What is Emily Dickinson discussing, and how successful is she, in her poem "Because I could not stop for Death--"?
Dickinson's "Because I could not stop for Death--" (ca. 1863) is often considered her finest poem. In fact, Allen Tate, himself one of the finest American poets of the 20thC., thought that "Because" is "one of the perfect poems in English. . . . this poem is one of the greatest in the English language." (see Tate, Reactionary Essays on Poetry and Ideas, p. 13). Most readers and other literary critics have agreed that "Because" exhibits Dickinson's poetic skill and reflects her thinking about death better than any other poem among her nearly 2,000 poems.
One of the consistent themes in Dickinson's poetry is death and dying. Dickinson seems to have been intensely interested in death throughout her life--but only up to the point of death and rarely beyond it. In "Because," we are presented with a speaker who seems to be completely at peace with death:
Because I could not stop for Death--/He kindly stopped for me--/ . . . We passed the School, where Children strove/At recess . . ./ We passed the Fields of Grazing Grain--/We passed the Setting Sun--
Dickinson personifies the abstraction of death as the "kindly" driver of her carriage, and there is no sense that Dickinson feels threatened by, or regrets, her situation. The mood she creates in the opening three stanzas is one of calmness and peaceful acceptance. She includes images of life--children playing, grain growing, the sun passing--to emphasize that she is no longer part of the living world, and she views these images not as a person who regrets not being alive but with calm detachment.
Even when she describes her grave--"a House that seemed/A Swelling of the Ground"--the tone is matter-of-fact, the mood peaceful, and we sense that although she is an interested observer she has no negative responses to her own grave. Using the metaphor of a home for her grave is particularly appropriate because it indicates her belief that death may be a continuation of her consciousness--in other words, even her grave has positive connotations.
In the final stanza we learn that she has been dead for centuries--"Since then--'tis Centuries"--but to Dickinson those years have been compressed to nothing. It is as if she dies, rides with Death in the carriage, views her grave, and hundreds of years pass, but Dickinson is somehow outside time, a measure of existence that no longer has any meaning.
Among other things, the ending of the poem illustrates another theme important in Dickinson' poems about death. She often focuses on death but does not speculate or describe what happens after death, which speaks to her ambivalence toward conventional religious beliefs and her own ambiguous relationship with a conventional God and afterlife.