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Because I Could Not Stop for Death – The Fear of Dying, Analysis of Dickinson’s No. 712
Everyone knows Emily Dickinson was fascinated by death and dying. She has never been placed in the same class as Edgar Allan Poe or Stephen King – people who took this interest to a dangerous and often disgusting level. Dickinson had a much more beautiful and understanding approach, even if her occupation with this subject wasn’t always healthy.
One of Dickinson’s most famous poems, on the subject of death and otherwise, is No. 712, Because I Could Not Stop for Death. Many critics feel this poem is yet another example of Dickinson’s illustrations of what it must be like to be dead (similar to her earlier poem, No. 449, I Died for Beauty). However, No. 712 is different in that it can be looked at from the standpoint of someone who is losing her fear of death.
1. Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage help but just Ourselves –
Because I could not stop for Death; what better reason could there be for not wanting to “stop for Death” than the fear of dying? But the narrator immediately loses this fear by adding He kindly stopped for me. The last line of this stanza of course creates the main idea of this poem, which seems to be that death is nothing to be afraid of because it leads to eternity or immortality.
2. We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –
This stanza describes the narrator slowly slipping out of earthly time. I had put away my labor and my leisure too is rather reminiscent of the All is vanity reading from Ecclesiastes Chapter 1. The narrator has suddenly realized nothing matters now that she is facing eternity.
3. We pass the School, where Children strove
At recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –
4. Or rather – He passed Us –
The Dews drew quivering and chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –
The first two lines of stanza three allude to the “life flashing before my eyes” phenomenon, known technically as a Life Review. The narrator is remembering what may be a happy episode from childhood. The second half of this stanza connects with the next. We passed the Setting Sun – Or rather – He passed Us – this is the continuation of her journey out of space and time. After she mentions the setting sun, however, the scene morphs into the dawning of a new day, as evinced by the description of the cold dew upon everything.
Although often identified as a stole, a tippet during Emily Dickinson’s time was a scarf or small cape worn often for fashion or modesty’s sake rather than for warmth. The description in stanza four of the narrator's dress is the reason why I’ve referred to her as a female thus far. Because I Could Not Stop for Death is the story of a woman’s journey out of fear and into eternity. Perhaps it may even be Dickinson’s own personal fantasy.
5. We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground –
This is perhaps the most harrowing stanza of the poem. The narrator’s journey takes her past a grave containing a newly buried body (most likely her own). But her fear does not return as the carriage only pauses before moving on toward Eternity.
Paperback, Thomas H. Johnson edition
6. Since then – ‘tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity –
This is a classic example of a clincher. In this last stanza, the narrator closes her argument by repeating that she has dropped out of time but that there is nothing to be afraid of because the Horses’ Heads in this carriage ride with death are not pointed towards anything terrible or scary, but rather toward Eternity.
Because I Could Not Stop for Death was set to music as the twelfth and final poem in Aaron Copland’s Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson. Within the cycle the poem is known as The Chariot. Although this work may not be the best example of Copland’s talent, it is rather haunting to hear this half-hour long work end with the words toward Eternity.
Contains performance by Joyce DiDonato of Copland's cycle