Literature

A Short Analysis of Emily Dickinson’s ‘Because I could not stop for Death’

A critical reading of a classic Dickinson poem by Dr Oliver Tearle

In ‘Because I could not stop for Death’ Emily Dickinson writes about one of her favourite subjects: death. But the journey she describes is intriguing: is it faintly comical, or grimly macabre? Below are some notes towards an analysis of ‘Because I could not stop for Death’ which address the poem’s language and meaning.

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 –

‘Because I could not stop for Death’: summary

A quick summary of the poem first, then – in so far as one can summarise it.

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

The poem’s speaker tells us about Death, personified as the Grim Reaper, kindly stopped for her, in a carriage, like a taxi driver stopping off to pick up a passenger. Almost immediately, though, we have a paradox. Death – representative of mortality – and the speaker are inside a carriage that also contains Immortality, death’s mirror-opposite.

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –

death-grim-reaper-skeleton-with-scytheThe speaker tells us that they took their time driving to where they were going, passing the school where children were on their break, and fields of grain, and the sun – which is, symbolically, setting in the sky, suggestive of death.

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

(The speaker then says that actually it’s more accurate to say that the setting sun passed them, rather than they passed it.) This third stanza suggests the three stages of human life: childhood (the school), our prime (embodied by the fertile ‘Gazing Grain’, suggesting the idea of cultivating a field and planting crops and working for one’s living), and then our decline into old age (the setting sun). Tulle, by the way, is a very fine netting and so chimes with gossamer here.

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

They come to a house that seems to rise naturally out of the earth, with its roof barely visible and its cornice (an ornamental moulding round the wall of a room, found just below the ceiling) in the ground. This is a house of earth, like a dolmen or earthwork built for a tomb (indeed, see the megalithic tombs or dolmens built thousands of years ago).

Since then – ’tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity –

The implication is that the poem’s speaker, and Death, dwelt in this ‘House’ (a house of death) for many centuries. Yet all that time has passed more quickly than a single day, back when the speaker first guessed that the horses pulling the cart were facing eternity – i.e. the afterlife. As so often with an Emily Dickinson poem, we have a poem spoken by someone who is already dead.

‘Because I could not stop for Death’: analysis

One of the curious things about the poem is its combination of ‘labor’ and ‘leisure’, work and play, activeness and passiveness, often in surprising ways. We can see this in the speaker’s conflation of the two, work and play, in the second stanza (she has, she tells us, ‘put away / My labor and my leisure too’), and in paradoxical description of the children at the school who are ‘striving’ (i.e. working or trying hard at something) ‘At Recess’ – i.e. during their break-time. Rather than using the playtime to have a break from working hard, the children appear to be ‘striving’ when they should be relaxing – or perhaps they are trying hard to relax. But this complex relation between striving and relaxing, activity and indolence, is there in the opening of the poem too:

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –

We are all too busy to stop and think about dying, and are often too busy living to prepare adequately for death. And few of us would want to stop so death could claim us, so he has to do the chasing and bring us to book. Yet that ‘kindly’ reveals that being dogged by death (or Death) was actually welcomed by the speaker, unless it’s meant ironically. And note how, in that fourth stanza, Dickinson’s speaker says that although they appeared to pass the setting sun, it’s actually more accurate to say that the setting sun passed them. This is, of course, literally not true (we mortal earthlings travel around the sun, rather than the sun moving); but the speaker’s self-correction reinforces the poem’s preoccupation with the active and the passive, between those who do things and those who have things done to them. What does it mean to talk of dying, as though we are doing something active? It’s just about the most passive thing we can do. We have death done to us, and are merely Death’s passengers, Dickinson’s poem seems to say.

‘Because I could not stop for Death’ contains many of the hallmarks of Emily Dickinson’s best poetry: elliptical and ambiguous language and meaning, her characteristic use of the ballad metre, and a preoccupation with death. No definitive ‘analysis’ of the poem could ever be provided, so all we can do is look at how Dickinson masterfully creates such an elusive and memorable piece of poetry.

You can listen to ‘Because I could not stop for Death’ being read aloud here.

If you want to own all of Dickinson’s wonderful poetry in a single volume, you can: we recommend the Faber edition of her Complete Poems. Discover more about Dickinson’s classic poems with ‘I died for Beauty, but was scarce‘, ‘One need not be a Chamber to be Haunted‘, and ‘I cannot live with You‘. We’ve compiled more classic poems about death here.

The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.

7 Comments

  1. Reblogged this on Writing hints and competitions and commented:
    Another poetic gem chosen for our delectation, super, both a pleasure to the eye, and ear.

  2. Dash it all, Emily–those death poems leave me pondering.

  3. Pingback: 10 of the Best Emily Dickinson Poems Everyone Should Read | Interesting Literature

  4. It’s a work of startling genius and the first line is unforgettable. ‘Have you prepared your ship of death ‘ is perhaps the nearest arresting line.
    You are quite right if you could pin the meaning down the transcendent beauty would be lost. It’s like asking what is the meaning of a Chopin Waltz.

  5. Reblogged this on Manolis.

    • As I’ve mentioned before there is an outstanding free MOOC (online course) called ModPo and Emily Dickinson is discussed in some detail on video discussions! Well worth signing up to! As a participant you get the chance to analyse a number of her poems.