"Wild Nights": Death and Humor in the Poetry of Emily Dickinson

Research output: Types of ThesisMaster's Thesis


Emily Dickinson’s unique style of poetic composition is marked by ambiguity and open-endedness, leading to the genesis of a privileged space wherein reader and writer are able to meet as co-creators of meaning. As a poet, Dickinson addresses many themes in ways that are subject to countless layers of interpretation. This essay focuses particularly on the theme of death, a prevalent topic in nineteenth-century America, due to confluence of cultural and historical events, among them the American Civil War. As a result of her particular style of being in, and of reflecting upon the world, Dickinson addresses death in unexpected ways. Through the use of humor under a more or less obvious form of reductio ad absurdum, Dickinson successfully and articulately pokes fun at prevailing customs and ideas surrounding death and dying. Examples can be seen in poems such as “Because I could not stop for Death,” “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,” or “I like a look of Agony.”
In effect, Dickinson’s insight into human nature is visible in her capacity to incarnate the feelings and experiences of the speakers in her poems. Likewise, this capacity for observation is also reflected in the poet’s use of pretense, present as it is in the elaborate expressions that Dickinson employs throughout her work. This essay explores the forms used by Dickinson to achieve comic effect, namely, the exchange of language between different contexts. Through the dissociation between the verbal form and its so-called natural environment, Dickinson actively subverts ingrained concepts while creating absurdly comic situations. In that sense, her humor is the result of a culturally contingent wordplay, aimed at experimenting with and gaining power over the uncontrollable force of death, in a time obsessed with the great and final unknown ending of all life. Through the use of historical, cultural and literary sources, as well as of writings by and about Emily Dickinson, this essay brings to light the manifold ways which Dickinson uses to create humorous situations in her poetic work on the theme of death.
Original languageEnglish
  • Guðsteinsdóttir, Guðrún Björk, Supervisor
Publication statusPublished - 2 Sept 2020

Other keywords

  • Emily Dickinson
  • Poetry
  • Death
  • Humor


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