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Scott Brinton

What a poet can teach us about death — and life

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I was out for a drive in mid-April, rounding the corner from Beach Street to Merrick Road in Merrick, when Emily Dickinson’s words suddenly came to my mind:

I heard a Fly buzz — when I died —

The Stillness in the Room

Was like the Stillness in the Air —

Between the Heaves of Storm —

With the coronavirus crisis spiking at the time, death was all around, and as a Herald editor whose job it was to report on the daily death toll, I couldn’t escape it.

I hadn’t thought of Dickinson’s eerily beautiful poem since 11th-grade English class at Longwood High School, in Suffolk County, 36 years ago. It had lain dormant in the recesses of my brain all those years, until the pandemic exploded.

I remember feeling haunted by her words as a 16-year-old. How, I wondered, could the writer have heard a fly buzz if she had died? Driving that overcast day, it struck me: She wasn’t dead. She was imagining the moment of her death.

“I heard a Fly buzz” just takes your breath away. Close your eyes and recite its opening stanza slowly aloud, then feel the chill in your spine.

Dickinson wrote it in 1862, when she was 32, living in her parents’ stately home in Amherst, Mass. It was a place of peace and safety, with a lush flower garden that she spent hours planting and tending to, but beyond her sanctum, death loomed.

Tens of thousands of men were dying in the Civil War, killed by bullet or bayonet or taken by dysentery, malaria, pneumonia or typhoid. In all, an estimated 630,000 men died.

Driving that day, I felt as though I finally understood Dickinson and her seemingly morbid work. As a teenager, I had wondered why she seemed so fascinated by death, in particular her own. Now, facing a pandemic that was claiming hundreds of lives a day, I could fully appreciate her work. She was writing about what she saw and heard — what she knew.

As a nation, we hadn’t experienced a pandemic like the coronavirus crisis since 1918, when flu swept across the globe, infecting 500 million people and killing 50 million. Dickinson had died 32 years earlier, in 1886, at age 56.

She knew pandemics. Three waves of cholera, a potentially deadly intestinal infection, struck the United States between 1832 and 1866, killing an estimated 5 to 10 percent of people in large cities. There was scarlet fever, too, and measles and mumps.

Life expectancy in America during the 1800s was 40 — 35 during the Civil War.

Before Covid-19, in the U.S. at least, we mistakenly believed we had defeated the type of worldwide pestilence that has now overtaken us, despite articles, books and movies — including the 2011 film “Contagion” — warning us that we had not.

From Smithsonian magazine in 2017: “We are arguably as vulnerable  — or more vulnerable — to another pandemic as we were in 1918. Today public health experts routinely rank influenza as potentially the most dangerous ‘emerging’ health threat we face.”

Now, looking back, it’s glaringly apparent that we missed the signs, or refused to see them.

I was taught in English class that Dickinson was considered eccentric by Amherst townsfolk. She was reclusive, living most of her life at the family homestead and rarely leaving it later in life. She never married. She is said to have worn white all the time. (She wore it often, but not every day.) She was buried in a white coffin, dressed in white.

I might not have gotten Dickinson in 1984, but I believe I do now. Perhaps she was just leery of venturing into a world where death caused by mysterious illnesses lurked around every corner. Germ theory — first proposed by French biologist Louis Pasteur in 1860 — was not widely accepted until the late 1800s. Before then, people believed that a noxious form of foul-smelling air, which they called miasma, caused serious illnesses like cholera. Before Pasteur, there was no clear understanding of microorganisms, or their ability to kill.

Perhaps Dickinson stayed home to shelter in place and preserve her life. Perhaps she wore white as a way of warding off death — black being the traditional funereal garb. In writing “I heard a Fly buzz,” she confronted death itself.

In the end, she is said to have died of hypertension, brought on by the loss of many family members and friends whom she loved dearly. She likely suffered heart failure.

As of this writing, the viral death toll in the U.S. stands at more than 140,000, and 625,000 worldwide. Dickinson’s life and work implore us to face death — and do all we can to sustain our lives.

We now understand — and most of us accept — germ theory, and how to stop microorganisms from infecting us. Wear a mask. Wash your hands often. Stand six feet apart from others. Avoid large crowds.

I’m certain Emily Dickinson would agree.

Scott Brinton is the Herald Community Newspapers’ executive editor and an adjunct professor at the Hofstra University Herbert School of Communication. Comments about this column? SBrinton@liherald.com.