The first stanza in Emily Dickinson’s poem “Because I Could Not Stop for Death—” describes an encounter between the speaker and Death, with Death personified as a carriage driver who stops his carriage in order to pick up the speaker and take her on a ride to Eternity. This encounter is striking for its lighthearted tone; the speaker seems to be going on an everyday ride and the character of Death is described as a gentleman with “kindly” intentions, which is most at odds with the stereotype of Death as the much-feared Grim Reaper. The iambic meter is also at odds with the meaning of the poem. The iambic rhythm (da DUM da DUM da DUM) creates a lively momentum to the lines, and yet the meaning of the lines emphasizes the exact opposite: that the momentum of life has stopped because Death has stepped in to stop it. Dickinson’s use of dashes and capital letters also attempt to break up the inevitable rhythm.
Unlike the driver, Death, who is in control, the speaker has no control. However, she does not resent this. She is not resistant to her fate at all; there is no anxiety or fear. The striving of life is over, and the speaker accepts that immediately; she is content to simply settle in for the ride, especially since the character of Death seems to be so very courteous. The release from life is not fraught with any tortured last moments. The passivity of the speaker suggests a life that may have been spent following its own rhythms (da DUM da DUM da DUM) without thinking too much about where this rhythm of life was taking her. Did the speaker ever take the time to consider life’s meaning, or was she always too busy to deal with such questions? No matter, because Death steps in and takes control.
The fourth line in the first stanza indicates another character as well, “Immortality,” suggesting the hope that the speaker’s last stop will not be the grave but will be an afterlife, “Eternity.” Only at the end of the poem do we learn that the action in the first stanza, the speaker being taken by Death, actually occurred many centuries ago. The gentle cessation of the striving rhythms of life have left a powerful mark on the speaker, who remembers the vivid details of this day, despite the fact that she has been dead for centuries.