Study Guide

Because I could not stop for Death—

by Emily Dickinson

Because I could not stop for Death— Themes

Themes and Meanings (Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Death is a frequent concern of Dickinson’s poetry. Often as a means to its exploration, she will seek its objectification through a persona who has already died. In other poems, she is quite sensitive to the fact of death and its impoverishment of those who remain. In some poems, she is resentful toward God, who robs people of those they love and is seemingly indifferent to such loss. One cannot explore the catalyst of life events behind Dickinson’s marked sensitivity with any certainty because she lived a remarkably private life. For her, death was only one more form of distancing. As she wrote in poem 749: “All but Death can be Adjusted.” Perhaps two of her most famous lines express it best: “Parting is all we know of heaven,/ And all we need of hell” (poem 1732).

Emily Dickinson was very familiar with death. Thirty-three of her acquaintances had died between February, 1851, and November, 1854, including her roommate at Holyoke College. Her mother’s family seemed predisposed to early deaths. Then the momentous death of her father occurred in 1874. In 1882, eight years after the death of her father, she wrote that “no verse in the Bible has frightened me so much from a Child as ‘from him that hath not, shall be taken even that he hath.’ Was it because its dark menace deepened our own Door?”

Some may see this poem as conciliatory, even Christian, given that Immortality rides in the carriage and that the persona speaks of Eternity in the end. Death, by this notion, becomes God’s emissary taking one into Eternity. For others, however, there is no resurrection, no specifying of an afterlife. Immortality is employed ironically, not to suggest everlasting life, but everlasting death. As a consort of death, one need not be puzzled by Immortality’s presence in the carriage. This is the import of the final stanza, when the speaker exclaims, “Since then—’tis Centuries—and yet/ Feels shorter than the Day/ I first surmised the Horses Heads/ Were toward Eternity.” There is a sense that the journey has never ended and never will. There is much eternity up ahead, for death is a realm without temporal-spatial parameters.

The truth is that life is short and death is long. Perhaps in this sobering truth one may find that Dickinson’s poem is as much about life—about how one ought to redeem it from the banal—as it is about death.