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

A critical reading of a classic Dickinson poem

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 –

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

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. (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).

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.

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Posted on December 8, 2016, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 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. 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.

    • 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.

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

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