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Nature, God, Afterlife, and Death in Emily Dickinson’s Poems
“That’s all I have to bring today, this and my heart aside, this and my heart and all the fields and all the pastures wide” (33). These are the words of Emily Dickinson, a woman revered as America’s greatest poet. During her lifetime, she lived a life of seclusion, but in this seclusion she composed more than seventeen hundred poems of very little excellence. In her poems, Dickinson developed a unique style of writing, in which she appealed to the use of simple language and childlike innocence to convey complex ideas. Such complex ideas were expressed through the use of nature, God, eternity and death. Throughout her poems, Emily Dickinson uses nature, God, the afterlife, and death to convey complex messages or ideas while expressing her thoughts in simple language.
Nature is an element that comes up frequently in Dickinson’s poems to convey the message of life. By incorporating familiar aspects of wildlife, such as bees and flowers, she is able to paint a picture that reflects the hopes and anxieties found in everyday life. A similar poem begins, “A wounded stag leaps supreme, I’ve heard the hunter tell; That’s but the ecstasy of death, and then the break is still” (62). In this stanza, Dickinson is comparing a wounded deer to a man who has been hurt emotionally or physically in his past. A deer that has been previously shot or wounded jumps high to ensure that it is not wounded a second time. Like deer, humans who have been emotionally or physically wounded subconsciously move out of the way to avoid re-injury.
This fear created in damaged people can play out on many levels, from something as simple and physical as a broken limb, to something as emotional or spiritual as a broken heart. Dickinson, in very simple words and through the eyes of nature, can clearly convey the concept of deep emotional throat. Another poem goes, “God made a little gentian; it tried to be a rose and failed, and laughed all summer long” (127). Composed in the primary language, this poem emphasizes the reader’s idea of individuality. Don’t be like the little blue flower that tries to be something it’s not and is mocked by the seasons around it. Dickinson’s message is clear: people need to be comfortable with who and what they are and not want to become completely foreign to them. Just as a Gentian can only be a Gentian, a person can only be what and who they are, and there is nothing wrong with being yourself. In the third poem, Dickinson uses nature to depict life and death. She begins, “I’ll tell you how the sun rose,—one ribbon at a time. The steeples swam in amethyst, the news ran like squirrels” (104). The meaning of this first verse symbolizes birth and the beginning of life. The rising sun is a common symbol for new life, and Dickinson uses it here with a gentle innocence that expresses “one ribbon at a time.” To contrast this stanza, Dickinson writes in a later stanza:
“But how the sun went down, I don’t know.
A purple color was visible
The little yellow boys and girls
It was climbing all the time
until reaching the other side
Domini in grey
Lay the evening bars gently,
and led away the herd.” (105)
In this situation the setting sun is used to symbolize death, the end of life on this earth. This death is reinforced in the next stanza when the domini, or pastor, “gently raised the evening bar and led the flock away” (105). Domini is a direct parallel to God, leading new recipients of eternal salvation out of earth and into heaven.
Another element that can be identified throughout Emily Dickinson’s poems is the combination of her traditional and unique views of God and eternity. A prime example of Dickinson’s personality and creativity in the field of religion is her poem “Some People Go to Church on the Sabbath”. This delightful work explains how instead of attending Sunday services, Dickinson stays home and observes the holy Sabbath. In one of the verses, she explains her Sunday, “God preaches, — an illustrious pastor, — and the sermon is never long; so instead of going to heaven at last, I’m going on!” (110). With simple language and sophisticated humor, Dickinson explains that God’s Word does not have to be preached in the chapel, but can be found in any walk of life. God is portrayed as a personal and loving being, in contrast to the god of fire and brimstone that was often promoted in the nineteenth century. She also reveals an inner belief that, contrary to the beliefs of her time, getting to heaven is not a chore to try not to sin or to be a good person, but a journey. “I’m going all along!” She proclaims with confidence and joy, as if God has told her there is a place for her in His kingdom. This idea of eternity is a common recurrence in many of Dickinson’s poems. Another passage explaining Dickinson’s belief in an afterlife reads, “This world is not a conclusion; a sequel stands beyond, invisible, as music, but positively, as sound” (135). There is not the slightest sense of uncertainty anywhere in these lines. “This world is not a conclusion,” Dickinson put it. There is a life after this world, and though it is as invisible to the eye as music, it is as definite and positive a reality as sound to the ear.
As in earlier poems where Emily Dickinson asserts her belief that there is indeed an afterlife, another style found throughout her poems is the question of the unknown related to life after death. She shows a childlike curiosity about what the afterlife will be like and how it will compare to the dirt and soil on which she spent her life. This curiosity is most evident in her poem “What is – ‘Jannat’-“, which reads:
“What is – ‘Heaven’ –
Who lives there –
Are they ‘farmers’?
Do they ‘move’ –
Do they know it’s ‘Amherst’ –
And I’m coming too –
Do they wear ‘new shoes’ – in ‘Eden’ –
It is always pleasant – there –
When we’re at home – won’t they taunt –
Or tell God – how we are cross – ” (99)
The first stanza begins with the general question of what eternity is, which she immediately answers with “Who lives there?” This question starts a series of other unanswered questions about whether there is labor in heaven. The next question asked, which reads, “They know that this is ‘Amherst’ – and I – am – coming – too – ” refers to the consciousness of the spirits in heaven. When heaven is reached, do people realize that they are a part of eternal salvation? Are they aware of the world they have left behind and, if so, do they know which souls will join them in salvation? With these simple words, most of which are two syllables or less, Dickinson is able to pose complex questions that cannot be answered by the human mind. In the second stanza, Dickinson introduces the reader to her childlike curiosity, which in this case is mixed with her unmistakable humor. She questions whether heaven will be pleasant, which is tempting because the idea of heaven conjures up visions of eternal bliss; It seems all too ridiculous to raise such a question about the bliss of eternal salvation. Dickinson then pursues this question by considering whether the heavenly bodies are re-homed for life on earth. This idea, imbued with childish innocence, adds another dimension to the poem. Once in heaven, is it possible to want to return to earth? Do members of the heavenly community long for people, places, and things in their past lives? These questions, seemingly unanswerable, are the essence of Dickinson’s posthumous desire to understand the unknown.
After all, death is an element of Dickinson’s prolific poetry, which is ambivalent. For example, one of her poems begins:
“Because I cannot bow to death
He graciously waited for me;
Held the car but only us
We drove slowly, he knew no rush,
And I was put away
My labor, and my leisure too,
for his civility” (151).
In this simple, yet vivid portrait painted by Dickinson, Death is not portrayed as something sinister and sinister, but instead as a gentleman suitor who has just arrived to take her on a date. Keeping with the tradition of the time, the date is addressed by the personification of immortality. In the following verse, it is described as driving slowly and not hurrying. This corresponds to the timeless state of being with death; Time that was once so precious on earth loses its meaning when we enter the afterlife. Along with the lack of importance of time, Dickinson emphasizes that there is no labor and therefore no leisure after life by stating “And I cast away my labour, and my leisure too for his civility” (151). So out of respect for death, she divests herself of her labors and rests and enjoys a journey with death only for immortality. However, the polite death of the last poem is completely foreign to “I heard the fly as I died”, which in one such stanza reads, “With a blue, uncertain, stumbling sound, between the light and me; And then the windows failed, and then I could see No” (132). Although death in this situation seems peaceful at first glance, it is actually more terrifying. Dickinson skillfully uses the fly as a symbol of the gruesome side of death, as fish are frequently depicted as creatures that decompose and eat flesh. As the narrator is instinctively drawn to death, the thought of a fly destroying her flesh is the only thing that stands between the end of her earthly life and the salvation of light.
Emily Dickinson’s poems use simple language to express complex ideas through nature, God, the afterlife, and death. This unique style that she created herself has become synonymous with her name along with her poems. Although little shared during her lifetime, Dickinson’s poems today represent a woman who combined her talent and passion for poetry to create some of the greatest works America has ever seen. No one can describe Dickinson’s poetry better than himself, so in conclusion:
“This is my letter to the world,
who never wrote to me, –
Simple news told by nature,
with tender majesty.
Her message is commitment
I cannot see the hands;
For the love of her sweet countrymen,
Judge me lovingly!” (102).
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