Death and Dickinson

Because I could not Stop for Death

Emily Dickinson

Clearly, death is one fear which human beings cannot kill. From the moment we are born, we start dying and this process ends at a certain moment, on a certain day. As things stand like this, Emily Dickinson’s poem, Because I Could not Stop for Death, is an attempt to gain victory over it by adopting a different point of view. This poem has immortalized the poet, gaining her a victory over death.

The harrowing thoughts about death, intensified by religious and cultural aspects, are downplayed or circumvented by the poet by helping the reader take a totally different point of view. The poet manages to do this by the use of profound imagery, chosen diction, fresh ideas and a very self rejuvenating use of structural and other devices.

The title itself is very informal and casual. Technically a dependent clause, it still draws our attention and makes us introspect whether anyone stops for death during their long journey called life. Some do purposely and deliberately end their life. Even in such cases, there were failures at committing suicide, thereby proving that we can’t cut short our life on our own. Our time has to run out.

The title forms the first line of the poem and this repetition makes it even more endearing like some innocent gossip. But, we are also aware that the theme is not a trivial one. Nothing could be more serious. The poet tells us that

He kindly stopped for me

referring to death and reinforcing the personification though the use of a pronoun. The word kindly is clever choice not only because it brings in a pastoral scene of getting picked up on the way by a gentleman, but also because of the word being an attribute to Death which is said to know no mercy at all.

There is a further element of pretty confusion here from the idea of stopping. Did death stop beyond her or behind her. If he stopped behind her, then he was not stopping for her. On the other hand if death was ahead of her and stopped for her then it doesn’t make sense to say she had not stopped for death. If it stopped where she was, again it does not make sense to say she had not stopped for death. If we think death was at the same pace as she was, then it becomes a paradox. Thus through a simple statement, the poet takes us to a different world where our sense of time and space fail to make sense. The poet goes on to describe the third passenger as Immortality skipping over the idea that she got boarded Death’s chariot.

                                   The Carriage held but just Ourselves

And Immortality.

It is safe to surmise Death had stopped even before that for immortality. In other words immortality too was dead. This has reference to the Genesis in the Bible where it says that God had removed immortality bringing in death into the world as a punishment to man who disobeyed him in the Garden of Eden.

Modern psychologists say that labour (work) and leisure (which is never a time we are inactive) are how we structure our life to avoid getting bored or to avoid thinking about ourselves, an act which is even more painful than boredom.

And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,

Labour and leisure are what keeps us carefree in this world. Having found more stability and happiness in life, the poet is in no need of either of these. Furthermore, the poet says that since death was civil to her, she want to be civil too and give him some attention rather than continue to engage herself in her work or leisure.

With Immortality and Death, she is retreating her journey now as she goes back one of the places in her past, her school. Vivid but scattered visions of her childhood passes by her, the children at recess and the green grain in the fields. We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –

Tender grain and children at a tender age, two fresh images of life. It is not just life that she passes by; she by-passes Time itself in the form of the setting sun.

The repeated use of the word ‘we’ in the beginning of the three lines tells us that she has already harmonized with her fellow travelers.

She now doubts whether it was the Sun that passed her.
We passed the Setting Sun –

Time has become malleable and ductile for her since she is already in the arms of death. He body has grown cold and she begins to feel cold.

She realizes that she is not well clad now. She has unburdened herself of her worldly possession, even her clothes.

For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –

She is nothing but the soul now. She is at her grave now. Her fellow travelers also pause there with her. The Biblical verses about the last She is to be housed in her grave.

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –

It is like a house turned upside down.

The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground –

Its roof is somewhere deep down in the earth and decorative walls are right on the ground, the grave being just a mound on the ground.

It is at her grave that the departed realizes that her journey does not end at all. The horses of the chariot are heading towards eternity.

I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity –

Even though she had died centuries ago, it all feels like a day ago since her journey to eternity along with death and immortality is only beginning now.

Allen Tate, a famous critic says that by virtue of the imagery and the thought content this is one of the greatest poems in English. Every image is precise and, moreover, not merely beautiful, but inextricably fused with the central idea.

From the Wikipedia

The poem was published posthumously in 1890 in Poems: Series 1, a collection of Dickinson’s poems assembled and edited by her friends Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. The poem was published under the title “The Chariot”. It is composed in six quatrains with the meter alternating between iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter. Stanzas 1, 2, 4, and 6 employ end rhyme in their second and fourth lines, but some of these are only close rhyme or eye rhyme. In the third stanza, there is no end rhyme, but “ring” in line 2 rhymes with “gazing” and “setting” in lines 3 and 4 respectively. Internal rhyme is scattered throughout. Figures of speech include alliteration, anaphora, paradox, and personification. The poem personifies Death as a gentleman caller who takes a leisurely carriage ride with the poet to her grave. She also personifies immortality.[1] The volta (turn) happens in the fourth quatrain. Structurally, the syllables shift from its constant 8-6-8-6 scheme to 6-8-8-6. This parallels with the undertones of the sixth quatrain. The personification of death changes from one of pleasantry to one of ambiguity and morbidity: “Or rather–He passed Us– / The Dews drew quivering and chill–” (13-14). The imagery changes from its original nostalgic form of children playing and setting suns to Death’s real concern of taking the speaker to afterlife.

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