Because I Could Not Stop For Death
To the poet,”Because I Could Not Stop For Death” is one of the most admired poems on death. This poem contains Emily Dickinson’s meditation on death
and immortality. Death is personified and is regarded as a suitor escorting his beloved. The greatest charm of the poem is in its ambiguity and the elusive nature of the significance of the poem. Each picture is exact and inseparably intertwined with the central idea.
Death is kind and civil to her and stops at her house to give her a courteous ride. The carriage has three characters, Life represented by the beloved Death and his inevitable companion, immortality.
The carriage i.e., the hearts, moves forward. lts journey is a journey form life and space, symbolized by the school children playing in the ring, the fields of gazing grain and the setting sun are left behind. ln the next phase of the journey, the carriage pauses before the house of death symbolized by the “swelling of the
ground” (grave). The last stanza of eternity towards which the horses’ heads have turned. Thus the three characters are represented by the three phases of their journey presented in the poem.
Explanation and Analysis
The poet visualizes Death as a lover taking her out for a ride. With her love of Life, the poet has not sought death. She is busy with her daily course. On the contrary, Death has very kindly sought her. He stops for her and escorts her. lt is her final ride. Death has come with immortality as his companion. The poet, death and immorality travel in a carriage (horse).
Death is a gentle driver. He drives slowly and gracefully. She is absolutely at ease. Death knows no haste and never snatches life abruptly. He is so civil that the poet puts away not only moments of work (labour) but also her spare time (leisure) to go with him.
As the carriage progresses through its journey, the poet witnesses certain scenes Ior the last time: (a) children playing games during a school recess, (b) fields of ripe grain and (c) the sun setting. The children at play are joyful and unmindful of the passing carriage. They represent the indifference of humanity towards death. The ‘gazing grain’ suggests ripeness and maturity of nature. Nature is also indifferent to death. The stare in the dead poet’s
eyes is transferred on to the gazing grain and thus the passivity of nature is given a cold vitality. Here is a paradox of suggesting the fixity of death to the living corn. The sunset symbolizes the soul’s
passing beyond the warmth of living a life that is bound in time and space.
The poet declares first that they passed the sun, but soon she realizes that she is outside time and change and so corrects herself to say that the sun passed them. The chill and tiny dew begin to fall. She draws our attention to the brightness of her superfine gossamer gown. Her scarf (tippet) is made of delicate muslin called tulle. The dress is not the conventional burial dress.
It is instead a bridal dress. She fancies that she is dressed for a heavenly wedding. The theme of death is given an erotic touch.
The carriage then comes to a pause, before a house that looks like a grave as suggested by the swelling of the ground. The roof of the house is hardly visible. It has only a head of earth for its cornice. It is undoubtedly her grave.
The poet declares that since her arrival at her new house, she is not aware of the passage of time. it may be that centuries
have passed. But she feels that centuries of time are shorter than the day when she first realized that the heads of the horses pulling the carriage were pointing towards eternity. She has not yet attained the bliss of eternity; there is only a promise of eternity suggested by the fact that horses’ heads are toward eternity.
The poem ends in irresolution. The grave is not at all her destination. Her destination is eternity. She refuses to make any statement about whether she is on her way to eternity after death or not. What makes death fascinating to the poet is that it is a bridge between the earthly life and her dream of eternity.
THEME OF THE POEM
The Theme of Death: Emily Dickinson’s voluntary withdrawal from society probably made death and after-death her daily obsession. She viewed death as a kind of new life and life as it is lived here is akin to death. For her “a death-blow is a life-blow’, and so she is ready to die dauntlessly. The pain at the death of our kinsmen is transformed into envy when we think of the gracefulness of death and its promise of immortality. To her death is always associated with immortality. Death is only an escape and relief from the ordeals of this world. Since a new life would begin after death, she is ever “ready to go”.
She presents death as a pilot leading the human souls through the sea of life to the shore of eternity. She is sure of the the reward of eternity and so she is not afraid of death. Death is, after all, a homecoming of Emily to her cousins in heaven.
The treatment of death as an aesthetic experience reflects Emily wit and originality.
1. Why is death called a civil suitor?
Answer: Death is called a civil suitor because it is a gentle driver. It drives slowly and gracefully. It knows no haste and never snatches life abruptly.
2. What does the poet do in return to his civility?
Answer: In return to his civility the poet puts away not only moments of work (labour) but also her spare time (leisure) to go with him.
3. Describe the scenes witnessed by the poet as the carriage progressed through its last ride.
Answer: As the carriage progresses through its journey, the poet witnesses certain scenes for the last time:
(a) children playing games during a school recess,
(b) fields of ripe grain and
(c) the sun setting.
4. How does the poet give the theme of death an erotic touch?
Answer: The poet draws our attention to the brightness of her superfine gossamer gown. Her scarf (tippet) is made of delicate muslin called tulle. The dress is not the conventional burial dress.
It is instead a bridal dress. She fancies that she is dressed for a heavenly wedding. Thus, the theme of death is given an erotic touch.
5. Where does the carriage stop?
Answer: The carriage stops before a house that looks like a grave as suggested by the swelling of the ground.
6. Where does the poet think of her new house as her grave?
Answer: The carriage pauses at a house. The roof of the house is hardly visible. It has only a head of earth for its cornice. It is undoubtedly her grave.
7. Explain how the poem ends in ambiguity?
Answer: Self exercise
8. How does the poet present the metaphor of a funeral as the
marital procession to eternity?
Answer: Self exercise
9. In the way she writes of death in this poem, is Dickinson using simile or personification? Explain your answer.
Answer: Dickinson uses personification since Death is presented as a character, not as a comparison.
10. How does Dickinson characterize “Death”? Why do you think it is presented in this way? Dickinson characterizes Death as polite, civil, and gentlemanly.
Answers may vary. Example: She is trying to show Death’s place in the natural cycle of life, not as something to be (or that can be) avoided.
11. What is the “house that seemed/A swelling of the ground”?
Answer: The house is the speaker’s grave.
12. Rewrite the poem’s last stanza in simple prose.
Answers may vary. Example: Centuries have passed since I died and was buried, but those centuries feel shorter than the longest day of my life: the day I realized I was dead and heading for my grave.