Because I could not stop for Death— Analysis

The Poem (Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In “Because I could not stop for Death,” one of the most celebrated of any poems Emily Dickinson wrote, the deceased narrator reminisces about the day Death came calling on her. In the first stanza, the speaker remarks that she had been too busy to stop for Death, so in his civility, he stopped for her. In his carriage, she was accompanied by Immortality as well as Death. Many readers have wanted to know why Immortality also rides in the carriage, but when thinking of the courting patterns in Dickinson’s day, one recalls the necessity of a chaperon. In any event, Dickinson considers Death and Immortality fellow travelers. This interaction with Death shows the complete trust that the speaker had placed in her wooer. It is not until the end of the poem, from the perspective of Eternity, that one is able to see behind the semblance of Death. Far from being the gentlemanly caller that he appears to be, Death is in reality a ghoulish seducer. Perhaps Dickinson, in her familiarity with the Bible, draws upon Satan’s visitation of God in similar pose as a country gentleman. In this way, Dickinson’s poem resembles the Gothic novel, a popular Romantic genre given to the sinister and supernatural.

In the second stanza, the reader learns that the journey was leisurely and that the speaker did not mind the interruption from her tasks because Death was courteous. Along the way, they passed the children’s school at recess time and fields of ripened grain. They even passed the setting sun—or rather, it passed them, so slow was their pace. With the coming of evening, a coolness had fallen for which the speaker found herself unprepared with regard to clothing. They drew near a cemetery, the place where the speaker has been dwelling for centuries. In the realm of Death, time has elapsed into centuries for the speaker, though it seems shorter than her last day of life when she first “surmised” that her journey was toward Eternity.

Because I could not stop for Death— Forms and Devices (Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Tone, or the emotional stance of the speaker in the poem, is a central artifice in “Because I could not stop for Death.” Though the subject is death, this is not a somber rendering. On the contrary, Death is made analogous to a wooer in what emerges as essentially an allegory, with abstractions consistently personified. Impressed by Death’s thoughtfulness and patience, the speaker reciprocates by putting aside her work and free time. Judging by the last stanza, where the speaker talks of having “first surmised” their destination, it can be determined that Death was more seducer than beau. The tone of congeniality here becomes a vehicle for stating the proximity of death even in the thoroughfares of life, though one does not know it. Consequently, one is often caught unprepared. The journey motif is at the core of the poem’s stratagem, a common device (as in poem 615, “Our Journey had Advanced”) in Dickinson’s poetry for depicting human mortality.

Stanza 3 offers an example of Dickinson’s substantial capacity for compression, which on occasion can create a challenge for readers. This stanza epitomizes the circle of life, not so much as to life’s continuity despite death, but more in fusion with the journey within the poem—life as procession toward conclusion. Thus, “the School, where Children strove” applies to childhood and youth. Dickinson’s dictional acuity carries over to “Recess—in the Ring.” Early life, with its sheltering from duress and breakdown and death, its distance in experience from the common fate, is but a deceptive lull—its own kind of seduction and, hence, recess from decline. Yet children are said to be in the “Ring.” Time is on the move even for them, though its pace seems slow. Ironically, the dictional elements coalesce in the stanza to create a subrendering of the greater theme of the poem: the seduction of the persona by Death. The children are also without surmise, and like the speaker, they are too busy with themselves (as represented in the verb “strove”) to know that time is passing.

Dictional nuance is critical to the meaning of the last two lines of the third stanza. The word “passed” sets up verbal irony (the tension of statement and meaning). The carriage occupants are not merely passing a motley collection of scenes, they are passing out of life—reaching the high afternoon of life, or maturity. Maturation, or adulthood, is also represented in the “Fields of Gazing Grain.” This line depicts grain in a state of maturity, its stalk replete with head of seed. There is intimation of harvest and perhaps, in its gaze, nature’s indifference to a universal process. Appropriately, the next line speaks of “the Setting Sun,” meaning the evening of life, or old age.

Reiteration of the word “passed” occurs in stanza 4, emphasizing the idea of life as a procession toward conclusion. Its recurring use as a past-tense verb suggests the continuation of an action in the past, yet the noncontinuance of those actions in the present in keeping with the norms of the imperfect tense. Human generations will collectively engage in the three life stages, dropping out individually, never to engage in them again.

Dictional elements in stanza 5 hint at unpreparedness for death. The persona’s gown was but “Gossamer,” a light material highly unsuitable for evening chill. For a scarf (“Tippet”), she wore only silk netting (“Tulle”).

The poem is written in alternating iambic tetrameter and trimeter lines, with near rhyme occasionally employed in the second and fourth lines. Regular rhyme occurs sporadically and unexpectedly in its spatial distancing. The use of the dash in the stanza’s concluding line compels the reader to pause before entering into the monosyllabic prepositional phrase in which there is a heaviness that suggests the grave’s finality. The seemingly disheveled rhyme scheme in actuality intimates one of the poem’s central themes: unpreparedness.

Because I could not stop for Death— Bibliography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Boruch, Marianne. “Dickinson Descending.” The Georgia Review 40 (1986): 863-877.

Brantley, Richard E. Experience and Faith: The Late-Romantic Imagination of Emily Dickinson. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Carruth, Hayden. “Emily Dickinson’s Unexpectedness.” Ironwood 14 (1986): 51-57.

Eberwein, Jane Donahue. An Emily Dickinson Encyclopedia. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998.

Ferlazzo, Paul, ed. Critical Essays on Emily Dickinson. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984.

Grabher, Gudrun, Roland Hagenbüchle, and Cristanne Miller, ed. The Emily Dickinson Handbook. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998.

Juhasz, Suzanne, ed. Feminist Critics Read Emily Dickinson. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983.

Kirk, Connie Ann. Emily Dickinson: A Biography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2004.

Lundin, Roger. Emily Dickinson and the Art of Belief. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 2004.

MacNeil, Helen. Emily Dickinson. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986.

Pollack, Vivian R. A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Vendler, Helen Hennessey. Poets Thinking: Pope, Whitman, Dickinson, Yeats. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004.