Updated date:

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

Emily Dickinson's poems remain a vital part of my poet worldview. They dramatize the human spirit via deep attention to life's details.

Emily Dickinson - Commemorative Stamp

Emily Dickinson - Commemorative Stamp

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 personified as a 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

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.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

Related Articles