English 111: 1
11 April 2019
Death Won’t Stop for Anyone
Many ponder or debate over how to spend their life. However, there is a truth that applies to all: make the most of each day, as they are numbered. Two revered poets, Emily Dickinson and E. E. Cummings, were strong believers in living in the present and discussed death openly. Emily Dickinson writes on the topic of death frequently and explains its characteristics and behavior through personification. Conversely, E. E. Cummings is more subtle in how he talks of the “Setting Sun” of life (Dickinson ln 12). Emily Dickinson’s “712” and E. E. Cummings’ “anyone lived in a pretty how town” urge the reader to follow the mantra of carpe diem: live life to the fullest. While “712” uses a first person speaker who urges readers to embrace death, “anyone lived in a pretty how town” uses a third person narrator to warn against living a forgettable life. Both authors use different literary tools and unique syntax in order to emphasize the importance of seizing the day.
“712,” more commonly known by its first line: “Because I could not stop for Death,” has a unique first person narrator (ln 1). The speaker surprises the reader when she admits she has been dead for “Centuries ” (ln 21). In other words, the speaker is a ghost whose tone is resolute because of how much time has lapsed since her death. After mulling over her death for a while, she has concluded that one must make the most of the life they have, for Death is inevitable and will come unexpectedly. At the time of her death, the speaker states she “could not stop for Death,” meaning that she was not prepared for her life to end (ln 1). The unexpectedness of her encounter with Death has led her to understand that Death has plans that may conflict with her own. As a result of this knowledge, she learns to cherish each day of living. After recovering from the suddenness of her own death, the speaker comes to realize that Death is a kind, chivalrous man who “knew no haste” (ln 5). Death’s relaxed pace further emphasizes, after much time has lapsed, how at peace the speaker is with her dying. She respects Death and observes how he is not in a rush, nor will he wait. This is a message to society as an audience: be present and live fully lest Death step in our way unexpectedly. Seize the day!
“anyone lived in a pretty how town” presents a different rhetorical situation with a living speaker but maintains a similar carpe diem motif. In Cummings’ poem, an omniscient third person speaker observes the happenings in a plain, mundane town. The town in this poem is intended as a warning to society to avoid the trap of living a dull and forgettable life. The speaker presents the townspeople as unfriendly, selfish “Women and men (both little and small) / cared for anyone not at all” (lns 5-6). Cummings stresses their small-mindedness and lack of perspective with his choice of adjectives: little and small. It is as if the town is a snow globe filled with tiny figurines who are completely unaware of the world they are missing outside of the thick glass dome. These flawed women and men show up later in the poem as the “busy folk” who bury a married couple (ln 27). Cummings uses “busy” as a criticism, demonstrating how the townspeople are distracted by insignificant tasks such as “sow[ing] their isn’t they reaped their same” (ln 7). The folks in the pretty how town continue to maintain their old ideas (their “isn’t”) and reap their same conventions by raising their children to think like adults. This line transitions to a bitter critique of adulthood: “children guessed (but only a few and down they forgot as up they grew)” (ln 9-10). Cummings claims that the loss of innocence through becoming an adult is a problem, for children are the ones who live more honestly and passionately. The speaker indicates that he dislikes the town’s monotonous way of life: “reaped their sowing and went their came” (ln 35). Cummings’ observer believes the town’s limited interests are inadequate. This reproachful and disapproving tone contrasts with Dickinson’s gracious attitude about mortality. “anyone lived in a pretty how town” is a warning, while “712” is a thoughtful reflection on life and death.
In “712,” Dickinson supports the theme of carpe diem using different figurative elements from those employed in Cummings’ melancholy poem. Still, both Dickinson and Cummings mention the passage of time in their poems. In Dickinson’s “712,” the speaker reflects on the various stages of her life while she is driven in Death’s carriage toward “Eternity” (ln 25). She sees her life flash by her: “We passed the School, where Children strove / At Recess—in the Ring— / We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain—” (lns 9-11). The speaker describes how she and Death pass by her childhood, represented by recess and the allusion to “Ring around the Rosie,” then by her work or education (“the Fields”) (lns 10-11). Lastly, Death pulls the carriage past “the Setting Sun.” This is an optimistic metaphor for death, signifying an end that will lead to a new beginning. Death and the speaker observe these stages without regret or impatience. Instead, it seems the two are taking their time because they know they will inevitably reach her final resting place: “The Cornice— in the Ground—” (ln 20). Dickinson writes this poem as a gentle suggestion in contrast with Cummings’ ominous warning to remind readers to make the most of the time we are given.
While Dickinson expresses the stages of life by commenting on each one that she and Death “slowly drove” by, Cummings presents a more cynical perspective. He shows the passage of time through the use of repetition of specific motifs: the seasons and the sun, moon, stars, and rain (Dickinson ln 5). “anyone lived in a pretty how town” starts off on a happier note with the phrase “spring summer autumn winter” and then shortly after, “sun moons stars rain”(lns 3, 8). The order of the seasons is significant. Cummings intentionally begins both phrases with the seasons associated with hope and happiness: spring and summer. Next, he ends the lines with autumn and winter, which brings to mind the cold and colorless days. Almost every other stanza contains a similar line to these, which may seem disconnected until the last stanza: “sun moon stars rain” (ln 36). In this way, the cycle has come full circle. This phrase is identical to the one in the first stanza. The movement of the seasons and the rotation of the sun, moon, stars, and rain reflect the birth, growth, and decline of the people in the pretty how town. However, the townspeople miss the critical “growth” stage because they fail to break out of their patterns. Moreover, they continue to be blind to the passing seasons and their possibilities. Cummings writes, “only the snow can begin to explain / how children are apt to forget to remember” as another parallel between the weather and the townspeople’s way of living (lns 22-23). He describes how the children’s minds in this town are touched by “the snow” of monotonous, distracted living, turning them from creative, excited kids into stagnant adults. Cummings urges the reader to avoid slipping into the “busy” way of life this town depicts.
Dickinson and Cummings maintain distinct styles of writing that separate them from several distinguished poets. Dickinson is known for her sprinkling of capitalized words in each line to create emphasis. In addition, she inserts several dashes that may be interpreted as breaths between each line. The capitalized words direct the attention of the reader toward important symbols or allusions in “712.” For example, Dickinson hints at the identity of the speaker when she comments on her wearing “Gossamer, my Gown— / My Tippet—only Tulle—” (lns 15-16) . The halting way these lines read allow the reader to consider why is she wearing such a thin, spider web-like fabric? It is later, when she is revealed to be a ghost, that these lines make more sense. However, they would not have been noteworthy if not for the capital Gs and Ts that encourage the reader to pause for deeper contemplation. The “Horses’ Heads” mentioned in the penultimate line are emphatically capitalized in line 23. By looking back earlier in the poem, we conclude that Dickinson is referring to the horses drawing the hearse. Therefore, they symbolize the inescapable pull toward mortality.
While Dickinson drew attention to her writing through sporadic capitalization, Cummings sparked controversy through his complete lack of capitalization. However, this may not be the most important syntactic element in “anyone lived in a pretty how town.” Rather than giving them names or simply using the pronouns “him” and “her” to describe the two lovers, Cummings labels them “anyone” and “someone”: “someones married their everyones / laughed their cryings and did their dance [...] / said their nevers they slept their dream” (lns 17-18, 20). Cummings calls the readers to empathize with his subjects by naming them “someones.” He implies that this fate—their “doing their dance” of life and then not pursuing their ambitions—could happen to anyone. He provides an all too familiar example of lives wasted through artificial busyness and through stalling the pursuit of dreams. Cummings’ message rings clear once the reader replaces the two characters “anyone” and “someone” with society. The reader is urged to wake up, live in the moment, and get out of their pretty how town.
Cummings shows an example of a town squandering away its days to promote doing the opposite. He asks readers to treasure the present. In contrast, Dickinson uses a ghost’s perspective to look back on her death in order to show how life is fleeting. Both authors discuss the passage of time, seasons, and the stages of life at a quick pace and utilize unique syntax in order to warn readers against spending life’s moments poorly. Dickinson and Cummings call readers to initiate changes in their lives and to avoid reaping their same for all of Eternity.
Depression hides in the dark. It lies in the shadows of our brain, a midnight that drowns those whom are afflicted with feelings of inescapability and hopelessness. In Robert Frost’s poem, “Acquainted with the Night,” depression’s true nature is made apparent to the reader. The poem centers around our speaker, a lonely wanderer recounting times he has walked through the city in the dead of night. Our wanderer is solemn, detached, and lost; depression has found its grip on him. While “Acquainted with the Night” paints the picture of a man in the midst of depression, Emily Dickinson’s poem, “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark” provides a contrasting perspective. It is centered around a speaker who has struggled with depression in the past, and is now reflecting upon her experience. The speaker finds herself in the darkness, but as her eyes adjust, the light hidden around her becomes more apparent. These two poems illustrate a clear picture of the cyclical nature of depression; however, while Frost leaves the reader with a feeling of hopelessness, Dickinson reveals there is light even in the darkest of circumstances, showing that at the end of the night, we may step almost straight.
“Acquainted with the Night” drops the reader in the midst of the city, following the Lonely Wanderer as he walks alone through the darkness. Immediately Frost sets the tone of the piece, asserting that the Wanderer is “acquainted with the night” (ln. 1). Our Wanderer’s familiarity with the night is relatable from a metaphorical standpoint. He is someone who has struggled with depression for a great deal of time, someone who knows the struggles and detriments that come with mental illness. The lonely Wanderer is consumed with depression; the night he has found himself in has become his reality. Mentally, the Wanderer is plunged in darkness. He recounts times he has “passed by the watchman on his beat / and dropped [his] eyes, unwilling to explain” (lns. 5-6). Personal connection of any sort is out of the question for him. As he walks through the night the Wanderer confines himself to solitude, avoiding social interaction as much as he can. He doesn’t want to explain why he walks at night; he is ashamed of his reasoning and cannot even bring himself to look a stranger in the eye, much less talk to anyone about his situation. Furthermore, the watchman is supposed to observe the city and the people residing within it, but the Wanderer feels as though he doesn’t deserve to be watched. We’re left wondering if this is a consequence of the Wanderers depression, one of the reasons why he trudges through the dark. The shame he feels brings him deeper into his depressive state, forcing him to move through the city in the blackness, allowing him to be alone. Immediately after this interaction, the Wanderer tells us about “an interrupted cry / […] But not to call me back or say good-bye” (lns 8, 10). This cry makes us sympathetic for the Wanderer. As he stops to listen, we yearn for the Wanderer. We hope this cry is for him, someone who misses him and acknowledges his disappearance into the night. However, our hopes are dashed alongside the Wanderer’s when this is not the case. There is a crippling sadness that comes with this realization, a nagging feeling that maybe the Wanderer really is alone in the populated city. Then, the poem closes with the line from which it began, “I have been one acquainted with the night” (ln 14). We are left without a happy ending. In fact, we end where we started. From the Wanderers point of view, depression is circular and inescapable. This is not the first time he has walked the city streets at night, and it won’t be the last. As far as the Wanderer can tell, there is no escaping the night that he has found himself in.
Peeling back the syntactical layers to “Acquainted with the Night” reveals deeper meanings through the poem’s setting and word choice. Frost is careful to point out that the lonely Wanderer has “outwalked the furthest city light,” and “looked down the saddest city lane” (lns 3-4). This urban setting is an oddly fitting place for the events in the poem to unfold. Frost sidesteps a more conventionally solitude setting, such as the vast wilderness or an empty desert, places in nature where people commonly seek restoration, and instead selects a heavily populated city. This artfully displays the negative effects depression can elicit once it finds a victim. Although the Wanderer is physically surrounded by people, mentally, he is alone. Depression has found such a tight grip on the Wanderer that he has convinced himself there is no one to turn to, even in the midst of a bustling city. This rather ironic setting allows the reader to better understand that being in proximity to others does not necessarily mean we are emotionally close to them. Frost’s message that depression can feel unrelenting and inescapable shines through in his use of the past tense throughout the poem as well. The Wanderer repeats the words “I have” various times throughout the piece. Echoing this phrase shows the reader that the events aren’t taking place in a single night. This isn’t the first time the Wanderer has averted his eyes from the watchman. This isn’t the first time the Wanderer has listened for an interrupting cry. He is trapped in his depressive routine. This acquaintance with the night isn’t new, and it isn’t a relationship that will be ending.
Where “Acquainted with the Night” leaves us hopeless, “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark” on the other hand, reminds us that there is light in the blackness. The poem opens with the image of a woman adapting to change. She steps out of the light and takes on the darkness: “We uncertain step / For newness of the night” (lns 5-6). Our brave Explorer steps into an environment of uncertainty. She has left the comfort of the light and is now engulfed in darkness. The reason behind this transition into darkness is uncertain, but Dickinson's message is clear: the Explorer has entered a difficult period of her life, and she is not yet sure how to deal with the new circumstances. She has little knowledge of her surroundings and the night she finds herself in makes her uneasy. When she gains her bearings however, she fits her “Vision to the Dark – / And meet[s] the Road – erect –” (lns 7-8). Her eyes begin to adjust to the dark. While the darkness around her is still apparent, our brave Explorer has a better grasp of her environment and is ready to take on the road ahead. Life is still difficult, but she has not given up hope. She is ready to continue moving and taking on life’s challenges. The Explorer continues through the dark, but not without trouble. She admits, “The Bravest – grope a little – / And sometimes hit a Tree” (lns 13-14). The darkness she is stuck in is difficult to maneuver through. Dickinson acknowledges that depression takes practice to understand, and mistakes are inevitable while searching for the light. However, our brave Explorer is not despondent, as was the lonely Wanderer. She understands that when darkness is cast upon our lives may be overwhelming, but she closes the piece off by explaining that staying strong and preserving hope is most important in these difficult times. Our Explorer grows accustomed to the dark, affirming, “Life steps almost straight” (ln 20). She finds her way through the darkness; her light is back, and she has grown from her experience. While she is no longer in the dark, the knowledge she gains is still with her because she has matured from her experience. Life will never revert completely back to what it was. Dickinson makes it clear with her final line that life isn’t supposed to return to what it was before her depression. To make it through the darkness, our Explorer grows as a person.
Dickinson fills “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark” with grammatical nuances which serve to drive the poem’s message home and further establish the tone of the piece. Throughout the poem, there are many words capitalized in seemingly randomized places. However, as we take a deeper look at those capitalized words we see a theme begin to emerge. Dickinson frequently capitalizes words such as “Dark,” “Midnight,” and “Evening,” as well as vocabulary including “Light,” and “Lamp” (lns 1, 2, 3, 10, 18). Placing emphasis on these words highlights the conflict within the story. The poem pits light against dark, and through her capitalization of these words we can almost hear our inner voices shouting out as we read them. Dickinson wants us to see that these words are capitalized for a reason; their antithetical nature works to further her message of finding Light in the Dark. Dickinson also halts the reader by repeatedly placing dashes amidst the poem. One example of this is shown in the line “And so of larger – Darknesses –” (ln 9). The dashes ensure that we take our time maneuvering around the word “darkness.” We are forced to struggle with our Explorer. The darkness of the mind is not one that is overcome quickly, and Dickinson inserts these pauses to remind us of this. She forcibly slows the pacing of the poem, and we are given a window into the struggles presented by depression. Whether we like it or not, it takes time for light to drown out the night.
These poems cast light on the different phases of the night, giving us a clear view of the struggles of depression. In its midst, we are like the lonely Wanderer, trapped inside our own head, positive there is no escape to the endless cycles of the night. Then, as our eyes adjust to the darkness, we graduate from the Wanderer to the Explorer. It becomes clear that reality isn’t as grim as it had once seemed, and life steps almost straight once again. While “Acquainted with the Night” and “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark” both provide wildly contrasting views of depression, the poems are not contradictory in the lessons they teach. The Wanderer and the Explorer aren’t contradictory characters; they are the embodiments of someone struggling with depression in its various stages. Through these pieces we can learn the different perspectives of the same problem, and shed light on the darkness of depression as a whole.