I wonder if “Sylvester’s Dying Bed,” by Langston Hughes, is written in dialogue with Emily Dickinson’s poem 465--which begins “I heard a Fly buzz--when I died--”.
Hughes’ poem is his own. It is written in Southern African-American vernacular, as are most of his other pieces. Like Dickinson’s 465, “Sylvester” deals with death. The circumstances, however, are quite different. Whereas Dickinson’s speaker feels isolated and powerless, Sylvester is surrounded by “a hundred pretty mamas” (7). He is actually in a self-assured state of mind: “But I’s still Sweet Papa ’Vester, / Yes, sir! Long as life do last!” (21-22). Sylvester does not seem afraid of death. Instead, he accepts it as a part of a necessary cycle, which he compares to the slow flow of the River Jordan (19).
Whereas Dickinson speaks of stillness and the color blue, Hughes puts Sylvester in motion amid darker colors. In line 25, Sylvester reaches up to hug the “Black gals” (13) and “Brown-skins” (15).
The ending of “Sylvester’s Dying Bed” is the blaring siren that calls me to associate it with Dickinson’s poem. “And I reaches up to hug ’em-- / When de Lawd put out de light. / / Then everything was darkness. / In a great…big…night.” (25-28).
The dash connecting line 25 to line 26 is indicative of Dickinson’s poetic technique. In both poems, something comes between the speaker and the light. Dickinson’s has the buzz; Hughes’ has “de Lawd.” The last line of Dickinson’s is slowed down by longer vowels; Hughes’ is slowed by ellipses. Both leave the reader feeling uncertain about what lies beyond death.
The similarities between the two poems are remarkable.