("Because I Could Not Stop For Death") Essay, Research Paper
One of the perfect poems in English is The Chariot, /13/ and it exemplifies
better than anything else [Emily Dickinson] wrote the special quality of her mind. . . .
If the word great means anything in poetry, this poem is one of the greatest in the
English language; it is flawless to the last detail. The rhythm charges with movement the
pattern of suspended action back of the poem. Every image is precise and, moreover, not
merely beautiful, but /14/ inextricably fused with the central idea. Every image extends
and intensifies every other. The third stanza especially shows Miss Dickinson’s power to
fuse, into a single order of perception, a heterogeneous series: the children, the grain,
and the setting sun (time) have the same degree of credibility; the first subtly preparing
for the last. The sharp gazing before grain instils into nature a kind of
cold vitality of which the qualitative richness has infinite depth. The content of death
in the poem eludes forever any explicit definition. He is a gentleman taking a lady out
for a drive. But note the restraint that keeps the poet from carrying this so far that it
is ludicrous and incredible; and note the subtly interfused erotic motive, which the idea
of death has presented to every romantic poet, love being a symbol interchangeable with
death. The terror of death is objectified through this figure of the genteel driver, who
is made ironically to serve the end of Immortality. This is the heart of the poem: she has
presented a typical Christian theme in all its final irresolution, without making any
final statement about it. There is no solution to the problem; there can be only a
statement of it in the full context of intellect and feeling. A construction of the human
will, elaborated with all the abstracting powers of the mind, is put to the concrete test
of experience: the idea of immortality is confronted with the fact of physical
disintegration. We are not told what to think; we are told to look at the situation.
The framework of the poem is, in fact, the two abstractions, mortality and eternity,
which are made to as- /15/ sociate in perfect equality with the images: she sees the
ideas. and thinks the perceptions. She did, of course, nothing of the sort; but we must
use the logical distinctions, even to the extent of paradox. if we are to form any notion
of this rare quality of mind. She could not in the proper sense think at all, and unless
we prefer the feeble poetry of moral ideas that flourished in New England in the eighties,
we must conclude that her intellectual deficiency contributed at least negatively to her
great distinction. Miss Dickinson is probably the only Anglo-American poet of her century
whose work exhibits the perfect literary situation— in which is possible the fusion
of sensibility and thought. Unlike her contemporaries, she never succumbed to her ideas,
to easy solutions, to her private desires. /16/
. . . No poet could have invented the elements of The Chariot; only a great poet
could have used them so perfectly. Miss Dickinson was a deep mind writing from a deep
culture, and when she came to poetry, she came infallibly.
Infallibly, at her best; for no poet has ever been perfect, nor is Emily Dickinson. Her
unsurpassed precision of statement is due to the directness with which the abstract
framework of her thought acts upon its unorganized material. The two elements of her
style, considered as point of view, are immortality, or the idea of permanence, and the
physical process of death or decay. Her diction has two corresponding features: words of
Latin or Greek origin and, sharply opposed to these, the concrete Saxon element. It is
this verbal conflict that gives to her verse its high tension; it is not a device
deliberately seized upon, but a feeling for language that senses out the two fundamental
components of English and their metaphysical relation: the Latin for ideas and the Saxon
for perceptions—the peculiar virtue of English as a poetic tongue. Only the great
poets know how to use this advantage of our language.
Like all poets, Miss Dickinson often writes out of habit; /22/ the style that emerged
from some deep exploration of an idea is carried on as verbal habit when she has nothing
to say. . . . .
But she never had the slightest interest in the public. Were four poems or five
published in her lifetime? She never felt the temptation to round off a poem for public
exhibition. Higginson’s kindly offer to make her verse "correct" was an
invitation to throw her work into the public ring—the ring of Lowell and Longfellow.
He could not see that he was tampering with one of the rarest literary integrities of all
time. Here was a poet who had no use for the supports of authorship-flattery and fame; she
never needed money. /23/
She had all the elements of a culture that has broken up, a culture that on the
religious side takes its place in the museum of spiritual antiquities. Puritanism, as a
unified version of the world, is dead; only a remnant of it in trade may be said to
survive. In the history of puritanism she comes between Hawthorne and Emerson. She has
Hawthorne’s matter, which a too irresponsible personality tends to dilute into a form like
Emerson’s; she is often betrayed by words. But she is not the poet of personal sentiment;
she has more to say than she can put down in anyone poem. Like Hardy and Whitman she must
be read entire; like Shakespeare she never gives up her meaning in a single 1ine.
She is therefore a perfect subject for the kind of criticism which is chiefly concerned
with general ideas. She exhibits one of the permanent relations between personality and
objective truth, and she deserves the special attention of our time, which lacks that kind
She has Hawthorne’s intellectual toughness, a hard, definite sense of the physical
world. The highest flights to God, the most extravagant metaphors of the strange and the
remote, come back to a point of casuistry, to a moral dilemma of the experienced world.
There is, in spite of the homiletic vein of utterance, no abstract speculation, nor is
there a message to society; she speaks wholly to the individual experience. She offers to
the unimaginative no riot of vicarious sensation; she has no useful maxims for men of
action. Up to this point her resemblance to Emerson is slight: poetry is a sufficient form
of /24/ utterance, and her devotion to it is pure. But in Emily Dickinson the puritan
world is no longer self-contained; it is no longer complete; her sensibility exceeds its
dimensions. She has trimmed down its supernatural proportions; it has become a morality;
instead of the tragedy of the spirit there is a commentary upon it. Her poetry is a
magnificent personal confession, blasphemous and, in its self-revelation, its implacable
honesty, almost obscene. It comes out of an intellectual life towards which it feels no
moral responsibility. Mather would have burnt her for a witch. /25/
from Reactionary Essays on Poetry and Ideas (New York: Charles Scribner’s
Sons, 1936), pp. 13-16, 22-25. A revised version of this essay appears in Collected
Essays by Allen Tate (Denver: Alan Swallow, 1959). Copyright 1959 by Allen Tate.
There are a few curious and remarkable poems representing a mixed theme, of which
["Because I could not stop for Death"] is perhaps the finest example. . . .
/288/ In the fourth line we find the familiar device of using a major abstraction in a
somewhat loose and indefinable manner; in the last stanza there is the semi-playful
pretence of familiarity with the posthumous experience of eternity. so that the poem ends
unconvincingly though gracefully, with a formulary gesture very roughly comparable to that
of the concluding couplet of many an Elizabethan sonnet of love; for the rest the poem is
a remarkably beautiful poem on the subject of the daily realization of the imminence of
death—it is a poem of departure from life, an intensely conscious leave-taking. In so
far as it concentrates on the life that is being left behind, it is wholly successful; in
so far as it attempts to experience the death to come, it is fraudulent, however
exquisitely, and in this it falls below her finest achievement. Allen Tate, who appears to
be unconcerned with this fraudulent element, praises the poem in the highest terms; he
appears almost to praise it for its defects: "The sharp gazing before grain
instils into nature a kind of cold vitality of which the qualitative richness has infinite
depth. The content of death in the poem eludes forever any explicit definition . . . she
has presented a typical Christian theme in all its final irresolution, without making any
final statement about it." The poem ends in irresolution in the sense that it ends in
a statement that is not offered seriously; to praise the /289/ poem for this is unsound
criticism, however. It is possible to solve any problem of insoluble experience by
retreating a step and defining the boundary at which comprehension ceases, and by then
making the necessary moral adjustments to that boundary; this in itself is an experience
both final and serious, and it is the experience on which our author’s finest work is
from "Emily Dickinson and the Limits of Judgement," In Defense of Reason,
3rd ed. (Denver: Alan Swallow, 1947), pp. 283-299.
Allen Tale is indisputably correct when he writes (in Reactionary Essays) that
for Emily Dickinson "The general symbol of Nature . . . is Death." Death is, in
fact, her poetic affirmation. Yet he continues with a questionable declaration: ". .
. and her weapon against Death is the entire powerful dumb-show of the puritan theology
led by Redemption and Immortality."
It is true that she is forced to experience and deal with nature before she can turn
her back on it, but redemption and immortality are for her neither weapon nor protection.
If these concepts deserve any place at all, it is rather because they are avenues of
escape from death. In her love poems, as well as in the group dealing with time and
eternity, she returns constantly to her preoccupation with death—both as it is
incorporated in all of nature, and as it encompasses it on all sides. Here she faces and
resolves the issue many times, but never wholly with what Tale is pleased to call her
Certainly the love poems provide the more personally representative passages from which
to draw an argument against Tate’s statement. A recurrent theme in these poems is the
separation of two lovers by death, and their reunion in immortality. But Emily Dickinson’s
conception of this immortality is centered in the beloved himself, rather than in any
theological principle. . . . The immortality which concerns her arises directly from her
connection with a second person, and never exists as an abstract or Christian condition. .
. . /115/
In this same way, redemption is also reduced to the simplest personal equation. In
these poems redemption, as such, is never mentioned; rather, the awareness of it permeates
the entire section. Redemption for Emily Dickinson is too synonymous with immortality to
receive much individual distinction. There is little talk of heaven or hell, except as
they exist within the poet herself. . . .
It is not the "dumb-show of the puritan theology" which protects the poet,
but her own redefinition of Christian values. This redefinition is not important because
of any radical deviation from the church’s precepts, but because the catchwords of pulpit
and hymnal have been given an intimate and casual interpretation. She speaks of Death’s
coming for her, yet has him arrive in a carriage to take her for an afternoon’s drive. She
writes of Calvaries, but they are "Calvaries of Love"; the grave is "my
little cottage." . . . The familiar and comforting words that, for her, spell
everyday life are used to mask unrealized abstractions. It is by contracting the
illimitable spaces of after-life to her own focus, that she can find peace, for
"their height in heaven comforts not." She fills the abyss with her talk of tea
and carriages and the littleness of time. Puritan theology may have given her a fear of
the loneliness of death, the Bible and hymnal may have provided her with patterns and
phrases, but these equip her with terminologies, molds in which her personal conceptions
can take form, rather than actual Christian conceptions.
Death for Emily Dickinson, therefore, was an uncomfortable lacuna which could in no way
be bridged, except by transposing it into a more homely metaphor. Death as a caller, the
grave as a little house—these are a poetic whistling in the dark. In a safe and
ordered microcosm, she found death an ungoverned and obsessing presence. It could be
neither forgotten nor accepted in its present form. Death had possessed too many of her
friends to be reckoned with as a complete abstraction. But when she translated this
oppression into a language of daily routine, she could blot out the reality of death with
pictures conjured up by the surrounding images:
What if I file this mortal off,
See where it hurts me,—that’s enough,—
And wade into liberty?
1891, p. 107] /116/
. . . this is said to be
But just the primer to a life
Unopened, rare, upon the shelf
Clasped yet to him and me.
1890, p. 132]
I sing to use the waiting. . .
And tell each other how we sang
To keep the dark away.
The idea of filing it off, of wading into death and its liberty, of calling death a
primer, or of singing away eternity, is the balance of known with unknown which Emily
Dickinson must portion out to herself before she can rest.
Allen Tale is on the right track in referring to death as her "general symbol of
Nature." It is the logical culmination of nature, and the greatest example of the
change which is constantly moving through nature. Emily Dickinson regards nature as
resembling death in that it can, for the moment, be brought within her garden walls, but
still spreads around her life and beyond her door, impossible to hold or to measure. Both
are forces which must be discussed and rehearsed constantly. They are too present and
compelling to be pushed into the recesses of the mind. The brute energy of both must be
leashed to the minutely familiar. Emily Dickinson’s wild nights are bound and her fears
assuaged with the images of her immediate reality. But this immediate reality is made up
of her personal terms, and has come from her own heart, not from the tenets of her church.
from "Three Studies in Modern Poetry," Accent, III (Winter, 1943),
The central theme [of "Because I could not stop for Death"] is the
interpretation of mortal experience from the standpoint of immortality. A theme stemming
from that is the defining of eternity as timelessness. The poet uses these
abstractions— mortality, immortality, and eternity—in terms /585/ of images. How
successfully, then, do these images fulfill their intention, which is to unite in filling
in the frame of the poem?
In the first two lines Death, personified as a carriage driver, stops for one who could
not stop for him. The word "kindly" is particularly meaningful, for it instantly
characterizes Death. This comes with surprise, too, since death is more often considered
grim and terrible. The third and fourth lines explain the dramatic situation. Death has in
the carriage another passenger, Immortality. Thus, in four compact lines the poet has not
only introduced the principal characters metaphorically, but she has also characterized
them in part; in addition, she has set the stage for the drama and started the drama
moving. It may be noted; in passing, that the phrase, "And Immortality,"
standing alone, helps to emphasize the importance of the presence of the second passenger.
In the first line of the second stanza, "slowly drove" and "knew no
haste" serve to amplify the idea of the kindliness of the driver, as well as the
intimacy which has already been suggested by "held just ourselves." In the
fourth line, "For his civility" further characterizes the polite, kindly driver.
The second, third and fourth lines tie in perfectly with the first two lines of the poem:
she who has not been able to stop for Death is now so completely captivated by his
personality that she has put away everything that had occupied her before his coming.
The third stanza contains a series of heterogeneous materials: children, gazing grain,
setting sun. But under the poet’s skillful treatment these materials, seemingly foreign to
one another, are fused into a unit and reconciled. How? Not, obviously, by simply setting
them side by side, but by making them all parts of a single order of perception. They are
all perceived as elements in an experience from which the onlooker has withdrawn. In its
larger meaning this experience is Nature, over which, with the aid of death, the
individual triumphs. "Gazing grain," shifting "gazing" from the dead
woman who is passing to a common feature of Nature at which she is astonished, gives the
grain something of the fixity of death itself, although the grain is alive. /586/ This
paradox is highly significant in the context of the poem: "grain" symbolizes
life, mortality; "gazing" suggests death, immortality. "Setting sun"
is no less powerful in its suggestion of the passage of time; and "the school where
children played, / Their lessons scarcely done" makes a subtle preparation for it.
In the next stanza the house, appearing as a "swelling of the ground," the
roof "scarcely visible" and the cornice, "but a mound," suggest the
grave, a sinking out of sight. "Paused" calls to mind the attitude of the living
toward the lowering of a coffin into the ground, as well as other associations with the
occurrence of death.
"Centuries" in the last stanza refers, of course, to eternity. "Each
feels shorter than the day" ties in with "setting sun" in the third stanza
and suggests at the same time the timelessness of eternity. Indeed, an effective contrast
between the time of mortality and the timelessness of eternity is made in the entire
"Horses’ heads" is a concrete extension of the figure of the carriage, which
is maintained throughout the poem. The carriage is headed toward eternity, where Death is
taking the passenger. The attitude of withdrawal, or seeing with perspective, could not
have been more effectively accomplished than it has been by the use of the slowly-moving
carriage. Remoteness is fused with nearness, for the objects that are observed during the
journey are made to appear close by. At the same time, a constant moving forward, with
only one pause, carries weighty implications concerning time, death, eternity. The person
in the carriage is viewing things that are near with the perspective of distance, given by
the presence of Immortality.
The poem could hardly be said to convey an idea, as such, or a series of ideas;
instead, it presents a situation in terms of human experience. The conflict between
mortality and immortality is worked out through the agency of metaphor and tone. The
resolution of the conflict lies in the implications concerning the meaning of eternity:
not an endless stretch of time, but something fixed and timeless, which interprets and
gives meaning to /587/ mortal experience. Two seemingly contradictory concepts, mortality
and immortality, are reconciled, because several seemingly contradictory elements which
symbolize them are brought into reconciliation.
The interaction of elements within a poem to produce an effect of reconciliation in the
poem as a whole, which we have observed in these analyses, is the outstanding
characteristic of "Metaphysical" poetry. This poetry Cleanth Brooks defines as
that in which "the opposition of the impulses which are united is extreme" or,
again, that "in which the poet attempts the reconciliation of qualities which are
opposite or discordant in the extreme." I have no intention of forcing this
classification upon the poetry of Emily Dickinson. Indeed, I have no intention of forcing
any classification upon her; I have tried to focus more upon the mechanics of her poetry.
It seems fairly clear however, . . . that she is free from the limitations of the romantic
poet, which she is generally mistaken to be. She does not employ metaphor only for
illustration or decoration of some "truth," as the romantic poet usually does.
She does not merely introduce an element of paradox, as the romantic poet tends to
do; rather she succeeds in bringing it to the surface and in reconciling seemingly
contradictory concepts. She does not use disparate materials sparingly and put them down
in juxtaposition without blending them, as the romantic poet is often inclined to do. And
her liberty in the use of words would hardly be sanctioned by the typically romantic poet,
for fear of being "unpoetic" and not "great" and
The kind of unity, or reconciliation that we have been observing at work in these poems
is chiefly responsible for their success. Proof of this is found in the fact that the few
poems of Emily Dickinson’s that are not successful show no evidence of the quality; and
some others that are only partially successful show less of it. In this sense we are
justified in referring to Emily Dickinson as a metaphysical poet. /588/
from "Emily Dickinson’s Poetry: A Revaluation," The Sewanee Review,
LI (Autumn, 1943), 585-588.
Emily Dickinson’s poems on death are scattered in clusters through the two volumes
which contain her poetic works. Drawn together in one of the several orders that suggest
themselves, they constitute a small body of poems equal to the most distinguished lyric
verse in English.
She is surely unparalleled in capturing the experience of New England deathbed scenes
and funerals. Of this kind the three best poems are "How many times these low feet
staggered," "I heard a fly buzz when I died," and "I felt a funeral in
my brain." Her most successful device in these poems is her juxtaposition of the
sense of the mys- /246/ tery of death with the sense of particular material stresses,
weights, motions, and sounds so that each clarifies and intensifies the other:
And then I heard them lift a box,
And creak across my soul
With those same boots of lead, again.
Then space began to toll
As all the heavens were a bell,
And Being but an ear,
And I and silence some strange race,
Wrecked, solitary, here.
1896, p. 168]
Few other writers have expressed such astonishing loneliness as this.
The objection has been made that no poet ought to imagine that he has died and that he
knows exactly what the experience is like. The objection does not apply, at any rate, to
"I heard a fly buzz," since the poem does not in the least strive after the
unknowable but deals merely with the last sensations of consciousness. . . . /247/
[The differing versions] remind the reader of the textual difficulties in the Dickinson
canon which are still to be cleared up. "I heard a fly buzz" has again and again
been reprinted in the altered version of the early Todd Higginson editions. This version
substitutes "round my form" for "in the room" (second line),
preferring an insipidity to an imperfect rhyme. It reads "The eyes beside"
instead of "The eyes around," substitutes "sure" for "firm,"
and says in place of "witnessed in the room," "witnessed in his
power." Both "sure" and "power" have generalized moralistic and
honorific connotations which Higginson and Mrs. Todd thought (perhaps rightly) would be
more pleasing to late Victorian readers than the poet’s more precise, concrete words.
These editors left the fourth stanza intact but wrote the third stanza thus:
I willed my keepsakes, signed away
What portion of me I
Could make assignable—and then
There interposed a fly.
1896, p. 184]
To gain a rhyme, that is, they did not scruple to add the gratuitous and poetically
neutral "Could make" and to sacrifice the voiced "s" sound which the
poet had provided in "It was." Higginson and Mrs. Todd did not publish this poem
at all until Poems, Third Series, in 1896. This leads one to conjecture that they
thought it unusually awkward in its versification and that, consequently, when they did
get around to publishing it, they edited it with unusually free hands. These are questions
which can be an- /248/ swered only by the much desired definitive edition of Emily
Of the several poems which describe death as a gentleman visitor or lover the most
familiar is also incomparably the best ["Because I could not stop for Death"]. .
. . The only pressing technical objection to this poem is the remark that
"Immortality" in the first stanza is a meretricious and unnecessary
personification and that the common sense of the situation demands that Immortality ought
to be the destination of the coach and not one of the /249/ passengers. The
personification of death, however, is unassailable. In the literal meaning of the poem, he
is apparently a successful citizen who has amorous but genteel intentions. He is also God.
And though as a genteel citizen, his "civility" may be a little hollow—or
even a confidence trick—as God his "civility" is that hierarchic status
which he confers upon the poet and for which she gladly exchanges the labor and leisure of
the less brilliant life she has been leading.
The word "labor" recalls Emily Dickinson’s idea that life is to be understood
as the slow labor of dying; now this labor is properly put away. So is the leisure, since
a far more desirable leisure will be hers in "eternity." The third stanza is a
symbolic recapitulation of life: the children playing, wrestling (more "labor")
through the cycle of their existence, "in a ring"; the gazing grain signifies
ripeness and the entranced and visionary gaze that first beholds the approach of death of
which the setting sun is the felicitous symbol.
The last two stanzas are hardly surpassed in the whole range of lyric poetry. The
visual images here are handled with perfect economy. All the poem needs is one or two
concrete images—roof, cornice—to awake in our minds the appalling identification
of house with grave. Even more compelling is the sense of pausing, and the sense of
overpowering action and weight in "swelling" and "mound." This
kinaesthetic imagery prepares us for the feeling of suddenly discerned motion in the last
stanza, which with fine dramatic tact presents us with but one visual image, the horses’
heads. There are progressively fewer visible objects in the last three stanzas, since the
seen world must be /250/ made gradually to sink into the nervously sensed world—a
device the poet uses to extraordinary effect in the last stanza of "I heard a fly
from Modern Poetry and the Tradition, Chapel Hill: The University of North
Carolina Press, 1939.
THOMAS H. JOHNSON
. . . In 1863 Death came into full stature as a person. "Because I could not stop
for Death" is a superlative achievement wherein Death becomes one of the great
characters of literature.
It is almost impossible in any critique to define exactly the kind of reality which her
character Death attains, simply because the protean shifts of form are intended to
forestall definition. A poem can convey the nuances of exultation, agony, compassion, or
any mystical mood. But no one can successfully define mysticism because the logic of
language has no place for it. One must therefore assume that the reality of Death, as
Emily Dickinson conceived him, is to be perceived by the reader in the poems themselves.
Any analysis can do no more than suggest what may be looked for .
In "Because I could not stop for Death" Emily Dickinson envisions Death as a
person she knew and trusted, or believed that she could trust. He might be any Amherst
gentleman, a William Howland or an Elbridge Bowdoin, or any of the coming lawyers or
teachers or ministers whom she remembered from her youth, with whom she had exchanged
valentines, and who at one time or another had acted as her squire. . . . /222/ The
carriage holds but the two of them, yet the ride, as she states with quiet emphasis, is a
last ride together. Clearly there has been no deception on his part. They drive in a
leisurely manner, and she feels completely at ease. Since she understands it to be a last
ride, she of course expects it to be unhurried. Indeed, his graciousness in taking time to
stop for her at that point and on that day in her life when she was so busy she could not
possibly have taken time to stop for him, is a mark of special politeness. She is
therefore quite willing to put aside her work. And again, since it is to be her last ride,
she can dispense with her spare moments as well as her active ones. . . .
She notes the daily routine of the life she is passing from. Children playing games
during a school recess catch her eye at the last. And now the sense of motion is
quickened. Or perhaps more exactly one should say that the sense of time comes to an end
as they pass the cycles of the day and the seasons of the year, at a period of both
ripeness and decline. . . . How insistently "passed" echoes through the [third]
stanza! She now conveys her feeling of being outside time and change, for she corrects
herself to say that the sun passed them, as it of course does all who are in the grave.
She is aware of dampness and cold, and becomes suddenly conscious of the sheerness of the
dress and scarf which she now discovers that she wears. . . . /223/
The two concluding stanzas, with progressively decreasing concreteness, hasten the
final identification of her "House." It is the slightly rounded surface "of
the Ground," with a scarcely visible roof and a cornice "in the Ground." To
time and seasonal change, which have already ceased, is now added motion. Cessation of all
activity and creativeness is absolute. At the end, in a final instantaneous flash of
memory, she recalls the last objects before her eyes during the journey: the heads of the
horses that bore her, as she had surmised they were doing from the beginning,
toward—it is the last word—"Eternity." . . . Gradually, too, one
realizes that Death as a person has receded into the background, mentioned last only
impersonally in the opening words "We paused" of the fifth stanza, where his
services as squire and companion are over. In this poem concrete realism melds into
"awe and circumference" with matchless economy. /224/
from Emily Dickinson: An Interpretive Biography (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap
Press of Harvard University, 1955), pp. 222-224.
THEODORE C. HOEPFNER
A comment by Richard Chase on Emily Dickinson’s "Because I Could not stop for
Death," reads in part as follows:
The only pressing technical objection to this poem is the remark that
"Immortality" in the first stanza is a meretricious and unnecessary
personification and that the common sense of the situation demands that Immortality ought
to be the destination of the coach and not one of the passengers. The personification of
death, however, is unassailable. In the literal meaning of the poem, he is apparently a
successful citizen who has amorous but genteel intentions. He is also God. . . .
The trouble with this remark is that it does not present the common sense of the
situation. Emily Dickinson was taught Christian doctrine—not simply Christian
morality but Christian theology—and she knew that the coach cannot head toward
immortality, nor can one of the passengers. Dickinson here compresses two related but
differing concepts: (1) at death the soul journeys to heaven (eternity), and thus the
image of the carriage and driver is appropriate; and (2) the soul is immortal, and our
immortality, therefore, "rides" always with us as a copassenger; it is with us
because the soul is our immortal part and so may be thought of as journeying with us. The
poet’s language is compact and oblique, but there is no false personification in it. Since
the soul is one’s true person (essence, not mask). no personification is needed, except
possibly what may be involved in the separable concept of the soul itself. Both
immortality and death, however, need personification and are given it. The horses’ heads
are toward eternity, but not toward immortality.
Incidentally, why "amorous but genteel"? To those who believe in an
,afterlife, death may be kind in taking us from a world of proverbial woe into one of
equally proverbial eternal bliss; the irony is in the contrast between our fear of death
and the kindness of his mission, and it seems unnecessary to call upon an amorous
implication. The idea of the "Bride of Christ" may be permissible but it seems
far-fetched in the context of the poem as we have it. /96/
from "’Becasue I Could Not Stop for Death,’" American Literature,
XXIX (March, 1957), 96.
CHARLES R. ANDERSON
[Emily Dickinson's] finest poem on the funeral ceremony [is "Because I could not
stop for Death"]. On the surface it seems like just another version of the procession
to the grave, but this is a metaphor that can be probed for deeper levels of meaning,
spiritual journeys of a very different sort. . . . /241/ At first reading, the orthodox
reassurance against the fear of death appears to be invoked, though with the novelty of a
suitor replacing the traditional angel, by emphasizing his compassionate mission in taking
her out of the woes of this world into the bliss of the next. ‘Death,’ usually rude,
sudden, and impersonal, has been transformed into a kindly and leisurely gentleman.
Although she was aware this is a last ride, since his ‘Carriage’ can only be a
hearse, its terror is subdued by the ‘Civility’ of the driver who is merely serving
the end of ‘Immortality.’ The loneliness of the journey, with Death on the driver’s
seat and her body laid out in the coach behind, is dispelled by the presence of her
immortal part that rides with her as a co-passenger, this slight personification being
justified by the separable concept of the soul. Too occupied with life herself to stop,
like all busy mortals, Death ‘kindly stopped’ for her. But this figure of a gentleman
taking a lady for a carriage ride is carefully underplayed and then dropped after two
The balanced parallelism of the first stanza is slightly quickened by the alliterating
‘labor’ and ‘leisure’ of the second, which encompass vividly all that must be renounced in
order to ride ‘toward Eternity.’ So the deliberate slow-paced action that lies suspended
behind the poem is charged with a forward movement by the sound pattern, taking on a kind
of inevitability in the insistent reiteration of [stanza three]. . . . Here her intensely
conscious leave-taking of the world is rendered with fine economy, and instead of the
sentimental grief of parting there is an objectively presented scene. The seemingly
disparate parts of this are fused into a vivid re-enactment of the mortal experience. It
includes the three stages of youth, maturity, and age, the cycle of day from morning to
evening, and even a suggestion of seasonal progression from the year’s upspring through
ripening to decline. The labor and leisure of life are made concrete in the joyous
activity of children contrasted with the passivity of nature and again, by the optical
illusion of the sun’s setting, in the image of motion that has come to rest. Also the
whole range of the earthly life is symbolized, first human nature, then animate, and
finally inanimate nature. But, absorbed ‘in the Ring’ of childhood’s games, the players at
life do not even stop to look up at the passing carriage of death. And the indifference of
nature is given a kind of cold vitality by transferring the stare in the dead traveler’s
eyes to the ‘Gazing Grain.’ This simple maneuver in grammar creates an involute paradox,
giving the fixity of death to the living corn while the corpse itself passes by on its
journey to immortality. Then with the westering sun, traditional symbol of the soul’s
passing, comes the obliterating darkness of eternity. Finally, the sequence follows the
natural route of a funeral train, past the schoolhouse in the village, then the outlying
fields, and on to the remote burying ground.
In the concluding stanzas the movement of the poem slows almost to a stop, ‘We paused’
contrasting with the successive sights ‘We passed’ in the earlier stages of the journey.
For when the carriage arrives at the threshold of the house of death it has reached the
spatial limits of mortality. To say that it ‘passed the Setting Sun’ is to take it out of
/243/ bounds, beyond human time, so she quickly corrects herself by saying instead that
the sun ‘passed Us,’ as it surely does all who are buried. Then, as the ‘Dews’ descend
‘quivering and chill,’ she projects her awareness of what it will be like to come to rest
in the cold damp ground. The identification of her new ‘House’ with a grave is achieved by
the use of only two details: a ‘Roof’ that is ’scarcely visible’ and a ‘Cornice,’ the
molding around the coffin’s lid, that is ‘in the Ground.’ But the tomb’s horror is
absorbed by the emphasis on merely pausing here, as though this were a sort of tavern for
the night. When she wanted to she could invoke the conventional Gothic atmosphere, and
without being imitative, as in an early poem:
What Inn is this
Where for the night
Peculiar Traveller comes?
Who is the Landlord?
Where the maids?
Behold, what curious rooms!
No ruddy fires on the hearth—
No brimming Tankards flow—
Who are these below?
1891, p. 221]
The image of the grave as a ghastly kind of inn is there built up to a climax which
blasts all hopes of domestic coziness by the revelation that its landlord is a
‘Necromancer,’ a sorcerer who communicates with spirits.
In the poem under consideration, however, the house of death so lightly sketched is not
her destination. That is clearly stated as ‘Eternity,’ though it is significant that
she never reaches it. . . . An eminent critic, after praising this as a remarkably
beautiful poem, complains that it breaks down at this point because it goes beyond the
‘Limits of Judgment’; in so far as it attempts to experience death and express the nature
of posthumous beatitude, he says, it is ‘fraudulent.’ /224/ But in addition to being a
hyper-rational criticism, this is simply a failure to read the text. The poem does not in
the least strive after the incomprehensible. It deals with the daily realization of the
imminence of death, offset by man’s yearning for immortality. These are intensely felt,
but only as ideas, as the abstractions of time and eternity, not as something experienced.
Being essentially inexpressible, they are rendered as metaphors. The idea of achieving
immortality by a ride in the carriage of death is confronted by the concrete fact of
physical disintegration as she pauses before a ‘Swelling in the Ground.’
The final stanza is not an extension of knowledge beyond the grave but simply the most
fitting coda for her poem. In projecting the last sensations of consciousness as the world
fades out, she has employed progressively fewer visible objects until with fine dramatic
skill she limits herself at the end to a single one, the ‘Horses Heads,’ recalled in a
flash of memory as that on which her eyes had been fixed throughout the journey. These
bring to mind the ‘Carriage’ of the opening stanza, and Death, who has receded as a
person, is now by implication back in the driver’s seat. ‘Since then—’tis Centuries,’
she says, in an unexpected phrase for the transition from time to eternity, but this is a
finite infinity; her consciousness is still operative and subject to temporal measurement.
All of this poetically elapsed time ‘Feels shorter than the Day,’ the day of death brought
to an end by the setting sun of the third stanza, when she first guessed the direction in
which these apocalyptic horses were headed. ‘Surmised,’ carefully placed near the
conclusion, is all the warranty one needs for reading this journey as one that has taken
place entirely in her mind, ‘imagined without certain knowledge,’ as her Lexicon defined
it. The last word may be ‘Eternity’ but it is strictly limited by the directional
preposition ‘toward.’ So the poem returns to the very day, even the same instant, when it
started. Its theme is a Christian one, yet unsupported by any of the customary rituals and
without any final statement of Christian faith. The resolution is not mystical but
Read in this way the poem is flawless to the last detail, each image precise and
discrete even while it is unified in the central motif of the last journey. Yet another
level of meaning has suggested itself faintly to two critics. One has described the driver
as ‘amorous but genteel’; the other has noted ‘the subtly interfused erotic motive,’ love
having frequently been an idea linked with death for the romantic poets. Both of these
astute guesses were made without benefit of the revealing /245/ fourth stanza, recently
restored from the manuscript. But even in the well-known opening lines of the poem there
are suggestive hints for anyone who remembers that the carriage drive was a standard mode
of courtship a century ago. In the period of her normal social life, when Emily Dickinson
took part ill those occasions that give youthful love its chance, she frequently went on
drives with young gentlemen. Some ten years before the date of this poem, for example, she
wrote to her brother: ‘I’ve been to ride twice since I wrote you, . . . last evening with
Sophomore Emmons, alone’; and a few weeks later she confided to her future sister-in-law:
‘I’ve found a beautiful, new, friend.’ The figure of such a prospective suitor would
inevitably have come to the minds of a contemporary audience as they read: ‘He kindly
stopped for me— / The Carriage held but just Ourselves. . . .’ Such a young couple
likewise would have driven beyond the village limits into the open country and then,
romantically, past the ‘Setting Sun.’ Restraint kept her from pushing this parallel to the
point of being ludicrous, and the suitor image quickly drops into the background.
The love-death symbolism, however, re-emerges with new implications in the now restored
fourth stanza, probably omitted by previous editors because they were baffled by its
For only Gossamer, my gown—
My Tippet—only Tulle—
This is certainly not a description of conventional burial clothes. It is instead a
bridal dress, but of a very special sort. ‘Gossamer’ in her day was not yet applied to
fine spun cloth but only to that filmy substance like cobwebs sometimes seen floating in
the autumn air, as her Lexicon described it, probably formed by a species of spider. This
brings to mind her cryptic poem on the spider whose web was his ‘Strategy of Immortality.’
And by transforming the bridal veil into a ‘Tippet,’ the flowing scarf-like part of the
distinctive hood of holy orders, she is properly dressed for a celestial marriage.
‘Death,’ to be sure, is not the true bridegroom but a surrogate, which accounts for his
minor role. He is the envoy taking her on this curiously premature wedding journey to the
heavenly altar where she will be married to God. The whole idea of the Bride-of-the-Lamb
is admittedly only latent in the text of this poem, but in view of the body of her
writings it seems admissible to suggest it as another metaphor for the extension of
meanings. . . . /246/
‘Because I could not stop for Death’ is incomparably the finest poem of this cluster.
In it all the traditional modes are subdued so they can, be assimilated to her purposes.
For her theme there, as a final reading of its meaning will suggest, is not necessarily
death or immortality in the literal sense of those terms. There are many ways of dying, as
she once said:
Death—is but one—and comes but once—
And only nails the eyes—
1896, pp. 47-48]
One surely dies out of this world in the end, but one may also die away from the world
by deliberate choice during this life. In her vocabulary ‘immortal’ is a value that can
also attach to living this side of the grave:
Some—Work for Immortality—
The Chiefer part, for Time—
Poems, 1929, p. 5]
As an artist she ranked herself with that elite. At the time of her dedication to
poetry, presumably in the early 1860’s, someone ‘kindly stopped’ for her—lover, muse,
God—and she willingly put away the labor and leisure of this world for the creative
life of the spirit. Looking back on the affairs of ‘Time’ at any point after making such a
momentous deci- /248/ sion, she could easily feel ‘Since then—’tis Centuries—’
Remembering what she had renounced, the happiness of a normal youth, sunshine and growing
things, she could experience a momentary feeling of deprivation. But in another sense she
had simply triumphed over them, passing beyond earthly trammels. Finally, this makes the
most satisfactory reading of her reversible image of motion and stasis during the journey,
passing the setting sun and being passed by it. For though in her withdrawal the events of
the external world by-passed her, in the poetic life made possible by it she escaped the
limitations of the mortal calendar. She was borne confidently, by her winged horse,
‘toward Eternity’ in the immortality of her poems. /249/
from Emily Dickinson’s Poetry: Stairway of Surprise (New York: Holt, Rinehart
and Winston, Inc., 1960), pp. 241-246 and 248-249.
Yvor Winters has spoken of the poem’s subject as "the daily
realization of the imminence of death—it is a poem of departure from life, an
intensely conscious leave-taking." But in its final claim to actually experience
death, Winters has found it fraudulent. There is, of course, a way out of or around the
dilemma of posthumous speech and that is to suppose that the entire ride with death is, as
the last stanza indicates, a "surmise," and " ’tis Centuries—," a
colloquial hyperbole. But we ought not insist that the poem’s interpretation pivot on the
importance of this word. For we ignore its own struggle with extraordinary claims if we
insist too quickly on its adherence to traditional limits.
In one respect, the speaker’s assertions that she "could not stop for
Death—" must be taken as the romantic protest of a self not yet disabused of the
fantasy that her whims, however capricious, will withstand the larger temporal demands of
the external world. Thus the first line, like any idiosyncratic representation of the
world, must come to grips with the tyranny of more general meanings, not the least of
which can be read in the inviolable stand of the universe, every bit as willful as the
isolate self. But initially the world seems to cater to the self’s needs; since the
speaker does not have time (one implication of "could not stop") for death, she
is deferred to by the world ("He kindly stopped for me—"). In another
respect, we must see the first line not only as willful (had not time for) but also as the
admission of a disabling fact (could not). The second line responds to the doubleness of
conception. What, in other words, in one context is deference, in another is coercion, and
since the poem balances tonally between these extremes it is important to note the
dexterity with which they are compacted in the first two lines.
There is, of course, further sense in which death stops for the speaker, and that is in
the fusion I alluded to earlier between interior and exterior senses of time, so that the
consequence of the meeting in the carriage is the death of otherness. The poem presumes to
rid death of its otherness, to familiarize it, literally to adopt its perspective and in
so doing to effect a synthesis between self and other, internal time and the faster, more
relentless beat of the world. Using more traditional terms to describe the union, Allen
Tate speaks of the poem’s "subtly interfused erotic motive, which the idea of death
has presented to most romantic poets, love being a symbol interchangeable with
death." It is true that the poem is charged with eroticism whose end or aim is union,
perhaps as we conventionally know it, a synthesis of self and other for the explicit
purpose of the transformation of other or, if that proves impossible, for the loss of
self. Death’s heralding phenomenon, the loss of self, would be almost welcomed if self at
this point could be magically fused with other. . . .
. . . death is essence of the universe as well as its end, and the self is wooed and
won by this otherness that appears to define the totality of experience.
Indeed the trinity of death, self, immortality, however ironic a parody of the holy
paradigm, at least promises a conventional fulfillment of the idea that the body’s end
coincides with the soul’s everlasting life. But, as in "Our journey had
advanced," death so frequently conceptualized as identical with eternity here suffers
a radical displacement from it. While both poems suggest a discrepancy between eternity
and death, the former poem hedges on the question of where the speaker stands with respect
to that discrepancy, at its conclusion seeming to locate her safely in front of or
"before" death. "Because I could not stop for Death," on the other
hand, pushes revision one step further, daring to leave the speaker stranded in the moment
Along these revisionary lines, the ride to death that we might have supposed to take
place through territory unknown, we discover in stanza three to reveal commonplace sights
but now fused with spectacle. The path out of the world is also apparently the one through
it and in the compression of the three images ("the School, where Children
strove," "the Fields of Gazing Grain—," "the Setting
Sun—") we are introduced to a new kind of visual shorthand. Perhaps what is
extraordinary here is the elasticity of reference, how imposingly on the figural scale the
images can weigh while, at the same time, never abandoning any of their quite literal
specificity. Hence the sight of the children is a circumscribed one by virtue of the
specificity of their placement "At Recess—in the Ring—" and, at the
same time, the picture takes on the shadings of allegory. This referential flexibility or
fusion of literal and figural meanings is potential in the suggestive connotations of the
verb "strove," which is a metaphor in the context of the playground (that is, in
its literal context) and a mere descriptive verb in the context of the implied larger
world (that is, in its figural context). The "Fields of Gazing Grain—" also
suggest a literal picture, but one that leans in the direction of emblem; thus the epithet
"Gazing" has perhaps been anthropomorphized from the one-directional leaning of
grain in the wind, the object of its gazing the speaker herself. The "Children"
mark the presence of the world along one stage of the speaker’s journey, the "Gazing
Grain—" marks the passing of the world (its harkening after the speaker as she
rides away from it), and the "Setting Sun—" marks its past. For at least as
the third stanza conceives of it, the journey toward eternity is a series of successive
and, in the case of the grain, displaced visions giving way finally to blankness.
But just as after the first two stanzas, we are again rescued in the fourth from any
settled conception of this journey. As we were initially not to think of the journey
taking place out of the world (and hence with the children we are brought back to it), the
end of the third stanza having again moved us to the world’s edge, we are redeemed from
falling over it by the speaker’s correction: "Or rather—He passed
Us—." It is the defining movement of the poem to deliver us just over the
boundary line between life and death and then to recall us. Thus while the poem gives the
illusion of a one-directional movement, albeit a halting one, we discover upon closer
scrutiny that the movements are multiple and, as in "I heard a Fly buzz when I
died," constitutive of flux, back and forth over the boundary from life to death.
Despite the correction, "Or rather—He passed Us—," the next lines
register a response that would be entirely appropriate to the speaker’s passing of the
sun. "The Dews drew" round the speaker, her earthly clothes not only inadequate,
but actually falling away in deference to the sensation of "chill—" that
displaces them as she passes the boundary of the earth. Thus, on the one hand,
"chill—" is a mere physiological response to the setting of the sun at
night, on the other, it is a metaphor for the earlier assertion that the earth and earthly
goods are being exchanged for something else. Implications in the poem, like the more
explicit assertions, are contradictory and reflexive, circling back to underline the very
premises they seem a moment ago to have denied. Given such ambiguity, we are constantly in
a quandary about how to place the journey that, at anyone point, undermines the very
certainty of conception it has previously established.
[Cameron here inserts an analysis of George Herbert's "Redemption"]
While Dickinson’s representation of the ride with death is less histrionic, it is as
insistent in our coming to terms with the personalization of the even and of its perpetual
reenactment in the present. For the grave that is "paused before" in the fifth
stanza, with the tombstone lying flat against the ground ("scarcely
visible—"), is seen from the outside and then (by the transformation of spatial
considerations into temporal ones) is passed by or through: "Since then—’tis
Centuries—." The poem’s concluding stanza both fulfills the traditional
Christian notion that while the endurance of death is essential for the reaching of
eternity, the two are not identical, and by splitting death and eternity with the space of
"Centuries—," chal1enges that traditional notion. The poem that has thus
far played havoc with our efforts to fix its journey in any conventional time or space, on
this side of death or the other, concludes with an announcement about the origins of its
speech, now explicitly equivocal: "’tis Cen- turies—and yet / Feels shorter than
the Day." What in "There’s a certain Slant of light" had been a clear
relationship between figure and its fulfillment (a sense of perceptive enlightenment
accruing from the movement of one to the other) is in this poem manifestly baffling. For
one might observe that for all the apparent movement here, there are no real progressions
in the poem at all. If the correction "We passed the Setting Sun— / Or
rather—He passed Us—" may be construed as a confirmation of the slowness of
the drive alluded to earlier in the poem, the last stanza seems to insist that the
carriage is standing still, moving if at all, as we say, in place. For the predominant
sense of this journey is not simply its endlessness; it is also the curious back and forth
sweep of its images conveying, as they do, the perpetual return to what has been
perpetually taken leave of.
Angus Fletcher, speaking in terms applicable to "Because I could not stop for
Death," documents the characteristics of allegorical journeys as surrealistic in
imagery (as for example, the "Gazing Grain—"), paratactic in rhythm or
structure (as indeed we can hear in the acknowledged form of movement: "We passed . .
. We passed . . . We passed . . . Or rather—He passed Us . . . We Paused . . .
"), and almost always incomplete: "It is logically quite natural for the
extension to be infinite, since by definition there is no such thing as the whole of any
analogy; all analogies are incomplete, and incompletable, and allegory simply records this
analogical relation in a dramatic or narrative form."
But while the poem has some of the characteristics of allegory, it nonetheless seems to
defy such easy classification. Thus the utterance is not quite allegory because it is not
strongly iconographic (its figures do not have a one-to-one correspondence with a
representational base), and at the same time, these figures are sufficiently rigid to
preclude the freeing up of associations that is characteristic of the symbol. We recall
Coleridge’s distinction between a symbolic and an allegorical structure. A symbol
presupposes a unity with its object. It denies the separateness between subject and object
by creating a synecdochic relationship between itself and the totality of what it
represents; like the relationship between figure and thing figured discussed in the first
part of this chapter, it is always part of that totality. Allegory, on the other hand, is
a sign that refers to a specific meaning from which it continually remains detached.
Through its abstract embodiment, the allegorical form makes the distance between itself
and its original meaning clearly manifest. It accentuates the absolute cleavage between
subject and object. Since the speaker in "Because I could not stop for Death"
balances between the boast of knowledge and the confession of ignorance, between a oneness
with death and an inescapable difference from it, we may regard the poem as a partial
allegory. The inability to know eternity, the failure to be at one with it, is, we might
say, what the allegory of "Because I could not stop for Death" makes manifest.
The ride with death, though it espouses to reveal a future that is past, in fact casts
both past and future in the indeterminate present of the last stanza. Unable to arrive at
a fixed conception, it must rest on the bravado (and it implicitly knows this) of its
initial claim. Thus death is not really civilized; the boundary between otherness and
self, life and death, is crossed, but only in presumption, and we might regard this fact
as the real confession of disappointment in the poem’s last stanza.
from Lyric Time: Dickinson and the Limits of Genre. Copyright ? 1979 by The
Johns Hopkins UP.
Jane Donahue Eberwein
Dickinson’s most famous poem spoken from beyond the grave confronts precisely this
problem: the assertiveness of the circuit world ["the world of matter and time and
intellectual awareness . . . busyness is the circuit world’s dominant characteristic,
industry its major value"] against the claims of complementary vision . . . The
representative of the verse here is a decidedly imaginary person—not Emily
Dickinson’s self-projection (which would be of one straining for escape beyond
circumference and intensely alert to all details of transition) but a woman contented
within the routine of circuit busyness. Her opening words echo some of Dickinson’s own
habitual usages but present a contradictory value system adapted to worldly achievements.
This lady has been industrious—too busy to stop her work, whatever it may have been.
Dickinson, too, proclaimed herself too busy in her self-descriptive July 1862 letter to
Higginson and in a letter to Mrs. Holland that Johnson and Ward place conjecturally at the
same time on the basis of obvious verbal echoes (L 268; 269). To Higginson she wrote:
"Perhaps you smile at me. I could not stop for that—My Business is