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. Dickinson's work was never authorized to be published so it is unknown whether Because I could not stop for Death was completed or "abandoned". The speaker of Dickinson's poem meets personified Death. Death is a gentleman who is riding in the horse carriage that picks up the speaker in the poem and takes the speaker on her journey to the afterlife. 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. Her familiarity with Death and Immortality at the beginning of the poem causes the reader to feel at ease with the idea of Death. However, as the poem progresses, a sudden shift in tone causes readers to see Death for what it really is, cruel and evil. This 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 the 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.
Critique and interpretation
There are various interpretations of Dickinson's poem surrounding the Christian belief in the afterlife and read the poem as if it were from the perspective of a "delayed final reconciliation of the soul with God." Dickinson has been classified by critics before as a Christian poet as her other works have been interpreted as contemplation of the "merits of Christ and his past, present, and future relation to herself."
The speaker joins both "Death" and "Immortality" inside the carriage that collects her, thus personifying the two part process, according to the Christian faith, that first life stops and following death we encounter immortality though our existence in the after life. While death is the guaranteed of the two, immortality "remains ... an expectation." The horses that lead the carriage are only facing "toward Eternity," which indicates either that the speaker has yet to reach it or that it can never be reached at all.
Dickinson's tone contributes to the poem as well. In describing a traditionally frightening experience, the process of dying and passing into eternity, she uses a passive and calm tone. Critics attribute the lack of fear in her tone as her acceptance of death as "a natural part of the endless cycle of nature," due to the certainty in her belief in Christ.
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.[full citation needed]
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.
- Sullivan, Michael J. (2019-01-01). "Dickinson's VoiceEmily Dickinson's Poems: As She Preserved Them. Edited by Cristanne Miller". Essays in Criticism. 69 (1): 103–109. doi:10.1093/escrit/cgy030. ISSN 0014-0856.
- ""Because I could not stop for Death": Study Guide". Retrieved July 10, 2011.
- ""Analysis of Because I could not stop for Death by Emily Dickinson". Retrieved January 2, 2020.
- 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.
- Spencer, Mark (2007-01-01). "Dickinson's Because I could not Stop For Death". The Explicator. 65 (2): 95–96. doi:10.3200/EXPL.65.2.95-96. ISSN 0014-4940.
- Gerlach, John (1996). "Emily Dickinson's Fascicles: Method & Meaning (review)". The Emily Dickinson Journal. 5 (1): 121–123. doi:10.1353/edj.0.0144. ISSN 1096-858X.
- Tate 1936, pp. 14–15
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