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.