Explain how Emily Dickinson uses irony and tone to demystify death in her poem " Because I could not stop for Death-."

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Stephen Holliday eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"Because I could not stop for death--" exemplifies Dickinson's examination of death and dying, one of the most important themes in her entire poetic output.  In this poem, as in many others (for example, "I heard a fly buzz when I died"), Dickinson speaks intimately about death but does not describe or speculate about the nature of an afterlife--that is, whether heaven, hell, God, or the devil exist.

Dickinson's tone is elegiac in that it calmly reflects on the experience of death, with no trace of fear or hesitation, and, more important, a peaceful acceptance of death:

Because I could not stop for Death,/He kindly stopped for me;/The carriage held just but ourselves/And immortality.  (ll. 1-4)

Dickinson employs the metaphor of a carriage ride, with the figure of Death as her guide,  to describe her experience of dying and death, but she clearly is at peace with the experience--after all, Death is described as kind in the first stanza and civil in the second.  Not only is death demystified, made non-threatening, but Death himself exhibits traits like civility and kindness, the perfect guide to the unknown.

The carriage, in the second stanza, passes through scenes of life, and Dickinson's tone her again is one of acceptance and calm observation: she sees children playing (youthful life); grain fields (agricultural life); and the setting sun (an emblem of life's end.  Again, Dickinson views these things with a peaceful detachment, an observer of life to which she no longer belongs but without a sign of regret or longing to be alive again.

Up to this point, Dickinson writes as if she has recently died and is perhaps on her way to whatever comes after death, but, in an ironic twist, we are surprised to learn in the fourth and fifth stanzas that the poet has been dead for centuries.  Her tomb is so old, for example, that "the roof was scarcely visible" because, over the centuries, it has sunk into the ground.  In other words, it dawns on the reader that this carriage ride is a very old memory, not the description of a recent event.

In typical Dickinson fashion, she ends the poem without describing what she has been doing since "she first surmised the horses' heads/Were toward eternity."  We can assume, of course, that there is a kind of afterlife, but there is often an ironic smile on Dickinson because, in her unique way, she is not telling.



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