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Emily Dickinson's "Because I could not stop for Death"

Updated on April 14, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

Poetry became my passion, after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962.

Emily Dickinson Commemorative Stamp

Source

Introduction and Text of "Because I could not stop for Death-"

Emily Dickinson's cosmic drama, "Because I could not stop for Death -," (712 in Johnson's Complete Poems) features a carriage driver who appears to be a gentleman caller. The speaker puts down her work and her leisure time in order to accompany the gentleman on a carriage ride.

Special childhood memories often spur poets to pen poems influenced by musing on such memories: examples include Dylan Thomas' "Fern Hill," Theodore Roethke's "My Papa's Waltz," and that nearly perfect poem by Robert Hayden "Those Winter Sundays." In "Because I could not stop for Death,-" the speaker looks back at a much more momentous occasion than an ordinary childhood recollection.

The speaker in Dickinson's memory poem is remembering the day she died. She metaphorically frames the occasion as a carriage ride with Death as the gentleman caller. This speaker peers into the level of existence beyond the earthly into the spiritual and eternal.

Interestingly, the procession that the carriage ride follows whispers an echo of the notion that in the process of dying the soul invasions its past life. As the speaker reports passing by a school and noting that children were there striving, and then they drove by field of grain and observed the sunset—all things that the speaker would have experienced likely repeatedly in her lifetime.

Because I could not stop for Death—

Because I could not stop for Death—
He kindly stopped for me—
The Carriage held but just Ourselves—
And Immortality.

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—

Reading of "Because I could stop for Death"

Emily Dickinson

Source

Commentary

This fascinating cosmic drama features a carriage driver who appears to be a gentleman caller. The speaker abandons both her work and leisure in order to accompany the gentleman on a carriage ride.

First Stanza: An Unorthodox Carriage Ride

Because I could not stop for Death—
He kindly stopped for me—
The Carriage held but just Ourselves—
And Immortality.

In the first stanza, the speaker startlingly claims that she was unable to "stop for Death"; but nevertheless, Death has no problem stopping for her. And he did so in such a polite fashion. The speaker continues with another shocking remark, reporting that the carriage in which the speaker and gentleman caller Death rode carried only the speaker and the gentleman along with one other passenger, "Immortality."

The speaker thus far has begun to dramatize an extremely unorthodox carriage ride. The kind gentleman Death has picked up the speaker as if she were his date for a simple buggy ride through the countryside.

Second Stanza: The Gentleman Caller

We slowly drove—He knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility—

The speaker continues to describe her momentous event. She has not only stopped engaging in her work but she has also ceased her leisure—just as anyone would expect of someone who has died.

The gentleman caller was so persuasive in insisting on a carriage ride that the speaker easily complies with the gentleman's wishes. This kind and gracious gentleman "knew no haste" but offered a methodical ushering into the realms of peace and quiet.

Third Stanza: A Review of a Life Lived

We passed the School, where Children strove
At recess—in the ring—
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain—
We passed the Setting Sun—

The speaker then reports that she can view children playing at school. She encounters corn fields and wheat fields. She views the sun setting. The images portrayed might appear to be emblematic of three stages of a human life, with the children playing representing childhood, the fields symbolizing adulthood, and the setting sun representing old age.

The imagery also brings to mind the old adage of the dying person experiencing the passing of one's life before one's vision. The viewing of past memories from the dying person's life seems to be readying the human soul for its next incarnation.

Fourth Stanza: The Scenes are Passing

Or rather—He passed Us—
The Dews drew quivering and chill—
For only Gossamer, my Gown—
My Tippet—only Tulle—

The speaker is dressed in very light cloth, and on the one hand, she thus experiences a chill at witnessing the startling images passing her sight. But on the other hand, it seems that instead of the carriage passing those scenes of children play, grain growing, and sun setting, those scenes are actually passing the carriage riders. This turn of events once again supports the notion that the speaker is viewing her life passing before her eyes.

Fifth Stanza: The Pause

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground—
The Roof was scarcely visible—
The Cornice—in the Ground—

The carriage is now reaching its destination: the speaker's grave before which the carriage stops momentarily. The speaker dramatically portrays the image of the grave: "A Swelling of the Ground — / The Roof was scarcely visible — / The Cornice — in the Ground."

Sixth Stanza: Looking Back From Eternity

Since then—'tis centuries— and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses' Heads
Were toward Eternity—

In the final stanza, the speaker reports that she is now (and has been all along) centuries into future time. She speaks now plainly from her cosmically eternal home on the spiritual level of being. She has been reporting on how events seemed to go on the day she died.

She remembers what she saw only briefly just after her death. Yet that time from the day she died to her time now centuries later feels to her soul that it was a very short period of time. Relatively, the time that has passed, though it may be centuries, seems to the speaker shorter than the earthly day of 24 hours.

The speaker states that on that day, the heads of the horses pulling the carriage were pointed "toward Eternity." The speaker has clearly and unequivocally described metaphorically the transition between life and so-called death. That third occupant of the carriage guaranteed that the speaker's soul had left a body—and not "died" at all.

Thomas H. Johnson's The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson

This is the text I use for my commentaries on Dickinson's poem.
This is the text I use for my commentaries on Dickinson's poem. | Source

Life Sketch of Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson remains one of the most fascinating and widely researched poets in America. Much speculation abounds regarding some of the most known facts about her. For example, after the age of seventeen, she remained fairly cloistered in her father's home, rarely moving from the house beyond the front gate. Yet she produced some of the wisest, deepest poetry ever created anywhere at any time.

Regardless of Emily's personal reasons for living nun-like, readers have found much to admire, enjoy, and appreciate about her poems. Though they often baffle upon first encounter, they reward readers mightily who stay with each poem and dig out the nuggets of golden wisdom.

New England Family

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born December 10, 1830, in Amherst, MA, to Edward Dickinson and Emily Norcross Dickinson. Emily was the second child of three: Austin, her older brother who was born April 16, 1829, and Lavinia, her younger sister, born February 28, 1833. Emily died on May 15, 1886.

Emily's New England heritage was strong and included her paternal grandfather, Samuel Dickinson, who was one of the founders of Amherst College. Emily's father was a lawyer and also was elected to and served one term in the state legislature (1837-1839); later between 1852 and 1855, he served one term in the U.S. House of Representative as a representative of Massachusetts.

Education

Emily attended the primary grades in a one room school until being sent to Amherst Academy, which became Amherst College. The school took pride in offering college level course in the sciences from astronomy to zoology. Emily enjoyed school, and her poems testify to the skill with which she mastered her academic lessons.

After her seven year stint at Amherst Academy, Emily then entered Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in the fall of 1847. Emily remained at the seminary for only one year. Much speculation has been offered regarding Emily's early departure from formal education, from the atmosphere of religiosity of the school to the simple fact that the seminary offered nothing new for the sharp minded Emily to learn. She seemed quite content to leave in order to stay home. Likely her reclusiveness was beginning, and she felt the need to control her own learning and schedule her own life activities.

As a stay-at-home daughter in 19th century New England, Emily was expected to take on her share of domestic duties, including housework, likely to help prepare said daughters for handling their own homes after marriage. Possibly, Emily was convinced that her life would not be the traditional one of wife, mother, and householder; she has even stated as much: God keep me from what they call households.

In this householder-in-training position, Emily especially disdained the role a host to the many guests that her father's community service required of his family. She found such entertaining mind-boggling, and all that time spent with others meant less time for her own creative efforts. By this time in her life, Emily was discovering the joy of soul-discovery through her art.

Although many have speculated that her dismissal of the current religious metaphor landed her in the atheist camp, Emily's poems testify to a deep spiritual awareness that far exceeds the religious rhetoric of the period. In fact, Emily was likely discovering that her intuition about all things spiritual demonstrated an intellect that far exceeded any of her family's and compatriots' intelligence. Her focus became her poetry—her main interest in life.

Publication

Very few of Emily's poems appeared in print during her lifetime. And it was only after her death the her sister Vinnie discovered the bundles of poems, called fascicles, in Emily's room. A total of 1775 individual poems have made their way to publication. The first publicans of her works to appear, gathered and edited by Mabel Loomis Todd, a supposed paramour of Emily's brother, and the editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson had been altered to the point of changing the meanings of her poems. The regularization of her technical achievements with grammar and punctuation obliterated the high achievement that the poet had so creatively accomplished.

Readers can thank Thomas H. Johnson, who in the mid 1950s went to work at restoring Emily's poems to their, at least near, original. His doing so restored her many dashes, spacings, and other grammar/mechanical features that earlier editors had "corrected" for the poet—corrections that ultimately resulted in obliteration of the poetic achievement reached by Emily's mystically brilliant talent.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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