What if we had time to stop for Death, would Death still come to us? How come we see death as something that is negative? These are questions that we ask ourselves when death is a topic looming over our lives. The lines from the first comment I chose is the first stanza in the poem. “Because I could not stop for Death – He kindly stopped for me – The Carriage held but just Ourselves – And Immortality.” Emily Dickinson, the author of the poem, is describing how you cannot control when you die; how death comes when it wants to. Carriages are meant to carry people. What could the carriage represent? These lines make me question what if we had time to stop for Death, would Death still come to us? How come Death is so kind to the speaker? The poem answers this question by showing us that Death will patiently wait for us if we have time for it, that when it is time, death with carry us to eternity. Another one of the intriguing comments was from the line: “We passed the School, where Children strove.” The children could represent the living, that there are still people that are alive. Death has not come for them yet. They,the children, are still “striving” (living). This poem makes me wonder why death doesn’t come for everybody? The poem does in some ways answer it. The poet says that death comes for everybody, it may not be your time yet, but it does come. And no one sees it coming. This poem makes me question why is death described as a gentle and patient man while it is really a very dreadful thing. The poem answers this by the speaker being kind of ecstatic to be going to the afterlife. It seems as if the speaker was ready to pass on. “Were toward Eternity –”, the last line in the poem, is an example of this. At first, my idea of this poem was that the speaker didn’t want to pass on yet, that they still had things to fulfill, but it changed to the idea that the speaker wanted to pass on but never had the time to pass on, so thankfully for them, Death came along and carried the speaker toward eternity.
Death is usually not heavily talked about in Literature, but in this poem, “Because I could not stop for Death” by Emily Dickinson, death is personified as a patient gentleman. Death is a polite, respectable man who surprises the speaker with his visit. The first and second line describe the relationship between the speaker and Death as intimate. “Because I could not stop for Death / He kindly stopped for me;” Since the speaker could not stop for death, she did not have the choice to choose when she wanted to die. Death is personified throughout the poem as a metaphor to evoke the essence of what death is really like. The portrayal of death in this poem is comforting, Death even acts like a companion. Death is normally portrayed negatively because it is something that seems negative to many, but in Dickinson’s poem, Death is talked about as a comforting, kind and polite man. By depicting Death as a positive character, Emily Dickinson drifts away from literary norms. She shows that death is a part of live, which is odd because death comes after life. Death is grim and frightening, but Dickinson sweetens death by making it into a kind, mannerable man. The line reveals something very obvious: humans do not get to choose when they die unless they commit suicide. The speaker lives a busy life, making her unable to stop for Death, so instead, Death shows up to her home to take her out for a carriage ride. They are accompanied by Immorality on this journey. Death drives the carriage slowly as an act of consideration. The carriage is a metaphor to represent a repository that will bring the speaker to her final resting place. The journey to eternity is described as pleasant. The speaker seemed to really enjoy this voyage. Death “slowly drove” the carriage, which signifies the speaker’s death as a slow death. The speaker says “The carriage held nothing but just ourselves/ And Immortality (3-4)”. By saying “ourselves”, Dickinson enhances the relationship between the speaker and Death. But the part of the line that makes is complicated is “Immortality”. The speaker is in the carriage with Death, making the reader think Dickinson assume that she meant to write “Mortality” instead. “Immortality” hints that the speaker doesn’t think that death is the end of life, but it is the road to eternity, which is later on talked about in the poem.
Critical theorist Allen Tate supports the idea of Emily Dickinson describes death as a gentle man, who’s relationship to speaker the is very intimate. Tate contends that “The content of death in the poem eludes forever any explicit definition. He is a gentleman taking a lady out for a drive. But note the restraint that keeps the poet from carrying this so far that it is ludicrous and incredible; and note the subtly interfused erotic motive, which the idea of death has presented to every romantic poet, love being a symbol interchangeable with death. The terror of death is objectified through this figure of the genteel driver, who is made ironically to serve the end of Immortality.” He agrees that the general symbol of nature to Emily Dickinson, is death, but that it shouldn’t be something that is thought of as depressing and grim. That it should be thought of as a celebration or an exciting event. Critical theorist Ankey Larrabee states “Allen Tale is indisputably correct when he writes (in Reactionary Essays) that for Emily Dickinson “The general symbol of Nature . . . is Death.” Death is, in fact, her poetic affirmation. Yet he continues with a questionable declaration: “. . . and her weapon against Death is the entire powerful dumb-show of the puritan theology led by Redemption and Immortality.” Larrabee supports Tate’s theory that the general symbol of nature to Emily Dickinson, is death. Critical theorist Charles Anderson states “[Emily Dickinson’s] finest poem on the funeral ceremony [is “Because I could not stop for Death”]. On the surface it seems like just another version of the procession to the grave, but this is a metaphor that can be probed for deeper levels of meaning, spiritual journeys of a very different sort.” Anderson points out that Dickinson wrote the poem so the reader can peel back the surface of the poem to see the true meaning behind the poem.
Death was not in any hurry to reach eternity, which is shown when the speaker says “We drove slowly, he knew no haste (5)”. This is another time the poem hints that the speaker’s death was slow. Dickinson goes from saying “We” to “He” in line 5. The use of “We” may hint that the speaker believes she has some control over the speed of the carriage, but when Dickinson switches to “he”, it reminds the reader that Death is still in full control. Death determined the speed of the carriage to be very slow, which symbolizes the speaker’s slow death. It can be concluded that the speaker is not afraid of death. The slow pace of the carriage creates a bit of suspense in the poem. The speaker says “had put away my labor and my leisure too/ For his civility (7-8)”. The speaker gave up her spare time and effort because of how polite and comforting Death was being to her. It can also be inferred that the speaker gave up her time in exchange for the consideration and politeness of Death. The speaker seems to be infatuated with Death because she gave up her joy for him.
Death and the speaker pass by a school where they see children playing. The youth of the children contradicts death. Death is associated with coldness and the sunset that is described in the poem, describes the cold, bitterness of death. As the sun sets, the warmth from the sun is gone. The setting of the sun symbolizes the end of the day and the end of life. The repetition , or better known as anaphora, of the “We passed” in lines 11 and 12 imitates the slow pace of the carriage. Instead of being an observer, the speaker is apart of the journey due to the progression of the journey being very slow.
The speaker and Death arrive at a house. But the house that they have just arrived to, is not any ordinary house. It is the burial spot for the speaker, it is her final resting place. Death has brought the speaker to a house that is barely risen above ground and is scarcely visible. Meaning, the house is underground, hinting that the house is a metaphor for a grave. Instead of feeling anxious when arriving to the grave, the speaker is calm and serene. The speaker feels comfortable with Death. They “paused before a house,(13)” which is the second pause in the poem, following the first pause when Death stopped for the speaker. This helps conclude that the second pause, the final pause, is the end of the journey. Dickinson describes the speaker’s grave as a new home, something that is very comforting to her and represents freedom instead of blatantly telling the reader that the speaker has arrived to her grave.
Dickinson creates a dolphin turn last stanza of the poem and leaps from one level of understanding to being in the presence of the mystery of the universe. She uses foreshadowing in the first and last stanzas, which creates a feeling of reminiscence which shows that this journey happened centuries ago, that the speaker is telling the story of when she died. This point of view in this poem is given through a flashback. This means that the speaker has been dead throughout the poem. The speaker says that her memory “Feels shorter than the Day/ I first surmised the Horses’ Heads (18-19)” which means that this memory is still very vivid to the speaker. The horses in the last two line symbolize the speaker’s journey with death to eternity. The horses’ heads act as an extension of the carriage. The heads of the horses are narrow and angled like an arrow piercing through a boundary that blocks life from death from colliding.
Dickinson illustrates death as something that is normal, not far from the ordinary. The speaker accepted death as a part of life, so she is not afraid of it, she even welcomes it. By using poetic devices like personification and metaphors all throughout the poem, Dickinson is able to convey the acceptance of death. Death is personified and described as a nice, kind and gentle man. Every image in this poem all tie back to the main idea: that the speaker has died and is on her way to eternity. All of these images are images of death. The poem focuses on the fact that the speaker is leaving behind her life and seeks to experience the death that is to come to her. Dickinson uses images of mortality, immortality and eternity to illustrate that death shouldn’t always be thought of as something that is grim and saddening, that is should be thought of something that is liberating and positive.
- The Seagull Book of Poems edited by Joseph Kelly, College of Charleston