‘Because I could not stop for death,’ Dickinson’s best-known poem, is a depiction of one speaker’s journey into the afterlife with personified Death leading the way.
In her poem ‘Because I could not stop for Death’, Emily Dickinson describes a close encounter with Death and Immortality. She uses personification to portray Death and Immortality as characters. Her familiarity with Death and Immortality at the beginning of the poem causes the reader to feel at ease with the idea of Death. However, as the poem progresses, a sudden shift in tone causes readers to see Death for what it really is, cruel and evil.
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Summary of Because I could not stop for Death
In the first lines of ‘Because I could not stop for Death,’ the speaker uses the famous line “Because I could not stop for Death, / He kindly stopped for me” This phrase hints at the personification that is going to be utilized throughout the stanzas to describe the experience of entering the afterlife. Death stopped for the speaker and helped her into the carriage that “held..just ourselves / And Immortality”.
They drove along the lane and the speaker takes note of what she sees around her. She was in the process of putting away the life she knew and allowing this next stage of existence to take over. They pass a school, fields, and the setting sun (a very obvious symbol of death). The poem concludes with the speaker saying that it has been centuries since all this occurred and she first realized the horse’s heads were pointed toward “eternity”
There are several important themes in ‘Because I could not stop for Death’. The most obvious of these are mortality and death. What makes this poem’s take on these two themes so interesting is that they are depicted from a position of immortality. The speaker is already in the afterlife when she’s describing her experiences with death. This leads into another theme, immortality. This is part of the reason why the speaker is so calm throughout the majority of the poem. Such themes are also explored in other poetry by Emily Dickinson.
Tone and Mood
This poem has a very distinct tone and mood. The tone is the voice of the poet/speaker in the poem is calm and measured. She is aware of what is happening around her but is not overly emotional about it. This is maintained throughout the first few stanzas until the speaker gets closer to death. This is when things start to shift a little and the tone becomes more sinister. This is seen through words like “Chill” and “quivering”. the last lines bring back in the peace of the first part of the poem as the speaker matter-of-factly states that the horse’s heads are pointed towards eternity.
The mood of a poem is the emotional experience that the poet is attempting to create for the reader. It is what the reader should feel while reading and after finishing the poem. In the case of this particular poem, the tone and mood are tied together.
Structure and Form
‘Because I could not stop for Death’ by Emily Dickinson is a six stanza poem that is divided into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains do not follow a single rhyme scheme, although there are examples of perfect rhyme in the poem. For example, “me,” “immortality” and “civility” in the first two stanzas.
The meter is much more consistent. It resembles a regular metrical pattern. The first and third lines are made up of four sets of two beats, or a total of eight syllables. The first of these beats is untressed and the second is stressed. This is known as iambic tetrameter. The second and fourth lines also use iambs (or unstressed and stressed beats) but there are only three sets of two beats in each line. This is known as iambic trimeter.
Dickinson makes use of several literary devices in ‘Because I could not stop for Death’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, allusion, personification, and enjambment. The first of these, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “labor” and “leisure” in the second stanza and “school” and “strove” in the third stanza.
Personification is one of the most obvious techniques at work in this poem. It occurs when a poet imbues a non-human creature or object with human characteristics. Death is very clearly personified from the first stanza. He acts as the speaker’s suitor, encouraging her to get into the carriage and ride with him into the unknown. He is both “kind” and civil.
An allusion is an expression that’s meant to call something specific to mind without directly stating it. Although it is not clearly stated in the lines of this poem, it is clear that the speaker is supposed to be in some sort of afterlife, likely the Christian concept of heaven. But, the fact that it is not stated explicitly allows any number of interpretations about what kind of world the speaker is living in now.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transition between lines three and four of the first stanza and two and three of the second.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
In Emily Dickinson’s poem ‘Because I could not stop for Death’, the author personifies death, portraying him as a close friend, or perhaps even a gentleman suitor. In the first stanza, she reveals that she welcomes death when she says, “he kindly stopped for me”. The pleasant tone of the poem further suggests that the author is quite comfortable with death.
We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labor, and my leisure too,
For his civility
The carriage ride is symbolic of the author’s departure from life. She is in the carriage with death and immortality.
She reveals her willingness to go with death when she says that she had “put away…labor and…leisure too for his civility”. This further reveals that the author has come to terms with her own mortality. She has set down all she wanted to do in life, and willingly entered the carriage with Death and Immortality. She may be aware that had she not gone willingly, they would have taken her captive nonetheless, but this does not seem to alter her perception of the two characters as kind, thoughtful, and even gentle. This is portrayed as Death drives slowly for her, allowing her to reminisce. He “knew no haste” as they drove. He takes her through the course of her life with a slow and patient ride. Immortality rides along, but is silent.
We passed the school, where children strove
At recess, in the ring;
We passed the fields of gazing grain,
We passed the setting sun
They drive “passed the school where the children strove” implying that the author is generously given a few moments to remember her childhood. They then drive past the “gazing grain” allowing the author to think back upon the prime of her life. Then they pass the setting sun. This symbolizes the author’s death. The sunset is beautiful and gentle, and the passing from life to eternity is portrayed as such.
Or rather, he passed us;
The dews grew quivering and chill,
For only gossamer my gown,
My tippet only tulle
There is a sudden shift in tone in the fourth stanza. Suddenly, now that the sun has set, the author realizes that she is quite cold, and she shivers. Then she becomes aware that she is underdressed. Prior to this moment of realization, the author felt quite comfortable with Death and Immortality. After all, she was riding along with them in only her “gossamer” and her “tippet only tulle”, or in other words, in only a sheer nightgown. In the first through third stanzas, the author is on close affectionate terms with Death and Immortality. Describing Death as a gentleman suitor who is kind and civil, she shows no shame at being underdressed. However, when the sun sets, and the cold damp sets in, she becomes aware of her inappropriate attire.
We paused before a house that seemed
A swelling of the ground;
The roof was scarcely visible,
The cornice but a mound
In her moment of realization that she has been seduced by Death, they pause before her new “home”, a “swelling of the ground”. She claims the “the roof was scarcely visible” and the “cornice but a mound”. The tone becomes one of disappointment, as the author realizes that death is not all she thought it would be. Now, as the sun has set on her life, and she is standing before her new forever home, disappointment sets in. Death was kind and gentle, like a gentleman suitor. He lured her in with grandiose promises of eternity. Now that she sees her small, damp, eternal home, she feels cheated.
Since then ’tis centuries, and yet each
Feels shorter than the day
I first surmised the horses’ heads
Were toward eternity
It has now been “centuries and yet each feels shorter than a day” as life goes on without her. It has been centuries since that moment of realization when she “first surmised” that Death had seduced her, that he had appeared a kindly gentleman at first, but had left her alone in the dark, cold, damp grave.
‘Because I could not stop for Death’ was published in 1863, and believed to be written between 1855 and 1863 (The Dickinson Properties). These are the years in which Emily Dickinson wrote most intensely. During Dickinson’s early years, she experienced the death of many people close to her, including that of her cousin. It is easy to see why she felt familiar with death. Dickinson also lived near a cemetery, so she watched many people, even loved ones riding in a hearse to their final resting places. This is a likely inspiration for the setting of this poem.
In times of sorrow, she would likely have heard sermons about salvation, paradise, and mansions waiting in eternity. During Dickinson’s lifetime, many of her close family members and friends joined the church as the 1830s saw what many referred to as “revivals” or “awakenings” in which many people proclaimed faith in Jesus Christ and eternal life (The Dickinson Properties).
‘Because I could not stop for Death’ makes it very clear that Dickinson, at some point in her life, viewed death as something sweet and gentle. She welcomed death, perhaps because of the idea that she would be only passing from this life to somewhere better. This is portrayed in the first stanza of the poem when the author begins her ride with Death, viewing him as a welcome and familiar friend. She is calm and reflective as she passes by the school children and the grain field. She’s at peace watching the beautiful sunset on her life. But when the warmth of the sun is gone and the damp cold sets in, she looks at her new home, and it isn’t a mansion in the sky (John 14:1-3), but merely a swelling of the ground.
Dickinson appears to have toyed with the idea of believing in an afterlife in paradise, but in the end claimed that she was “one of the lingering bad ones”, which suggests that she wanted to believe in life after death in paradise, but could not. In the end, she believed the grave was her final resting place (The Dickinson Properties).
Dickinson’s ‘Because I Could Not Stop for Death’ is one of the most famous poems about death and the afterlife. But, there are many more that are worth reading. Some other very popular poems, with original depictions of death, include: