Semansky argues that “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” is a statement about the negative aspects of marriage for the independent, nineteenth-century woman.
Arguably her most well-known poem, “Because I could not stop for Death” underscores not only the value Emily Dickinson placed on her independence from worldly conventions, but also the fear she had of being ensnared by them. Long considered either a statement of Dickinson’s macabre attitudes toward death or a romantic rendering of her own imagined death, in fact this poem is nothing less than an argument against marriage and the smothering effect it can have on a woman’s independence. After all, “Death” here is personified as a suitor who takes his potential bride away from her busy life. An independent woman — especially in mid-nineteenth century New England — posed a threat to the social order, in which a woman’s proper place was beside her husband. A husbandless woman, then, was suspect — someone who stood outside the mores and expectations of her community. Speaking literally from the grave, the narrator of this famous poem recounts her seduction as a young woman and describes her inevitable journey toward death. It is only after she recognizes that the carriage’s final destination is her own grave that we no longer hear about her suitor. The speaker has been seduced, driven to her death, and abandoned.
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To me it is a stretch to think about Death as a suitor in this poem. I do not discount the experiences and life of the author as part of literary interpretation; however, I see little evidence in the text for such an interpretation. To me it is just too far to go with too little evidence to take me there.
Herein lies the delight and intrigue of literature: Provided one can substantiate one's reasons, interpretations can viably differ. Semansky's argument is sound given Miss Dickinson's past behaviors, experiences, and remarks, as well as her time period. Indeed, in her poem there is the aura of seduction. The "gossamer" gown that the speaker wears is suggestive of a wedding dress, and well as connotative of her vulnerability.
Do we have any real evidence that Dickinson did not get married because she though it stifiling and limiting? I have always thought it more likely that it was her shy and retiring personality that kept her not only from marriage, but also from social intercourse in general ... and then there are the two "my life closed twice" incidents ....
Short of actually asking Chris Semansky yourself why he concluded what he did about the poem, it is left to us to infer, or guess, based on clues that are given to us. In looking through some of his other criticisms, Semansky seems to like to take a more controversial and unique approach to older, classic poems. He has opinions that are much different from many others, often making statements that stand out in their boldness. Sometimes, he seems to make stretches, taking what could be a bizarre stance on a poem, and then going back and defending that stance. So, this poem is yet another example.
There is also a movement in literature and culture that views all art and writing through the view point of the "stifled woman." The feminist movement was a powerful force in culture that took old beliefs and ways of thinking about things, and presented a different angle. This viewpoint of the poem could be considered a by-product of that movement; Dickinson is not talking about death, no. Marriage is the death of individuality and freedom--that is what she is talking about. That concept is one that views her poem from a more feminist angle. Perhaps the critic endorses that movement, or thinks it is worth considering, in respect to this poem.
The fact that Dickinson herself never got married could also have fed into his opinion. To not get married in Dickinson's time was a rather large social stigma on the woman and her family, and many have wondered at her reasons for remaining single. This poem, interpreted as Semansky indicates in his critique, might be an attempt to answer that question--he is saying that Dickinson didn't marry because she found it to be stifling and limiting. So, perhaps Semansky wanted to allude to possible reasons for Dickinson's bachelorette status her entire life.
So, short of actually asking the question to the man himself, guesses are what we have. I hope that these possible responses help a bit; good luck!
I think I would also disagree, although this is an interesting read of this poem. I think I prefer the more traditional read. None of us have "time" for death; we are always busy with the things of life and have no intention of "stopping" for death. By the way, I think Dickinson's specific reference to "Death" coming for her makes it difficult to read it as a "suitor" --- although with Dickinson, you never know for sure.
After death "picks her up" and she puts aside her "civility," the rules that govern interaction in this world, they head through some of the stages of her life: school, grain ripening, and then on past the sunset. After this they pause at her new "house," just a swelling in the ground, a clear reference to her grave, her new home for centuries.
There are many poems that deal with death and its "interruption" of our lives. I have always found this to be one of the most interesting.
Camille Paglia, in Break, Blow, Burn (2005), a volume of short essays on poems ranging from Shakespeare to Joni Mitchell, offers another unconventional interpretation (97–100). Here area a few excerpts:
In this ingenious allegory . . . a proper, respectable lady is courted and then kidnapped and murdered by a smooth gentleman caller. Dickinson’s protagonist.. . never comprehend[s] the dark forces at work in the world. . . .
The trusting speaker fails to see that her suitor’s good manners (”Civility” 8) are a ruse. He is a seducer and cad, a trickster or confidence man. . . .
“Ring”  is the competitive arena of earthly life, a gated paddock where men are schooled like horses. It’s also a communal circle dance, . . . suggesting order and regularity on the one hand but conformity and entrapment on the other. . . .
At the poem’s exact midpoint, there is a hesitation or stutter (”Or rather—”), as the personified Sun obliviously vanishes (”He passed Us”) and the lady’s mental powers start to dim (13). . . .
After the first stanza’s carefree regularity, the rest of the poem uses unsettling, daringly modern off rhymes to hint at the speaker’s loss of control as well as the gradual breakdown of meaning (“away”/“Civility”; “Ring”/“Sun”; “chill”/“Tulle”). . . .
God himself is the suave kidnapper. That the carriage’s apocalyptic “Horses’ Heads” are steering “toward eternity,” however, raises the question of whether God is the driver or the driven, himself a victim of larger, impersonal forces (23–24).
Paglia’s reading clearly is original and also very bold.
If you disagree, why do you disagree and what evidence from the poem can you use along with historical and the personal background of the author to prove your conclusions? I have read much of his other criticism and I find his writing to be both fresh and bold.
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