. This rather suggests that Dickinson might have understood existence and cognition as multidimensional both spatially and temporally (e.g. with alternative or parallel universes); and since it was/is rather hard to communicate such a concept, especially in the 19th century, she tried to use humor to express these ideas. According to John Morreall, a playful attitude to unusual experiences as well as openness towards new experiences promote intellectual virtues, make people more adaptable to change and more accepting of diversity (112). By playing with ideas and thoughts we develop our rationality because this frees us from our existing perspective(s) (Morreall 66). Hence, humor fosters divergent or creative thinking (Morreall 112), additionally critical thinking exactly because it puts things into perspective (Morreall 141). Evidently this is what Dickinson is doing in her poetry in general, but it is strikingly present in her poems about death exactly due to the specificity and sensitivity of the subject matter.
It is an intriguing question whether Dickinson did not fear death and that might be the reason why she dared to treat it in a mocking and humorous way because she might have already known it (e.g. maybe she had a near-death experience and came back – Bollobás mentions that a secret big trauma in 1862 made her write to Thomas Wentworth Higginson and attempted to publish her works (2015, 28) – maybe this unknowable trauma was a close encounter with death from which she managed to recover/escape) or she feared it and that is why she tried to tame/manage it through humor. According to Bollobás, Dickinson is of the opinion that “almost-death is a great thing” and it makes living life much more invigorating (2015, 87) – as if she talked about a real experience. In her article entitled “Troping the Unthought: Catachresis in Emily Dickinson’s Poetry,” Bollobás also addresses the issue of death through catachresis and opines that “Dickinson alludes to another death-like, night-like, and frost-like moment of despair when she writes that “everything that ticked – has stopped – / And space stares – all around – ” in “it was not Death, for i stood up” (Fr355).” (2012 b, 27) Thus an “almost-death,” a near-death experience is described here likewise. Bollobás also ascertains that Dickinson’s return from almost-death (mentioned in Fr 1247) is a mode to make those few, who had (to go through) this experience, stronger while the experience reinvigorates these special people since they took measure of the grave thus being able to see more clearly concerning everything in life too (2015, 96). Bollobás also cites Dickinson’s Letter 919 stating that “‘Tis a dangerous moment for any one when the meaning goes out of things and Life stands straight – and punctual – and yet no signal comes. Yet such moments are. If we survive them they expand us” (2015, 98). Very few have this wonderful, yet, dangerous moment of revelation – when life stands still suspended – which makes them expand internally, intellectually and cognitively having a glimpse into such realms of understanding that leads beyond that moment of suspension that is only the termination of this form of existence on Earth.
Although Dickinson is generally not viewed as a comic author, her mastery of irony is often pointed out. Carole Anne Taylor’s article entitled “Kierkegaard and the Ironic Voices of Emily Dickinson” (1978) addresses how Dickinson constructs her ironic voice and vision similarly to other “later existentialists, with whom Dickinson shares both the ironic habit-of-mind and a personal, dissenting vision; like them, she is fond of creating speakers whose spiritual role-playing exposes the psychology of self-deception” (580). Taylor declares that “an ironic logic common in Dickinson’s poems” is often to be detected (572), yet quite much focus is placed upon Kierkegaard and Socrates, however Dickinson is also under scrutiny but her irony is much more discussed in the context of God and her lack of faith while nothing is mentioned in connection with death. Nevertheless, it is claimed that Dickinson produced irony by paradoxes, revealing arbitrariness, setting up expectations then disappointing them, while this ironic reversal is generally achieved through an intellectual detachment and a devastating logic (Taylor 572-573). More interestingly, it is stated – at a point when Dickinson is interpreted as giving advice on how to die – that “[t]hose who “know” are sure of the truth precisely because they do not aspire to a paradise that will answer prayer.” (Taylor 577) So, the question is what it was that she knew about death, afterlife or other forms of life – while seemingly she communicated all this with ironic detachment.
Hence, it seems to be quite likely that she was not afraid of death as she also claimed: (Fr1653) “So give me back to Death – / The Death I never feared” also adding that she has already taken measure of her grave, and it is the size of Hell as well as Heaven in one (making no difference between the two realms while also questioning this Christian duality of afterlife) – so there is nothing to worry about. In the meantime, she never seems to waver in this conviction in her poems that death is something we can always treat lightly or even laugh at. Ruth Flanders McNaughton also opines that “Emily Dickinson did not fear death, because she could not believe in eternal damnation; rather, she looked forward to it as an adventure […]” (207). Hence, her humorous treatment of death seems to be a conscious strategy to reveal the truth about it because she might have known something that she tried to communicate with the limited means that human language could provide (she used all kinds of compressing and compounding techniques in her writing to press as much meaning into as few containers of meaning as possible such as ellipsis, synesthesia, metonymy, paradox, oxymoron, terse wording and sentence structure etc.). Susan Manning similarly points out Dickinson’s unique punctuation, compressed writing style and how it is expressive of her distinctive knowledge: “[h]er defiant linguistic minimalism replaces an articulated grammatical flow inevitably resting in the substantives of knowledge, with a separated series of hermetic perceptions along the way […] her writing emphasizes the experiential reality of the entities that have no name” (313).
Bollobás also adds that Dickinson’s ‘White Choice,’ her choice of celibacy, seclusion and loneliness is similar to e.g. the retreat of Buddhist monks into ashram (2015, 34). Thus, her search for knowledge and her desire to understand existence and cognition might have lead to a form of transubstantiation, which might reduce the significance of death and increase the possibility of a more complex and higher knowledge. It is also suggested that in some poems what is communicated is as if the mind with its cognition contained the whole universe and as a result it is boundless and endless while existence that is registered in the mind is beyond the living (in our bodies) on Earth, it is beyond our human bodily existence, and the mind is able to contain and handle this limitless and boundless knowledge (Bollobás 2015, 89), which is again similar to the idea of transubstantiation or some kind of an access to knowledge/existence/reality beyond simple (physical) humanity. Bollobás also discusses the “transitus-poems” where she emphasizes the importance of transition/transformation from one form of existence or state/situation/condition of life into another one in Dickinson’s poetry (2015, 72). Then, Bollobás also opines that Dickinson was interested in death and was looking forward to it with enthusiasm (2015, 34) which contradicts the idea of emotionless scientific curiosity (that she suggested at another point in her argument), yet, the curiosity, openness and a positive approach remain constant while viewing death only as another form of existence or a door to another form of existence.
In spite of these suggestion however, Bollobás generally still tries to interpret the death poems as sad and tragic, the associations are always with non-knowledge, horror, threat, loss and void etc. eventually. Even if she also declares that Dickinson’s conception/notion of death is in opposition to the customarily accepted one (Bollobás 2015, 164), she still returns to the traditional views about death in her interpretation of the death poems. Bollobás insists that Dickinson cannot have real knowledge about and experience with death; and anything she writes about it, even the “afterknowledges,” are only suppositions on her part (2015, 99) and she does not even try to understand it, she only tries to find solace (2015, 100), yet it is not entirely convincing. Dickinson seems to be talking based on first-hand experiences and apparently she knows what she is talking about, and that is why, probably she is not afraid and that is why she treats death as something insignificant and even dares to make fun of it. Nevertheless, in Bollobás’ interpretation, death in these poems still means that there is an epistemological and cognitive darkness, a void and uncertainty through/in death, and those who enter this state are excluded from understanding and knowledge forever while for the living beings this state is unacceptable (2015, 98). In my interpretation, however, Dickinson is consciously dealing with death and challenges it through humor exactly because she probably knows, or at least senses, that it is a door to more knowledge, information, experiences and a different mode of ‘life’/existence/reality. Hence, for her, death is a possibility, in a positive sense, for more things than what life on Earth can afford. Later, Bollobás is also of a similar opinion (contradicting her previous suppositions) stating that for Dickinson, death is not annihilation, it does not end everything, on the contrary, it brings understanding and real knowledge of things – although in her view, this all still belongs to a phase/stage of prehension and pre-cognition thus still holding the idea firm that it cannot be an actual experience and/or knowledge, only something like Derrida’s heliotropes and semantic inventions (2015, 164-165) – but where did Dickinson take the idea from then? However, Bollobás also acknowledges that Dickinson often has a very playful, ironic, parodistic style and her self-irony is brilliant (2015, 168-173). In her opinion, Dickinson frequently plays with “constative-performative aporias” (Bollobás 2015, 170) – so why not in her death poems as well?
Susan Manning, in her study entitled “How Conscious Could Consciousness Grow? Emily Dickinson and William James” (1999), examines the parallels between Emily Dickinson’s and William James’ attempts to understand and describe the workings and characteristics of consciousness also struggling with “the difficulty of rendering the quality of awareness” (306). Although Manning does not concentrate on the issue of death itself, even if touching upon it, but rather on Dickinson’s stream-of-consciousness style of writing as well as the various stages/states of consciousness/es and sensory experiences, these are all relevant even for the death poems. Manning, for example, precisely deals with the interesting fact that Dickinson rarely ends her poems with a full stop or with anything that signals finality in the classical sense. It is common knowledge that Dickinson had her own unique kind of punctuation that usually involved dashes but not commas, full stops, exclamation marks etc. and her capital letters had their own logic likewise – so the usual grammatical rules and tools do not apply to her. Additionally, Dickinson rather concentrates on the “elusiveness” and “obliqueness” of definitions and meanings while trying to grasp “perpetual motion” that seems to be the more central aspect of existence, consciousness and reality (Manning 308). The “thought-in-action” is pulsating in her writing while Dickinson “refuses to be bounded by the decorum of the sentence, rounded and finished with a period” (Manning 309). In my opinion, she does the same with death and concentrates much more on the transition of the experience, the motion of the dying experience, not on its finality, she even refuses to be ended and silenced by death and ‘laughs into its face.’ By analyzing one of her poems, Manning claims: “[c]urcially, “Death’s Immediately” is an adverbial interruptus: immanent in the wings, it never arrives in the poem, whose sentence does not end. “When” remains a final point never reached” (308). Hence, Dickinson does not let death close anything even to the point that she refuses to end her poems (generally), she leaves them ‘unended’ probably suggesting that, after all, there is no end – and with this diminishing/belittling the role of death in our lives, and as a result, also showing it in a comic light because of breaking, disappointing or not meeting our expectations – this is exactly what humor does.
By not meeting our expectations as well as changing our perspectives and producing new actualities, humor creates a surprise, and as a result, something new. Dickinson with her humorous treatment of death shakes us up and presents this topic in a new light and makes us think anew. According to John Morreall (2009), in humorous instances, the incongruity that occurs violates our expectations and that results in the comic effect, pleasure and laughter (11-13). Simon Critchley (2004) also argues that “[h]umor defeats our expectations by producing a novel actuality” and it is exactly our disappointment in our expectations that make us laugh out of surprise (1). The paradoxical and unexpected speech acts and inversions defeat our expectations and make us laugh refusing the everyday concepts (Critchley 19). Dickinson is famous for her paradoxical inversions and various linguistic/grammatical inventions in all her poetry that probably all serve this very same purpose.
Morreall also adds that humor shows issues in multiple and/or various perspectives, thus making us see things from other perspectives likewise (79). While laughing, we are swinging between perspectives in his view (Morreall 42), and as a result, we are raised out of our automatic perspective and start to see the other ones as well (Morreall 67). In his opinion, morality and the development of a moral perspective is unimaginable without an ability to laugh at ourselves thus we have to be able to “transcend our “here/now/me” perspective” (belonging to the ‘fight or flight’ negative emotions), which is exactly triggered by the use of humor (Morreall 115-116). He even goes so far as to claim that, by using humor or joking about something, we are actually philosophizing about that issue and elevate it to a higher-level perspective (Morreall 127). With the new perspectives secured as well as the disengagement (that is inevitably involved in the process), a cognitive shift occurs, and that is the main point of humor (ibid).
As a result, by joking about death, Dickinson wants to create a cognitive shift in our minds by changing our perspective about death, and consequently about life. An interesting aspect of humor is that it is a form of “practical abstraction, socially embedded philosophizing,” which by generating laughter actually provides us with a distance concerning the given subject matter, thus it has “coldness at its core” – as Bergson put it “something like a momentary anaesthesia of the heart” – consequently it creates disinterest or disengagement (Critchley 87). This lets us have the change of perspective and the cognitive shift since we are severed from our preconceptions, emotions and involvement with the given subject matter. Critchley defines as follows: jokes (“tiny explosions of humor”) are sensus comunis in a sense that they work with implicit meanings in a culture, so they return us to the common, the familiar, however, they also indicate transformation and how things could be improved, thus they are dissensus communis at the same time as well since they project a possibility for a new kind of sensus communis that is distinct from the dominant, given common sense (90). Hence jokes and humor rely on sensus communis (what we all share and what connects us) to create a new kind of sensus communis because they try to change what is not working in the existing common sense that is shared by all. By joking about death, Dickinson is actually trying to change how we all view death through changing our dominant thoughts about it, our shared sensus communis.
Another important aspect of comedy, as opposed to tragedy, is that although it deals with the same problems, it sees a way out, and finds a way out of the problem (Morreall 131). Critchley is also of the opinion that humor does not simply reveal a situation but also suggests solutions (16). As a result, Dickinson finds interesting and refreshing modes to discuss the issue of death with humor to create a change in how we ‘live death.’ Eventually, Morreall closes his argument by stating that the most cosmic perspective and world view is the comic one, so great thinkers and philosophers should really appreciate this approach if they want to have access to ‘knowledge’ (138). Emily Dickinson definitely appreciated the comic perspective concerning life as well as death as an outstanding thinker.
Simon Critchley also adds that jokes are “anti-rites” meaning that “[t]hey mock, parody or deride the ritual practices of a given society” (5). When Dickinson jokes about death, she precisely makes fun of our expectations, traditions, customs, beliefs and rituals of how we see and treat death thus trying to make us look at the whole issue differently and change our ‘rites’ concerning the subject. Critchley adds that laughter is a convulsive bodily phenomenon similarly to orgasm or weeping thus it signals “[a] loss of self-control,” (8) that is why the dignity and sacrilegious rituals surrounding death are usually not associated with comedy, however, Dickinson sets out to change exactly this.
Now, I would like to add a brief overview of some works (from various periods of time and decades to have a little transhistorical view as well) that discussed the question of death in Dickinson’s poetry – and as the samples show, these researches usually approached the issue from a negative point of view. Ruth Flanders McNaughton sets her sights entirely on the issue of death in Dickinson’s poetry in a 1949 article positing death as a tyrant, dictator, imperator right at the beginning and the relationship with him as a battle, as a fight. Flanders McNaughton also registers at the beginning that “[o]f her approximately fifteen hundred surviving poems, at least one-sixth deal directly with Death (a word which she almost always capitalized as she seldom did faith), and many more bow to him in passing” (203). Additionally, many letters also speak of death (ibid). Later, dying and the encounter with death are associated with drifting into the infinite and as ecstasy in the union with the unknown (Flanders McNaughton 203-204). In the author’s opinion, “it was the miracle of death, more than any other aspect of it, that captured her imagination. Certainly her attitude toward it was not that of the orthodox Calvinist of the New England, which likes to claim her exclusively as “seeing New Englandly”” (Flanders McNaughton 204). It is also added that reincarnation, resurrection and even the possibility of immortality all surfaced in Dickinson’s imagination about ‘life after death,’ she definitely did not consider it as terminal: “[t]o the end of her life, Emily puzzled over the mystery and miracle life, time, eternity, God, and death. As she grew older, her faith in some form of reincarnation or resurrection, her belief in immortality as we commonly define the term in the Christian manner, seemed grow” (Flanders McNaughton 205). As if it was suggested again that Dickinson has been ‘at home’ or has seen ‘the other side’ and it is homely and she is known there, her famous last message is cited: “shortly before May 15, 1886, the day of her death, she sent a cryptic message consisting of two words. “Little Cousins, – Called back. Emily”” (Flanders McNaughton 206).
Flanders McNaughton even reaches that point – although she does not consider any comic treatment of death in Dickinson’s poetry – that Dickinson grew fond of death and made jesting remarks about him/it: “As she grew older, Emily seemed almost to woo death, and she spoke more and more affectionately of “that old imperator,” sometimes half in jest […]” (207). Flanders McNaughton also adds later (on the positive side of the topic) that, in her opinion, Dickinson “enjoyed funerals […] because of the show” (210) as well as that “[t]he graveyard poems, I think, are unique, because of the gay and tender delight with which Emily almost always speaks of the grave” (211). So, this author comes close to the humorous aspects of the death poetry, but actually, she never elaborates on it or specifies it. Eventually, it is emphasized that Dickinson believed in immortality and/or resurrection and that death is considered to be a kind of metamorphosis at dawn, which evidently suggests rather a new start than an ending: “[t]he poems expressing greatest hope for immortality are the love poems. When Emily Dickinson does speculate on death and resurrection as conjoined, she almost always likens the great metamorphosis to dawn rather than to sunset as so many poets have done” (Flanders McNaughton 213). It is even concluded that death is presented in Dickinson’s poetry as if it was just an incident, almost a passing experience in the great circle of existence, as if something that happened to us accidentally on our way towards something more important, and death is also likened to the moment when we pass through a gateway or an entrance hall to something more glorious.
Death is just an incident along the way, an opening leading from a small room to a larger room, to “Escape from Circumstance.” Death for Emily meant daybreak, sunrise in the “Ether Acre” to which she rode to “meet the Earl!” It is not to be feared for ourselves, but only because of its power to take from us those whom we love. When they have all gone on before, then we can rejoice at being “called back” by death to that Paradise we possibly have known before. (Flanders McNaughton 214)
In the end, Flanders McNaughton, even if not addressing the comic element in Dickinson’s treatment of death, suggests in her final thought again “that death may be experienced as life’s greatest adventure” (214).
B. J. Rogers, in his study entitled “The Truth Told Slant: Emily Dickinson’s Poetic Mode” (1972), concentrates on how Dickinson thought that “her business was circumference” (329). Consequently, he approaches several important death poems exactly form the point of view of stillness-motion and how circumference is applied in their case likewise. Although some remarkable insights are provided into the death poems, the possibility of humor is not even included and the ideas mostly associated with death are stillness, motionlessness, solitariness, immobility, isolation, frost, mystery, and the focus is much rather on how the soul is moving or stopping in the process. Kenneth Stocks consecrated an entire book to the various themes in Dickinson’s poetry in 1988, yet there is a chapter specifically on love and death (combined – he leads the topic of death out of love in her poetry). He opines that Dickinson is not a sentimentalist, even the love poems are made out of “realist-based lyricism” (Stocks 103); and that even though she has a “fantasizing tendency” while death is one of her major themes, she strictly remains a realist poet and examines death within an existentialist scheme through realistic lens (Stocks 108). In his opinion, Dickinson tries to grasp “the reality of death as a lived experience” (Stocks 109). However, his focus is on whether Dickinson treats this issue through the dying person, the dying experience, Death itself or the tomb, and while concentrates on her realist approach excluding emotions of any kind, the question or possibility of humor does not even come into the picture – death is interpreted in a serious manner. Similarly, even though about 20 years apart in 2008, Sam S. Baskett still concentrates on the negativity of death in one of Dickinson’s gems about this topic – with the blue fly. With great determination, he argues that death is a dark, desperate, undesirable thing even if the synesthetic fly is a sensory exuberance and a great example of Dickinson’s genius, still, its comic possibility is not even mentioned.
However, Kathleen Hulley wrote an article entitled Emily Dickinson, Jester in 1977, yet she failed to address the issue of death. Nevertheless, it was an important step and one of the first attempts to study Dickinson’s comic talent, yet, the article was only scratching the surface of the potential of her whole comic output. In Hulley’s words, her aim is exactly to shift the focus of the research on Dickinson from an exclusively tragic and serious approach to see her comic side as well:
I would like to shift our habitual reading of Dickinson’s poetry and see her not according to the conventions of poetry but according to those of humor, for her poetry is, even at its most serious, tremendously ludic and free, leading to a physical release of energy, if not a laugh. Her poetry relies on the structures of humor-shifting categories, structures of doubling, condensation and displacement. Finally, by reading her from such an optic, we see that the Other, the 2nd person, the receiver of the joke is placed at the center of an economy of pure pleasure. (64)
This is indeed a great adventure to excavate the humorous tendencies of Dickinson’s poetry and Hulley makes a great attempt to theorize humor itself defining how its manipulates the critical faculties of the mind also referring to the bisociative aspects that she does not call so, yet what she describes is that, and that is evidently central to the understanding of humor: “[t]he sense of a joke is mere camouflage, a trick to lull the critical faculty so the joke work itself can take place. […] Its pleasure depends on a short circuit, bringing together two or more alien categories of discourse.” (65)
However, Hulley is hardly right in claiming that Dickinson made only innocent jokes: “[m]ost of the jokes Dickinson tells are what Freud called non-tendentious or innocent jokes, a joke whose meaning is unimportant serving only to mask the pleasure principle” (65), because she is clearly critical of her own society as well as religion, calling into question all kinds of authorities and even ridiculing death, so she really uses tendentious humor too. It is not to say that she uses only tendentious humor, but she is not non-confrontational either, and although the pleasure principle is always central in the working of humor, it is still only one part of the whole picture, and Dickinson almost never jokes just to please anybody, she always has an agenda. Sometimes she even harbors the most dangerous and most indecent, inappropriate issues with humor, so what she certainly is not is innocent in any sense of the word, as Regina Barreca also declared it: the women humorists “are no angels” (1996, 10). Yet, Hulley also remarks that Dickinson’s epistemological quandaries are also expressed by her clever humorous tricks: “[o]nly by reading her poems as jokes can we enter into this prelapsarian play. Her jokes operate by a process of displacement in which one signifier displaces another, but there is nothing behind – no signified except in the epistemological habits of the 2nd person.” (67) Thus, even if Hulley does not go so far as to analyze Dickinson’s humor deeply (the death poetry is not even mentioned), this study is still a significant attempt to understand humor theoretically as well as opening up new possibilities of interpretation for Dickinson’s works.
Joan Kirby (1991), although focusing on various other aspects of Dickinson’s poetry, at one point, mentions about the gentleman lover Death poem, what she calls “Dickinson’s most famous Poem 712 ‘Because I could not stop for Death –’,” that this poem is “revealing Dickinson’s playfully macabre vision of death” (98). However, she does not deal with the comic possibilities of her death poems or of any other poem either and rather concentrates on the Gothic aspects even though the playfully macabre idea has a great potential concerning Dickinson’s death poems – and in general since she had a tendency for a morbid sense of humor, of which we are witnesses in her death poems especially. Claudia Ottlinger wrote an entire book (1996) about the death motif in Emily Dickinson’s and Christina Rosetti’s works drawing parallels between the two authors but the focus seems to be entirely on the negativity of death, and although the author claims that Dickinson was fascinated by death from quite early on – which is true and her own declaration is often cited – such ideas are used that she as well as Rosetti were haunted by death throughout their lives, and that Dickinson consciously chose a living dead-kind of life form for herself. However, Ottlinger points out that Dickinson tried to refuse the power of death and made an effort to master it and used very creative ways to do so calling it “the uncertain certainty” and tried to solve the baffling riddle of death (46), “the ultimate mystery” (60) – as the author suggests.
Then, it is also emphasized that Dickinson often personifies Death as a gallant lover and the passage from life to death is often presented as a pleasant carriage ride and an amorous liaison with this insistent lover (Ottlinger 49-50), yet, the most important point made here is that Dickinson never positions herself as inferior to Death and keeps ‘him’ at a distance (Ottlinger 50). In the author’s opinion, Dickinson has mixed feelings about and an ambiguous relationship with death by e.g. calling it “gay” and “ghastly” at the same time (Ottlinger 68). Although it is evident that Dickinson can be very naturalistic in her descriptions of the dying body, I do not agree with the following statement that she is most interested in the microscopic observation of the process since she is rarely interested in the body per se, she usually focuses on the spirit, the soul, the self, the consciousness etc., everything that is beyond the corporeal: “[w]hat she is most interested in is an almost clinical or microscopic observation of the physical shape of death, an examination of the bodily changes with an almost naturalistic precision.” (Ottlinger 69) However, the author also mentions that what is more important to Dickinson is that she thinks that through the dying experience one gets to a higher level of awareness and consciousness, and this is what she would like to grasp: “[s]he supposes that one attains a high level of consciousness at the moment of death and that the relationship between the eyes of the dying person and the eyes of the onlooker might help to solve the mysteries and uncertainties concerning death […]” (ibid).
It is also added that Dickinson is really after the “superior knowledge and wisdom of the dead” (Ottlinger 84), that is why she is returning to this topic again and again, and it is clearly stated later that Dickinson had an “intellectual” approach to death (Ottlinger 169), and that her poetry is full of “rebellious individualism” (Ottlinger 170). Additionally, it is also revealed that Dickinson did not harbor any religious beliefs and commitments – which is common knowledge and she often confessed it in her writing – so religion is excluded from the picture concerning death, she purely approached it with “metaphysical riddling and analytic genius” (Ottlinger 173). When detailing Dickinson’s vision of her own death it is emphasized that, within this experience, consciousness and perception get central stage as well as how these might change or not (Ottlinger 115). At one tiny point in the analysis, the author acknowledges about two poems that in those an “optimistic view of death as the gateway to visionary fulfillment” is depicted (Ottlinger 120), but more or less that is all about a positive approach to death in her interpretation. Thus, the overall conclusion and the main argument still remains that Dickinson never reaches her goal to get the precious knowledge she is after and she has to face her limitations while death still remains something undesirable and an unsolvable mystery/tragedy that is threatening and involves pain and suffering – according to Ottlinger.
Camille Paglia (2001) makes a rather surprising (yet viable) claim calling Dickinson “Amherst’s Madame de Sade” arguing that she is actually a female Sade endowed with a sadomasochistic imagination committing diabolical acts while her poems are posited as “womb-tomb[s] of Decadent closure” (410). Probably, Paglia refers to Dickinson’s cool intellectual approach and emotionless analytical ruthlessness in trying to understand everything (even death) while enjoying the suffering and the struggle of doing so by stating that “[t]he brutality of this belle of Amherst would stop a truck. She is a virtuoso of sadomasochistic surrealism” (ibid). Paglia even opines that, at one point, Dickinson “makes sharp Sadean comedy” out of how she ‘dropped her brain’ (411) – even if its is not concretely a case with death, its is still remarkable that she is capable of sadistic comedy to express a unique experience. Later, Paglia adds that “in the great “Because I could not stop for Death,”” there is a scene that is “boisterous” (415-416), and goes on analyzing death scenes which, in her interpretation, are described with cruel enjoyment as if making fun of suffering and bodily harm that is involved also including another famous death poem in this argument: ““I’ve seen a Dying Eye / Run round and round a Room” (416) together with several other examples. As a comic comment concerning another poem, Paglia remarks: “Dickinson’s death has gotten carried away with enthusiasm and added on lock after lock, like a stage magician or bank manager sealing the vault” (416) – as if an encounter with death was similar to a case when a silly Death, out of enthusiasm, was overdoing his job. It is evidently added that “Dickinson’s world is crowded with deaths, which she collects for her poetic archives” (416) as well as that Dickinson had a “notorious preoccupation with death” (426).
However, an even more important comment follows that “Dickinson gets her best black comedy from the graveyard” (Paglia 416), which clearly states that Dickinson is playing with the topic of death and that she is fond of black comedy, both of which are evident in her death poems. In Paglia’s opinion, Dickinson finds sadistic pleasure in how she uses sardonic speeches and expresses “rustic bluntness about birth and death” (416) in her writing, additionally, “Dickinson is a pioneer among women writers in renouncing genteel good manners. She cultivates knavish insolence” (417) as well as a “zeal for indelicacy” (418). In her letters she also displays a “witty flouting of decorum” (Paglia 418). The author defines Dickinson’s humor as “jarringly curt” (Paglia 417), while jokingly opining that “[i]f the Muses were to give this poet a heraldic crest, it would be an arm and hammer, as on a box of baking soda” (ibid). It is also added that even some of her “sentimental poems contain hidden ironies” (Paglia 420). According to Paglia, earl is Dickinson’s favorite title to refer to death as well as God – whom she ironically considers interchangeable – and “one of the poet’s jokes at the expense of a diminished God” (421). Yet, interestingly after all these considerations Paglia still declares that “Dickinson thinks of death as enforced passivity, agonizing impediment of movement. She dwells on the moment a person becomes a thing […] Mind, body, and gender have gelatinized. Dickinson’s death is a great neuter state.” (426), which contradicts everything what she argued for so far as well as her next claim: that “Because I could not stop for Death,” is “parodic” (ibid). Paglia concludes that “Dickinson’s cynical surrealism is unparalleled among great women writers” (428) while death in Dickinson’s poetry is a “collision between time and eternity” with “a transfiguring glamour,” which she also addresses with “ravenous curiosity” (436).
Elise Davinroy, in her study entitled “Tomb and Womb: Reading Contexture in Emily Dickinson’s “Soft Prison”” (2006), interestingly consecrates very little time and energy to death itself, and even when she does, she does not do it in the context of the poems but the lived experience of the death of loved ones and how Dickinson wrote about that in her letters. The whole article focuses much rather on Dickinson’s epistolary historiography and (auto)biography and only discusses some poems sparingly. The topic of death appears only for a brief period of time, and it is interpreted as something undoubtedly negative, the idea of freezing is connected to it as even the living are frozen by the tragedy of the death of loved ones as if being paralyzed by grief. Alexandra Socarides (2008) goes into quite much detail about the poem concerning Emily Brontë’s grave but surprisingly she focuses on almost everything else – and especially the role of ‘Or’ in changing meanings – than death itself. However, eventually it is claimed that, for Dickinson, the “epistemological conundrum” of death was the most important and she tried to work around that idea, also adding that the fracture and the interruption that death causes is the central issue for Dickinson instead of a formal closure; and although the author does not mention anything about humor, she also highlights that Dickinson was thinking about death-rebirth cycles all the time (Socarides 318).
In spite of the fact that most scholars concentrating on Emily Dickinson ascertain that she approached the topic of death in a tragic fashion, there is a growing number of researchers who have focused on her humorous output and included her in the works written on women and humor/comedy. In the following part I would like focus on the works of humor theorists, who concentrated on women’s use of humor, and how they included Emily Dickinson within their argument. One of the first such scholars was Nancy Walker. In A Very Serious Thing. Women’s Humor and American Culture (1988), she argues that the reason behind the absence of women’s humor from anthologies and critical studies is the same why there were not female composers or scientists (ix). She even declares that “women aren’t supposed to have a sense of humor,” it was to be read in studies – certainly written by men – that “women were incapable of humor” (ibid), later she states similarly that “women have been officially denied the possession of – hence the practice of – the sense of humor” (Walker 8). She also adds that women humorists especially had to work hard “to be taken seriously as an intellectually capable person” and “to prove to the “Dads” of the world” that women are able to recognize and understand absurdities and they are also capable of communicating it to others in a humorous manner (Walker 6). In Walker’s opinion, a female humorists is dangerous, and an anomaly, exactly because she “confronts and subverts” the power structure that keeps women (and other minorities) oppressed and powerless thus taking an enormous risk because she might alienate those “upon whom women are dependent for economic survival” (9). In an ironic mode Walker also highlights this fundamental absurdity by stating: “America’s female humorists have demonstrated an awareness that they were writing humor in the face of a prevailing opinion that they were not capable of what they were in fact, at that moment, doing” (x).
Evidently, Walker identifies, together with e.g. Anne Bradstreet, also Emily Dickinson as a prominent humorist in American culture (xi). Walker points out that Bradstreet as well as Dickinson both wrote humorously about e.g. “self-definition and cultural constraints,” although she does not name death as a specific topic, yet even more interestingly and importantly, Walker claims that for these women the “primary mode is humor” (xi), so they are basically humorous writers. Walker also cites Constance Rourke arguing that “within the American comic spirit” evidently the “prevailing masculine genius” ruled, yet, Emily Dickinson was the only woman writer who was “in a profound sense a comic poet in the American tradition” (Rourke 209-10 cited in Walker 22). Rourke affirms that Dickinson looked at the whole universe in a way that was “comic in its profoundest sense” and she had an “ironic vision of life” that is a proof of Dickinson’s ability to stand apart, to reject the genteel tradition and to definitely refuse to be defined by it, additionally, she was “impertinent” and dared to pose challenge with her questions (Walker 22).
Although Audrey Bilger (2002) basically discusses 18th century English women writers such as Jane Austen but her claims concerning women’s humor (also in the following century) and why it was forbidden is revealing concerning the age and culturally there were overlaps between the UK and the US from this point of view. For example, Bilger declares that “women and comedy were both seen as potentially disruptive to the social order” (15), evidently suggesting that the combination of the two was viewed as explosive. She also states that “conduct-book writers” (mostly men) made definitive efforts to “suppress women’s laughter and humor” because it was dangerous since it could break down hierarchies and irritate the dominant classes; and as a “threat to the social order” women’s humor and laughter were also “seen as a menace to society’s very foundations” (Bilger 16). In her argument (similarly to various other scholars), the ideal humorist was conceived as a man, and if a woman attempted humor she was considered to be aggressive and sexually active adopting a “masculine mode of behavior” which evidently resulted in only “false humor” since she could not produce ‘real’ humor (Bilger 19).
Proper femininity was considered to be “antithetical to the critical spirit of comedy” because humor/comedy was against subordination, it was a sign of noncompliance as well as disruption (Bilger 21). By the early 19th century, a rebellious female was “a contradiction in terms” because the idealized domestic order was heavily reliant on “women’s complicity for its survival” (Bilger 22). James Fordyce, as an example, openly declared that a woman cannot get a husband if she is witty because men do not like to be criticized and cannot feel “safe” next to such a woman (ibid). What is another still prevailing belief was also that the laughter of the woman had “sexual connotations;” if a woman laughs, she knows more than she should as “laughter reveals an active understanding that belies innocence” (Bilger 23). Delia Chiaro and Raffaella Baccolini, in their edited volume entitled Gender and Humor. Interdisciplinary and International Perspectives (2014), still opine that what funny women do is still “against the status quo of female behavior,” and these women challenge “an unwritten law of female demeanor” (8). Sabrina Fuchs Abrams, in Transgressive Humor of American Women Writers (2017), also argues that humor is traditionally associated with aggression, intellect and sexuality, that is why is largely “inaccessible to women” and “The Cult of True Womanhood” within America evidently emphasized that the ideal woman was against all this (2).
Fuchs Abrams also adds that female empowerment is connected to humor and wit while female freedoms as well as power are always seen as “a threat to the existing patriarchal power structure” (2). More importantly, Fuchs Abrams utters what is behind all of the restrictions concerning (humorous) female behavior: i.e. “[l]augther can be seen as castrating and emasculating, a sign of intellectual and sexual potency” (ibid). She concludes that “[h]umor is hot, and American women of wit are especially hot […]” (Fuchs Abrams 12). Evidently, the Victorian ideal of the “angel in the house” or the American true woman was an asexual, humorless being who was greatly defined based on the writing of Gregory, Fordyce and Gisborne (Bilger 24). The “potency of female laughter” was viewed as “unfeminine” and was absolutely denied to the domestic woman (Bilger 25). As a result, Dickinson had to be very careful with humorous communication otherwise she would outlaw herself, however, she evidently could not restrain herself and her wit was/is revealed again and again in her writing.
Regina Barreca, in The Penguin Book of Women’s Humor (1996), also argues that if a woman uses humor, her femininity will inevitably be called into question (2). She is also of the opinion that women’s humor questions “the accepted wisdom of the system” as well as challenges the social forces that “keep women in “their place”” (Barreca 1996, 1). She argues that humor can rise out of intelligence, courage, insight and a sense of irreverence (Barreca 1996, 3) – all of which are generally considered masculine qualities and male privileges. Barreca also highlights (in 1996) that the research on women and humor has only “lately been brought to the front of the line […] to receive its much deserved attention” (4) – so focused attention and a professional/academic/scholarly research concerning women’s humor is only about 30 years old, hence, evidently not many scholars considered the use of humor central when dealing with Emily Dickinson as well as her poems about death. Nevertheless, Barreca also lists Dickinson among the most significant humorous woman writers (ibid). She also adds that women often use humor to retell stories that once might have been painful, but humor helps to redeem the pain (Barreca 1996, 5).
It is also mentioned that women’s use of humor “sometimes make men nervous” (Barreca 1996, 6) emphasizing why humor use is still considered something women should not do. Molly Ivins is cited saying that “a surprising number of men are alarmed by the thought of a witty woman” and a woman’s humor is called “ball-busting” (Barreca 1996, 7) – and all this even in our days, so women during earlier centuries had to be even more constrained in their use of humor. One of Margaret Atwood’s anecdotes is also cited, namely that she asked a group of women at university how they feel threatened by men, they listed such things that being beaten, being raped or killed by men; while a group of men answered to a possible threat by women that they were/are afraid that “women would laugh at them” (ibid) – this tells a lot about power structures. However, what is even more important for our current issue at hand is that, according to Barreca, “[w]omen’s humor is not for the fainthearted or the easily shocked” (1996, 9), which is evidently relevant concerning Dickinson’s joking about death. And while we still do not know whether Dickinson was really not afraid of death or just tried to tame/disempower it through humor but Barreca’s claim is still fitting that “humor allows you to have a perspective on an otherwise potentially overwhelming prospect” (ibid), hence to humorize about death can be helpful either way. Barreca closes her argument by stating that women who use humor “are no angels, as Mae West once put it,” however, they evidently see the world and all of its absurdities, injustices and imbalances “from a perspective infinitely instructive, irreverent, and enlightening” (1996, 10). So does Emily Dickinson when/how she sees life from her comic perspective on death.
Barreca, in her preface to Peter Dickson et al.’s 2013 edited volume on women and comedy, also repeats that humor has the potential to redeem a troublesome situation that might be lost to negative emotions otherwise (xiv). Hence, the use of humor concerning death is again shown as something possibly beneficial. Here, she also points out that the reason why humor is considered “unfeminine” is that traditional concepts of femininity are linked to fragility and delicacy while the world of humor is “demanding, competitive, and undignified” sometimes even “nasty,” where the “[f]ailure of nerve is not an option” (Barreca 2013, xv). In fact, Emily Dickinson does not seem to lose her nerve when writing about death. Barreca also states that “[h]umor is life with its pants down” and when women do the pulling it is doubly obscene (2013, xvi) – probably this is why hardly anybody ever considered that Emily Dickinson might be joking about anything, let alone death.
In the same book (2013), the editors also claim in their introduction (that they funnily entitled Dorothy Parker’s Headache because Parker as one of the most acclaimed humorous woman writers in the US was not able to define what humor meant to her because she always got a headache when trying to do so – also pointing towards what many scholars have declared that humor is easier to be done/imitated than to theorize or analyze it) that comedy “has the potential to influence what and how we know (epistemology), who we are (identity), and what we do (agency)” (Dickson et al. xxiii). This indicates what John Morreall and Simon Critchley also theorized about: the serious ontological as well as epistemological aspects of humor, which all reveal why Dickinson’s humorous treatment of death is a spectacular mode of highlighting (existential) questions also concerning life, existence, selfhood, identity and cognition. Dickson et al. also highlights why humor is powerful i.e. it is able to trigger a cognitive shift, create a conscious awareness of a given issue, make people see contrast or discrepancy, so it is “a potentially forceful act of social critique” and can create new meanings, and that is power (xxvii).
At this point, a very unique book has to be mentioned that is out of print and it needs real bravado to get hold of an existing copy, yet, exactly because of its specific topic, it is to be discussed: Comic Power in Emily Dickinson by Suzanne Juhasz, Cristanne Miller and Martha Nell Smith (1993). This book is a real gem, that is why it is hardly understandable why it is out of print and so difficult to get a copy. In this book, the authors set out on a journey to present us the comic Emily Dickinson. Although, they are not scholars of humor or comedy per se, they manage to provide great insights into the workings of humor and comedy, and also explain why Dickinson was generally not viewed as a comic author while this potential was in her writing throughout. They start accordingly with the following sentence: “[a]lthough Emily Dickinson was a noted wit in her circle of friends and family, and although her poetry is surely clever, frequently downright funny, and, as we shall argue, throughout possessed of a significant comic vision, criticism has paid little attention to her humor.” (Juhasz et al. 1) They also state that this is the first time that somebody dedicates an entire scholarly work to the comic aspects of Dickinson’s vision and oeuvre (ibid). However, they are certain that “Dickinson teases, mocks, even outrages her audience in ways that are akin both to the gestures of traditional comedy and to specifically feminist humor” exactly because she protests against the (social) conventions that constrain her as a woman and hinder her intellectually (ibid).
In line with the concepts of humor, the authors ascertain that Dickinson “offer[s] a transforming vision of the world” through her comic overarching vision and not through the standard idea of “Dickinson the tragedienne” even if they do not claim that there are no tragic elements in her art either (Juhasz et al. 1-5). They even claim that Dickinson often has “clever jingly rhymes” in her funny poems (Juhasz et al. 16), which is significant because this is a specific aspect of her humorous poems that they sound like the children’s rhymes that they sing and chant while playing in the playground as an example. They also add that Dickinson often mocks conventional religious beliefs and not even sublime subjects, not even God, are exempt from her comic attacks (Juhasz et al. 18). It is also claimed that Dickinson creates ridiculous visions e.g. by elevating trivial issues into importance (which is again typical of humor in general), often mixing up/switching “high” and “low” or she creates “cartoon-like depiction[s]” (Juhasz et al. 20-22). It is also argued that “excess and grotesquerie” are typical of Dickinson and that she often goes “too far to be taken completely seriously” (Juhasz et al. 24-25). They even add about the darkest poems that frequently “the horror crosses that peculiar psychological line where it becomes funny, or at least humorous” (Juhasz et al. 25). They opine that Dickinson creates a carnivalesque escape from the ordinary while also providing rebellion, and it is even suggested that what she is doing can be interpreted as camp because “Dickinson’s comic vision destabilizes, subverts, and reimagines cultural situations” (ibid).
In spite of all this, the chapter entitled “The Big Tease” by Suzanne Juhasz first surprises the reader because it does not seem to view the treatment of death in Dickinson’s poetry in a comic way. It basically argues that Dickinson is a teaser, with all of the sexual connotations of this word’s meaning, and that Dickinson uses the strategy of teasing as an attack against patriarchal rule (Juhasz et al. 27). Juhasz argues that Dickinson is often “a naughty little girl” or a “bad little girl in action” when she tries to challenge those in power positions (34). Eventually, the theme of death in Dickinson’s poems is discussed by Juhasz in a way that it is something natural and there is nothing extraordinary about it, yet, she does not concern herself much with this issue. She only claims that even the most serious issues such as death are approached through the pose of the tease (Juhasz et al. 40, 47). Juhasz declares that “Dickinson’s poems about death scrupulously unravel its meaning from those definitions already in existence” while also claiming that the poems about death are usually intertwined with the theme of love, so they are love/death poems also involving tease, thrills and eroticism, Death is usually a lover (47). It is also suggested that Dickinson loves the danger in these situations and poems, she enjoys the dangerousness, and according to Juhasz, some of these poems “are even funny” (48). At one point, Juhasz tries to differentiate between various death poems by saying: “[o]ne death brings nothing, and that is tragedy; the other death brings transformation, and that is comedy” (59). Ultimately, however, Juhasz is still concerned with the tease closing her argument by claiming: “Dickinson’s tease is her agency toward power” (62).
Martha Nell Smith’s chapter is entitled “The Poet as Cartoonist.” Smith argues that Dickinson occasionally moves beyond her ironic wit into more radical realms associated with cartooning (Juhasz et al. 65) while Dickinson is said to have a “cartoon-like writing” style which makes the stories “less and more horrifying” at the same time as she humorously narrates them (89). Smith is convinced that Dickinson uses laughter as a form of aggression and means to turn the world upside down with it by “recognizing its social power,” in the meantime, allying laughter and play “with holy callings” (90). However, surprisingly, Smith does not seem to concern herself much with death either and mentions likewise that death is usually a gentleman caller or suitor, even suggesting that in the “Because I could not / stop for Death” poem there is a “threesome” with Death and Immortality (93) and that Dickinson is often “sexily suggestive” (96). The chapter by Cristanne Miller, “The Humor of Excess,” argues that “Dickinson is mistress of excess and of the grotesque” because with her “exuberance” and “weirdness” she goes too far (103). Miller ascertains that “Dickinson was the only woman of her day to make use in her own writing of the ‘blackly humorous images’” of the popular press of the times (106). Miller argues that Dickinson anticipates camp with her “radical cultural subversiveness,” exuberant amorality, violent humor and her “humorous extravagance, excess” as well as grotesquerie (ibid).
Finally, Miller focuses more on the theme of death arguing that serious topics such as death are often presented with such narrative perspectives or tone or expressions or metaphors that are “at odds with the expected tone” hence the result is humorous (108). Miller discusses “I like a look of Agony” by revealing “multiple ironies,” and the “macabre humor” is the result of the mixing of suffering and humor, which, according to Miller, makes the latter more visible (108-109). Yet, Miller also highlights that Dickinson’s humor, especially in connection with death “is not apparently funny” and there is usually not “overt comedy” in them, yet, they are still there and should be “dissected” (112-113). Miller eventually states that “after noting the humorous potential of these poems, one is forever caught between their possibilities for interpretation, forever disrupted” (114). However, even more importantly, it is added that purely comic delight or sheer pleasure are never possible with Dickinson because the grief, suffering, anger, fear etc. are also there. Miller emphasizes that “these are not funny poems” (emphasis is Miller’s, 115) in spite of their humor. Miller also cites several sources that confirm that women were not supposed to be funny, and publicly it was doubly denied to them, because it violated propriety and “‘good’ girl or womanhood” that is why, according to Miller, Dickinson often even deconstructs the female body with her humorous excess by showing “resistance to dominant constructions of gender” (118). Eventually, they close their book by declaring that Dickinson was wild, shrewd, bold, used slapstick and camp, she had a “brazen humor,” and after all, “Emily Dickinson the comedienne is […] the same poet as Emily Dickinson the tragedienne” (Juhasz et al. 140). In their evaluation, Dickinson “re-sturctures the world,” creates a new order with her comic vision that is made alive by her “linguistic pyrotechnics” and her comic power that carries “a transformative magic” (ibid).
Eventually, Eleanore Lewis Lambert wrote an article entitled “Emily Dickinson’s Joke about Death” in Studies in American Humor in 2013, attempting to shed light on Dickinson’s unorthodox approach to death. Although this study is a great examination of the issue, only a few of the poems are taken under scrutiny, however, except for two, not even the most important or most prominent ones are under scrutiny. Additionally, Lewis Lambert connects Dickinson’s handling of this subject matter to Shakespeare, which might be a viable way but quite much attention is paid to this possibility that diverts the attention from the real impact of what Dickinson was doing with this issue. According to the author, “the pairing is the tension of pain or grief and the detachedness of a cosmic vision” that can be witnessed in Dickinson’s death poetry (Lewis Lambert 7). She also adds that the jokes in Dickinson’s poetry are “always scarcely detectable, always subtly embedded” (ibid); as a result, these poems usually “will not likely seem humorous after a first reading […] however, the surface bleakness in many Dickinson “death” poems often shrouds their humorous core.” (Lewis Lambert 8) Probably, that is why so many scholars insist on Dickinson’s tragic vision about death in general because they do not look under the seemingly grim surface. Lewis Lambert emphasizes Dickinson’s tendency to surprise us and make us see the incongruity and the absurdity – and consequently the joke – by inserting some very mundane and undignified element into an apparently solemn narration: “[j]ust when we are sure that one of her poems is solemn in tone, Emily Dickinson slips in some cartoonish image (like bumping one’s head on a tree) or some incongruous claim” (ibid).
Lewis Lambert is also of the opinion that, for Dickinson, death is not something tragic and finite, but it is a possibility for change, for transformation, for entering a new level of awareness etc., it is always associated with ““immortality,” “eternity,” or “resurrection”” (ibid). It is never about ceasing to exist, it is always much rather an adventure for something better and exciting. As Lewis Lambert identifies, Dickinson achieves the humorous effect by incongruous matches of ideas, light detachment in treating serious subjects such as death and defying the reader’s expectations (ibid). She even goes so far as to state what I have also suggested that Dickinson was actually ‘naughty’ and ‘cheeky’ in her poems (especially about death): “[i]n Dickinson’s poetry, cheer and mischief statistically outshine bleaker topics” (Lewis Lambert 9). It is also argued that Dickinson used the word death in a playful, flexible, lighthearted, broadminded, and even in a cheerful or mischievous manner (Lewis Lambert 9, 23, 28). Although it is true that she was not trivializing the experience, it had weight, yet, she never allowed it to crush her: “[i]n maintaining a balance of gravity and levity, Dickinson’s special brand of humor both respects death’s solemnity and celebrates its relative insignificance” (Lewis Lambert 9-10).
Martha Nell Smith is even cited suggesting that Dickinson used “cartoonish” images and was often “cartooning” in her poems visually as well as verbally (Lewis Lambert 13). About the famous “Because I could not stop for Death –” poem Lewis Lambert claims that its tone is “dainty” and it has a “staccato-rhythm” (16) – which again lends the poem a light and hilarious air. Evidently, this poem is called a “romantic carriage ride” with Death, and the rhythm of the poem imitates the movement of the carriage, according to the author, while Death just drops Dickinson off at a graveyard as if it was a bus stop towards wherever she wanted to go; and most importantly Lewis Lambert declares that: “[n]ot being able to “stop” for death therefore suggests that Dickinson’s “death” is not a full stop ” (16-17) – so she does not let even Death stop her at anything, she is too busy and has more important things to do than to die. In the part about Shakespeare’s use of humor in Anthony and Cleopatra (an alleged favorite of Dickinson), Lewis Lambert argues that “poetic humor” is typically produced by ambiguities, baffled logic, contradictions and all these “woven into short, compact, elliptical sentences, quite like many Dickinson poems” (26) – all of which cannot be debated since Dickinson wrote such sentences and with such techniques. Lewis Lambert closes her argument by stating that death for Dickinson is only a mode of transformation for a fuller life:
Life on one level of awareness must be nullified, must die before a new version of life may be a bliss. In its metaphorical guise, Dickinson’s “death” is the junction point where apparent loss makes way for fuller life. Death is but the faltering of logic; it is but a joke mimicking separation. Dickinson’s death poems incongruously pair the theme of apparent loss with a cheerful undertone. Such is the mutual foil of tension and elasticity. Beneath the tensions of hard sorrow lies an elastic tissue of soft humor. (29)
In this last part, I would like to highlight some poems and point out the humorous aspects, only that because the full analysis of each poem would take up too much space. Just as well, all of the poems dealing with death cannot be examined here because of the scope of the paper but I would like to include some extraordinary specimens from the point of view of the comic in Dickinson’s approach towards death.
I died for Beauty – but was scarce
Adjusted in the Tomb
When One who died for Truth, was lain
In an adjoining Room –
He questioned softly “Why I failed”?
“For Beauty”, I replied –
“And I – for Truth – Themself are One We
Brethren, are”, He said –
And so, as Kinsmen, met a Night
We talked between the Rooms –
Until the Moss had reached our lips –
And covered up – our names –
In this poem, Dickinson is talking about the state of death as if she was just waiting in the parlor of a friend and another acquaintance also arrives and they start to talk to each other. Dickinson makes fun of being new to the grave by drawing a parallel between this state and as if she was just new to an everyday situation and trying to kill time and make it pleasant by elegant conversation. It is also funny that she calls the tomb next to her a room as if being in a hotel, or (again) being a guest at a friend’s house and she just starts to get acquainted with the person placed in the next room. She also ridicules the idea of elegant or genteel conversation because they talk about why and how they died, and as it is revealed, both of them died for high ideals/standards and sentimentality (both of which she detested because of being superficial), the new acquaintance immediately cries that we are brethren then – such sudden familiarity was out of the question according to the rules of society, especially between a man and a woman, although, Dickinson often switched genders/sexes in her various personae, so here, she might be a male or a hermaphrodite etc., still it is a mocking situation. The ending is especially hilarious showing how we are helpless against the working of nature because although they were engrossed in their conversation, nature simply prevented them from continuing it by covering up their lips with moss, literally shutting them up and also erasing even their memory because their names were also covered up by the moss, so they drifted and vanished into the infinite, into eternity – and Dickinson is just fine with it.
I like a look of Agony,
Because I know it’s true –
Men do not sham Convulsion,
Nor simulate, a Throe –
The eyes glaze once – and that is Death –
Impossible to feign
The Beads upon the Forehead
By homely Anguish strung.
This poem is one of the most famous ones in Dickinson’s oeuvre and sometimes researchers are baffled by Dickinson’s impertinence, but this is exactly that creates the surprise and incongruity that makes it humorous. Again she is not terrified of death and she is not interested in the horror of the event, she much rather concentrates on what a great experience it is because it is true, because it is a situation where you cannot act, pretend or show off, and that is the beauty in it. She admires the dying experience as if it was something exquisite, a really elevating experience of purity/purification where the dying person is almost crowned by gems and pearls that are the reward for this final act of bravery, as if it was a medal of honor. Dickinson, with these associations and images as well as the playful rhythm, makes fun of the whole experience and turns it into a travesty with her insolence: she refuses to be terrified into submission and dread by religious and/or civic/secular authorities. She much rather posits it, in a comic turn of events, as a great fight and the dead person as the winner.
I’ve seen a Dying Eye
Run round and round a Room –
In search of Something – as it seemed –
Then Cloudier become –
And then – obscure with Fog –
And then – be soldered down
Without disclosing what it be
’Twere blessed to have seen –
This next poem is also one of the best-known ones among Dickinson’s poems at large but in connection with death specifically. Its rhythm also attests to playfulness and lightness as if she was dancing. Additionally, it is full of movement and dynamism. The eye, Dickinson used metonymy and synecdoche abundantly, is actively searching for something – the dying moment is presented as something eager, active and positive. The person wants knowledge and information and even though when the eyes become clouded, Dickinson is still certain that s/he found what s/he was looking for and this cherished knowledge is locked in the dead body for us who stay here, but the ‘person/spirit/soul/whatever entity’ who left (the physical body behind) took that knowledge with him/her. Dickinson ascertains that this being is blessed and lucky because s/he reached that superior knowledge that Dickinson herself so much envied from the dead. Maybe, she developed her eye problems exactly because she wanted to see (i.e. to know and understand) everything so much that she exhausted her seeing capacities within the human realm.
The next poem I would not like to quote or discuss in full length, only the beginning, because it is exceptionally hilarious:
The last Night that She lived
It was a Common Night
Except the Dying – this to Us
Made Nature different
Here, Dickinson is cheeky enough to situate the event of someone’s death as if it was a nice summer evening, people enjoying themselves on the porch, and then she quips that it was an average night, oh sorry, except the dying. She talks about the dying as if it was not a special occurrence, as if only a mosquito was swapped on the wall of the porch making a slightly inconvenient glitch in the evening. Another interesting moment is that Dickinson depicts the concrete dying as if the person just bent down to a brook to drink a little water, then, “consented” (Fr 1100) and died – it is important that the person had a choice, death did not just happen to him/her but s/he agreed to it. So, death is presented as something that we can decide about (at least to some extent) and not as an evil tyrant who grabs us whether we want it or not. And while it is true that Dickinson calls it an “awful leisure” (Fr 1100) that followed the event for the living (she also often used paradox and oxymoron), she still calls it a leisure what they felt after it as if it was a release of tension and expectation, so, something positive. Thus, she again mocks the whole situation.
The next poem I do not indent to quote and discuss in full detail either due to length, I would only like to highlight the last stanza because she describes the dying experience gradually but with associations of the setting sun or the falling dusk etc. – so not basically anything frightening or sad:
How well I knew the Light before –
I could see it now –
‘Tis Dying – I am doing – but
I’m not afraid to know –
Again, the dying experience is connected to seeing, and it is Dickinson’s own dying (that she envisioned several times). The point of death is seen as a revelation, a cognitive triumph of finally knowing… Additionally, Dickinson openly declares that she is not afraid of this whole experience. It is also a quite comic rendering that after all those nice images of walking in the setting sun etc., she just declares that something is a bit amiss, oh yeah, I get it know, I am dying but it is all right.
The next poem is again one of the most well-known, analyzed and discussed ones; and at the same time, one of the most irreverent, shameless, playful and hilarious ones (these latter claims are not frequently highlighted):
Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –
We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – In the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Gram –
We passed the Setting Sun –
Or rather – He passed Us –
The Dews drew quivering and Chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet-only Tulle –
We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground –
Since then – ‘tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity –
The rhythm of this poem is especially astounding since it is similar to those of children’s rhymes – the ones that they chant while jumping around in the garden. This evidently evokes a comic and light-hearted setting for the whole event. The first line is already rather disrespectful in a comic manner claiming that I was so busy that I did not have time to die; yet Death – who is depicted as a gallant suitor – was kind enough to spare time to pick me up. So, in a joking manner, she talks about death as if something she did not care about, yet since it is an inevitability, she accepted it just to get over with it quickly, after which she plans to go on with her own business.
Another daring idea is that she connects death with marriage, since evidently this pleasant carriage ride is not only an analogy of death but also another rite of passage from one state into another one: from maidenhood into mature womanhood. It is biting criticism if Dickinson assumes that to get married is to die, so it is also a satire of the wedding ceremony/wedding night. It is often highlighted that Immortality is in the carriage with them, but as it has already been argued, Dickinson always included this possibility in connection with death, she always negated the idea that death was something that ended everything. She was convinced that she will not die but to continue in another form, so she will be immortal. The encounter with death is a pleasant carriage ride, and it appears that he is a good driver too (it is not an insignificant aspect). It also has an erotic charge that Dickinson emphasizes that he did everything slowly, did not hasten or force her, so evidently she was willing to put away all the tasks she was doing and enjoy the moment with him.
As they travel, she also registers the sights and what she sees people doing while passing them and everything is fine, everybody is doing his/her job, minding his/her business – so there is nothing extraordinary about it. Associations about the wedding (as well as its night) are again strengthened by the clothes she mentions wearing, because they are evidently wedding/bridal clothes (that are always thin and delicate), although she approaches the question from the point of view of cold that, as the night drew in, she stared to feel cold because she had special, light and fancy clothes on in stead of proper warm ones. Eventually, they reach their destination, their new house where her husband took her, but as it turns out, it is a grave. It is rather comic again that her only problem seems to be that it is too small. But another surprise is dropped by nonchalantly mentioning that now it has been centuries, so this whole travel/adventure evidently turned out to be fine, and as she is still talking about it, it is evident that she is/turned immortal and Death just took her to a gate or a door to another stage in her existence, and where she is now is great and enjoyable because it seemed to be only a minute. Hence, the whole poem is a joke.
I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading – treading – till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through –
And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum –
Kept beating – beating – till I thought
My Mind was going numb –
And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space – began to toll,
As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race
Wrecked, solitary, here –
And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down –
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing – then –
In this poem, Dickinson creates an entire travesty out of a funeral. It is her own funeral, so she creates a comic inversion by narrating her own death – which is rather uncustomary, thus surprising and comic. She also mocks the rituals and how people behave when mourning the deceased. She jokes about how they move around, how they seat themselves, how the bells are ringing, what is said or sang – and evidently all this irritates her. She reacts as if it was just an unnecessary and idiotic burden for her and can hardly wait to be done with it. Then, even how the coffin is carried does not suit her because it creaks, she just would like to be left alone. The many noises around her disturb her as well, she just would like silence etc. – all this is comic since through the various incongruities everything is presented in a new light, which is contrary to our existing preconceptions. In the end, she also likens her experience to be placed in the grave as if she was a bouncing ball and she is really happy when, finally, she is ‘out of there.’ Additionally, the rhythm of this poem is also extraordinary as it projects/evokes a skipping and sprightly movement, while if read aloud, it is easy to rap it (to the puzzled and surprised looks of students in a class). Obviously, Dickinson was joking with the whole situation because she tried to create a cognitive shift in our minds with almost every move she made.
Another extremely well-known and acknowledged poem is the blue fly death poem, this synesthetic idea is again ridiculous – instead of a solemn and dignified moment of somebody passing we are disturbed by a very mundane and irritating fly – quite probably Dickinson consciously wanted to make fun of the whole experience, additionally, it is her own death again – so, comic reversals abound due to surprising twists.
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 –
In this poem, Dickinson cruelly ridicules all of our expectations and provides us with novel and unexpected actualities concerning death since humor arises out of the discrepancy or incongruity between expectation and actuality as Morreall and Critchley have both theorized. She absolutely brings it all down to earth – after all “[h]umor is life with its pants down” (Barreca 2013, xvi), taking away all of its possible dignity. With such a vulgar thing like a fly even irritating somebody when dying while that person would have more important things to do than paying attention to a superfluous and insignificant incident Dickinson is evidently joking; yet this occurrence/phenomenon is very determined, strong, vigorous and insistent – somewhere the very embodiment of life with all of its inconveniences. Ironically, there is a certain beauty in the idea that there is this blue and floating vibrato oscillating between life and death.
The reference to Jesus Christ or God or any other Supreme Being is also turned upside down and inside out in a comic manner when Dickinson prepares us, in the set-up part of the joke, to meet “the King” probably referring to ‘the Creator,’ then, it is stated that she signed her will, there is the procedure of farewell going on etc. Then she has the cheek to say that “and then It was” (with a capital I) as if we reached the final moment, she dies and meets the Lord, something glorious comes, and all of a sudden she quips in the punch line: “There imposed a Fly – ” What a joke! However, after this surprising intervention really comes the expected moment, yet after this interlude, its grandiosity is taken away, and probably this is exactly what Dickinson wanted to do. Another interesting suggestion about the signature (which is probably a reference to signing her will) is that it might be a contract with Death, so consent is not out of the question as if she, again, had a say in what she wanted and she agreed to be taken away, it did not just happen to her because she signed the agreement.
As a last example, I would like to quote a poem about death that even includes Santa Claus, which, as a result, cannot be taken as a serious one:
‘Twas just this time, last year, I died.
I know I heard the Com,
When I was carried by the Farms –
It had the Tassels on –
I thought how yellow it would look –
When Richard went to mill –
And then, I wanted to get out,
But something held my will.
I thought just how Red – Apples wedged
The Stubble’s joints between –
And the Carts went stooping round the fields
To take the Pumpkins in –
I wondered which would miss me, least,
And when Thanksgiving, came,
If Father’d multiply the plates –
To make an even Sum –
And would it blur the Christmas glee
My Stocking hang too high
For any Santa Claus to reach
The Altitude of me –
But this sort, grieved myself,
And so, I thought the other way,
How just this time, some perfect year –
Themself, should come to me –
This poem, even though being about death, concentrates on everything else than this fact. Dickinson narrates the events around her as she is carried into the cemetery – because, of course, she is again dead to create a mirthful effect –, thus, it is again much rather a journey or an adventure not something that terminates everything. She contemplates how beautiful everything is in the fields, how the grains are to be gathered, together with the fruits and the pumpkins later on etc. She even listens to how the tassels of the corn are making their specific sound and it triggers pleasant associations in her. She likes it so much that she would like to get out of the coffin and have a walk in the meadow, probably also smelling flowers, but a next punch-line comes after the set-up, that something held her will – she is wondering why she cannot get out when realizes, oh yeah, I am dead. We (the readers) were also so engrossed in the nice sights (of the set-up part of the joke) that we also forgot it even if she already starts the poem with this declaration.
Then, she just shrugs her shoulders and continues with how life goes on and recounts the events witnessed, after the summer comes the fall then the winter etc. with all their tasks and celebrations. However, when she gets to Christmas she makes that joke that she hopes the general merriment of the holiday will not be disturbed by the fact that her stocking will be hung too high for any Santa Claus to be able to reach it – evidently forcing us to comically envision a hapless Santa struggling to put something into her stocking and not being able to do so. Yet, she suddenly changes her mind and dismisses the presents as unimportant and adds that a more important gift is that everyone will follow her and they will all meet again when all of her loved ones will have their time come. She makes this final joke that the perfect Christmas is when every loved one is together – even if it can be achieved only when everyone dies.
All in all, Dickinson had a great sense of humor and she dared to apply it even to the treatment of death. Cognition and existential questions were central to her throughout her life/work and evidently some brilliant instances of wit and revelations were wrung out of death situations in her poetry. With the help of catachresis and humor Dickinson managed to create some of the most unusual and unique pieces of poetry about death, the dying experience and the state of being dead to make us see all this anew. Her uncustomary modes of treatment of death – catachresis and humor, which both have the same working mechanism of defamiliarization and refamiliarization – both resulted in shattered expectations and reworked ideas about all this. The reason for her committing these irreverent, mocking, parodying often even sarcastic poems about death was probably to find truth and knowledge as well as answers to her existential quandaries and cognitive gymnastics even where supposedly no one can – she thought she could, and she also tried to find a way with the help of comedy – as Wlyie Sypher also suggested about the workings of comedy: “[c]omedy dares to seek truth” even “in the slums” and at the deepest recesses of human existence (Sypher 254). Dickinson was not afraid of even the deepest recesses of human existence either and dared to talk about it/them even through catachrestic and humorous means.
- Barreca, Regina. 2013. “Preface.” In Women and Comedy. History, Theory, Practice, Peter Dickson et al. eds., Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, xi-xvii.
- —-. 1996. “Introduction.” In The Penguin Book of Women’s Humor, Regina Barreca ed., New York: Penguin Books, 1-10.
- Baskett, Sam S. 2008. “The Making of an Image: Emily Dickinson’s Blue Fly.” The New England Quarterly Vol. 81, No. 2 (Jun., 2008): 340-344.
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