The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In “Because I could not stop for Death,” one of the most celebrated of any poems Emily Dickinson wrote, the deceased narrator reminisces about the day Death came calling on her. In the first stanza, the speaker remarks that she had been too busy to stop for Death, so in his civility, he stopped for her. In his carriage, she was accompanied by Immortality as well as Death. Many readers have wanted to know why Immortality also rides in the carriage, but when thinking of the courting patterns in Dickinson’s day, one recalls the necessity of a chaperon. In any event, Dickinson considers Death and Immortality fellow travelers. This interaction with Death shows the complete trust that the speaker had placed in her wooer. It is not until the end of the poem, from the perspective of Eternity, that one is able to see behind the semblance of Death. Far from being the gentlemanly caller that he appears to be, Death is in reality a ghoulish seducer. Perhaps Dickinson, in her familiarity with the Bible, draws upon Satan’s visitation of God in similar pose as a country gentleman. In this way, Dickinson’s poem resembles the Gothic novel, a popular Romantic genre given to the sinister and supernatural.

In the second stanza, the reader learns that the journey was leisurely and that the speaker did not mind the interruption from her tasks because Death was courteous. Along the way, they passed the children’s school at recess time and fields of ripened grain. They even passed the setting sun—or rather, it passed them, so slow was their pace. With the coming of evening, a coolness had fallen for which the speaker found herself unprepared with regard to clothing. They drew near a cemetery, the place where the speaker has been dwelling for centuries. In the realm of Death, time has elapsed into centuries for the speaker, though it seems shorter than her last day of life when she first “surmised” that her journey was toward Eternity.