Because I could not stop for Death
"Because I could not stop for Death" is a lyrical poem by Emily Dickinson first published posthumously in Poems: Series 1 in 1890. The persona of Dickinson's poem meets personified Death. Death is a gentleman caller who takes a leisurely carriage ride with the speaker to her grave. According to Thomas H. Johnson's variorum edition of 1955 the number of this poem is 712.
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. 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.
Close transcription First published version
Because I could not stop for Death -
He kindly stopped for me -
The Carriage held but just Ourselves -
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,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
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 played,
Their lessons scarcely done;
We passed the fields of gazing grain,
We passed the setting sun.
We paused before a house that seemed
A swelling of the ground;
The roof was scarcely visible,
The cornice but a mound.
Since then 'tis centuries; but each
Feels shorter than the day
I first surmised the horses' heads
Were toward eternity.
In 1936 Allen Tate wrote, "[The poem] exemplifies better than anything else [Dickinson] wrote the special quality of her mind ... If the word great means anything in poetry, this poem is one of the greatest in the English language; it is flawless to the last detail. The rhythm charges with movement the pattern of suspended action back of the poem. Every image is precise and, moreover, not merely beautiful, but inextricably fused with the central idea. Every image extends and intensifies every other ... No poet could have invented the elements of [this poem]; only a great poet could have used them so perfectly. Miss Dickinson was a deep mind writing from a deep culture, and when she came to poetry, she came infallibly.”
The poem has been set to music by Aaron Copland as the twelfth song of his song cycle Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson. And again, by John Adams as the second movement of his choral symphony Harmonium, and also set to music by Nicholas J. White as a single movement piece for chorus and chamber orchestra. Natalie Merchant and Susan McKeown have created a song of the same name while preserving Dickinson's exact poem in its lyrics.
Some wags have pointed out that the poem may be sung to "The Yellow Rose of Texas," which has the same meter. It can also be sung to the theme song of the 1960's television show, "Gilligan's Island".
- ""Because I could not stop for Death": Study Guide". Retrieved July 10, 2011.
- Fr#479 in: Franklin, R. W., ed. The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press, 1999.
- Poem IV.XXVII (page 138) in: Higginson, T. W. & Todd, Mabel Loomis, ed. Poems by Emily Dickinson. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1890.
- Tate 1936, pp. 14-5
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