Is death something to be feared when it may be considered the only aspect during life that is inevitable? Interestingly, the speakers in two poems written by Emily Dickinson and Alan Seeger may not feel that this is the case. In Dickinson’s “The Chariot”, the feminine speaker compares succumbing to death as a chariot ride passing places she has been in her life, while the speaker in Seeger’s “I have a Rendezvous with Death” is a masculine speaker that is assumed to be a soldier fighting in the war and experiencing many close encounters with this morbid experience.
Both poems together shed a light of acceptance of death into world that generally has been taught to fear it, but in different extremes. I will argue that time is the ultimate factor that contributes to the acceptance of one’s passing away. This will be shown through the comparison of the personas and literary devices in each poem, as Dickinson’s speaker, who has been dead for centuries, in comparison to Seeger’s speaker, who is anticipating his death, have slight differences in the way they perceive death.
Personification is cleverly used in both poems to humanize death and differentiates the two poems because of the certain characteristics that each poet gives to Death as a character. In Dickinson’s poem, death is personified in a manner that makes Death an active agent that is continuously alongside the speaker. The speaker consistently refers to Death as a partner, using the words “we” and “us” in stanzas two through five. By utilizing personification in this way, the speaker sets up the notion that death has been a long time partner of hers, not just an acquaintance, which indicates the length of time she must have spent with Death.
The collaboration between the speaker and death in this poem shows that she has an acceptance of death as her friend. Also, the speaker further attributes human characteristics such as kindness, and civility towards Death, which implies again the long amount of time she must have accompanied Death in order to know such details about him, thus explaining why she is at ease with the idea of death. This is interesting because the difference can be seen in Seeger’s personification of Death.
Human qualities are still given to death, but done so in a way that would indicate that the speaker is assumed to be just getting to know Death, implying that the speaker is not yet dead. The speaker in this poem describes death as “tak[ing] my [speaker] hand And leading me[speaker]” (Seeger, 7-8), which produces the feeling that Death is the one with authority. By giving control to Death, the speaker seems uneasy and unsure of the situation. Is he to succumb to death or fight back?
This automatically shows that the time elapsed between the two characters relationship is minimal, thus explaining his feeling of unsettlement towards death. This is made even more clear when the speaker says that Death will take him “into his dark lands and close my [speaker’s] eyes and quench my [speaker’s] breath,” (Seeger, 8-9). The personification of Death in Seeger’s poem is much more morbid than in Dickinson’s and creates the sense of hostility that can be related to a negative first impression of another.
In this case, Seeger’s speaker has not had much time with Death, therefore again explaining why he feels uncomfortable with death. Demonstrated here, the personification used in both poems gives an interesting way to establish time as a factor when considering the attitudes of each speaker towards death. While personification is used in these poems to humanize death and comment on time, it also provides a deeper insight into the underlying mood that each poet is trying to convey, therefore it is necessary to further examine the tone in each poem.
Through the use of diction, both poets are able to create a tone that demonstrates and adds to their speaker’s overall acceptance or rejection of death. As mentioned earlier, Dickinson uses such words such as “civility” and “kindness” to describe death which ultimately sets up a light tone when speaking of death. This is again related back to the easiness the speaker has with death, due to the long time for which she has been dead. Dickinson further uses the word “chariot” in the title, as well as referring to a “carriage” in the first stanza, which sets up an expectation that the poem will proceed slowly, which is true.
The slowness assists with the idea of time because being that poem is slowed down with the words used in combination with longer line lengths and enjambment, the overall sense that the speaker is in no rush and accepting of her circumstance is presented. The tone is quite tranquil and somewhat content as it seems that the speaker is accepting of her fate. Considering this with Seeger’s poem though, there are noticeable shifts in tone due to specific word choices.
Initially the tone of the poem is similar to that of Dickinson’s, as the most recurrent word throughout the poem, “rendezvous”, sets a clear tone. This word choice is very important because the poet decided to use a friendly term which one would assume is does out of free will and shows the approval of a meeting with death. Yet as the poem continues on, other words work well to contradict this meaning. The tone begins to shift from the implied tone with the title, to the speaker commenting that they will have their rendezvous at “some disputed barricade” (Seeger, 2).
This automatically brings into focus that the speaker must be someone who knows war, and specifically using the word “disputed” indicates some conflict and a more harsh tone. Throughout the rest of the poem, word choice consistently changes setting bright and light moods to darker and heavier moods, demonstrated with the use of the word “scarred” (Seeger, 12), but then contradicting it with nature and life like “apple-blossoms” ( Seeger, 4) for example. The many shifts in tone implies that the time of death is near for this.