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 –
Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for Death,” (#712 in Thomas H. Johnson’s The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson) was written in 1863 and first published posthumously in Poems in 1890 by Roberts Brothers of Boston. This edition was assembled and edited by Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Wentworth Higginson and was titled, “The Chariot.”
The lyric poem personifies Death as a gentleman caller who takes Dickinson on a carriage ride to her own grave. The U.S. was still fighting the Civil War in 1863, so Dickinson was living in a time of violence and of change. During the early 1860s, Dickinson had fully developed her, “flood subjects,” on the themes of living and dying. With enigmas of incredible insight, she repeatedly gives relationship to the ideas and experiences which exist in time, but never are a part of it (Johnson viii-ix). “Because I could not stop for Death” was part of her packet poems, verses written from 1858-1865, the years of great creativeness for Dickinson. These poems are two thirds of the entire body of her poetry. The packet for the year 1863, contained 140 poems. In 1862, she initiated a life-long correspondence with Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who later went on to edit the first edition of her poetry (“A Timeline of Emily Dickinson’s Life”).
The poem is comprised of six quatrains, with a meter alternating between iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter. There is an internal rhyme throughout the poem especially in stanzas 1, 2, 4, and 6. Some of these stanzas only use eye rhyme. For example: “me” and “immortality”; “away” and “civility”; “chill” and “Tulle”; and “Day” and “Eternity.” The poem uses alliteration as well. For example: “May labor and my leisure too”; “At Recess — in the Ring —”; “We passed the Fields of Grazing Grain —”; “We passed the Setting Sun —”; “The Dews drew quivering and chill —”; “For only Gossamer, my Gown —”; “My Tippet — only Tulle —.” Anaphora is also used in the poem, as seen in lines nine, and eleven and twelve when Dickinson repeats, “We passed.” It is also seen when she repeats, “Ground” in lines eighteen and twenty. There is also the personification of Death and Immortality.
Allen Tate believes that it was one of the greatest poems in the English language (14). He writes that every image in the poem extends and intensifies the other images and that Dickinson was able to fuse sensibility and thought within the poem (15-16). Yvor Winters would later comment on Tate’s admiration of the poem by saying that the poem ends in a statement that is not offered seriously, and that to praise the poem is unsound criticism (289-290). Winters concludes that the poem is an example of a poem representing a mixed theme and falls below her finest achievement (288-89). Joanne Feit Diehl reads the poem through Freud’s “The Theme of the Three Caskets,” which she believes clarifies Dickinson’s relationship to desire and to the awareness of her own death. And commentator Martha Nell Smith reads the poem as a way for Dickinson to convey her comedic side. “That this poem begins and ends with humanity’s ultimate dream of self-importance – Immortality and Eternity – could well be the joke central to its meaning, for Dickinson carefully surrounds the fantasy of living ever after with the dirty facts of life – dusty carriage rides, schoolyards, and farmer’s fields… she pulls the sublime down to the ridiculous but unavoidable facts of existence, thus imbues life on earth with its real import” ( 95).
Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for Death” reflects on the journey and reality of death through the personification of Death and Immortality and the simple act of going on a carriage ride. Many commentators have had their own takes on the poem, from comedic, to Freudian, however, the fact still remains that the poem is a greatly important one, and helps shape our understanding of Dickinson herself.
Bibliography and Further Reading “A Timeline of Emily Dickinson’s Life.” Emily Dickinson Museum. Emily Dickinson Museum (2009); Emily Dickinson.. “712.” The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. Thomas H. Johnson. (1960); Joanne Feit Diehl. Women Poets and the American Sublime. (1990.); Thomas H. Johnson. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. By Emily Dickinson. Ed. Johnson. (1960); Suzanne Miller, Cristanne Miller, and Martha Nell Smith, eds., Comic Power in Emily Dickinson. (1993); Allen Tate. Reactionary Essays on Poetry and Ideas (1936); Yvor Winters. “Emily Dickinson and the Limits of Judgment,” In Defense of Reason. 3rd ed. (1947).