Because I could not stop for Death— Summary

Because I could not stop for Death—” is a poem by Emily Dickinson. Its speaker rides in a carriage with Death, who “kindly” stops to pick her up.

  • The speaker rides in a carriage with Immortality and a personified vision of Death.
  • Together, they drive past buildings, fields, and a gravesite on their ride into eternity.
  • The speaker is wearing tulle and a gown and gazes out at the setting sun as it passes them, watching the world go by.
  • Slowly, Death and the speaker ride into eternity.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 905

Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for Death—” (1863) is one of her most iconic poems. The six-stanza ballad tells of the speaker’s carriage ride with Death, which is personified as a gentleman caller. The poem combines metaphysical subject matter with tangible imagery, offering the speaker a series of worldly sights on her journey “toward Eternity.”

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Stanza by Stanza Summary:

  • The first and second stanzas establish the poem’s simple yet strange narrative. Death “kindly” stops for the speaker in his carriage. Accompanied by Immortality, they embark on their unhurried sojourn. To honor Death’s civility, the speaker has put away both her “labor” and her “leisure.”
  • The third and fourth stanzas describe the environment through which the carriage rides. The third stanza depicts a trio of sights that represent the stages of human life, including a group of schoolchildren at play during recess, a field of “gazing grain,” and finally the setting sun. The fourth stanza describes the ensuing night, in which “the Dews drew quivering and chill.” Prompted by the funereal atmosphere, the speaker describes her provisional “gossamer” and “tippet,” fabrics for mourning veils.
  • In the fifth and sixth stanzas the speaker confronts the phenomenon of death. The final sight the speaker encounters during the carriage ride is a grave, modestly and invitingly characterized as “a House” that resembles “a Swelling of the Ground.” In the final stanza, the speaker reflects on the “Centuries” that have briskly passed since the day of the ride, when she “first surmised the Horses’ Heads / Were toward Eternity.”

Dickinson takes a traditional approach to the rhyme and meter of the poem. The poem uses common meter, a classic ballad form that employs alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter. As in many ballads, the stanzas follow an ABCB rhyme scheme. Dickinson’s formal choices give the poem a lilting, songlike effect that conveys the poem’s narrative arc and accentuates the leisurely, mannered tone. Over the course of the poem, however, Dickinson includes a notable exception to each formal pattern:

  • In the fourth stanza, the meters of the first two lines are switched, producing a jarring effect. In that moment, the speaker undergoes a change in perspective; having claimed that “we passed the Setting Sun,” she shifts to “Or rather — He passed Us —.” Dickinson conveys the speaker’s feeling of surprise and reorientation by introducing a shortened, three-beat line at the start of the fourth stanza.
  • In the final stanza, Dickinson subtly subverts the rhyme scheme. Unlike in the previous stanzas, the first and third lines share a light but resonant end rhyme of “yet” and “heads.” This end rhyme gives the final stanza a greater and more cohesive musicality than the prior stanzas. As a result, the poem concludes on a stirring, sonorous note.

Two notable devices Dickinson uses in “Because I could not stop for Death—” are concrete diction and alliteration. These two devices, which Dickinson often employs simultaneously, contribute to the poem’s distinctive tone and texture.

  • Dickinson’s poem confronts abstract subject matter—namely “Death” and “Eternity”—but she explores these abstractions through concrete language. From the start, Death itself is figured tangibly as a gentleman in a carriage. The speaker’s journey towards her own death features a series of concrete scenes, including children at play, fields of grain, the setting sun, the speaker’s “Gossamer” and “Tippet,” and finally a house-like grave. Dickinson thus gives the speaker’s spiritual transit a physical, tangible grounding.
  • Dickinson frequently employs alliteration, producing phrases that both catch the eye and appeal to the ear. In many cases, the poem’s alliterative phrases are also comprised of concrete diction: “At Recess — in the Ring”; “the Fields of Gazing Grain”; “the Setting Sun”; “For only Gossamer, my Gown”; “My Tippet — only Tulle”; and “Horses’ Heads.” Dickinson’s use of alliteration gives these concrete phrases even more physicality, allowing them to evoke sounds as well as sights.

Dickinson imbues the things in her poem with symbolic significance, even as she grants them a tangible and sensory existence.

  • For example, the third stanza offers a triptych of scenes which together symbolize the three stages of human life. The children at play symbolize infancy and youth, the “Fields of Gazing Grain” suggest the labors of adulthood, and “the Setting Sun” intimates old age. Furthermore, the children’s leisure and the fields’ labor mirror the speaker’s own “labor” and “leisure” from the prior stanza. In some sense, she witnesses her own life dramatized in the scenes outside the carriage window.
  • In the following stanza, the speaker’s “Gossamer” and “Tippet” symbolize the ritual act of mourning. The speaker personalizes the act of mourning by offering her own clothes—her “Gown” and “Tulle”—as makeshift funeral fabrics. This personalization is fitting, for it is the speaker’s own death she ritualizes. Furthermore, this informal solution aligns with the poem’s broader tendency to treat Death—that direst of subjects—with a curiously light touch.
  • In the penultimate stanza, the speaker describes a grave—likely her own—as “a House that seemed / A Swelling of the Ground.” This metaphorical treatment of the grave suggests that the speaker feels welcomed by Death. Within the conceit of the poem, Death is a gracious coachman. This beneficent relationship with Death is extended by the symbolism of the grave-as-house, which casts Death in an inviting light. From such a perspective, Death is home.

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