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Comparing the Concept of Human Morality in Emily Dickinson’s Because I Could Not Stop for Death and Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Tears, Idle Tears

The poems “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” by Emily Dickinson and “Song: Tears, Idle Tears” dramatize different attitudes toward human mortality. The theme of mortality is analysed in poem “Song: Tears, Idle Tears” by exhibiting fascination with the death of poet’s loved ones whereas the poem “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” is about the poet experiencing death herself. Literary devices such as personification, imagery, diction and structure are used effectively to convey the different aspects of death.

In the poem “Because I Could Not Stop For Death”, Dickinson uses the structure of the poem to convey a strong theme of mortality. It is an allegory which discusses a gloomy subject in a light tone. The poem is written in six stanzas made up of quatrains that follow a hymn-like iambic tetrameter and this regular structure represents how death is an inevitable, natural process. There is an arithmetic scheme in the poem, in which the syllable in each line alternates from 6 to 8, that establishes a rhythm in the poem giving the poem an optimistic tone. Whereas “Song: Tears, Idle Tears” is a blank verse poem that gives it a lamenting tone. The poem has four five-lined stanzas that each end with “the days that are no more”, similar to the way life ends with death. The parallel ending represents deaths as a continuous idea. Similar to Dickinson’s poem, it also has a regular structure which shows that the poet is accepting the morality of humans. The poet connects his ideas together with alliteration and near rhyme that give the reader feelings of fulfilment and integrity towards the poem. Both the poems are written in first person narrative, which is insightful as the reader gets to look into Dickinson’s mind in the middle of her death, while being shown Tennyson’s feelings on losing a loved one.

The poems “Because I Could Not Stop For Death” and “Song: Tears, Idle Tears” reflects on the passing of time during one’s life. The first verse suggests that Dickinson was not completely ready to die yet. The poet uses personification to portray death as an eerie yet inviting friend. The caesura emphasizes the word ‘stop’, conforming to the theme of morality described throughout the poem “The Carriage held but just Ourselves”, the carriage symbolizes the passage to death and is capitalized to show its importance. This shows how the poet considers death to be an essential part of life and presents death as something not to fear from. The caesura between the last two verses “And Immortality” shows how although the mortality is with them in the carriage, it is still separate. The carriage personifies immortality as it is the transportation to the next world. It also may suggest that Dickinson is not approaching immortality herself, but her work is instead. The poem “Song: Tears, Idle Tears” implies that the poet’s tears are pointless as they will not bring the past back. The word ’idle’ suggests that tears are caused by no immediate reason. “Depth of some divine despair”, is an oxymoron as divine means God-like but despair connotes sin. This shows the greatness of despondency. The poet is remembering his past and is trying to emphasize on how he cannot relive his past. In “Rise in the heart, and gather to the eyes”, the direct imagery of tears insinuate that tears are a symbol of sincerity. The use of personification in the next verse, “happy autumn-fields”, reveals that tears are derived from memories. This is also paradox as autumn has a connotation of death that contrasts with ‘happy’ and the tears are being caused by happy things. The poet used these language techniques to portray death as distressing and painful. The stanza is a sorrowful acceptance of death that discusses how time is irreversible. Both the poets use language to make the reader empathise with them and gain an insight into their feelings when they are experiencing the pain caused by death.

Both the poems help to characterize death and bring it into a more intimate level. Dickinson describes the trip as being slow which depicts a funeral-like image. In “We slowly drove – He knew no haste”, the words ‘slowly’ and ‘haste’ symbolize the contrast between life and death. ‘Slowly’ connotes the mellow mundaneness and ennui of life, while ‘haste’ illustrates the detached steadiness of life. This also gives a clear image of the differences she is coming across while being transported from one world to another. The verse beginning with “At Recess – in the Ring” reflects the speaker’s childhood. The majuscule of the letter ‘R’ and the alliteration of ‘Recess’ and ‘Ring’ downplay the importance of hierarchy and class, taking a less practical and pragmatic perspective on life. The poetess considers life as a beautiful journey full of memories but is also accepting the fact that death is inevitable and this symbolizes a warm end to the personas life. In “The Dews drew quivering and chill”, the assonance between ‘Dews’ and ‘Drew’ displays the bittersweet eeriness of death, whereas the violent connotations of ‘quivering’, in contrast with lethargic connotations of ‘chill’, provides a balance that makes death seem less overwhelming than life. The last verse of fourth stanza symbolizes Dickinson’s persona’s agnosticism. The ‘Tippet’ symbolizes religion while ‘Tulle’ suggests an unsteady relation with religion. This describes how even without religion, death is ethereal and tranquil for Dickinson’s persona. Similarly, Tennyson is also reflecting back on his past. “Fresh as the first beam glittering on a sail”, the simile shows how he remembers the past constantly from dawn to sunset. Poet tries to convey the idea of death leaving a person in pain and memories. He says that the lost days are ‘fresh’ like sunbeams on a yacht that is bringing his friends up from the underworld, but is also sad like the last beam which takes them back again. In “That sinks with all we love below the verge;”, the direct imagery of blood and body returning back into the ground as dirt emphasizes his grief. This also shows how a person stays in the memories and is unable to move on. In “Ah, sad and strange as in dark summer dawns”, the alliteration depicts an image that is fading out, symbolizing how the poet is aging. Moreover, the simile creates contrast between light and darkness (life and death), since summer’s sunrise is associated with brightness or happiness but ‘sad’, ‘strange’ and ‘dark’ contradict it. Therefore, both poems uses language devices to portray the idea of death as serene and tranquil bringing it to a more personal level.

Both the poems convey the theme of death which is inevitable and natural, while at the same time it is also comforting as it is not the end of a soul’s journey. The poem “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” has a slightly resentful tone which suggests that while Dickinson’s persona has escaped the suffocating mundanity, she now has to live through stillness of afterlife. Similarly the poem “Song: Tears, Idle Tears” has a regretful tone of how the poet could have lived those days fully but he accepts that death is a part of life and is unavoidable. Both the poets stylishly use language to convey ambiguous and unique views on death making it seem passive and easy.

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