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 from 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. They 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 a 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 earthly life and her dream of eternity.
Line by Line Summary
Because I could not stop for Death –
Dickinson wastes no time warming up in this poem. She immediately lets the reader know that the poem is going to be about death.
“Because” is a clever way to begin. It immediately assumes the speaker is giving some sort of an explanation to an argument or a question. This makes the poem seem active and alive, unlike many other poems, which sometimes take more of an observant position.
Stating that she could not stop for death means that the speaker didn’t have a choice about when she was to die. We’ve all probably heard something like this before. Even if not, Dickinson reminds us that it’s not really up to us when we die.
Dickinson capitalizes on death, which is something she does often to nouns (sometimes without any reason). In this particular case, she means to personify Death as a gentleman suitor who drives a horse-drawn carriage (personification means to give human characteristics or behaviour to something that is nonhuman).
The line ends with a dash that is both characteristics of Dickinson’s work and that really launches us into the next line. Think of it as an arrow or string, pulling you along to the next thing.
He kindly stopped for me –And there it is – Death is a kind of a gentleman. Who knew?
This line establishes the tone that most of the poem follows: one of calm acceptance about death. She’s even going to enjoy the ride!
This is also kind of a spoiler. We have pretty good reason to believe now, by just the second line, that the speaker is going to escape this one alive.
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
Pay attention to the line break here. Line 3 says it’s just her and Death in the carriage, but line 4 complicates that by adding immortality. The break after “Ourselves” creates an “oh, wait!” moment and holds us in suspense until we drop down to line 4.
Be careful interpreting the capitalized nouns. We established that Dickinson personifies Death to make him a real character, but in these two lines, the capitalized words probably aren’t supposed to be characters as well. Of course, it is a poem, so anything can happen. But, since Dickinson often capitalizes nouns, it’s probably safe to consider that she capitalized “Carriage,” “Ourselves,” and “Immortality” more for emphasis than anything else.
Let’s take a look at these three important words.
By making “carriage” a proper noun (a capitalized noun), she makes it more specific and more important. In other words, it’s not just any old carriage, it’s her Death Chariot!
By “Ourselves” we can assume she means her and Death. The emphasis she places on the word also strengthens the relationship between the speaker and Death. It’s almost like a foreshadowing, so we know something serious is going to happen between them.
“Immortality” is the most complicated and interesting word of these three and certainly gets us thinking. Our first instinct might be to ask,
“Wait, you’re riding in a carriage with Death – don’t you mean mortality?” So this is the first hint we get that the speaker doesn’t think of death as The End, but as a step on the way to eternal life – an afterlife of some sort.
We slowly drove – He knew no haste
“He knew no haste” is an old-fashioned way of saying Death didn’t speed or hurry.
The shift from “We” to “He” in the same line is an important one. The “We” might allow the reader to think the speaker has some control over the pace, but Dickinson quickly reminds us that “He” is the one determining the relaxed progress and that the speaker’s just along for the ride.
While we’ve already determined that the speaker is not afraid of Death, this slow pace still creates a feeling of drawn-out suspense in the poem and keeps us wondering what might happen.
And I put away
My labour and my leisure too,
For his Civility –
Lines 6-7 mean that she has given up work and free time (we might assume she’s given up thinking about or worrying about them too).
Line 8 works a couple of ways. First, we can read “For” as “because of.” So, she gave up thinking about work and play because Death is just so polite and charming that he distracted her from anything else.
Or, we can read the “for” as “in place of.” So, similar to the first interpretation, she has given up the worries (work) and joys (leisure) of life in exchange for his graciousness. We might even guess that she is starting to feel more civil and social too.
Either way, the speaker seems pretty content with, if not a little gaga for Death.
If this were the first date, Death would be doing a pretty good job. She seems both happy and even a little impressed by his manners.
We passed the School, where Children Strove
At Recess – in the Ring –
Dickinson is painting a little scene of what they are riding by. If you’ve ever taken a hayride in a carriage in the fall, maybe you saw something like this too.
They see children playing in the schoolyard during recess.
This scene seems almost eerily normal. At first, we’re in this strange scene with death that doesn’t seem at all normal, then we’re looking at something totally familiar. Why do you think Dickinson does this? Maybe you think the mixing of the unreal and real makes the poem seem even stranger. Or maybe you think it makes death and dying seem like just another ordinary part of life.
We passed the Field of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –
More scene-setting. They pass “the fields of […] grain” and “the setting sun.” When she describes the grain as “gazing” maybe she thinks the thicker tops of the grain resemble heads, or perhaps that the grain seems to stand still and just look at the carriage as it passes.
The sun and field are much more general descriptions of the scene than the previous lines, yet might even have symbolic significance. The setting sun, for example, signifies the end of the day, but might also stand for the end of life. Ever heard of old people being in their twilight years?
We should also notice the repeated phrase, “We passed” (in poetry speak, a repeated word or phrase throughout a poem is called anaphora). Here it works to mimic the slow progression of the carriage. You can almost hear the echo of clomping horse hooves in the repeated phrase. So instead of feeling like this poem is at a standstill, we’re aware that it’s moving forward. It almost allows us to be a part of their journey, not just outside observers.
Or rather – He passed Us –
Quite literally, the sun passes her because it falls below the horizon. But, reading a little deeper into it, Dickinson suggests that maybe that’s what death is like – the sun, light, and warmth leaving you to the cold darkness that is death.
Dickinson uses personification again as she refers to the sun. Why do you think that is? It seems the farther along in the journey they get, the farther from the living world they get. There are no other people or animals and it’s getting dark. It’s a little spooky at this point.
The fact that the adjustment, “or rather,” is made after the stanza break only enhances the spookiness. The long pause between stanzas allows us to notice that the poem is about to make a shift away from the sunny ordinary day into something more grave (pun intended).
The Dews drew quivering and Chill – For only Gossamer, my Gown – My Tippet – only Tulle –
“Gossamer” is used here to describe her gown as one of very thin and delicate material.
“Tippet” is an old-fashioned shawl or shoulder cape, and this one’s made of “tulle,” which is silky and thin like gossamer.
The dew of night is setting in because the sun has gone down. She’s now getting chilly because she isn’t wearing warm enough clothing. That thin tulle!
The fact that she is under-dressed for this journey also reflects that she is under-prepared. This stanza echoes what we discovered in the beginning line – this is not her choice and she was not planning this trip with Death.
Cold is something often associated with death in literature and movies. Ever watch The Sixth Sense or read about the Dementors in Harry Potter books? So it’s no coincidence that Dickinson is lowering the temperature on us here.
We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
If we were unsure before, these lines settle everything. The speaker is going to die. Death just led her to her burial spot!
Your first instinct when you read this might be to scream something like, “Run for your life, lady. He’s going to kill you!” But let’s not forget how at ease the speaker feels with Death and how calmly she’s faced the whole experience so far.
The “we paused” marks the second stop in the poem. The first instance was the beginning of the journey when Death stops to pick up the speaker. So we might guess that this second stop could end their journey.
Using the word “House” to indicate the place of burial is a clever move by Dickinson. Instead of “grave” or “tombstone,” which might stir up images of finality and death, she uses a word that we consider synonymous with “dwelling” or even “home.” Ever heard someone call a gravesite the “final resting place”? This is a subtler way to say that.
“A Swelling of the Ground” eliminates any possibility that we might think this is not a grave. Think of a freshly-dug place where a dog hides his bone; even after he covers it up there is a little rise in the ground.
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground
These lines continue to explain this burial house, but it gets a little tricky. A cornice is the pointed part of the roof, and here it’s in the ground. So if the highest part of the house is on the ground, the rest of it must be too. Further grave evidence.
What part of this burial house can the speaker actually see? It’s unclear, but she seems to know what it is and she’s OK with it. There’s no turning and running for it, as you might typically expect.
Since then – ’tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
Wait a minute – this happened centuries ago?! This really throws a wrench in the whole system.
The poem seems to be telling a recent memory, but this all actually happened a really long time ago. Meaning…yep, the speaker has been dead the whole time. Interesting.
“Feels shorter than the Day” is just an old-fashioned way of saying something like, “feels like just yesterday.” So this memory remains vivid for the speaker.
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity –
These final lines recall the very first time the speaker encountered the horse-drawn carriage and had a feeling that they were more than just regular horses – that they signified her journey to the afterlife.
Ending on the image of the horse heads is really smart of Dickinson because they jut forward and it almost looks like they’re pointing toward something. In this case, “Eternity.”
It’s also very bold of Dickinson to end on this image because this is the first we’ve heard of the horses, and suddenly she’s asking them to hold up the most important moment of the poem.
The final stanza is full of surprising moments for the reader. We find out the speaker has been dead for years and we’re introduced to (and left with) this striking image of the horses’ heads pushing forward.
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 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 a 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.