Home English Analysis of ‘Because I could not stop for death’ by Emily Dickinson

Analysis of ‘Because I could not stop for death’ by Emily Dickinson

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Background

Emily Dickinson was a prolific writer of poems whose true worth came to be known only after her death. In fact most of the poems were discovered only after her death. She is now considered to be one of America’s finest poets. Many of her poems are obscure as she used esoteric themes and strange punctuation. Nevertheless, these poems have risen in merit and can be found in all anthologies.

Metaphorical Inference

Emily Dickinson’s poems are rich in metaphors that are sometimes difficult to comprehend.  Here, death is personified as a gentleman suitor who takes the speaker for a ride in his horse-drawn carriage. Though she is riding with death, she is knows no fear but is at peace. Death also does not show any haste but rides at an easy pace. She is not dressed for the occasion, wearing a gown made of gossamer with a tulle shawl. The “house that seemed a swelling on the ground” is a burial mound with the head-stone being called a roof. In the final stanza, we find that this ride with death was taken centuries ago. Though the speaker had been dead for eons, it all seems like it happened just yesterday. The Eternity in the last life signals the afterlife that exists after death.

Summary

Death personified as a suitor picks up the speaker and takes her for a ride. The horse drawn carriage contained the speaker and death alone. Soon after, the speaker states it contained immortality or afterlife also. They move at a leisurely pace with the speaker having given up all thoughts of her work and free time. The third stanza elaborates the scenes that they see as the horse drawn carriage winds along. They are scenes are commonplace but something makes us believe that the couple remain unseen by the people though they can see everything. The sun sets as the move along and the speaker realizes that she is ill-clad in a gossamer gown and tulle shawl.  When they finally do stop, it is near a burial mound with a tombstone marking the spot. She says that all happened centuries ago but it still feels like it was yesterday that the horses took them to eternity.

Analysis

Stanza 1

The speaker could not pick up death (meaning decide when to die) so Death, who is personified as a suitor, stops and picks her up in his carriage and takes her for a ride. It is common to find personifications in Emily Dickinson’s poems. The carriage held only two people, death, the suitor and the speaker. Then as an afterthought, she says that it also held immortality as a passenger.

Stanza 2

The suitor was in no haste to bear the speaker away so he drove slowly and the speaker had all the time in the world as she had put away all thoughts of work and leisure as he was so polite to her

Stanza 3

The use of the anaphora “We passed” helps to emphasize the slow progression made by the carriage. There is something that makes us feel that Death and the speaker pass, not seen by anyone. The scenes they see are regular every day ones which make the trip with death even more unusual.

Stanza 4

The setting sun seems to glide across even while this strange couple is motionless. With the dipping sun comes the cold and dew. The speaker realizes that she is ill-clad for the cold as her gown is made of gossamer and her shawl is only tulle. The statement that her clothes are not adequate for this trip makes us realize that she was not prepared for it. Death stopped for her and she had no choice but to go with him.

Stanza 5

This is where Death finally draws up the chariot – a final resting place for her. The speaker talks of it as though it is a house but in fact it is a burial mound. The tone even here is calm. The speaker is not upset when she sees her grave.

Stanza 6

The final stanza provides a clue to why the tone is so calm – the death had happened many centuries ago and she is merely recollecting everything. She says that right at the beginning of the ride she had an inkling that she was heading for afterlife or eternity.

Overall Impression

The poem runs contrary to the usual notions of death as the Grim Reaper – cold, merciless and fearsome. Here, Death is personified as a gentleman who picks up the lady and takes her to her grave in a horse drawn carriage. The ride is a pleasant one which she seems to enjoy. If death were indeed so considerate, dying may not be as frightening as is generally thought to be.