Because I could not stop for Death— Questions and Answers
by Emily Dickinson

Because I could not stop for Death— book cover
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What is the tone of Emily Dickinson's poem "Because I Could not Stop for Death"? 

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Marietta Sadler eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The tone at the beginning of the poem seems relaxed and matter-of-fact. This is in large part because the poem is narrated in the past tense, meaning that there is now a distance between the speaker and the events she describes, which allows her to describe those events with a degree of detached objectivity. Words like "kindly" and "Civility" describing "Death" also lend to the tone of the poem a suggestion of gratitude. This is slightly undermined, however, by the fact that "Death" is so immediately prominent. The tone of the poem in the beginning (relaxed, matter-of-fact, grateful) seems conspicuous because of the prominence of "Death," and the reader perhaps senses that this initial tone might be misleading.

By the fourth stanza, vocabulary like "quivering," "Chill," and "Gossamer" connotes a more sinister tone. At this point in the poem, the reader may be aware that "Death" is taking the speaker towards her own death, and this knowledge will affect the tone of the reader's voice and compound the change to a darker, more sinister tone.

At the end of the poem we realize that the narrator is in fact dead, narrating the poem from the afterlife. This may suggest that the tone becomes darker still. However, the final lines of the poem, "the Horses' Heads / Were towards Eternity," actually implies a more peaceful, hopeful tone. The implication of the final lines is that the speaker's earthly death was only the beginning of an eternal life in the spiritual realm. The speaker lives on, and this ensures that the tone of the poem at the end is hopeful, if not exactly happy.

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D. Reynolds eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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At the beginning, the poem's tone is steady and nonchalant (or casual). Death is a person riding in a carriage and the poet, when Death stops, joins him for his carriage ride. Rather than the typical response of being frightened or overwrought by death, the poet sees him as "kindly" and full of "civility," as if he is a neighborhood gentleman. She seems perfectly content to join him and together they pass a schoolyard where children are playing during recess and then a field of grain. But as they pass the setting sun--or the sun passes them--the tone shifts to become darker (like the time of day) and chillier. The scene becomes subtly more uncanny or un-homelike--now, the poet begins to quiver from the chill, because she realizes she is only dressed in very light clothes--"gossamer" and "tulle." She and Death pass what looks like a house, but it is buried in the ground, because it is, in fact, a grave. It's then that she realizes, with more foreboding, what death or "Eternity" is: being buried with no sense of time. So, although the poem's tone starts out as steady and casual, by the end, it is more chilly. 

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Wallace Field eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The speaker's tone in this poem is not only very accepting of death but also, in a way, flattered by death's willingness to stop for her and appreciative of death's gentle treatment of her.  She describes death as someone would describe a lover: he stops for her, picking her up in his "Carriage"; they drive slowly, just the two of them, and she seems to enjoy his company and "Civility."  Then, when it gets late, and she gets cold, he takes her back to his home.  Most of the words in the poem have a positive connotation; there is pretty natural imagery and references to children playing.  There is no trace of fear or even hesitation.  It is, perhaps, the knowledge of her soul's "Immortality" and a peaceful "eternity" that render the idea of dying much less frightening than we often consider it to be.

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