Emily Dickinson’s Because I Could Not Stop for Death Analysis

Because I Could Not Stop for Death Analysis  – In her poem ‘Because I could not stop for Death’, Emily Dickinson describes a close encounter with Death and Immortality. However, the journey she describes is intriguing. 

Because I Could Not Stop for Death Analysis

She uses personification to portray Death and Immortality as characters. 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.

Emily Dickinson was born on December 10, 1830, in Amherst, Massachusetts. Dickinson grew up in an educated family. Her father, Edward Dickinson, was involved in state and local politics. He even served in Congress for one term.

Dickinson herself was an excellent student. She began writing poetry as a teenager and corresponding with other writers to exchange written drafts and ideas.

Below are some torchlights on  ‘Because I could not stop for Death’ analysis which addresses the poem’s language and meaning. However, before the analysis, it is important we start with the poem.

Because I Could not Stop for Death

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 –

Emily Dickinson

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Because I Could not Stop for Death – Summary

‘Because I could not stop for Death’ by Emily Dickinson depicts a speaker’s perception of death, the afterlife, and the journey it takes to get there.

In the first lines of ‘Because I could not stop for Death,’ the speaker uses the famous line “Because I could not stop for Death, / He kindly stopped for me.

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 –

The 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 the 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.

There are several important themes in ‘Because I could not stop for Death’. The most obvious of these are mortality and death.

What makes this poem’s take on these two themes so interesting is that they are depicted from a position of immortality.

The speaker is already in the afterlife when she’s describing her experiences with death. This leads into another theme, immortality. This is part of the reason why the speaker is so calm throughout the majority of the poem.

This analysis comes from the most informed sources we gather, do well to share this with other poem analysts while we update you on more.

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