Essays On Because I Could Not Stop For Death

Dickinson once put a question in a letter to Abiah Root,  “Does not Eternity appear dreadful to you...I often get thinking of it and it seems so dark to me that I almost wish there was no Eternity. To think that we must forever live and never cease to be. It seems as if Death which all so dread because it launches us upon an unknown world would be a relief to so endless a state of existence” (poets.org). Emily Dickinson was known as a “white hermit”. She did not leave the house during the last twenty years of her life, wore only white clothes, and talked even with rare visitors through the slightly open door. The fact that nobody (even relatives) knew that she was writing poems makes her fate only more mysterious and tragic. 

Dickinson’s poem Because I could not Stop for Death was written in 1862. There are several facts from the poetess’ life that might have caused her to write this poem. On April, 12, 1862 Thomas Wentworth Higginson received a letter from her, in which she asked his opinion about her poems and literary style.  The poetess sent the famous critic four poems; one of these poems had been worked over many times. Hoping that her works would be accepted by such an outstanding figure as Higginson, Dickinson wrote an accompanying letter, asking the latter “to say if her verse was alive.” The excerpt from her letter that follows highlights her hopes, “Should you think it breathed—and had you the leisure to tell me, I should feel quick gratitude; If I make the mistake – that you dared to tell me – would give me sincerer honor – toward you”.

The critic, however, was not impressed by the verses he received. His attitude towards Dickinson’s poetry could be characterized as scornful. This is what he has written in his letter to James T. Fields, Atlantic Monthly editor, “I foresee that “Young Contributors” will send me worse things than ever now. Two such specimens of verse as came yesterday & day before – fortunately not to be forwarded for publication!” (poetryfoundation.org). Although Higginson was interested in the poetess’ poems, he felt that they were “raw” enough – lacked good structure – and he could not imagine that those works could give birth to a published poet. That is why Higginson advised Dickinson to work harder and longer on her poetry before she tried to publish it. Presumably, this rejection of her literary personality might have influenced her decision not to be published at all; and, from this standpoint, Because I could not Stop for Death could stand for her death as an accepted poetess. At the same time, Dickinson responded to Higginson’s piece of advice in the following way, “I smile when you suggest that I delay “to publish” – that being foreign to my thought, as Firmament to Fin”.

Love and Death in Poetry and Life

Apart from this literary defeat of the poetess, one more real event might have served as the background for the poem in question. In 1855, Dickinson got acquainted with the Reverend Charles Wadsworth, and they fell in love (despite the fact that the man was married). They carried this reciprocal love throughout their lives – love consisting of continuous parting and love absolutely hopeless (as both were people with high moral principles). After an unexpected visit to Dickinson’s home in 1860, Wadsworth left for the West Coast in 1861 (some critics mention it happened in 1862). According to Dickinson’s biographers, exactly this event has made the poetess put on white clothes and start leading a secluded life. That is why it may be reasonably argued that the departure of Dickinson’s “dearest earthly friend” has caused her inner crisis and, presumably, death of hopes for proximity with the beloved person.

In her poem Because I could not Stop for Death, Dickinson argues that death is not frightful since it puts an end to painful earthly life and. Consequently it should be treated as a relief to “an endless state of existence.” This positive attitude towards Death is revealed in the first stanza. First of all, this meaning is communicated with the help of personification. “It” becomes “he” – a kind carrier that displays civility and cordiality, which can be underpinned by the following lines: “Because I could not stop for Death, / He kindly stopped for me” (lines 1-2); “For his Civility”. Line 5 “We slowly drove - he knew no haste” implies that the carrier wants to comfort the speaker and make her enjoy the “journey”, which once more underlines carrier’s fair essence.

Surely, the speaker cannot ignore her “admirer’s” kindness; that is why she decides to get rid of her daily routine affairs: “And I had put away/ My labor, and my leisure too,/ For his Civility” (lines 6-8). However, it should be also mentioned that the first line of the poem Because I could not stop for Death witnesses that the speaker was too absorbed in everyday life; presumably, she loved life too much to willingly part from it. She wrote, “Life is so amazing by itself that it leaves practically no space for other activities” (poetryfoundation.org). Thus, it may be claimed that man values life in its every aspect, with its “labor” and “leisure.” Nevertheless, a human is inherently weak and prone to death; moreover, nobody knows when their hour strikes – suddenly a person acknowledges his/her mortality, and fate gives no other chance to enjoy life. That is why the speaker says exactly “had put away”; the verb “had”, in this case, presupposes an outer influence.

Personification, Metaphors and Other Poetic Devices in the Verse

Trying to consider the poem in the frames of real life, one can draw parallels between the carriage ride with Death in the poem and the same carriage ride with Charles Wadsworth, who visited Emily unexpectedly in 1860. Surely, the poetess could not but join her beloved man; that is why she had “put away her labor and leisure.” Emily’s sister Lavinia was even afraid that Emily would go away with Charles, but both returned. This carriage ride has really had a profound negative influence on poetess’ health, both mentally and physically. Dickinson did not leave her room and stayed in bed during the week after the meeting. It seemed that she had experienced a shock; therefore, her family decided to call for a doctor. The latter told that Dickinson’s nervous system had suffered a shock, the causes of which could not be established. As a result of the experienced stress, the poetess’ eyesight started to decline rapidly. This is the source, where human innate weakness, which is depicted in the poem, emanates from.   

Apart from personification, Dickinson uses bright metaphors. The ride in the carriage can be perceived as a metaphor of living life and dying (as a process of the soul’s leaving the earth and departing for heaven). As the speaker describes it, “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” (lines 9-13). First comes the beginning of life – careless innocent childhood (“striving children at recess”; the ring symbolizes a vicious circle of life); then – the middle of life/ fruitful maturity (“gazing grain:” personification of nature); finally, the sun of our life sets. As far as line 13 goes “Or rather, he passed us”, the speaker again underlines human weakness and liability to decay and death: the sun passed them so that the speaker turns out to be a passive object of the landscape. The poetess’ passiveness can be also understood literally – as her eyesight declined, it could have been difficult for her to see the sun and the surrounding world.  

Secondly, if the ride is viewed as a preparation for death, the speaker’s light clothing that she has on during the ride stand for her funeral dress: “The Dews grew quivering and chill,/ For only Gossamer my Gown,/ My Tippet only Tulle”. From the same point of view, the house that the travelers pause before symbolizes a grave: “We paused before a House that seemed/ A Swelling of the Ground;/ The Roof was scarcely visible,/ The Cornice – in the Ground” (lines 17-20). It is common knowledge that before the soul leaves the body, somebody’s life may flash between his/her eyes in a moment, and Dickinson reflects this moment in the last lines: “Since then ‘tis Centuries, and yet each/ Feels shorter than the Day/ I first surmised the Horses’ Heads/ Were toward Eternity”.

Apart from metaphors, the author uses other poetic devices in the verse. The anaphora “We passed” stresses the monotonous vicious circle of earthly life, whereas the use of alliteration “gossamer” – “gown” and “tippet” – “tulle” alleviates the ominous slant of the poem. The internal rhyme in “held” and “ourselves” helps the author to render the feeling of trust and intimacy between her and the carrier. 

On balance, the poem in question represents a non-traditional interpretation of Death that is conventionally believed to bring sorrow and destruction. For Dickinson, Death is an ordinary phase of a life cycle that helps a person get rid of her pains and troubles. As her fate was deeply tragic (secluded life; death of the nearest people and the inability to incarnate her love dreams), there is no wonder that she welcomed death as a release from the cruel world that has rejected and despised her.

Emily Dickinson can be reasonably named the greatest poetess of the United States of all times. She was neither a mystic nun nor an eccentric person. All her “quirks” emanated from her intimate life and the spiritual situation that, at those times, prevailed in America and New England. Actually, all the reasons were rooted in Romanticism as a form of protest against spiritual impoverishment and meanness of the world, which surrounded the poetess; the world with all its wars, struggles for social position, influence, and literary acceptance.

What makes Dickinson’s literary style so peculiar is that she violated boldly the rigid structure of English sentences; in the same way, she knew no rules concerning rhymes and word usage. Exactly this innovation bewildered Higginson – the metre was floating, the rhymes were imbued with assonances and dissonances; finally, all these “frivolities” were found in quite a trite form, based on the metre of English church hymns. Besides, the poetess used too many hyphens, which was also new to American poetry, and constantly wrote words with capital letters (this concerns not only nouns but even verbs and adjectives).    

Conclusion

Emily Dickinson’s poems are worth reading for a number of reasons. First of all, in her poems, one can always find light, ease, and romantic irony, which are tightly interwoven with desperation and “boiling sorrow.” Secondly, peculiarities of Dickinson’s “rough poems” are highly topical nowadays since they reflect a frantic pace of modern life and its corrupt values (such as acceptance, lust after author’s emoluments, etc.). Thirdly, the poetess has proved that every person can revolt against conventions and survive without the corrupt outer world. Last but not least, her poems teach us that core human values (love, faiths, and hope) are vital to human existence.

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On 712 ("Because I could not stop for Death")


ALLEN TATE

One of the perfect poems in English is The Chariot, /13/ and it exemplifies better than anything else [Emily 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 /14/ inextricably fused with the central idea. Every image extends and intensifies every other. The third stanza especially shows Miss Dickinson's power to fuse, into a single order of perception, a heterogeneous series: the children, the grain, and the setting sun (time) have the same degree of credibility; the first subtly preparing for the last. The sharp gazing before grain instils into nature a kind of cold vitality of which the qualitative richness has infinite depth. 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. This is the heart of the poem: she has presented a typical Christian theme in all its final irresolution, without making any final statement about it. There is no solution to the problem; there can be only a statement of it in the full context of intellect and feeling. A construction of the human will, elaborated with all the abstracting powers of the mind, is put to the concrete test of experience: the idea of immortality is confronted with the fact of physical disintegration. We are not told what to think; we are told to look at the situation.

The framework of the poem is, in fact, the two abstractions, mortality and eternity, which are made to as- /15/ sociate in perfect equality with the images: she sees the ideas. and thinks the perceptions. She did, of course, nothing of the sort; but we must use the logical distinctions, even to the extent of paradox. if we are to form any notion of this rare quality of mind. She could not in the proper sense think at all, and unless we prefer the feeble poetry of moral ideas that flourished in New England in the eighties, we must conclude that her intellectual deficiency contributed at least negatively to her great distinction. Miss Dickinson is probably the only Anglo-American poet of her century whose work exhibits the perfect literary situation— in which is possible the fusion of sensibility and thought. Unlike her contemporaries, she never succumbed to her ideas, to easy solutions, to her private desires. /16/

. . . No poet could have invented the elements of The Chariot; 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.

Infallibly, at her best; for no poet has ever been perfect, nor is Emily Dickinson. Her unsurpassed precision of statement is due to the directness with which the abstract framework of her thought acts upon its unorganized material. The two elements of her style, considered as point of view, are immortality, or the idea of permanence, and the physical process of death or decay. Her diction has two corresponding features: words of Latin or Greek origin and, sharply opposed to these, the concrete Saxon element. It is this verbal conflict that gives to her verse its high tension; it is not a device deliberately seized upon, but a feeling for language that senses out the two fundamental components of English and their metaphysical relation: the Latin for ideas and the Saxon for perceptions—the peculiar virtue of English as a poetic tongue. Only the great poets know how to use this advantage of our language.

Like all poets, Miss Dickinson often writes out of habit; /22/ the style that emerged from some deep exploration of an idea is carried on as verbal habit when she has nothing to say. . . . .

But she never had the slightest interest in the public. Were four poems or five published in her lifetime? She never felt the temptation to round off a poem for public exhibition. Higginson's kindly offer to make her verse "correct" was an invitation to throw her work into the public ring—the ring of Lowell and Longfellow. He could not see that he was tampering with one of the rarest literary integrities of all time. Here was a poet who had no use for the supports of authorship-flattery and fame; she never needed money. /23/

She had all the elements of a culture that has broken up, a culture that on the religious side takes its place in the museum of spiritual antiquities. Puritanism, as a unified version of the world, is dead; only a remnant of it in trade may be said to survive. In the history of puritanism she comes between Hawthorne and Emerson. She has Hawthorne's matter, which a too irresponsible personality tends to dilute into a form like Emerson's; she is often betrayed by words. But she is not the poet of personal sentiment; she has more to say than she can put down in anyone poem. Like Hardy and Whitman she must be read entire; like Shakespeare she never gives up her meaning in a single 1ine.

She is therefore a perfect subject for the kind of criticism which is chiefly concerned with general ideas. She exhibits one of the permanent relations between personality and objective truth, and she deserves the special attention of our time, which lacks that kind of truth.

She has Hawthorne's intellectual toughness, a hard, definite sense of the physical world. The highest flights to God, the most extravagant metaphors of the strange and the remote, come back to a point of casuistry, to a moral dilemma of the experienced world. There is, in spite of the homiletic vein of utterance, no abstract speculation, nor is there a message to society; she speaks wholly to the individual experience. She offers to the unimaginative no riot of vicarious sensation; she has no useful maxims for men of action. Up to this point her resemblance to Emerson is slight: poetry is a sufficient form of /24/ utterance, and her devotion to it is pure. But in Emily Dickinson the puritan world is no longer self-contained; it is no longer complete; her sensibility exceeds its dimensions. She has trimmed down its supernatural proportions; it has become a morality; instead of the tragedy of the spirit there is a commentary upon it. Her poetry is a magnificent personal confession, blasphemous and, in its self-revelation, its implacable honesty, almost obscene. It comes out of an intellectual life towards which it feels no moral responsibility. Mather would have burnt her for a witch. /25/

from Reactionary Essays on Poetry and Ideas (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1936), pp. 13-16, 22-25. A revised version of this essay appears in Collected Essays by Allen Tate (Denver: Alan Swallow, 1959). Copyright 1959 by Allen Tate.


YVOR WINTERS

There are a few curious and remarkable poems representing a mixed theme, of which ["Because I could not stop for Death"] is perhaps the finest example. . . . /288/ In the fourth line we find the familiar device of using a major abstraction in a somewhat loose and indefinable manner; in the last stanza there is the semi-playful pretence of familiarity with the posthumous experience of eternity. so that the poem ends unconvincingly though gracefully, with a formulary gesture very roughly comparable to that of the concluding couplet of many an Elizabethan sonnet of love; for the rest the poem is a remarkably beautiful poem on the subject of the daily realization of the imminence of death—it is a poem of departure from life, an intensely conscious leave-taking. In so far as it concentrates on the life that is being left behind, it is wholly successful; in so far as it attempts to experience the death to come, it is fraudulent, however exquisitely, and in this it falls below her finest achievement. Allen Tate, who appears to be unconcerned with this fraudulent element, praises the poem in the highest terms; he appears almost to praise it for its defects: "The sharp gazing before grain instils into nature a kind of cold vitality of which the qualitative richness has infinite depth. The content of death in the poem eludes forever any explicit definition . . . she has presented a typical Christian theme in all its final irresolution, without making any final statement about it." The poem ends in irresolution in the sense that it ends in a statement that is not offered seriously; to praise the /289/ poem for this is unsound criticism, however. It is possible to solve any problem of insoluble experience by retreating a step and defining the boundary at which comprehension ceases, and by then making the necessary moral adjustments to that boundary; this in itself is an experience both final and serious, and it is the experience on which our author's finest work is based. /290/

from "Emily Dickinson and the Limits of Judgement," In Defense of Reason, 3rd ed. (Denver: Alan Swallow, 1947), pp. 283-299.


ANKEY LARRABEE

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."

It is true that she is forced to experience and deal with nature before she can turn her back on it, but redemption and immortality are for her neither weapon nor protection. If these concepts deserve any place at all, it is rather because they are avenues of escape from death. In her love poems, as well as in the group dealing with time and eternity, she returns constantly to her preoccupation with death—both as it is incorporated in all of nature, and as it encompasses it on all sides. Here she faces and resolves the issue many times, but never wholly with what Tale is pleased to call her "puritan theology."

Certainly the love poems provide the more personally representative passages from which to draw an argument against Tate's statement. A recurrent theme in these poems is the separation of two lovers by death, and their reunion in immortality. But Emily Dickinson's conception of this immortality is centered in the beloved himself, rather than in any theological principle. . . . The immortality which concerns her arises directly from her connection with a second person, and never exists as an abstract or Christian condition. . . . /115/

In this same way, redemption is also reduced to the simplest personal equation. In these poems redemption, as such, is never mentioned; rather, the awareness of it permeates the entire section. Redemption for Emily Dickinson is too synonymous with immortality to receive much individual distinction. There is little talk of heaven or hell, except as they exist within the poet herself. . . .

It is not the "dumb-show of the puritan theology" which protects the poet, but her own redefinition of Christian values. This redefinition is not important because of any radical deviation from the church's precepts, but because the catchwords of pulpit and hymnal have been given an intimate and casual interpretation. She speaks of Death's coming for her, yet has him arrive in a carriage to take her for an afternoon's drive. She writes of Calvaries, but they are "Calvaries of Love"; the grave is "my little cottage." . . . The familiar and comforting words that, for her, spell everyday life are used to mask unrealized abstractions. It is by contracting the illimitable spaces of after-life to her own focus, that she can find peace, for "their height in heaven comforts not." She fills the abyss with her talk of tea and carriages and the littleness of time. Puritan theology may have given her a fear of the loneliness of death, the Bible and hymnal may have provided her with patterns and phrases, but these equip her with terminologies, molds in which her personal conceptions can take form, rather than actual Christian conceptions.

Death for Emily Dickinson, therefore, was an uncomfortable lacuna which could in no way be bridged, except by transposing it into a more homely metaphor. Death as a caller, the grave as a little house—these are a poetic whistling in the dark. In a safe and ordered microcosm, she found death an ungoverned and obsessing presence. It could be neither forgotten nor accepted in its present form. Death had possessed too many of her friends to be reckoned with as a complete abstraction. But when she translated this oppression into a language of daily routine, she could blot out the reality of death with pictures conjured up by the surrounding images:

What if I file this mortal off,
See where it hurts me,—that's enough,—
And wade into liberty?
                [#277—Poems, 1891, p. 107] /116/

    . . . this is said to be
But just the primer to a life
Unopened, rare, upon the shelf
Clasped yet to him and me.
                [#418—Poems, 1890, p. 132]

I sing to use the waiting. . .
And tell each other how we sang
To keep the dark away.
                [#850—Poems, 1896, p.170]

The idea of filing it off, of wading into death and its liberty, of calling death a primer, or of singing away eternity, is the balance of known with unknown which Emily Dickinson must portion out to herself before she can rest.

Allen Tale is on the right track in referring to death as her "general symbol of Nature." It is the logical culmination of nature, and the greatest example of the change which is constantly moving through nature. Emily Dickinson regards nature as resembling death in that it can, for the moment, be brought within her garden walls, but still spreads around her life and beyond her door, impossible to hold or to measure. Both are forces which must be discussed and rehearsed constantly. They are too present and compelling to be pushed into the recesses of the mind. The brute energy of both must be leashed to the minutely familiar. Emily Dickinson's wild nights are bound and her fears assuaged with the images of her immediate reality. But this immediate reality is made up of her personal terms, and has come from her own heart, not from the tenets of her church. /1171/

from "Three Studies in Modern Poetry," Accent, III (Winter, 1943), 115-117.


EUNICE GLENN

The central theme [of "Because I could not stop for Death"] is the interpretation of mortal experience from the standpoint of immortality. A theme stemming from that is the defining of eternity as timelessness. The poet uses these abstractions— mortality, immortality, and eternity—in terms /585/ of images. How successfully, then, do these images fulfill their intention, which is to unite in filling in the frame of the poem?

In the first two lines Death, personified as a carriage driver, stops for one who could not stop for him. The word "kindly" is particularly meaningful, for it instantly characterizes Death. This comes with surprise, too, since death is more often considered grim and terrible. The third and fourth lines explain the dramatic situation. Death has in the carriage another passenger, Immortality. Thus, in four compact lines the poet has not only introduced the principal characters metaphorically, but she has also characterized them in part; in addition, she has set the stage for the drama and started the drama moving. It may be noted; in passing, that the phrase, "And Immortality," standing alone, helps to emphasize the importance of the presence of the second passenger.

In the first line of the second stanza, "slowly drove" and "knew no haste" serve to amplify the idea of the kindliness of the driver, as well as the intimacy which has already been suggested by "held just ourselves." In the fourth line, "For his civility" further characterizes the polite, kindly driver. The second, third and fourth lines tie in perfectly with the first two lines of the poem: she who has not been able to stop for Death is now so completely captivated by his personality that she has put away everything that had occupied her before his coming.

The third stanza contains a series of heterogeneous materials: children, gazing grain, setting sun. But under the poet's skillful treatment these materials, seemingly foreign to one another, are fused into a unit and reconciled. How? Not, obviously, by simply setting them side by side, but by making them all parts of a single order of perception. They are all perceived as elements in an experience from which the onlooker has withdrawn. In its larger meaning this experience is Nature, over which, with the aid of death, the individual triumphs. "Gazing grain," shifting "gazing" from the dead woman who is passing to a common feature of Nature at which she is astonished, gives the grain something of the fixity of death itself, although the grain is alive. /586/ This paradox is highly significant in the context of the poem: "grain" symbolizes life, mortality; "gazing" suggests death, immortality. "Setting sun" is no less powerful in its suggestion of the passage of time; and "the school where children played, / Their lessons scarcely done" makes a subtle preparation for it.

In the next stanza the house, appearing as a "swelling of the ground," the roof "scarcely visible" and the cornice, "but a mound," suggest the grave, a sinking out of sight. "Paused" calls to mind the attitude of the living toward the lowering of a coffin into the ground, as well as other associations with the occurrence of death.

"Centuries" in the last stanza refers, of course, to eternity. "Each feels shorter than the day" ties in with "setting sun" in the third stanza and suggests at the same time the timelessness of eternity. Indeed, an effective contrast between the time of mortality and the timelessness of eternity is made in the entire stanza.

"Horses' heads" is a concrete extension of the figure of the carriage, which is maintained throughout the poem. The carriage is headed toward eternity, where Death is taking the passenger. The attitude of withdrawal, or seeing with perspective, could not have been more effectively accomplished than it has been by the use of the slowly-moving carriage. Remoteness is fused with nearness, for the objects that are observed during the journey are made to appear close by. At the same time, a constant moving forward, with only one pause, carries weighty implications concerning time, death, eternity. The person in the carriage is viewing things that are near with the perspective of distance, given by the presence of Immortality.

The poem could hardly be said to convey an idea, as such, or a series of ideas; instead, it presents a situation in terms of human experience. The conflict between mortality and immortality is worked out through the agency of metaphor and tone. The resolution of the conflict lies in the implications concerning the meaning of eternity: not an endless stretch of time, but something fixed and timeless, which interprets and gives meaning to /587/ mortal experience. Two seemingly contradictory concepts, mortality and immortality, are reconciled, because several seemingly contradictory elements which symbolize them are brought into reconciliation.

The interaction of elements within a poem to produce an effect of reconciliation in the poem as a whole, which we have observed in these analyses, is the outstanding characteristic of "Metaphysical" poetry. This poetry Cleanth Brooks defines as that in which "the opposition of the impulses which are united is extreme" or, again, that "in which the poet attempts the reconciliation of qualities which are opposite or discordant in the extreme." I have no intention of forcing this classification upon the poetry of Emily Dickinson. Indeed, I have no intention of forcing any classification upon her; I have tried to focus more upon the mechanics of her poetry. It seems fairly clear however, . . . that she is free from the limitations of the romantic poet, which she is generally mistaken to be. She does not employ metaphor only for illustration or decoration of some "truth," as the romantic poet usually does. She does not merely introduce an element of paradox, as the romantic poet tends to do; rather she succeeds in bringing it to the surface and in reconciling seemingly contradictory concepts. She does not use disparate materials sparingly and put them down in juxtaposition without blending them, as the romantic poet is often inclined to do. And her liberty in the use of words would hardly be sanctioned by the typically romantic poet, for fear of being "unpoetic" and not "great" and "beautiful."

The kind of unity, or reconciliation that we have been observing at work in these poems is chiefly responsible for their success. Proof of this is found in the fact that the few poems of Emily Dickinson's that are not successful show no evidence of the quality; and some others that are only partially successful show less of it. In this sense we are justified in referring to Emily Dickinson as a metaphysical poet. /588/

from "Emily Dickinson's Poetry: A Revaluation," The Sewanee Review, LI (Autumn, 1943), 585-588.


RICHARD CHASE

Emily Dickinson's poems on death are scattered in clusters through the two volumes which contain her poetic works. Drawn together in one of the several orders that suggest themselves, they constitute a small body of poems equal to the most distinguished lyric verse in English.

She is surely unparalleled in capturing the experience of New England deathbed scenes and funerals. Of this kind the three best poems are "How many times these low feet staggered," "I heard a fly buzz when I died," and "I felt a funeral in my brain." Her most successful device in these poems is her juxtaposition of the sense of the mys- /246/ tery of death with the sense of particular material stresses, weights, motions, and sounds so that each clarifies and intensifies the other:

And then I heard them lift a box,
    And creak across my soul
With those same boots of lead, again.
    Then space began to toll

As all the heavens were a bell,
    And Being but an ear,
And I and silence some strange race,
    Wrecked, solitary, here.
                        [#280—Poems, 1896, p. 168]

Few other writers have expressed such astonishing loneliness as this.

The objection has been made that no poet ought to imagine that he has died and that he knows exactly what the experience is like. The objection does not apply, at any rate, to "I heard a fly buzz," since the poem does not in the least strive after the unknowable but deals merely with the last sensations of consciousness. . . . /247/

[The differing versions] remind the reader of the textual difficulties in the Dickinson canon which are still to be cleared up. "I heard a fly buzz" has again and again been reprinted in the altered version of the early Todd Higginson editions. This version substitutes "round my form" for "in the room" (second line), preferring an insipidity to an imperfect rhyme. It reads "The eyes beside" instead of "The eyes around," substitutes "sure" for "firm," and says in place of "witnessed in the room," "witnessed in his power." Both "sure" and "power" have generalized moralistic and honorific connotations which Higginson and Mrs. Todd thought (perhaps rightly) would be more pleasing to late Victorian readers than the poet's more precise, concrete words. These editors left the fourth stanza intact but wrote the third stanza thus:

I willed my keepsakes, signed away
    What portion of me I
Could make assignable—and then
    There interposed a fly.
                        [#465—Poems, 1896, p. 184]

To gain a rhyme, that is, they did not scruple to add the gratuitous and poetically neutral "Could make" and to sacrifice the voiced "s" sound which the poet had provided in "It was." Higginson and Mrs. Todd did not publish this poem at all until Poems, Third Series, in 1896. This leads one to conjecture that they thought it unusually awkward in its versification and that, consequently, when they did get around to publishing it, they edited it with unusually free hands. These are questions which can be an- /248/ swered only by the much desired definitive edition of Emily Dickinson's work.

Of the several poems which describe death as a gentleman visitor or lover the most familiar is also incomparably the best ["Because I could not stop for Death"]. . . . The only pressing technical objection to this poem is the remark that "Immortality" in the first stanza is a meretricious and unnecessary personification and that the common sense of the situation demands that Immortality ought to be the destination of the coach and not one of the /249/ passengers. The personification of death, however, is unassailable. In the literal meaning of the poem, he is apparently a successful citizen who has amorous but genteel intentions. He is also God. And though as a genteel citizen, his "civility" may be a little hollow—or even a confidence trick—as God his "civility" is that hierarchic status which he confers upon the poet and for which she gladly exchanges the labor and leisure of the less brilliant life she has been leading.

The word "labor" recalls Emily Dickinson's idea that life is to be understood as the slow labor of dying; now this labor is properly put away. So is the leisure, since a far more desirable leisure will be hers in "eternity." The third stanza is a symbolic recapitulation of life: the children playing, wrestling (more "labor") through the cycle of their existence, "in a ring"; the gazing grain signifies ripeness and the entranced and visionary gaze that first beholds the approach of death of which the setting sun is the felicitous symbol.

The last two stanzas are hardly surpassed in the whole range of lyric poetry. The visual images here are handled with perfect economy. All the poem needs is one or two concrete images—roof, cornice—to awake in our minds the appalling identification of house with grave. Even more compelling is the sense of pausing, and the sense of overpowering action and weight in "swelling" and "mound." This kinaesthetic imagery prepares us for the feeling of suddenly discerned motion in the last stanza, which with fine dramatic tact presents us with but one visual image, the horses' heads. There are progressively fewer visible objects in the last three stanzas, since the seen world must be /250/ made gradually to sink into the nervously sensed world—a device the poet uses to extraordinary effect in the last stanza of "I heard a fly buzz." /251/

from Modern Poetry and the Tradition, Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1939.


THOMAS H. JOHNSON

. . . In 1863 Death came into full stature as a person. "Because I could not stop for Death" is a superlative achievement wherein Death becomes one of the great characters of literature.

It is almost impossible in any critique to define exactly the kind of reality which her character Death attains, simply because the protean shifts of form are intended to forestall definition. A poem can convey the nuances of exultation, agony, compassion, or any mystical mood. But no one can successfully define mysticism because the logic of language has no place for it. One must therefore assume that the reality of Death, as Emily Dickinson conceived him, is to be perceived by the reader in the poems themselves. Any analysis can do no more than suggest what may be looked for .

In "Because I could not stop for Death" Emily Dickinson envisions Death as a person she knew and trusted, or believed that she could trust. He might be any Amherst gentleman, a William Howland or an Elbridge Bowdoin, or any of the coming lawyers or teachers or ministers whom she remembered from her youth, with whom she had exchanged valentines, and who at one time or another had acted as her squire. . . . /222/ The carriage holds but the two of them, yet the ride, as she states with quiet emphasis, is a last ride together. Clearly there has been no deception on his part. They drive in a leisurely manner, and she feels completely at ease. Since she understands it to be a last ride, she of course expects it to be unhurried. Indeed, his graciousness in taking time to stop for her at that point and on that day in her life when she was so busy she could not possibly have taken time to stop for him, is a mark of special politeness. She is therefore quite willing to put aside her work. And again, since it is to be her last ride, she can dispense with her spare moments as well as her active ones. . . .

She notes the daily routine of the life she is passing from. Children playing games during a school recess catch her eye at the last. And now the sense of motion is quickened. Or perhaps more exactly one should say that the sense of time comes to an end as they pass the cycles of the day and the seasons of the year, at a period of both ripeness and decline. . . . How insistently "passed" echoes through the [third] stanza! She now conveys her feeling of being outside time and change, for she corrects herself to say that the sun passed them, as it of course does all who are in the grave. She is aware of dampness and cold, and becomes suddenly conscious of the sheerness of the dress and scarf which she now discovers that she wears. . . . /223/

The two concluding stanzas, with progressively decreasing concreteness, hasten the final identification of her "House." It is the slightly rounded surface "of the Ground," with a scarcely visible roof and a cornice "in the Ground." To time and seasonal change, which have already ceased, is now added motion. Cessation of all activity and creativeness is absolute. At the end, in a final instantaneous flash of memory, she recalls the last objects before her eyes during the journey: the heads of the horses that bore her, as she had surmised they were doing from the beginning, toward—it is the last word—"Eternity." . . . Gradually, too, one realizes that Death as a person has receded into the background, mentioned last only impersonally in the opening words "We paused" of the fifth stanza, where his services as squire and companion are over. In this poem concrete realism melds into "awe and circumference" with matchless economy. /224/

from Emily Dickinson: An Interpretive Biography (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1955), pp. 222-224.


THEODORE C. HOEPFNER

A comment by Richard Chase on Emily Dickinson's "Because I Could not stop for Death," reads in part as follows:

The only pressing technical objection to this poem is the remark that "Immortality" in the first stanza is a meretricious and unnecessary personification and that the common sense of the situation demands that Immortality ought to be the destination of the coach and not one of the passengers. The personification of death, however, is unassailable. In the literal meaning of the poem, he is apparently a successful citizen who has amorous but genteel intentions. He is also God. . . .

The trouble with this remark is that it does not present the common sense of the situation. Emily Dickinson was taught Christian doctrine—not simply Christian morality but Christian theology—and she knew that the coach cannot head toward immortality, nor can one of the passengers. Dickinson here compresses two related but differing concepts: (1) at death the soul journeys to heaven (eternity), and thus the image of the carriage and driver is appropriate; and (2) the soul is immortal, and our immortality, therefore, "rides" always with us as a copassenger; it is with us because the soul is our immortal part and so may be thought of as journeying with us. The poet's language is compact and oblique, but there is no false personification in it. Since the soul is one's true person (essence, not mask). no personification is needed, except possibly what may be involved in the separable concept of the soul itself. Both immortality and death, however, need personification and are given it. The horses' heads are toward eternity, but not toward immortality.

Incidentally, why "amorous but genteel"? To those who believe in an ,afterlife, death may be kind in taking us from a world of proverbial woe into one of equally proverbial eternal bliss; the irony is in the contrast between our fear of death and the kindness of his mission, and it seems unnecessary to call upon an amorous implication. The idea of the "Bride of Christ" may be permissible but it seems far-fetched in the context of the poem as we have it. /96/

from "'Becasue I Could Not Stop for Death,'" American Literature, XXIX (March, 1957), 96.


CHARLES R. ANDERSON

[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. . . . /241/ At first reading, the orthodox reassurance against the fear of death appears to be invoked, though with the novelty of a suitor replacing the traditional angel, by emphasizing his compassionate mission in taking her out of the woes of this world into the bliss of the next. 'Death,' usually rude, sudden, and impersonal, has been transformed into a kindly and leisurely gentleman. Although she was aware this is a last ride, since his ‘Carriage' can only be a hearse, its terror is subdued by the ‘Civility' of the driver who is merely serving the end of ‘Immortality.' The loneliness of the journey, with Death on the driver's seat and her body laid out in the coach behind, is dispelled by the presence of her immortal part that rides with her as a co-passenger, this slight personification being justified by the separable concept of the soul. Too occupied with life herself to stop, like all busy mortals, Death ‘kindly stopped' for her. But this figure of a gentleman taking a lady for a carriage ride is carefully underplayed and then dropped after two stanzas. /242/

The balanced parallelism of the first stanza is slightly quickened by the alliterating 'labor' and 'leisure' of the second, which encompass vividly all that must be renounced in order to ride 'toward Eternity.' So the deliberate slow-paced action that lies suspended behind the poem is charged with a forward movement by the sound pattern, taking on a kind of inevitability in the insistent reiteration of [stanza three]. . . . Here her intensely conscious leave-taking of the world is rendered with fine economy, and instead of the sentimental grief of parting there is an objectively presented scene. The seemingly disparate parts of this are fused into a vivid re-enactment of the mortal experience. It includes the three stages of youth, maturity, and age, the cycle of day from morning to evening, and even a suggestion of seasonal progression from the year's upspring through ripening to decline. The labor and leisure of life are made concrete in the joyous activity of children contrasted with the passivity of nature and again, by the optical illusion of the sun's setting, in the image of motion that has come to rest. Also the whole range of the earthly life is symbolized, first human nature, then animate, and finally inanimate nature. But, absorbed 'in the Ring' of childhood's games, the players at life do not even stop to look up at the passing carriage of death. And the indifference of nature is given a kind of cold vitality by transferring the stare in the dead traveler's eyes to the 'Gazing Grain.' This simple maneuver in grammar creates an involute paradox, giving the fixity of death to the living corn while the corpse itself passes by on its journey to immortality. Then with the westering sun, traditional symbol of the soul's passing, comes the obliterating darkness of eternity. Finally, the sequence follows the natural route of a funeral train, past the schoolhouse in the village, then the outlying fields, and on to the remote burying ground.

In the concluding stanzas the movement of the poem slows almost to a stop, 'We paused' contrasting with the successive sights 'We passed' in the earlier stages of the journey. For when the carriage arrives at the threshold of the house of death it has reached the spatial limits of mortality. To say that it 'passed the Setting Sun' is to take it out of /243/ bounds, beyond human time, so she quickly corrects herself by saying instead that the sun 'passed Us,' as it surely does all who are buried. Then, as the 'Dews' descend 'quivering and chill,' she projects her awareness of what it will be like to come to rest in the cold damp ground. The identification of her new 'House' with a grave is achieved by the use of only two details: a 'Roof' that is 'scarcely visible' and a 'Cornice,' the molding around the coffin's lid, that is 'in the Ground.' But the tomb's horror is absorbed by the emphasis on merely pausing here, as though this were a sort of tavern for the night. When she wanted to she could invoke the conventional Gothic atmosphere, and without being imitative, as in an early poem:

What Inn is this
Where for the night
Peculiar Traveller comes?
Who is the Landlord?
Where the maids?
Behold, what curious rooms!
No ruddy fires on the hearth—
No brimming Tankards flow—
Necromancer! Landlord!
Who are these below?
                    [#115—Poems, 1891, p. 221]

The image of the grave as a ghastly kind of inn is there built up to a climax which blasts all hopes of domestic coziness by the revelation that its landlord is a 'Necromancer,' a sorcerer who communicates with spirits.

In the poem under consideration, however, the house of death so lightly sketched is not her destination. That is clearly stated as 'Eternity,’ though it is significant that she never reaches it. . . . An eminent critic, after praising this as a remarkably beautiful poem, complains that it breaks down at this point because it goes beyond the 'Limits of Judgment'; in so far as it attempts to experience death and express the nature of posthumous beatitude, he says, it is 'fraudulent.' /224/ But in addition to being a hyper-rational criticism, this is simply a failure to read the text. The poem does not in the least strive after the incomprehensible. It deals with the daily realization of the imminence of death, offset by man's yearning for immortality. These are intensely felt, but only as ideas, as the abstractions of time and eternity, not as something experienced. Being essentially inexpressible, they are rendered as metaphors. The idea of achieving immortality by a ride in the carriage of death is confronted by the concrete fact of physical disintegration as she pauses before a 'Swelling in the Ground.'

The final stanza is not an extension of knowledge beyond the grave but simply the most fitting coda for her poem. In projecting the last sensations of consciousness as the world fades out, she has employed progressively fewer visible objects until with fine dramatic skill she limits herself at the end to a single one, the 'Horses Heads,' recalled in a flash of memory as that on which her eyes had been fixed throughout the journey. These bring to mind the 'Carriage' of the opening stanza, and Death, who has receded as a person, is now by implication back in the driver's seat. 'Since then—'tis Centuries,' she says, in an unexpected phrase for the transition from time to eternity, but this is a finite infinity; her consciousness is still operative and subject to temporal measurement. All of this poetically elapsed time 'Feels shorter than the Day,' the day of death brought to an end by the setting sun of the third stanza, when she first guessed the direction in which these apocalyptic horses were headed. 'Surmised,' carefully placed near the conclusion, is all the warranty one needs for reading this journey as one that has taken place entirely in her mind, 'imagined without certain knowledge,' as her Lexicon defined it. The last word may be 'Eternity' but it is strictly limited by the directional preposition 'toward.' So the poem returns to the very day, even the same instant, when it started. Its theme is a Christian one, yet unsupported by any of the customary rituals and without any final statement of Christian faith. The resolution is not mystical but dramatic.

Read in this way the poem is flawless to the last detail, each image precise and discrete even while it is unified in the central motif of the last journey. Yet another level of meaning has suggested itself faintly to two critics. One has described the driver as 'amorous but genteel'; the other has noted 'the subtly interfused erotic motive,' love having frequently been an idea linked with death for the romantic poets. Both of these astute guesses were made without benefit of the revealing /245/ fourth stanza, recently restored from the manuscript. But even in the well-known opening lines of the poem there are suggestive hints for anyone who remembers that the carriage drive was a standard mode of courtship a century ago. In the period of her normal social life, when Emily Dickinson took part ill those occasions that give youthful love its chance, she frequently went on drives with young gentlemen. Some ten years before the date of this poem, for example, she wrote to her brother: 'I've been to ride twice since I wrote you, . . . last evening with Sophomore Emmons, alone'; and a few weeks later she confided to her future sister-in-law: 'I've found a beautiful, new, friend.' The figure of such a prospective suitor would inevitably have come to the minds of a contemporary audience as they read: 'He kindly stopped for me— / The Carriage held but just Ourselves. . . .' Such a young couple likewise would have driven beyond the village limits into the open country and then, romantically, past the 'Setting Sun.' Restraint kept her from pushing this parallel to the point of being ludicrous, and the suitor image quickly drops into the background.

The love-death symbolism, however, re-emerges with new implications in the now restored fourth stanza, probably omitted by previous editors because they were baffled by its meaning:

For only Gossamer, my gown—
My Tippet—only Tulle— 

This is certainly not a description of conventional burial clothes. It is instead a bridal dress, but of a very special sort. 'Gossamer' in her day was not yet applied to fine spun cloth but only to that filmy substance like cobwebs sometimes seen floating in the autumn air, as her Lexicon described it, probably formed by a species of spider. This brings to mind her cryptic poem on the spider whose web was his 'Strategy of Immortality.' And by transforming the bridal veil into a 'Tippet,' the flowing scarf-like part of the distinctive hood of holy orders, she is properly dressed for a celestial marriage. 'Death,' to be sure, is not the true bridegroom but a surrogate, which accounts for his minor role. He is the envoy taking her on this curiously premature wedding journey to the heavenly altar where she will be married to God. The whole idea of the Bride-of-the-Lamb is admittedly only latent in the text of this poem, but in view of the body of her writings it seems admissible to suggest it as another metaphor for the extension of meanings. . . . /246/

'Because I could not stop for Death' is incomparably the finest poem of this cluster. In it all the traditional modes are subdued so they can, be assimilated to her purposes. For her theme there, as a final reading of its meaning will suggest, is not necessarily death or immortality in the literal sense of those terms. There are many ways of dying, as she once said:

Death—is but one—and comes but once—
And only nails the eyes—
                        [#561—Poems, 1896, pp. 47-48]

One surely dies out of this world in the end, but one may also die away from the world by deliberate choice during this life. In her vocabulary 'immortal' is a value that can also attach to living this side of the grave:

Some—Work for Immortality—
The Chiefer part, for Time—
                        [#406—Further Poems, 1929, p. 5]

As an artist she ranked herself with that elite. At the time of her dedication to poetry, presumably in the early 1860's, someone 'kindly stopped' for her—lover, muse, God—and she willingly put away the labor and leisure of this world for the creative life of the spirit. Looking back on the affairs of 'Time' at any point after making such a momentous deci- /248/ sion, she could easily feel 'Since then—'tis Centuries—' Remembering what she had renounced, the happiness of a normal youth, sunshine and growing things, she could experience a momentary feeling of deprivation. But in another sense she had simply triumphed over them, passing beyond earthly trammels. Finally, this makes the most satisfactory reading of her reversible image of motion and stasis during the journey, passing the setting sun and being passed by it. For though in her withdrawal the events of the external world by-passed her, in the poetic life made possible by it she escaped the limitations of the mortal calendar. She was borne confidently, by her winged horse, 'toward Eternity' in the immortality of her poems. /249/

from Emily Dickinson's Poetry: Stairway of Surprise (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1960), pp. 241-246 and 248-249.


Sharon Cameron

Yvor Winters has spoken of the poem's subject as "the daily realization of the imminence of death—it is a poem of departure from life, an intensely conscious leave-taking." But in its final claim to actually experience death, Winters has found it fraudulent. There is, of course, a way out of or around the dilemma of posthumous speech and that is to suppose that the entire ride with death is, as the last stanza indicates, a "surmise," and " 'tis Centuries—," a colloquial hyperbole. But we ought not insist that the poem's interpretation pivot on the importance of this word. For we ignore its own struggle with extraordinary claims if we insist too quickly on its adherence to traditional limits.

In one respect, the speaker's assertions that she "could not stop for Death—" must be taken as the romantic protest of a self not yet disabused of the fantasy that her whims, however capricious, will withstand the larger temporal demands of the external world. Thus the first line, like any idiosyncratic representation of the world, must come to grips with the tyranny of more general meanings, not the least of which can be read in the inviolable stand of the universe, every bit as willful as the isolate self. But initially the world seems to cater to the self's needs; since the speaker does not have time (one implication of "could not stop") for death, she is deferred to by the world ("He kindly stopped for me—"). In another respect, we must see the first line not only as willful (had not time for) but also as the admission of a disabling fact (could not). The second line responds to the doubleness of conception. What, in other words, in one context is deference, in another is coercion, and since the poem balances tonally between these extremes it is important to note the dexterity with which they are compacted in the first two lines.

There is, of course, further sense in which death stops for the speaker, and that is in the fusion I alluded to earlier between interior and exterior senses of time, so that the consequence of the meeting in the carriage is the death of otherness. The poem presumes to rid death of its otherness, to familiarize it, literally to adopt its perspective and in so doing to effect a synthesis between self and other, internal time and the faster, more relentless beat of the world. Using more traditional terms to describe the union, Allen Tate speaks of the poem's "subtly interfused erotic motive, which the idea of death has presented to most romantic poets, love being a symbol interchangeable with death." It is true that the poem is charged with eroticism whose end or aim is union, perhaps as we conventionally know it, a synthesis of self and other for the explicit purpose of the transformation of other or, if that proves impossible, for the loss of self. Death's heralding phenomenon, the loss of self, would be almost welcomed if self at this point could be magically fused with other. . . .

. . . death is essence of the universe as well as its end, and the self is wooed and won by this otherness that appears to define the totality of experience.

Indeed the trinity of death, self, immortality, however ironic a parody of the holy paradigm, at least promises a conventional fulfillment of the idea that the body's end coincides with the soul's everlasting life. But, as in "Our journey had advanced," death so frequently conceptualized as identical with eternity here suffers a radical displacement from it. While both poems suggest a discrepancy between eternity and death, the former poem hedges on the question of where the speaker stands with respect to that discrepancy, at its conclusion seeming to locate her safely in front of or "before" death. "Because I could not stop for Death," on the other hand, pushes revision one step further, daring to leave the speaker stranded in the moment of death.

Along these revisionary lines, the ride to death that we might have supposed to take place through territory unknown, we discover in stanza three to reveal commonplace sights but now fused with spectacle. The path out of the world is also apparently the one through it and in the compression of the three images ("the School, where Children strove," "the Fields of Gazing Grain—," "the Setting Sun—") we are introduced to a new kind of visual shorthand. Perhaps what is extraordinary here is the elasticity of reference, how imposingly on the figural scale the images can weigh while, at the same time, never abandoning any of their quite literal specificity. Hence the sight of the children is a circumscribed one by virtue of the specificity of their placement "At Recess—in the Ring—" and, at the same time, the picture takes on the shadings of allegory. This referential flexibility or fusion of literal and figural meanings is potential in the suggestive connotations of the verb "strove," which is a metaphor in the context of the playground (that is, in its literal context) and a mere descriptive verb in the context of the implied larger world (that is, in its figural context). The "Fields of Gazing Grain—" also suggest a literal picture, but one that leans in the direction of emblem; thus the epithet "Gazing" has perhaps been anthropomorphized from the one-directional leaning of grain in the wind, the object of its gazing the speaker herself. The "Children" mark the presence of the world along one stage of the speaker's journey, the "Gazing Grain—" marks the passing of the world (its harkening after the speaker as she rides away from it), and the "Setting Sun—" marks its past. For at least as the third stanza conceives of it, the journey toward eternity is a series of successive and, in the case of the grain, displaced visions giving way finally to blankness.

But just as after the first two stanzas, we are again rescued in the fourth from any settled conception of this journey. As we were initially not to think of the journey taking place out of the world (and hence with the children we are brought back to it), the end of the third stanza having again moved us to the world's edge, we are redeemed from falling over it by the speaker's correction: "Or rather—He passed Us—." It is the defining movement of the poem to deliver us just over the boundary line between life and death and then to recall us. Thus while the poem gives the illusion of a one-directional movement, albeit a halting one, we discover upon closer scrutiny that the movements are multiple and, as in "I heard a Fly buzz when I died," constitutive of flux, back and forth over the boundary from life to death. Despite the correction, "Or rather—He passed Us—," the next lines register a response that would be entirely appropriate to the speaker's passing of the sun. "The Dews drew" round the speaker, her earthly clothes not only inadequate, but actually falling away in deference to the sensation of "chill—" that displaces them as she passes the boundary of the earth. Thus, on the one hand, "chill—" is a mere physiological response to the setting of the sun at night, on the other, it is a metaphor for the earlier assertion that the earth and earthly goods are being exchanged for something else. Implications in the poem, like the more explicit assertions, are contradictory and reflexive, circling back to underline the very premises they seem a moment ago to have denied. Given such ambiguity, we are constantly in a quandary about how to place the journey that, at anyone point, undermines the very certainty of conception it has previously established.

[Cameron here inserts an analysis of George Herbert's "Redemption"]

While Dickinson's representation of the ride with death is less histrionic, it is as insistent in our coming to terms with the personalization of the even and of its perpetual reenactment in the present. For the grave that is "paused before" in the fifth stanza, with the tombstone lying flat against the ground ("scarcely visible—"), is seen from the outside and then (by the transformation of spatial considerations into temporal ones) is passed by or through: "Since then—'tis Centuries—." The poem's concluding stanza both fulfills the traditional Christian notion that while the endurance of death is essential for the reaching of eternity, the two are not identical, and by splitting death and eternity with the space of "Centuries—," chal1enges that traditional notion. The poem that has thus far played havoc with our efforts to fix its journey in any conventional time or space, on this side of death or the other, concludes with an announcement about the origins of its speech, now explicitly equivocal: "'tis Cen- turies—and yet / Feels shorter than the Day." What in "There's a certain Slant of light" had been a clear relationship between figure and its fulfillment (a sense of perceptive enlightenment accruing from the movement of one to the other) is in this poem manifestly baffling. For one might observe that for all the apparent movement here, there are no real progressions in the poem at all. If the correction "We passed the Setting Sun— / Or rather—He passed Us—" may be construed as a confirmation of the slowness of the drive alluded to earlier in the poem, the last stanza seems to insist that the carriage is standing still, moving if at all, as we say, in place. For the predominant sense of this journey is not simply its endlessness; it is also the curious back and forth sweep of its images conveying, as they do, the perpetual return to what has been perpetually taken leave of.

Angus Fletcher, speaking in terms applicable to "Because I could not stop for Death," documents the characteristics of allegorical journeys as surrealistic in imagery (as for example, the "Gazing Grain—"), paratactic in rhythm or structure (as indeed we can hear in the acknowledged form of movement: "We passed . . . We passed . . . We passed . . . Or rather—He passed Us . . . We Paused . . . "), and almost always incomplete: "It is logically quite natural for the extension to be infinite, since by definition there is no such thing as the whole of any analogy; all analogies are incomplete, and incompletable, and allegory simply records this analogical relation in a dramatic or narrative form."

But while the poem has some of the characteristics of allegory, it nonetheless seems to defy such easy classification. Thus the utterance is not quite allegory because it is not strongly iconographic (its figures do not have a one-to-one correspondence with a representational base), and at the same time, these figures are sufficiently rigid to preclude the freeing up of associations that is characteristic of the symbol. We recall Coleridge's distinction between a symbolic and an allegorical structure. A symbol presupposes a unity with its object. It denies the separateness between subject and object by creating a synecdochic relationship between itself and the totality of what it represents; like the relationship between figure and thing figured discussed in the first part of this chapter, it is always part of that totality. Allegory, on the other hand, is a sign that refers to a specific meaning from which it continually remains detached. Through its abstract embodiment, the allegorical form makes the distance between itself and its original meaning clearly manifest. It accentuates the absolute cleavage between subject and object. Since the speaker in "Because I could not stop for Death" balances between the boast of knowledge and the confession of ignorance, between a oneness with death and an inescapable difference from it, we may regard the poem as a partial allegory. The inability to know eternity, the failure to be at one with it, is, we might say, what the allegory of "Because I could not stop for Death" makes manifest. The ride with death, though it espouses to reveal a future that is past, in fact casts both past and future in the indeterminate present of the last stanza. Unable to arrive at a fixed conception, it must rest on the bravado (and it implicitly knows this) of its initial claim. Thus death is not really civilized; the boundary between otherness and self, life and death, is crossed, but only in presumption, and we might regard this fact as the real confession of disappointment in the poem's last stanza.

from Lyric Time: Dickinson and the Limits of Genre. Copyright � 1979 by The Johns Hopkins UP.


Jane Donahue Eberwein

Dickinson's most famous poem spoken from beyond the grave confronts precisely this problem: the assertiveness of the circuit world ["the world of matter and time and intellectual awareness . . . busyness is the circuit world’s dominant characteristic, industry its major value"] against the claims of complementary vision . . . The representative of the verse here is a decidedly imaginary person—not Emily Dickinson's self-projection (which would be of one straining for escape beyond circumference and intensely alert to all details of transition) but a woman contented within the routine of circuit busyness. Her opening words echo some of Dickinson's own habitual usages but present a contradictory value system adapted to worldly achievements. This lady has been industrious—too busy to stop her work, whatever it may have been. Dickinson, too, proclaimed herself too busy in her self-descriptive July 1862 letter to Higginson and in a letter to Mrs. Holland that Johnson and Ward place conjecturally at the same time on the basis of obvious verbal echoes (L 268; 269). To Higginson she wrote: "Perhaps you smile at me. I could not stop for that—My Business is Circumference—." To Mrs. Holland, "Perhaps you laugh at me! Perhaps the whole United States are laughing at me too! I can't stop for that! My business is to love." Her businesses, then, differed from the routine employments of the circuit citizens who might be mocking her. What the poet could not stop for was circuit judgments. Her businesses, as she reported them that intensely productive summer, were love, song, and circumference—all of them leading her outside the circuit. Circumference, from the perspective of the circuit world, was death and the cessation of industry, although there might be a different life beyond it. The speaker of this poem, however, is too busy with ordinary duties to stop for Death, who naturally stops her instead. She is less like Emily Dickinson than like that whirlwind of domestic industriousness, Lavinia, whom her sister once characterized as a "standard for superhuman effort erroneously applied" (L 254).

Caught up in the circuit world of busyness, the speaker mistakes Death for a human suitor; her imagination suggests no more awesome possibility. Two persons, in fact, have come for her, Death and Immortality, though her limited perception leads her to ignore the higher-ranking chaperon. The relationship between the two figures—analogous to that between circumference and awe (P 1620)—attracts none of her notice. In fact, she pays little attention even to her principal escort, being occupied instead with peering out the carriage window at the familiar circuit world. She sees the schoolchildren playing in their circumferential ring, little realizing that she has now herself become that playfellow who will go in and close the door—thus breaking the circle (P 1098). And she sees the "Gazing Grain" indicative of the late-summer crop Death is already reaping even as she herself gazes back into the circuit, indicative also of some farmer's midlife industriousness—the sort another circuit-minded speaker pitied when death deprived him of harvest (P 529). Rather than attending to mysteries, this speaker focuses only on the familiar until a novel perspective on the sunset jolts her into awareness of her own transitional state. Rather than making friends with Immortality, she concentrates on mortality.

The consequence of her distorted values is that the speaker winds up with eternity as an inadequate substitute for either: the endless static stretch of time that young Emily had repudiated in an 1846 letter to Abiah Root (the same letter in which she confessed her inability to imagine her own death). "Does not Eternity appear dreadful to you," she asked then, "I often get thinking of it and it seems so dark to me that I almost wish there was no Eternity. To think that we must forever live and never cease to be. It seems as if Death which all so dread because it launches us upon an unknown world would be a relief to so endless a state of existense" (L 10). Indeed, Death does not launch the persona of this poem into another world (Immortality would have to be enlisted for that, rather than sitting ignored in the back seat of the carriage in which she and Death will eventually ride off together after abandoning the speaker). Instead Death leaves his date buried within the margin of the circuit, in a "House" that she can maintain like one of those "Alabaster Chambers" (P 216) in which numb corpses lie but which are designed and built of elegant materials still gratifying to the circuit-locked mentality. A quester for circumference would greet Death more enthusiastically, and would both value and cultivate Death's ties to Immortality. For such a quester, the destination of the journey might prove more wondrous.

from Dickinson: Strategies of Limitation. Copyright � 1985 by The University of Massachusetts Press.


Cynthia Griffin Wolff

The speaker is a beautiful woman (already dead!), and like some spectral Cinderella, she is dressed to go to a ball: "For only Gossamer, my Gown--/MyTippet—onlyTule--." Her escort recalls both the lover of Poe's configuration and the "Bridegroom" that had been promised in the Bible: "We slowly drove--He knew no haste / And I had put away / My labor and my leisure too, / For His Civility--." Their "Carriage" hovers in some surrealistic state that is exterior to both time and place: they are no longer earth-bound, not quite dead (or at least still possessed of consciousness), but they have not yet achieved the celebration that awaits them, the "marriage supper of the Lamb."

Yet the ultimate implication of this work turns precisely upon the poet’s capacity to explode the finite temporal boundaries that generally define our existence, for there is a third member of the party--also exterior to time and location--and that is "Immortality." True immortality, the verse suggests, comes neither from the confabulations of a mate lover nor from God's intangible Heaven. Irrefutable "Immortality" resides in the work of art itself, the creation of an empowered woman poet that continues to captivate readers more than one hundred years after her death. And this much-read, often-cited poem stands as patent proof upon the page of its own argument!

From The Columbia History of American Poetry. Ed. Jay Parini. Copyright � 1993 by Columbia University Press.


Carol Frost

"Because I could not stop for Death" was first published in much-diminished form as "The Chariot"--changed in several important respects to take the sting out of the lines. For Emily Dickinson, death, God, and the eternities were regarded too conventionally, even lightly, by those around her, but her poetic stance and her themes--interpretations of mortal experience--were in turn too much for her first editors, her friends Thomas Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd. The poems in the 1860 edition were trimmed down, when deemed necessary, to the Puritan dimensions that her sensibility exceeded. Sixty-five years later they were restored to the original, as written by her, and sewn into fascicles starting in 1858.

Interpreters of "The Chariot" are meant to believe that death's chariot (one that "swings low"?) comes to bring the dead one to everlasting life--that with death the immortal soul journeys to heaven. But for Dickinson the theological notion that Christ offers redemption was not a fait accompli, as her early letters prove—"give up and become a Christian. It is not now too late, so my friends tell me, so my offended conscience whispers, but is hard for me to give up the world" (letter to Abiah Root, May 1849). Her understanding remained in flux even as her girlhood friends succumbed to revival and scripture, and even as she felt strong pricks of conscience "I am one of the lingering bad ones, and so I slink away, and pause, and ponder ... and do work without knowing why--not surely for this brief world, and more sure it is not for Heaven--and I ask what this message means that they ask for so eagerly" (letter to Abiah Root, 1850).

Death, and what comes thereafter, is the heart of the matter for religious faith, which offers reassurances against death's impersonal and sudden power. At the heart of this heart is fear. That the fear could be washed away simply by baptism, Dickinson, it seems, couldn't entirely believe or accept. She chose instead to live with and admit death's power and to express the fear, committing herself to "My second Rank," after having "ceded": "I've stopped being Theirs-- / The name They dropped upon my face / With water, in the country church / is finished using, now, / And They can put it with my Dolls, / My childhood, and the string of spools, / I've finished threading—too--."

On the surface, the first lines of "Because I could not stop for Death" appear to invoke orthodox reassurance against the fear of death. Death is portrayed as sensitive to the ordinary busy life of mortals--too occupied with life to stop--when he "kindly" stops and invites her for a carriage ride. In reality, the lines offer the first of several ironic reversals of what Dickinson suggests might be but isn't. If the conditional phrase seems to suggest that the dead one has rights and options in the matter--a choice of when to die--the main clause is the reminder of death's absolute nature. He stops, and that's that. The sentence points to the very human capacity to fool ourselves when we are afraid. Faced with the large unknown, we pretend it is manageable. Because it is unacceptable in its brute form, we make it governable. We whistle in the dark. That death, "kindly" and civil, is really in charge is pointed out in lines 2 and 5. He is in the driver's seat, and he drives as slowly as he likes.

There is a third occupant in the carriage, Immortality--shadowy, and if not a person, a condition to be desired. Immortality is consoling and recognizable, what one hopes will come with death. With Immortality as a companion, the speaker can accede to the trip in death's carriage; it becomes a leisurely afternoon drive--a gentleman taking a lady and her friend (a chaperone?) for a ride in the country. "And Immortality," on a line by itself, helps to emphasize the importance of the presence of the other passenger. Without Immortality present, might not the speaker have been afraid? Perhaps she'd have refused to go along to the otherwise undisclosed destination.

Death by itself in Dickinson's other poems and letters is not so gentle or refined. In "He fumbles at your Soul," for instance, death (or deity) "scalps your naked soul" while "The Universe is still." If "The Maker's cordial visage" (1718) provides something hopeful for the drowning man (who drowns), death produces a "Stiff stare" (1624), a "Forehead" that "copied stone," and "congealed" eyes. In her letters death is ever present:

I can't stay any longer in a world of death. Austin is ill of fever. I buried my garden last week--our man, Dick, lost a little girl through scarlet fever. I thought perhaps you were dead, and not knowing the sexton's address, interrogate the daisies. Ah! Dainty--dainty Death! Ah! democratic death--grasping the proudest zinnia from my purple garden,--then deep to his bosom calling the serf's child. Say, is he everywhere? Where shall I hide my things? Who is alive? The woods are dead. Is Mrs. H. alive? Annie and Katie--are they below, or received to nowhere? (letter to the Hollands, 1858)

 Who would go along willingly with death, forgetting all terror, unless a promise were offered? Dickinson offers the reader Immortality, as the Congregational ministers once offered it to her in their sermons. Is it a ruse? The reader, like a member of the congregation, will have to wait to see.

In the second stanza Death and the speaker ride along without concern for time. Her "labor" and her "leisure," are done, and she is content to be in the carriage, as if now there were no other concern but death's luxury. The word labor in line 7 recalls the good works to be done for God's world by true Christians--works now no longer necessary. Dickinson means for us to regard the word ironically. In lines 9 and 10 the poem reads, "We passed the School, where Children strove / At Recess in the Ring." In the use of strove to indicate labor, we are meant to understand something more than, and including, "play," for isn't that what children do at recess, after their lessons and schoolwork? Strove emphasizes the children's energy, while the speaker, her life over, sits passively in the carriage; but it is also a reminder that as Christians children are meant to start early to labor for their salvation. Should they be allowed simply to play? In the 1860 version of the poem the lines read, "We passed the school where children played, / Their lessons scarcely done." Why did Dickinson write "strove"? Was it because she knew from experience that time pressed, even upon children, and death often came early? "How swiftly summer has fled and what report has it home to heaven of misspent time & wasted hours. Eternity only will answer. The ceaseless flight of the seasons is to me a very solemn thought, & yet Why do we not strive to make better improvement of them?" Dickinson wrote to her friend Abiah Root when she was fifteen and a student at Amherst Academy in September 1846. As much in danger from death as adults and thus in need for early belief in the trinity, children strove.

The word choice seems clearly ironic, with Dickinson playing reality against the romantic view of childhood and death, where one's salvation is so little in danger that a schoolyard is solely for play ("the school where children played," "The Chariot"). The speaker enters the carriage as a believer, immortal soul intact, but the adult Dickinson was not such a one in the conventional sense. The poem is informed ironically with theology; it is the inexorable law of time's direction that the little narrative uncovers: the carriage seems to be going where God's chariots are supposed to go, but it ends up in the graveyard.

I had been perplexed by the line, "We passed the Setting Sun," turning over all its possible implications and a little in awe of Dickinson's ability to make the situation of the poem seem both commonplace and ominously strange. Perhaps the carriage had turned heavenward after all and made a celestial pass by the sun. But wasn't the sun setting, which meant that the point of perception was on earth? How could one pass the sun? Surely the line was not there only to set up the next line's reminder of nature's significant power over us, "Or rather--He passed Us." Then I remembered a ride in the country late one night in my husband's big old Buick. The moon was full and always a little ahead and to the right of us as we traveled east on Route 7; but when the road curved north, the moon seemed to fall behind. We passed it in a sense. The poet's essential task isn't to hold up a mirror to nature, but even when Dickinson is altering reality--bringing the dead to life, condensing and stretching time and space--her oblique language contains the necessary details to make her readers believe that what they've read has happened.

The third stanza takes note of the daily routine of the life the speaker is passing from, starting with children at recess and ending with the setting sun. The day seems to have gone down quickly, in part because of the dual suggestion of both a day's cycle and the cycle of the seasons. How clever the mixture of details that suggest both beginnings and decline, youth and ripeness. Time speeds, in part because of the insistent echo, in the short lines, of the verb ("passed") as the carriage travels through realms of living--human, animated nature, and nature becoming passive--the "setting sun," which seems even more passive in contrast with the striving children.

The imaginative reach in this stanza is for me most evident in the phrase "Gazing Grain," with all its implications about what it is like to be alive and dead at the same time--the condition of the speaker throughout the poem. The phrase emphasizes the speaker's passivity, assigning the human task to nature, animating the grain. By its placid and constant presence, it seems to stare. But it is the speaker, who has gone with death, who takes note of this. She watches from the carriage as mortality slips by--though with death, and passive, she still registers sensory details. She sees, and as long as she does, she still is. This sense of an unwillingness to relinquish the world and the self--of being--carries throughout Dickinson's work; and if death offers, as here, immortality, immortality had better provide an experience like the one life offers: it had better let her see. In a somber mood Dickinson writes this in a letter to Abiah Root: "I cannot realize that friends I have seen pass from my sight ... will not walk the streets and act their parts in the great drama of life, nor can I realize that when I again meet them it will be in another & far different world from this." It is interesting to me that in her depictions of this "different world," the speaker is by herself, as in the poem under consideration. She is alone to experience death and the nature of posthumous grace. Is this not what frightens one likely to die?

In the same letter Dickinson asks, "Does not Eternity appear dreadful to you? I often get thinking of it and it seems so dark to me.... To think that we must forever live and never cease to be." As the sun sets, darkness and a chill set in in stanza four, the stanza that was entirely removed in "The Chariot," perhaps because it was too grim, or because the editors didn't understand it. Death has been kind and civil, but he drives the carriage toward the dark and cold of the grave. The speaker feels the chill, for she is flimsily dressed with a scarf not made of fur or wool but of "Tule" (a thin, fine machine-made net), and in "Gossamer." Gossamer brings to mind the light gauze used for veils (Is she to be Christ's bride?) and the cobwebs I've walked through in the grass fields and scrub in September and October. The details are consistent with death: autumn and winter are death's perennial seasons. The subtle emphasis in the poem on a growing cold mimics both the process of dying, as if the dead one were dying even more, and our earthly answer to the mystery that separates the warm living from the cold dead. Cold (and dark) also represents our fear, as in "And zero at the bone," from "A Narrow Fellow in the Grass."

The supernatural journey ends in the graveyard, where the carriage pauses by a "House that seemed / A Swelling of the Ground," with its cornice "in the Ground." By rhyming ground with itself Dickinson emphasizes the carriage's destination and the body's disposition. For her even death is a physical experience--the dead experiencing the cool damp air after the sunset and hard on that arriving at the tomb where one imagines a similar quality of air. In the Todd/Higginson version of the poem the rhyme is altered to ground/mound, softening Dickinson's thematic intentions and nudging the verses toward conventionality, as indeed the editors tried to do throughout.

What a shock it was to first open the first edition of Poems by Emily Dickinson after having known the poem first in the version published in 1955. How could you? I heard myself think. When ever was Dickinson's emphasis on the peace that passeth all understanding? How could they not see that hers was no romantic sensibility but one capable of writing about death as it is? The carriage isn't a chariot, it's a hearse. How could they change the extraordinary rhyme? The ground/ground rhyme had always been a favorite of mine, unusual, I thought, in poetry, though not unheard of, and pretty unusual in Dickinson. The Concordance to the Poems of Emily Dickinson (S. P. Rosenbaum, Cornell University Press, 1964) shows how rarely she used a same-word rhyme. Though death is an important word and concept in Dickinson, the rhyme never appears. Out-of-stanza both die and dead are rhymed with each other once. Other such rhymes occur with the words passion, noon, dark, day, green, sky, night, rose, soul, grave, and god (once in-stanza and four times out-of-stanza). Excluding refrains, then, the in- and out-of-stanza same-word rhymes occur infrequently except for the words me, which rhymes with itself in fifty-three of her poems, and be, rhyming with itself sixteen times.

Having given up her identity as a conventional Christian, continuing to wonder about the nature of those things past ordinary understanding, trusting her eye and things face-to-face over the vision of the true believer, thinking death certain and God remote, by turns defiant, wry, perplexed, wouldn't she consider the question of how to "be" and doesn't she find its expression and emphasis in many of her poems? "Because I could not stop for Death" certainly addresses itself to the question of being by describing the state of being alive and dead at the same time. She doesn't explain how the dead live, except to give us glimpses of the perceptions the living have, ending with the partial, remembered age of the "Horses' Heads" facing eternity.

The speaker is in the cemetery, left to wonder at her progress from the moment of her first encounter with Death, with his promise of immortality, to her present situation. Immortality has changed into Eternity--an uncomfortable change, one would think, from everlasting life to a long time of waiting for redemption. The final stanza is written in the present tense, which emphasizes the hereness and withness (the existence) of the speaker after death and also suggests that the implied questions cannot be answered. What is Immortality like? We don't know--he has disappeared. Death and his carriage also recede. Only snatches of memory are left and a little narrative in stanza three representing life and also death. Time has elapsed quickly and been agonizingly slow, a psychological truth that is recognizably real--when people are excited, bored, fearful--but things for the speaker are much the same. Why hasn't redemption come? The questions, Dickinson implies, persist. People will always wonder what heaven is like and live with the hope that immortality will be granted. And until the unknown bliss is achieved, then, Dickinson suggests, the world of grain and carriage rides and, yes, graveyards, is all there is. "Instead of getting to Heaven, at last," Dickinson says in an earlier poem (#324), a person can be "going, all along." And in another wording of a similar sentiment, Dickinson says in a letter to Mrs. J. Holland in 1856, "if God had been here this summer, and seen the things that I had seen--I guess that He would think His Paradise superfluous."

Emily Dickinson's poems are personal and, however strange the experience she presents, inviting. If they are strange, they are no less real for that, the strangeness relating less to her oblique language (which can be read, even in the difficult stanzas) than to her refusal to put down the experience as if it had been experienced the same way by everyone, or as if there were conventions for feeling and knowing. Her untrammeled imagination and intellect require an individual reading and reader. The good reader intuits this and feels welcomed. Higginson and Todd, like other of her acquaintances, her family, and some of her literary heirs, felt the poems alien to what they knew, having predilections toward a style of versification and thematic locus that weren't sufficiently present in Dickinson's poems for them to understand the lines, and so they changed entire verses, radically altering the poems. They were unwilling to accept the elite place among writers she chose for herself as early as 1855 or 1856 and managed to reach a scant five or six years later, by then "Erect / With Will to Choose, or to reject" (508). Critics today, it often seems, are guilty of similar dismantlings, and for the same reasons: putting forth central meanings that they find more agreeable or more theirs, and being unable to accept the authorial ambition to write not "adequate" (508) but great poems. They are too willing to discard the individual reach toward meaning in individual poems and to replace it with what society, they think, ought to be aware of--truths they deem more significant or revealing than what the writer intended. And so with all the best intentions (one hopes) critics can do a disservice to the reading public. Any author's death, corporeal and real or greatly exaggerated, makes that possible. (Higginson would not publish Dickinson's poems in the Atlantic Monthly during her lifetime.) Authors of the caliber of Emily Dickinson don't stay dead when there are good readers to read the poems as they were written. In "Because I could not stop for Death," perhaps her finest poem on the theme of what lies beyond death, both in cosmic terms and in the feeling of those bound to die, she presents us with the strangeness of such a condition. There are no lectures and no overt theological speculations, though the experience is every way conditioned by the abstract: motion and stasis; everlasting life; youth; nature; time; immortality; what it is to be. The poem allows us to feel our own discomfort at not fully knowing, despite what we might surmise, and to experience fears and wonders about time's evanescence and the mystery of death. We yearn for immortality, so he accompanies one of us, the one invited into death's carriage. We feel the yearning and the fear as Dickinson must once have, their expression being so palpable, and while we do the poem belongs to us, common readers.

Carol Frost has published two chapbooks and six full-length collections of poems, including Pure (1994) and Venus & Don Juan (1996) from Northwestern University Press, which will print Love & Scorn, her new and collected poems, in the spring 2000. She has taught at Washington University, Syracuse University, and for writers’ conferences at Bread Loaf and Sewanee. She teaches at Hartwick College, where she directs the Catskill Poetry Workshop.

From Touchstones: American Poets on a Favorite Poem. Copyright � 1996 by the President and Fellows of Middlebury College. Reprinted with the permission of the author.


Amittai Aviram
Emily Dickinson’s 'Because I could not stop for Death—':
Irony and Sublimity in Theme and Rhythm.

Unlike [the folk ballad] "Lord Randal," "Because I could not stop for Death—" is written in what is usually called ballad measure in its neat, pure form--an obvious sign of its being a literary rather than an oral product. In the ballad measure, there are four beats per line, and four lines per stanza, as in "Lord Randal"; but here, the second and fourth lines leave the fourth beat in silence, as a musical rest. Words realize a pattern of four beats, then three, then four beats, then three. The silent beat at the end of the even-numbered lines adds a sense of cadential completion to the pattern, a completion supported by the rhymes between the second and fourth lines. One might think of them as elongations of the third beat to cover the fourth, giving those lines a sense of finality and closure because of the double-long unit at the end. The ballad measure is also called the common measure because it is used for hymns in the early versions of the Book of Common Prayer; it is often used for other Christian hymns as well (such as, for example, the American hymn "Amazing Grace"). If we consider the meter of the poem in semiotic terms, as a sign of the poem's genre, then its ambiguity between the hymn and the ballad, the sacred and the profane, will be important in our reading of the poem's thematic content. Necessarily, in order to read that content, it will also be useful to glance at some other Dickinson poems for context. All of the ones to be cited will be in the ballad or common measure.

" Because I could not stop for Death--" functions clearly as an allegory. On the literal level, a woman recounts how she eloped with (or was carried off, abducted, or seduced by) a genteel gentlemen named Death. She is naive to the otherworldly qualities of Death, unaware that she must leave this world behind to go with him, that his "House" is a grave, and that she must remain in that "House" forever, until, at some later moment in the day recollected in retrospect, she "surmised the Horses' Heads / Were toward Eternity." Upon leaving to go with Death, the speaker must put away both her labor and her leisure: she must give up her life in her household (or her parents' household) in order to labor for her new husband; as the mistress of his house, she will not have much of the leisure of her girlhood. On the way to Death's house, which is driven by Immortality (the coachman?), the bride and groom pass schoolchildren fighting or wrestling in the center of a circle of onlookers, and then fields of grain, which seem to gaze at them as they go by as if they were townspeople. The next stanza is the first clue, not for us (we already know) but for the speaker, that she is leaving, not her world, but the world behind: passing the setting sun is impossible before the age of jet airplanes, and the correction ("Or rather--He passed Us") renders the speaker appropriately passive, as would be a dead body. She recognizes her unpreparedness, wearing thin clothes that ambiguously connote a bridal gown or burial clothes, and the elements encroach upon her through them.

On the allegorical level, we know that the speaker is actually recounting her death. The children striving suggest the business of life, which becomes small and childlike from the distant perspective of the passage into death. The grain becomes one's townspeople as one becomes a thing of nature rather than an agent to farm or to eat the grain--and so forth. The disparity between the somewhat belabored allegory and the obvious meaning creates a sense of intense dramatic irony.

But there is another kind of irony as well: a situational irony. If this ballad recounts a marriage, then it should end either (a) tragically, as most ballads do, with the death of one of the marital partners-but since it cannot be the speaker, it would have to be the beloved husband; or (b) happily as a celebration of the married state. If the poem should be taken as a hymn, then it should end happily, with the speaker's joy in her eternal union with God after death. These two expected patterns--marital bliss for ballads and beatific bliss for hymns--are closely related to each other, since Christianity perennially uses marriage as an allegorical figure for the relationship between the blessed soul and its maker in the afterlife, and since, in the Protestant (and especially the Puritan) tradition, earthly marriage is a typological figure for the union between the soul and God that will, for the elect, be realized in the world to come. This view of marriage would be central to the Christianity that characterizes the social milieu of Dickinson's poetry--more specifically, the Congregationalist church in New England, which was the heir of New England Puritan ideology. Thus on both counts, in both genres, ballad and hymn, in both the secular and sacred spheres, and in both the marriage and death strands of the allegory, the ending is a shock, a surprising anticlimax.

It is not that the poem ends with the opposite of our expectations--at least, not exactly. Rather, instead of heavenly jubilation or earthly satisfaction, we have--nothing at all: "Since then--'tis Centuries--and yet / Feels shorter than the Day" recounted, which is the last day the speaker lived, the day of her death. This is because her dying day was the last day in which anything happened. Centuries feel shorter than a day because there is no event to fill them up, just the recollection of the day before they began. So, to her surprise (in terms of marriage) and ours (in terms of death and the afterlife), despite everything everyone has told her and us, it turns out that the state being described is one of utter emptiness. It is negative when we expected something positive. But the very idea of centuries of such emptiness is, itself, sublime. The thought boggles the imagination, and is a suitable place for the poem to end--that is, on the word "Eternity," with all its irony, because it is not the eternity we expected, but with all its deep truth, because it is much more sublime, since it is truly without image, unimaginable. By comparison, Christian mythology crowds its sublime moments with images that reflect earthly realities--God as King, the Son at his right hand, the choruses of the blessed singing their praise, and so forth.

Dickinson calls to mind the Christian paradigm of life's meaning, which is found in the salvation of the soul in the afterlife and not in this world, in order to reveal its failure and to propose in that very revelation an alternative source for the experience of mystical sublimity, This procedure summarizes Dickinson's project in a great many of her poems. Again and again, she explicitly defeats Christian expectations of what comes after death or of the nature of God. Again and again, she puts forth poetry itself as an alternative religious experience because of its ability to reveal the sublime within the world of the senses and within the very logic that negates Christianity. In poem no. 1545 ("The Bible is an antique Volume"), Dickinson views the Bible through an ironic lens by considering it an oppressively didactic and less than engaging romance or ballad, and then contrasts it with lyrical poetry:

Boys that "believe" are very lonesome—
Other Boys are "lost"--
Had but the Tale a warbling Teller—
All the Boys would come--
Orpheus' Sermon captivated--
It did not condemn--

What matters is the "warbling." The speaker here does not so much recommend that the behests of Christianity be clothed in the seductive garments of musical verse, but rather that verse itself--rhythm itself, isa "sermon" or a spiritual experience that affords enlightenment without the condemnation and exclusion so central to institutional religion, which is, in this case, Christianity. "I like a look of Agony," Dickinson writes elsewhere (241), "Because I know it's true-- / Men do not sham Convulsion " as they do, one may infer, sham conversion within those Christian sects, such as the Congregationalist and Holiness churches, that demand of their members a conversion experience to demonstrate their status within the elect.

That poetry itself is Dickinson's religious alternative to Christianity is clear from the conclusion of no. 657:

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