Because I Could Not Stop for Death
Because I Could Not Stop for Death
Emily Dickinson c. 1863
Perhaps Dickinson’s most famous work, “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” is generally considered to be one of the great masterpieces of American poetry. Written around 1863, the poem was published in Dickinson’s first posthumous collection, Poems by Emily Dickinson, in 1890. It has also been printed under the title “The Chariot.”
In the poem, a woman tells the story of how she is busily going about her day when a polite gentleman by the name of Death arrives in his carriage to take her out for a ride. Incidentally mentioned, the third passenger in the coach is a silent, mysterious stranger named Immortality. Thus begins one of the most famous examples of personification and figurative language in American literature.
Death takes the woman on a leisurely, late-afternoon ride to the grave and beyond, passing playing children, wheat fields, and the setting sun—all reminders of the cyclical nature of human life—along the way. Eerily, the woman describes their journey with the casual ease one might use to recount a typical Sunday drive. They pause a moment at her grave, perhaps Death’s house, which “seemed / A Swelling of the Ground,” and then continue their never-ending ride “toward Eternity.” In the end, through a brilliant use of hyperbole, or intentional exaggeration, the woman insists that all the centuries that have since passed have felt “shorter than the Day” that she took that fateful carriage ride which revealed to her for the first time the true meaning of Immortality.
Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, in 1830 and lived there all her life. Her grandfather was the founder of Amherst College, and her father Edward Dickinson was a lawyer who served as the treasurer of the college. He also held various political offices. Her mother Emily Norcross Dickinson was a quiet and frail woman. Dickinson went to primary school for four years and then attended Amherst Academy from 1840 to 1847 before spending a year at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. Her education was strongly influenced by Puritan religious beliefs, but Dickinson did not accept the teachings of the Unitarian church attended by her family and remained agnostic throughout her life. Following the completion of her education, Dickinson lived in the family home with her parents and younger sister Lavinia, while her elder brother Austin and his wife Susan lived next door. She began writing verse at an early age, practicing her craft by rewriting poems she found in books, magazines, and newspapers. During a trip to Philadelphia in the early 1850s, Dickinson fell in love with a married minister, the Reverend Charles Wadsworth; her disappointment in love may have brought about her subsequent withdrawal from society. Dickinson experienced an emotional crisis of an undetermined nature in the early 1860s. Her traumatized state of mind is believed to have inspired her to write prolifically: in 1862 alone she is thought to have composed over three hundred poems. In that same year, Dickinson initiated a correspondence with Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the literary editor of the Atlantic Monthly magazine. Over the years Dickinson sent nearly one hundred of her poems for his criticism, and he became a sympathetic adviser and confidant, but he never published any of her poems. Dickinson’s isolation further increased when her father died unexpectedly in 1874 and her mother suffered a stroke that left her an invalid. Dickinson and her sister provided her constant care until her death in 1882. Dickinson was diagnosed in 1886 as having Bright’s disease, a kidney dysfunction that resulted in her death in May of that year.
Because I could not stop for Death—
He kindly stopped for me—
The Carriage held but just Ourselves—
We slowly drove—He knew no haste—
And I had put away
My labor—and my leisure too,
For His Civility.
We passed the School where Children strove
At Recess—in the Ring—
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain—
We passed the Setting Sun—
Or rather—He passed Us-
The Dews drew quivering and chill—
For only Gossamer, my Gown—
My Tippet—only Tulle—
We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground—
The roof was scarcely visible—
The Cornice—in the Ground
Since then—‘tis Centuries—and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity—
Death is personified, or described in terms of human characteristics, throughout literature.
- An audio cassette titled “Fifty Poems of Emily Dickinson” was released in 1996 by Dove Audio.
- An audio cassette titled “Dickinson and Whitman: Ebb and Flow” is available from Audiobooks.
- “Heaven Below, Heaven Above,” an audio cassette, is available through Audiobooks.
- An audio cassette titled “Poems and Letters of Emily Dickinson” is available from Audiobooks.
Whether Death takes the form of a decrepit old man, a grim reaper, or a ferryman, his visit is almost never welcome by the poor mortal who finds him at the door. Such is not the case in “Because I Could Not Stop for Death.” Figuratively speaking, this poem is about one woman’s “date with death.” Dickinson uses the personification of Death as a metaphor throughout the poem. Here, Death is a gentleman, perhaps handsome and well-groomed, who makes a call at the home of a naive young woman. The poem begins with a comment upon Death’s politeness, although he surprises the woman with his visit. Knowing that the woman has been keeping herself too busy in her daily life to remember Death, he “kindly” comes by to get her. While most people would try to bar the door once they recognized his identity, this woman gives the impression that she is quite flattered to find herself in even this gentleman’s favor.
It would have been shocking for a young, unmarried 19th century woman to take a carriage ride alone with a strange gentleman. In this instance, a chaperon named Immortality rides with them. This is another example of personification. Though the poem’s speaker offers no description of Immortality, one might imagine an ageless-looking little woman in a gray dress. In any case, the poem’s speaker hardly notices Immortality’s presence beyond a brief mention in line four. The young woman’s attention is still focused on Death, her gentleman caller.
There are many possible explanations for the slow speed with which Death drives the carriage. Perhaps, since the woman is now “dead,” the carriage has been transformed into a hearse, and they are moving at the slow, deliberate speed of the lead car in a funeral procession. Another possible explanation is that Death is has no concept of time. Time and space are earthly concerns, and Death, courier of souls from this world to the unknown, is not bound by such vague human concepts.
People spend much of their lives keeping busy with work or amused with play so that they do not have to think about their own imminent death. The poem’s speaker seems to be no exception; however, she admits that she was willing to put aside her distractions and go with Death, perhaps because she found him so surprisingly charming. She comments upon his “Civility,” or formal politeness. She appears to be seduced by his good manners. If she had any expectations about Death, he has certainly exceeded them.
This quatrain is rich with imagery. Death’s passenger does not seem as concerned with where they are going as she does with the scenery along the way. In spite of the fact that she “put away” her “labor” and “leisure” in the previous quatrain, she is still distracted by things of the mortal world. It is possible that she knows she is seeing the last of these things which are so common that she may not have noticed them before: children playing, wheat growing, the sun setting. Taken for granted in the daily grind of life, these things grow more meaningful in relation to this final journey. The children are playing “in a ring,” and rings have magical significance for human beings because they are a symbol of eternity. The grain represents the natural world as she knows it, only this time the grain seems to be “gazing” at her, or looking at her with great interest. The “setting sun” is the universal clock, the thing by which humans measure their lives on earth. As they pass it by, she seems to pass into a new dimension.
Here again we see, as in line 5, that Death has no concept of time or earthly concerns. It is the Sun that is moving (“He passed Us), indicating the passage of time by its daily course across the sky. The carriage here seems to be going so slowly as to be nearly motionless. In any event, night appears to be falling, and a chilly dew is settling in. The references to the thinness of the woman’s clothing (her gossamer gown and her tulle tippet, or cape) suggest that she is growing cold—another reminder that she is now “dead.”
This “House” is a grave, even though the speaker uses a euphemism to describe it. This is where her body will be housed while her soul journeys onward. She describes the house as a “Swelling of the Ground,” clearly an image of a fresh burial plot. She can hardly see the roof, and the “Cornice,” or ornamental molding near the roofline, is only just visible above the pile of earth. She does not describe how long they “paused” there, but it could not have been long. This seems to be just a way station, though the woman does not seem to know it at this point. Her destination is still a mystery.
These lines contain an excellent example of hyperbole, an intentional exaggeration or overstatement that is not meant to be taken literally. Naturally, centuries are longer than a single day. However, some great moments in human life seem longer than they are, and moments of great revelation seem to stretch out forever. The greatest revelation of all must be the moment when the mystery of death and the afterlife is revealed. Also, perhaps because that day was the last day that the woman experienced the temporal, or time-related, world, the memory of it is the last remnant of her previous existence.
Sometimes the poetic experience is the closest thing to knowing the unknowable. In these final lines, Dickinson has attempted to describe what no living human can know: that moment the meaning of “forever” becomes clear. Oddly enough, there is no bolt of lightning or clap of thunder. Dickinson uses the word “surmised,” meaning that the woman guesses, through intuition, the answer to the riddle of human existence. She looks at the heads of the horses and sees that they are pointed “toward Eternity,” and suddenly she remembers that Immortality has been sitting beside her all along.
Cycle of Life
The structure of this poem is linear, occurring in a straight line from where the carriage stops for the speaker to a place and time that are far away. The images that describe what is seen in the carriage ride, however, all suggest that life is a cycle, that the cradle-to-grave motion does not fire us out into endless eternity as if we were shot out of a cannon, but instead brings us back to where we started from. The most obvious example of this is the children playing “in a ring”: not only is the ring symbolic of an endless circle, but the fact that one sees children testing their strength indicates that the dying speaker has come back to where he or she came from. Fields of grain remind us of the cycle of life because they repeat the whole motion year after year, from planting to harvesting. The setting sun indicates an ending, but it is only temporary. Finally, the start of a house is linked to its completion and eventual destruction by mentioning both its highest peak (cornice) and its beginning (mound) together.
To emphasize this point more, the whole poem takes on a circular pattern by bringing us back in the last stanza to where we were in the first. Critics have questioned this technique, wondering if it is really necessary to Dickinson’s point or if she ended this way for aesthetic purposes—to give the poem a big finish. In light of the cyclical nature of most of the poem, though, it is easy to see why she would want to loop eternity back upon itself, from centuries later back to the moment that eternity started for her.
It seems almost insultingly simplistic to point out that death is one of the main themes covered by this poem, but the treatment that Dickinson gives the subject is worth taking a close look at. Many poets have personified death as someone who comes to take us away, often as the Grim Reaper, who cuts down lives with his scythe the way that a reaper cuts down crops that are ready to harvest. Death has also been portrayed at times as a suave gentleman, probably because a smiling menace is somehow more frightening than a menace that is self-conscious about inflicting pain. In
Topics for Further Study
- Write a poem about your carriage ride with Death when he comes to take you away. Describe the scenes you will pass and the mood in the carriage.
- Do you think the speaker of this poem is happy with where she has been taken to after dying, or is there some regret in her attitude? Use examples from the poem to explain your answer.
this poem, Death is a gentleman, but Dickinson carries the metaphor through to its next logical step and holds Death responsible for following the rules of courtship that a gentleman calling for a lady would have to follow. He cannot just come and take her, but a third party, Immortality, must come along and chaperon their ride, to make sure that Death does not do anything improper. Also, Death cannot rush, but has to drive slowly, because he is not simply in the business of grabbing souls; he has taste and sensibility.
One reason for why Death is so bound by formal manners in this poem could be that Dickinson does not want to portray Death as being all-powerful, as other poets have. The death we see in this poem is not a thing to be feared. Because of Dickinson’s religious belief in immortal life, the significance of Death itself is diminished: it is as powerless in this situation as the person who is being carried away and as trapped by manners as the dying are by biology.
A key in this poem is how time passes at a different pace under different circumstances. The second stanza points out how slowly Death’s carriage progresses while taking the speaker away. The stated reason for this lagging pace is Death’s “civility,” as if there are proper rules of etiquette regarding how one is taken into the afterlife. The tour around town that takes place so slowly could be based upon the old superstition about one’s entire life flashing before one’s eyes at the instant of dying. On the other hand, it could be Dickinson’s way of showing that Death is a comfort and that it is as much a part of life as all of the other things that are observed. After death, the flow of time changes for the poem’s speaker: while a moment once revealed things that would have taken hours to see, centuries now feel shorter than a day. We are not told what the experience of eternity is like—what one sees or hears or feels there—and this could account for the way that time seems. Dickinson is making a statement about the nature of the physical world—how it captures our attention and how giving out attention takes more time than the nothingness of eternal life. At the end, the speaker is several centuries away from the moment of death, but with nothing in the eternal realm to distract her attention, she can look back on the physical world with a clean line of sight. She can observe her spent life as clearly as we can see the light of a star, burned out ages ago, that has traveled to us through empty space.
“Because I Could Not Stop for Death” is made up of six quatrains, or four-line stanzas. Like many of Dickinson’s poems, this one uses a traditional meter, often found in hymns and nursery rhymes, called common meter. The poem’s lines are arranged in iambs—two-syllable segments, or metrical feet, in which the first syllable is unstressed and the second syllable is stressed. Quatrains written in common meter have alternately eight and six syllables to the line. The eight-syllable lines, with four iambs in each line, are labeled iambic tetrameter (“tetra” meaning four). The six syllable lines, with three iambs each, are iambic trimeter (“tri” meaning three). For a lesser poet, the use of such a traditional meter might be a creative limitation; however, Dickinson, whose genius was her ability to choose the perfect word above all others, used the simplicity of this metrical form to showcase the power of language without distraction.
Unlike her contemporary poets, Dickinson did not feel it was necessary to use exact rhymes, and often shifted or adapted conventional rhyming patterns to new use. The third stanza of this poem, for instance, has no conventional rhyme, but gets its rhythm from the three-time repetition of “We passed” and the alliterative repetitive sounds in “Gazing Grain” and “Setting Sun.” Still, though “away/civility” in quatrain two is not a rhyme, the sound pattern is echoed nicely in the final quatrain with “Day/Eternity.”
Dickinson lived her whole life (with the exception of a year away at school) in Amherst, Massachusetts, in her family’s house. Her father was a lawyer, the treasurer of Amherst College, and was an active and important member of the community. The family was active in the Congregational church, which was the only one in Amherst until 1850, when Emily Dickinson was twenty. The beliefs that were followed in the Dickinsons’ church—especially with the emphasis each religion put on the idea of the soul’s salvation after death—were directly descended from the beliefs of the Puritans who founded Massachusetts approximately 200 years earlier. The Dickinson family’s close ties to their community and the community’s tradition of Puritanism gave Dickinson’s poetry a noticeably Puritanical perspective. On the other hand, the mid-nineteenth century saw the rise of Transcendentalism, a philosophical structure that was both religious and literary in its implications. Transcendentalists sought to understand the ruling principle of the universe (similar to God, but not the exact same thing) through understanding nature, and their method of understanding nature was through thought and poetry. On the surface, Puritanism and Transcendentalism could not be more different, but each shows itself in Dickinson’s poems.
Of the settlers who sailed to this country on the Mayflower in 1620, the majority came to America because they did not hold the same religious beliefs as the official Church of England, and they could not practice religion freely there. Their beliefs focused upon what becomes of the soul after death, when, they thought, the elect will go to heaven and the damned will go to hell. They were successful as pioneers, bringing European-style civilization to the new land, because they did not let suffering stop them. To these Puritans (so called because they rejected anything they saw as not being part of the pure religious experience), God was revealed through the events that took place in one’s life: therefore, suffering was accepted as part of God’s plan. The Puritans maintained a strict social order and were not tolerant of people whose beliefs were different than their own. At first, this might seem strange, given that they themselves had left England because their beliefs had not been tolerated there, but it makes sense that a group that had suffered persecution and the hardships of a strange land would only survive by keeping close together. Pilgrims thought of poetry, as they thought of everything else in their world, as a way of revealing the order that exists in the universe. A poem therefore had a structure in order to show that God had made the universe structured, not to be enjoyable. American culture has retained several elements from the Puritan experience: a strong love of freedom; a need for justification for one’s actions, whether they are private, public or political; and a fear of death and a simultaneous fascination with it. Today we use the phrases Puritan Ethic and American Work Ethic to mean the same thing: the idea that hard work will be rewarded, leading to the idea that lack of reward indicates that a person has been lazy and has not worked hard enough. These are not beliefs of all cultures, and they relate directly to the Puritans’ experience when they came to America.
American literature reached a pinnacle during Emily Dickinson’s time. Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, William Cullen Bryant, and Edgar Allan Poe were all active writers when she was growing up, and their works were widely read. Of the living poets, though, perhaps the one closest to Dickinson, both in outlook and in geographical proximity, was Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson lived in Boston and started out in life as a Unitarian minister, but in 1832 he resigned the clergy in a crisis of conscience to become a poet and a man of letters. Emerson was a good poet, but not a great one, as he himself would be the first to admit: his historical significance comes mainly from his being the most direct and outspoken supporter of the doctrine of Transcendentalism. Like their Puritan ancestors, the New England Transcendentalists valued the study of nature as a way to understand God, but the God they believed in was not the strict, vengeful, human-like God that was feared by the Puritans. In fact, the word “God” is not entirely accurate for the universal force that Emerson referred to as the “Over-Soul.” To Transcendentalists, God was not understandable from reading scripture, but by transcending thought and getting to understand the natural world directly. Every person could therefore be as knowledgeable about the ways of God as the best-trained minister, leaving little use for organized religion. One of the most famous Transcendental texts is Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, which describes the years that the author spent in a small shack in the Massachusetts forest, living as simply and economically as
Compare & Contrast
- 1863: The Conscription Act allowed the Union Army to draft American citizens to fight in the Civil War. For a fee of $300, one could be excused from duty (average U.S. income was $500 a year). 1200 people were killed in anti-draft riots in New York City.
1917: Congress approved the Selective Service Act, requiring all males between 21 and 30 to register for the draft.
1973: After being an issue that divided the country throughout the Vietnam War, the military draft was ended.
Today: The armed forces advertise and aggressively recruit, but no one has been forced into military service in the U.S. for a quarter of a century.
- 1863: The U.S. government, in the midst of settling Western territory, resettled or killed thousands of Native Americans.
1881: Helen Hunt Jackson, a friend of Dickinson’s, published A Century of Dishonor, a stinging and influential indictment of the U.S. government’s treatment of Native Americans.
1973: President Richard Nixon signed legislation to allow Native Americans the right to self-determination.
Today: Native Americans are struggling to change the public’s concept of them, to be seen as not depending on government support or “handouts.”
possible, relying on nature for his needs, and turning away from human relationships.
When she was twenty, Dickinson discovered Emerson’s essay “The Poet,” which describes his theories of how poetry can help us understand nature and how nature helps us understand the world. From the start, she related to Transcendental ideas, choosing this new form of philosophy as her religion. Her poetry shows its influence: natural objects are observed, not explained, because she allows their significance to speak for itself. But Transcendentalism was not able to deal with the large questions that traditional religion raises about sin, guilt, and the afterlife, so when Dickinson’s poetry approaches these moral questions, her Puritan upbringing shows through.
“Because I Could Not Stop for Death” is the most famous of Dickinson’s many works concerning the subject of death and immortality; consequently, the poem has been the object of much critical study. The famous American literary critic Allen Tate, writing in his On the Limits of Poetry: Selected Essays, 1928-1948, describes the poem as “one of the greatest in the English language.” Tate explains that “in the poem, the idea of immortality is confronted with the fact of physical disintegration.” Through the use of beautiful, vivid imagery and rich symbolism, Dickinson presents, as experience, the abstract human concepts of death and the afterlife. Tate believes that the genius of the poem lies in Dickinson’s ability to present this problematic situation without telling the reader how to think about it.
Not all critics have quite as enthusiastic about the poem as Tate. Yvor Winters, writing in his In Defense of Reason, believes that the poem is good but does not agree that it is perfect. Though Winters finds the poem remarkable for its beauty and grace in describing “the daily realization of the imminence of death,” he argues that it does not rank among Dickinson’s best works because the end is unconvincing and “fraudulent.” Winters acknowledges Tate’s great acclaim for the poem, pointing out that Tate “appears almost to praise it for its defects.”
Chris Semansky is a freelance writer and has written extensively on modern and postmodern literature. In the following essay, Semansky argues that “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” is a statement about the negative aspects of marriage for the independent, nineteenth-century woman.
Arguably her most well-known poem, “Because I could not stop for Death” underscores not only the value Emily Dickinson placed on her independence from worldly conventions, but also the fear she had of being ensnared by them. Long considered either a statement of Dickinson’s macabre attitudes toward death or a romantic rendering of her own imagined death, in fact this poem is nothing less than an argument against marriage and the smothering effect it can have on a woman’s independence. After all, “Death” here is personified as a suitor who takes his potential bride away from her busy life. An independent woman—especially in mid-nineteenth century New England—posed a threat to the social order, in which a woman’s proper place was beside her husband. A husbandless woman, then, was suspect—someone who stood outside the mores and expectations of her community. Speaking literally from the grave, the narrator of this famous poem recounts her seduction as a young woman and describes her inevitable journey toward death. It is only after she recognizes that the carriage’s final destination is her own grave that we no longer hear about her suitor. The speaker has been seduced, driven to her death, and abandoned.
The opening stanza presents us with a narrator caught up in her busy life who is visited by a gentleman in the personification of death. Personification is a device writers use to assign human qualities to abstract ideas; it literally makes a person or character out of an idea in order to dramatize the idea. (For instance, Snow White’s seven dwarves were personifications of the names they were assigned, and they behaved accordingly.) Writers use personification to provide readers with a more intimate and familiar understanding of a difficult
What Do I Read Next?
- When Dickinson’s poems were first discovered after her death, her friend T.W. Higginson prepared them for publication in 1890 by smoothing rhymes, removing local references, and changing obscure metaphors. When Harvard University received the rights to the Dickinson estate in 1950, they published the poems as they were originally written. Today, all 1775 poems are available in The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson by Little, Brown & Co.
- Of all the Dickinson biographies available, Cynthia Griffin Wolff’s 1986 book Emily Dickinson is clearly among the best. Wolff gives a meticulous, compassionate explanation of the poet’s life.
- Van Wyck Brooks was a conservative literary critic whose career spanned from the 1920s through the 1950s. He wrote several great books about American literature in the 1800s: one in particular, America’s Coming-of-Age, published in 1958, takes readers through the country’s literary history with clever, interesting prose.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson was a major influence on Dickinson’s work. His ideas about life and literature have been collected in one authoritative volume in the Library of America’s Ralph Waldo Emerson: Essays and Lectures, published in 1983.
or alien concept. Reading ideas as characters allows us to empathize with—or hate or be annoyed by—ideas that otherwise might remain distant and abstract. Dickinson’s personification of death prompted biographer Thomas Johnson to claim that “in 1863 [the year the poem was written] Death came into full stature as a person. ‘Because I could not stop for Death’ is a superlative achievement wherein Death becomes one of the great characters of literature.”
We know from the image of the carriage and the reference to the politeness of the “gentleman” that this poem uses the language and rituals of courtship to talk about something else. That “something else” is hinted at when we learn that the third party in the carriage is “immortality,” a chaperone of sorts and also the consequence or reason for the two coming together. The slow ride emphasizes the serious and solemn nature of the speaker’s “engagement date.” But it is a date that the speaker does not resist. Indeed, she says nothing, telling us only that she has put away her “labors” and “leisures” and is deferring to Death’s “civility.” Recounting the experience in this manner underscores the very male-driven nature of courtship—a ritual dependent on male initiative. It also demonstrates the implicit trust the speaker had for her caller. This trust, however, was not rewarded.
The next stanza provides us with a catalogue of their journey’s sites: they pass a schoolyard, farmland, and the “setting sun.” All three of these images suggest phases of the life cycle that the speaker has passed and is passing through and clue us in on her experience. She is now unable to distinguish between the inside and the outside worlds. Time has stopped for her, and the fields of grain do the gazing, not her. The speaker’s will has thoroughly dissolved. Indeed, in her article “Emily Dickinson’s Poetry: A Revaluation,” Eunice Glen has noted that these images “are all perceived as elements in an experience from which the onlooker has withdrawn.” The correction that comes at the beginning of the fourth stanza—the carriage does not pass the sun; the sun passes it—is not merely a correction in the location of the sun, but one meant to underline the fact that had they passed the sun, they literally would have transcended time, and the journey and the poem would have ended there. By remaining in the world, Dickinson’s narrator forces her reader to recognize the cost of losing life. Her emotional suffering heightens in the fourth stanza when the speaker experiences foreboding in the form of a “quivering” and “chill” because she is not dressed appropriately nor adequately protected from the elements. This response suggests not only the literal coldness that comes from not dressing appropriately for the occasion, but also the emotional coldness that occurs when approaching one’s own death. We can also read it as the speaker’s unpreparedness for her journey—a journey that equates the process of dying with the death that is marriage. Ironically the journey fulfills the nuptial vow, “Till death do us part.”
The house in the fifth stanza, then, can be seen as both bridal house and the speaker’s own grave. Metaphorically, “The Cornice-in the Ground” is the speaker’s coffin, or more precisely, the molding around the coffin’s lid. A cornice is a decorative strip above a window or along the top of a wall. Here it is the only visible part of the house, itself “A Swelling of the Ground.” The domestic nature of the grave’s description and the fact that there is no door, only a roof (the coffin’s lid), suggests that just as there is no escape from death, there is no escape from the domestic deadening that marriage brings. Critic Joanne Dobson points to this stanza to question the true “civility” of the suitor: “The hopeful, pregnant swell of the grave, [and the suitor’s] destination proves a barren and eternal disappointment.... For this eternal nothingness the speaker has put away her ‘labor’ and her ‘leisure,’ in a futile and irreversible renunciation of the self.”
This disappointment and the fact that she has been tricked into believing her carriage ride was going to be something other than a funeral procession is evident in the phrase “first surmised” in the final stanza, when the persona reflects back on the moment she realized the true nature of her suitor’s intent. In his Emily Dickinson, Paul Ferlazzo goes as far as to claim that “the characteristic peacefulness of the drive ... is really rigor mortis.” The ironic last image of the poem further underscores the speaker’s bitterness at being tricked: horses’ heads most often point down, not up. What here is referred to as “eternity” is in fact annihilation. The Lover Death image has a long history in literature and Dickinson uses it in other poems as well, most notably in “Death is the supple Suitor.” By conflating love and death into a single character, she manages to make a statement about the interdependence of the two and to suggest that by choosing the former, one inevitably invites the latter.
Invariably critics have praised “Because I could not stop for Death” as being one of Dickinson’s most successful poems. In Reactionary Essays on Poetry and Ideas, Allen Tate remarked that “if the word ‘great’ means anything in poetry, this poem is one of the greatest in the English language.” Like many critics writing in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, Tate believed that the test of a poem’s greatness was whether or not it was formally successful, that is, if the images were precise, the rhythms and rhymes pleasurable, and the metaphors provocative. Other critics attempt to find evidence in the writer’s life that would provide them with insight into the poem. For example, Elizabeth Phillips claimed in Emily Dickinson: Personae and Performance that Dickinson’s poem “must have originated in an event about which the author knew.” She cites the death of Dickinson’s distant cousin, Olivia Coleman, at the age of twenty in 1847 as the “inspiration” for the poem. Coleman, though suffering from a form of tuberculosis then called “galloping consumption,” died without warning when she went for a carriage ride with a male caller. More recently, critics have paid attention to the ways in which gender is represented in poetry and to what poems might have to say not only about the society in which they were written but also about the society in which they are read. Citing Adrienne Rich’s 1979 landmark essay on Dickinson, “Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson,” Paula Bennett argues that for Dickinson “freedom was everything, and the self-imposed restrictions of her life worked paradoxically to ensure that freedom.” By reading “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” in this light, it is easy to see how marriage would be a hinderance to that freedom.
Source: Chris Semansky, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1997.
The discussion of the use of Irony in Emily Dickinson’s poem “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” is examined.
Referring to Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for Death,” Allen Tate stated in 1932, “If the word ‘great’ means anything in poetry, this is one of the greatest in the English language.” Strangely enough, Tate made this statement without the knowledge that the version he was praising was incomplete. Years later, Yvor Winters, working from the same incomplete version, criticized Tate’s judgment, but still admitted that this Dickinson poem was “curious and remarkable.” After Thomas H. Johnson published what is now considered to be the standard edition of Dickinson’s poetry, in which he restored the fourth stanza to this poem, the critical community continued to praise it. Johnson himself asserts it is a “superlative achievement wherein Death becomes one of the greatest characters of literature.” It would appear that “Because I could not stop for Death” will continue to receive the accolades heaped on it by Tate (however prematurely), and justifiably so. This poem reveals Dickinson at her best—a poet who is in complete control of her material. Nevertheless, the reader’s recognition of Dickinson’s craftsmanship in this poem is largely dependent on his recognition of her masterful use of irony.
On the surface, “Because I could not stop for Death” appears simplistic. The dramatic situation, however interesting, does not seem to be an extraordinary invention. Dickinson creates a female character who is escorted toward her grave by a gentleman who is a personification of death. The progression of the poem is from life to death, the first five stanzas describing the lady’s attraction to her suitor and her journey toward the grave, the final stanza bringing the reader into contact with this female character as she rests in eternity. What is particularly interesting, and what is crucial to one’s understanding of Dickinson’s use of irony in this poem, is that the female character described in the first five stanzas is also the persona for the poem.
From a standpoint in eternity, the persona tells the story of her death in retrospect. In effect, Dickinson forces the reader to relive the death experience of her persona, a death experience which is told by a character who is able to distinguish between the appearance of her previous encounter with “Death” and what actually transpired. As one reads the poem, recognizing that the poem is being told in retrospect, the irony becomes evident. Dickinson’s persona describes herself as an unsuspecting lady, a woman who was “taken in” by Death and who did not realize, until it was too late, the ultimate significance of her journey. The poem purports to be about death, but the message in the poem also involves life. Dickinson does not emphasize what is gained after death; rather, she emphasizes what is lost because of death.
As the poem starts, the reader suspects it will concern happiness and contentment. During the first half of the poem, the persona casually describes her encounter with the gentleman caller, indicating that she was too preoccupied to think about death, and the start of her journey....
Paradoxically, the persona describes “Death” as a man who is kind. She justifies her own willingness to accompany him, admitting that “His Civility” prompted her to give up both her “labor” and her “leisure”—everything that she possessed. The journey takes place at a casual pace; the persona and her caller “slowly” drive toward their destination. The imagery is pleasant. Even the rhythm in these first stanzas, the alternating iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter of the hymn stanzas, promotes a peaceful effect. It is easy for the reader to get caught up by this rhythm, the peaceful images, and the deceptive tone of contentment. Nevertheless, the persona gradually undercuts the serenity of these opening stanzas.
In the second stanza, she ironically states that Death “knew no haste”—as if they had all the time in the world. In the third stanza, the imagery suggests more than a mere physical journey. First, the carriage passes the “Children .../At Recess”; then the “Fields of Gazing Grain”; and, finally, the persona implies that they passed the “Setting Sun.” Such imagery suggests the passage of a lifetime, a journey from childhood through maturity to death; the passage of a day (“Recess” to evening); and even the passage of a season (the grain, which will later be harvested). The latter implication contrasts the mortality of the human condition with the “immortality” of nature. Only nature is reborn on earth; man, when reborn, is completely severed from life on earth. It is entirely likely that Dickinson intended a pun on the word “passed,” which recurs in Stanza 3, to emphasize that such scenery will soon be in the persona’s “past.” In either case, the persona presents a quite ironic picture of herself in these stanzas, particularly in the third stanza. She uses participles to describe herself when she was making the journey. Like the grain, she too was “Gazing,” and like the sun, she was “Setting”...
One could possibly interpret the passage of the carriage in these stanzas and the later stanzas as a metaphor for the journey of a coffin in a funeral procession. In fact, there is a slight resemblance between Stanza 3 and the fifth section of Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” where Lincoln’s coffin passes “the yellow-spear’d wheat, every grain from its shroud in the dark-brown fields uprisen.” It is not clear whether Dickinson intended one to associate the journey with a funeral procession; however, if one chooses such an interpretation, the irony of this slow journey becomes even more evident. Throughout the first half of the poem, the persona gives the impression that she was unaware of the ultimate meaning of the journey. Just how unsuspecting she was becomes evident in the second half of the poem.
At the end of Stanza 3, the reader gains an impression that the carriage is actually passing outside of time. But in Stanza 4, the stanza which was restored to the poem in 1955 by Johnson, the persona corrects herself and implies that she still considered herself bound by time....
In this stanza, Dickinson disrupts the previously established rhythm, replacing trimeter for tetrameter in the first line and destroying the rhythm completely in the second line. This disruption, coupled with the use of heavy consonants and an alliterated internal rhyme in the second line, indicates that a change is taking place, an important change from the reader’s standpoint because it affects the tone of the entire poem.
The persona implies that the dew made her “quivering and chill”; however, if one reads the second line of this stanza correctly, the irony unfolds. Dew forms when a cool object comes into contact with a warmer atmosphere. The female character in this poem is thus the source of attraction for the dew. Unknown to herself, she is dying; the dew is being drawn toward her body, which is “quivering and chill.” She is not cognizant of the change taking place. Instead, she attempts to rationalize why she feels cold, blaming her cold feeling on the dew and the thinness of her garments.
Stanza 4 marks the beginning of the second half of the poem, and it also marks a change from day to night. Similarly, the reader’s knowledge that the persona does not suspect what is happening prohibits continuation of the happy tone of the previous stanzas. No longer does Dickinson provide images of peace and contentment. For instance, the persona refers to her gown made of “Gossamer,” a word which, to the modern audience, means a thin fabric. But, as Charles Anderson has determined, the term “‘Gossamer’ in her [Dickinson’s] day was not yet applied to fine spun cloth but only to that filmy substance like cobwebs sometimes seen floating in the autumn air, as her Lexicon described it.” It seems likely that Dickinson intended this word to provide a sinister impression. A sinister tone pervades the remaining stanzas and ultimately shrouds the entire poem as the reader becomes aware that the persona is relating an experience in which she was tricked by the kind gentleman, “Death.” The regular rhythm is resumed in the remaining stanzas; however, the tone of happiness is completely lost.
In Stanza 5, the carriage arrives at a grave, and the persona provides additional evidence of her deception. She anticipated only a temporary delay...
Using domestic imagery, the persona suggests that she did not recognize the meaning of the scene before her. She sees “a House that seemed / A Swelling of the Ground,” not “a Swelling of the Ground that seemed a House.” She does not recognize the grave as a grave. Instead, the diggings around the grave become part of the landscape around a house; the top of the coffin becomes the “Roof” of the house; and the ribbing around the coffin’s lid becomes a “Cornice”.... No reference is made to a door. The reader recognizes, however, that the “Roof” is the door, that the “Cornice—in the Ground” seals this door shut, that the unsuspicious lady will soon be completely separated from life in a place where no escape is possible. At the conclusion of this stanza, the duping becomes complete—his services being over, her “kind” suitor apparently abandons her, giving no explanation.
The final shock for the reader comes at the start of Stanza 6 when the persona, speaking from somewhere in eternity, relates that centuries have passed. The past tense verbs and the images connoting movement used in previous stanzas contrast with the abrupt shift to present tense and the implication of stasis. There is no description of her present environment; she only mentions that the centuries which have passed feel
...shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses [sic] Heads
Were toward Eternity [italics mine]—
The persona provides one last clue that she did not know the meaning of her journey when she first accepted Death’s invitation. In retrospect, she recognizes that death means a complete separation from life. The last image she provides is that of the “Horses Heads,” and, as Robert Weisbuch has mentioned, these heads “point down as well as forward.”
“Because I could not stop for Death” is a thoroughly ironic poem, and recognition of Dickinson’s use of irony is essential to one’s understanding of the poem’s meaning. But there is another clue which assists the reader—punctuation. Stanza 1 is the only stanza in the poem which concludes with a period. At the end of the other stanzas, Dickinson used her “traditional” punctuating mark, dashes. Perhaps, with a little caution, one can interpret this opening stanza as a thesis statement for the poem. The period used to close this statement may have been meant to suggest the finality of death with respect to one’s contact with mortal life. The dashes used in subsequent stanzas suggest the eternality of death in a manner similar to the closing word, “Eternity—.” One must be cautious, however, in interpreting the importance of the word “Immortality” used in the opening stanza.
Michael Todd has suggested that “Immortality” is presented as a potentiality in the first stanza of the poem and as an actuality in the last stanza... He does not distinguish between Dickinson’s use of “Immortality” to close the first stanza and “Eternity” to close the final stanza. In another poem (“Behind Me dips Eternity”), Dickinson made a distinction between these two terms. Furthermore, if one recognizes the irony throughout this poem,
“The poem purports to be about death, but the message in the poem also involves life. Dickinson does not emphasize what is gained after death; rather, she emphasizes what is lost because of death.”
then perhaps one can say there is an ironic intent behind Dickinson’s use of “Immortality” only once in the poem. The imagery in the poem indicates an emphasis on the mortality of human life, not on immortality after death. In this poem, there is a dichotomy, both structurally and the matically, between past and present, and it is the past which Dickinson chooses to emphasize....
The message of “Because I could not stop for Death” does not concern the possibility of a peaceful union with a divine being; rather, the message concerns the awesome power of death, a force which causes complete separation from life. Dickinson leaves the reader with one word at the end of this poem to suggest the timeless quality of this separation—“Eternity—.” She created a persona who, throughout the poem, recounted ironically how she had been duped, a persona who did not suspect the finality of death until after she had accepted Death’s offering of hospitality. Dickinson’s poem concerns separation from life. Moreover, it may stand as her testimonial of the value of that life left behind.
Source: Kenneth Privatsky, “Irony in Emily Dickinson’s ‘Because I Could Not Stop For Death’” in Concerning Poetry, Vol. 11, No. 2, Fall, 1978, pp. 25–30
Benfey, Christopher, Emily Dickinson, New York: George Braziller, 1986.
Bennett, Paula, Emily Dickinson: Woman Poet, Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1990.
Ferlazzo, Paul, Emily Dickinson, Boston: Twayne, 1976.
Garbowsky, Maryanne M., The House without the Door: A Study of Emily Dickinson and the Illness of Agoraphobia, Teaneck, NJ: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1989.
Glen, Eunice, “Emily Dickinson’s Poetry: A Revaluation,” in The Sewanee Review, Vol. 51, Autumn, 1943, 585.
Johnson, Thomas H., Emily Dickinson: An Interpretive Biography, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1955.
Juhasz, Suzanne, editor, Feminist Critics Read Emily Dickinson, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983.
Kirkby, Joan, Emily Dickinson Women Writers Series, New York: St. Martins, 1991.
Phillips, Elizabeth, Emily Dickinson: Personae and Performance, University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.
Rich, Adrienne, “Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson,” in On Lies, Secrets and Silence, New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1979, pp. 157-184.
Sewall, Richard B., The Life of Emily Dickinson, 2 vols. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1974.
Sewall, Richard B., editor, Emily Dickinson, A Collection of Critical Essays, New York: Prentice-Hall, 1963.
Tate, Allen, Reactionary Essays on Poetry and Ideas, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1936.
Tate, Allen, “Emily Dickinson,” in his On the Limits of Poetry: Selected Essays, 1928-48, Swallow Press and William Morrow & Company, Publishers, 1948, pp. 197-213.
Winters, Yvor, “Emily Dickinson and the Limits of Judgment,” in his In Defense of Reason, Swallow Press, 1947, pp. 283-99.
Kazan, Alfred, Contemporaries. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1962.
The information that Kazan, a leading literary critic, provides here tells us nothing new about Dickinson, but he has a sure sense for how she interacted with the literature of her time.
Keller, Karl, The Only Kangaroo Among the Beauty: Emily Dickinson and America, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979.
Each chapter of this critical analysis compares Dickinson’s work to that of another American literary figure: “Emily Dickinson and Ann Bradstreet,” “Emily Dickinson and Harriet Beecher Stowe,” “Emily Dickinson and Ralph Waldo Emerson,” and so on. It is an excellent method for displaying the poet’s influences and her impact on the literary world.
Suchard, Alan, American Poetry: The Puritans Through Walt Whitman, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1988.
Suchard’s chapters on “Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendental Poets” and “The Puritan Beginnings” give readers a clear understanding of the complex philosophies without oversimplifying.
Winters, Yvor, “Emily Dickinson and the Limits of Judgement,” in Emily Dickinson: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Richard B. Sewall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1963.
Winters’s essay focuses on the poet’s obsession with death. He is respectful of the greatness of her best poems but uncommonly harsh toward her weaker works, noting that she was capable of “unpardonable writing.”