March 15, 2013
Readings in US Literature
The Inattentive Nature of Nature
Transcendentalism is a political, philosophical, and religious movement all in one, and like the political, philosophical, and religious burrito that it is, it’s made up of recurring ideals like individual worth, an individual and personal relationship with God, and harmony with nature - themes that appear in two of Emily Dickinson's poems, “Because I could not stop for Death” and “Apparently with no surprise.” In “Because I could not stop for Death,” the narrator reflects on her death and newfound immortality. This reflection not only validates Transcendentalist themes, it also illustrates how nature is indifferent to the business of man.
In the poem, the narrator, after dying, is escorted by Death toward Eternity, and although the narrator realizes her immortality, the world she leaves behind remains mostly unchanged by her departure; nature goes on without her. The narrator of speaks from beyond the grave about her experience of dying and the act of becoming immortal. Death in this poem is personified as an entity, a kind guide, who escorts her to Eternity, or the Afterlife. Although she may have thought she wasn’t ready to die – line 1 of stanza 1, “because I could not stop for Death” – Death was nice enough to come to her, instead – line 2 of stanza 1, “He kindly stopped for me.” The third stanza below describes what the narrator sees on her way to the Afterlife:
We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun – (pg. 1214)
This passage could be interpreted literally as the carriage passing places like a school and a field – physical, real-life places that the narrator observes on her way to the Afterlife, and places that she may or may not have encountered during her lifetime. Alternatively, this passage could be read as the narrator remembering memories of her childhood, like the school, or seeing her life flash before her eyes; given that she may have thought Death came too soon, reflecting on her childhood could be her way of expressing that she is still too young to die. But however the passage is interpreted, those places – the school and the fields of gazing grain – are places that are unaffected by the narrator’s passing, and so she can only observe them on her way towards Eternity.
We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground – (pg. 1214)
The fifth stanza (above) describes another part of the narrator’s trip on her way to Eternity. The house described has a swelling of the ground outside that could be thought of as a newly-dug grave; the grave is where the narrator’s physical body will stay while her soul carries on and becomes immortal. This grave could also be thought of as the narrator’s imprint on the world – that although nature is mostly unchanged by her death, this house and this grave are evidence that she did in fact live, and the swollen ground is one way she changed the world. This imprint on the world also demonstrates the Transcendentalist belief of individual worth: although the narrator has died, she, an individual, left a mark on the world, and her soul will carry on to become immortal, giving the human life that she lived merit.
Since then – ‘tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were towards Eternity (pg. 1214)
In this passage, the narrator recognizes that centuries have passed, yet it still feels like the day she died, or the day she realized her soul had become immortal. A century's passing reflects just how long the span of the world is, and how little effect her lifetime had in the long run; the span of her whole life - from birth to death - was barely a day in relation to all of existence. However, this stanza doesn't undermine her previously-mentioned "individual worth," it just shows its relation to the world, or nature. The world vastly outlives our narrator.
This theme of nature being indifferent to the business of man also shows up in “Apparently with no surprise.” In this poem (and in the most literal sense), a flower is killed by frost. But the flower serves as a metaphor for humanity, with the frost being an element of nature from which the flower - the human - cannot escape.
Apparently with no surprise,
To any happy Flower
The Frost beheads it at it's play -
In accidental power - (pg. 1221)
The first line of the poem, “Apparently with no surprise,” speaks to the idea that nature, although unpredictable, is allowed the luxury of being so - that it should come as no surprise to humans when nature is unpredictable or dangerous because it's a universal understanding that nature simply isn't concerned with mankind's business. Therefore, it's no surprise when the happy flower (the human) is killed by nature, even accidently. Nature's destructive power is described in line three as being at its play: nature isn't purposely being destructive; it's just doing what nature does, so even if nature and mankind do cross paths, whatever accidental damage is being done isn't done with cruel or malicious intent.
The blonde Assassin passes on -
The Sun proceeds unmoved
To measure off another Day
For an Approving God (pg. 1221)
Like the narrator in “Because I could not stop for Death,” the flower too dies and the world continues on without it: “the Sun proceeds unmoved,” nature is unaffected, and the world carries on as if the flower had never existed. Although it's not directly stated in the poem, we know that there are plenty of flowers in the world, just like there are plenty of humans in the world; the death of one doesn't affect all the others, nor does it affect nature. Despite one flower's dying, another day will come, and if God - the creator of the world, with whom Transcendentalists have a personal, individual relationship with - is okay with it, then it has to be okay, right?
In both poems, the events of the story have no significant bearing on the rest of the world: both characters die, and nature remains, for the most part, unchanged. In “Apparently with no surprise,” it's the destructive force of nature that ends the flower's life, but as the title suggests, it comes as no surprise; it's something nature is expected and allowed to do. In “Because I could not stop for Death,” nature makes up the permanent, physical world and separates itself from Eternity and the Afterlife. Nature in both poems is presented as being more than "just there:" it's the living world made up of sun, air, frost, and earth, it outlives the human beings that inhabit it, and it operates without concerning itself with mankind's business. Despite its apathy or inattentiveness to mankind, however, humans still live among nature and find harmony with their physical world. It's only after their temporary time with nature that they, like the narrator in “Because I could not stop for Death,” can find Eternity.
Dickinson, Emily. "Because I could not stop for Death" and "Apparently with no surprise." The
Norton Anthology of American Literature.. Gen. ed. Nina Baym. 8th ed. Vol. A. New
York: Norton, 2012. pg. 1214 and pg. 1221. Print.