Emily Dickinson: “Because I Could not Stop for Death”

Emily Dickinson was a reclusive American poet. She was unrecognized in her own time, Dickinson is known posthumously for her innovative use of form and syntax. Born on December 10, 1830, in Massachusetts, Emily Dickinson left school as a teenager, eventually living a reclusive life on the family homestead. There, she secretly created bundles of poetry and wrote hundreds of letters. Due to a discovery by sister Lavinia, Dickinson’s remarkable work was published after her death, 1886, in Amherst, and she is now considered one of the towering figures of American literature. She wrote hundreds of poems such as “Heart, we will forget him!”, “I’m Nobody! or “Because I Could not Stop for Death” Emily Dickinson lived during one of the most tumultuous and (at the sametime) booming periods in American history. At once turbulent and idyllic, the mid-nineteenth century saw the flowering of literature, along with the push towards creating a unique American literary identity. But it also saw a society on the brink of violence with the increasing debates over slavery and the continued encroachment upon and displacement of Native Americans. Ultimately, the country became embroiled in a massive Civil War, tearing it apart and creating a legacy of strained race relations for future generations. She was a poet who dealt with themes such as death, faith, immortality and she had a strong relationship with God. Her writing style consists in short lines, punctuation, dashes, lack of titles, slang, rhyme and capital letters. Surprisingly, in 2016 she was invited to “A Quiet Passion”, the dinner party by Judy Chicago, although they all knew she was died. In her poem “Because I could not stop for Death”, Emily Dickinson depicts a close encounter with Death and Immortality. She uses personification to portray Death and Immortality as characters. Her familiarity with Death and Immortality at the beginning of the poem causes the reader to feel at ease with the idea of Death. However, as the poem progresses, a sudden shift in tone causes readers to see Death for what it really is, cruel and evil. In the first stanza, the author personifies death, portraying him as a close friend, or perhaps even a gentleman suitor. She reveals that she welcomes death when she says, “he kindly stopped for me”. The pleasant tone of the poem further suggests that the author is quite comfortable with death. In the second stanza, the carriage ride is symbolic of the author’s departure from life. She is in the carriage with death and immortality. She reveals her willingness to go with death when she says that she had “put away…labor and…leisure too for his civility”. This is portrayed as Death drives slowly for her, allowing her to reminisce. He takes her through the course of her life with a slow and patient ride. Immortality rides along, but is silent. There is alliteration in the third line of this stanza “My labor, and my leisure too”. In this sentence, the word “labor” and “leisure” are a metonymy due to it means life. In the third stanza, they drive “passed the school where the children strove” implying that the author is generously given a few moments to remember her childhood. They then drive past the “gazing grain” allowing the author to think back upon the prime of her life. Then they pass the setting sun. This symbolizes the author’s death. The sunset is beautiful and gentle, and the passing from life to eternity is portrayed as such. In this stanza we have alliteration “at recess in the ring”, and anaphora “we passed the school, where children strove” There is a sudden shift in tone in the fourth stanza. Suddenly, now that the sun has set, the author realizes that she is quite cold, and she shivers. Then she becomes aware that she is under dressed. Prior to this moment of realization, the author felt quite comfortable with Death and Immortality. After all, she was riding along with them in only her “gossamer” and her “tippet only tulle”, or in other words, in only a sheer nightgown. In the first through third stanzas, the author is on close affectionate terms with Death and Immortality. In stanza 5 shows her moment of realization that she has been seduced by Death, they pause before her new “home”, a “swelling of the ground”. She claims the “the roof was scarcely visible” and the “cornice but a mound”. The tone becomes one of disappointment, as the author realizes that death is not all she thought it would be. Now, as the sun has set on her life, and she is standing before her new forever home, disappointment sets in. Death was kind and gentle, like a gentleman suitor. He lured her in with grandiose promises of eternity. Now that she sees her small, damp, eternal home, she feels cheated. In the last stanza she says it has now been “centuries and yet each feels shorter than a day” as life goes on without her. It has been centuries since that moment of realization, when she “first surmised” that Death had seduced her, that he had appeared a kindly gentleman at first, but had left her alone in the dark, cold, damp grave. In this stanza we have a paradox “Since then -’tis Centuries- and yet Feels shorter than the Day”. To conclude, Emily Dickinson is personifying death throughout the whole poem.