By Emily Reily
In Emily Dickinson's poem "Because I could not stop for Death," the protagonist imagines riding in a horse-drawn carriage bound for eternity. Death and Immortality are personified as her fellow passengers. As she rides past "gazing grain" and the setting sun, she arrives at a "swelling of the ground," her own final resting place.
While Dickinson envisioned an intimate, solemn journey from life to death, singer Hailee Steinfeld romanticizes the pilgrimage in "Afterlife," her companion single to the upcoming Apple TV+ series Dickinson. The show, which premieres November 1, chronicles the life of the famously reclusive poet. Steinfeld plays Dickinson and is an executive producer for the series.
The lyrics to the slow-pulsing, aching "Afterlife" question whether true love will follow her into the next "life." With smoky, pleading vocals, Steinfeld confronts him: "Will you promise me you'll search for us? / Will you find me after life?"
Steinfeld says she was directly influenced by the 19th century poet. "There's a line in the song that says, 'Immortality is bliss,' and it reminded me a lot of Emily Dickinson's poems. The inability to express herself fully in life, but to be so revered beyond her death — her writing continues to be remembered and relevant to this day, making her immortal."
Despite the heavy theme of death explored in Dickinson, the series is billed as a comedy with a modern twist. Emily does real-life things like get her period, throw a house party, and rebel against her parents. The show's tone teeters from serious to silly, and a lot of shades in between. Rapper and known weed connoisseur Wiz Khalifa portrays Death in the carriage, walking the line between the more playful parts of life that fascinated Emily and the grave subject matter of death itself.
It seems Steinfeld feels a kinship with Dickinson; others in Gen Z, through "Afterlife" and this new coming-of-age retelling, may also find a mirror image of themselves in one of America's greatest poets.
Every generation has its own identity, and a recent i-D story raises the possibility that young adults in 2019 are prematurely thinking about their own demise. Writer Tom George's informal poll found that about 25 percent of respondents thought about their own funeral; only 12 percent said they didn't. It was a simple poll, but it could indicate a trend that may have been sparked by events over which Gen Z had no control.
Gen Zers make up the first generation that, for the most part, has no memory of 9/11, the catastrophic event that jump-started the seemingly never-ending global War on Terror still being waged today. Gen Z is also the first to have been immersed in social media from an early age, a fact that may have a detrimental effect on coping skills. Rapid climate change, global overcrowding, drug-resistant diseases, and mass murders fueled by lax gun-control laws could easily make young people feel even more uncertain about what future, if any, awaits them.
Dickinson knew early death all too well. Many in her time — poor and wealthy alike — faced shorter lifespans and higher infant mortality rates. This "deepening menace of death" haunted Dickinson beginning in her teens, when her close friend and cousin, Sophia Holland, died of typhus. It affected Dickinson profoundly, and she was sent away from her Amherst, Massachusetts, home to Boston to recover from the trauma. Later, an Amherst Academy principal who influenced Dickinson to write died at 25 of "brain congestion." Attorney and friend Benjamin Franklin Newton gave her a book of poems by Ralph Waldo Emerson, which further fueled her love of books; he died of tuberculosis in his early 30s. Even Dickinson's mother died before she did.
Dickinson called Newton the "gentle, yet grave Preceptor," writing: "Some of my friends are gone, and some of my friends are sleeping — sleeping the churchyard sleep — the hour of evening is sad." This sadness never seemed to leave Dickinson. The mechanisms and lasting impact of death became a central theme in a large subset of her poetry.
Steinfeld's "Afterlife" attempts a slightly lighter tone, focusing on who she might spend eternity with. "Will you love me when my heartbeat stops?" she sings, zeroing in on that instant when death overtakes life. Will her soul be alone?
Steinfeld also references "I heard a fly buzz," which features a speaker preparing to witness her own death. While the speaker is busy "signing away" her earthly belongings, a single fly breaks the silence. Steinfeld answers Dickinson's line "with blue — uncertain — stumbling buzz" with a line of her own: "My ear is buzzing / Oh, I'm trapped, no one's coming." Finally, she issues a warning: "Now that I'm gone, you're gonna miss me."
On her ride toward eternity in "Because I could not stop for Death," as "the dews grew quivering and chill," Dickinson discovers she's wearing a gown made of gossamer, a sometimes sheer, white fabric used for wedding dresses, and a gauzy ceremonial "tippet" scarf. Steinfeld's "Afterlife" video, meanwhile, finds her in a thin white veil and a white dress with a corset. And as Dickinson personifies Death as a sort of lover, someone who will politely escort her to her grave, Steinfeld sings near the song's close, "Oh, for better or for worse / Will death be our last kiss, my love?" It's a reminder that wedding vows were originally meant to last more than a lifetime. That eternity seemed like a cold prospect for Dickinson, who once confided in her friend Abiah Root about the concept and its vastness.
"Does not Eternity appear dreadful to you," she asked. "I often get thinking of it and it seems so dark to me that I almost wish there was no Eternity. To think that we must forever live and never cease to be. It seems as if Death, which all so dread because it launches us upon an unknown world, would be a relief to so endless a state of existense [sic]."
If that quote is to be taken at face value, then maybe Dickinson's view of death isn't as dark as we assume it to be.
In an interview leading up to Dickinson's launch, Steinfeld was asked how she personally feels about death. She never answered directly, but her response was surprisingly uplifting.
"In Emily's poetry, she speaks about it in such light. She speaks about death as if it's life," she said. "It’s another life. It’s where you can go to be free."