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“Because I Could Not Stop For Death” is one of the most analyzed poems by Emily Dickinson. Consequently, it can be argued that this poem has been exhausted through repeated analysis and dissection. Nevertheless, Dickinson’s crown jewel can still surprise a keen reader by offering brand new perspectives that have otherwise gone unnoticed in the past. “Because I Could Not Stop For Death” is one of the few lengthy poems that Dickinson wrote. The fascinating poem was not assigned a title by the poet and its first line serves as the title. The poet only numbered her poems instead of assigning titles to her works.
The poem has six stanzas and features a complete rhyme pattern. The separation of lines using dashes was a signature style of the poet, and it can be seen in her other works. The theme of the poem is death, a dramatic, obvious, and constant subject. The poem’s unique touch is the characterization of death and the consequent relationship between this character and the speaker. The interaction between death and the speaker is intertwined with various symbols such as the horse carriage, playing children, and the sunset. Death, who is a man, drives the speaker through a journey from her habitat and into the unknown. This essay takes a new critical approach to “Because I Could Not Stop For Death” about how the poem influences the reader’s total experience.
Expounding the central theme
Death is the central theme in this poem but how the poet handled it is interesting to an inquisitive reader. A look at some of Dickinson’s other poems indicates that she covered the topic of death intensively (Miller 32). In this poem, death is a man who stops to pick up the speaker in a carriage. The interaction between death the metaphor and death the symbol is one of the factors that make this poem refreshing. The reader can visualize ‘death’ arriving to pick up the speaker in a taxicab fashion, and then proceeding on a typical journey.
The stand out theme
It would be safe to assume that death and the speaker are not in opposition to each other. The friendliness and kindness of death towards the speaker is in contrast with the norm. In this case, it appears that the speaker does not harbor any feelings of fear or hatred towards death. At the very least, the speaker is cordial toward the driver of the carriage. In reality, most people are not pleasant to the idea of death. The hallmark lines in the poem are “Because I could not stop for death…He kindly stopped for me” (Mays 839). The speaker takes time to note that death is a courteous gentleman who takes the initiative to be kind to a pleasant customer. It is important to notice how the poet’s style of using dashes works wonderfully for the first two lines. The temporary pause that is provided by the use of a dash works to deliver the reader into the unfamiliar territory, where death is a friendly fellow. Overall, this feature “is used to temporarily pause a sentence or clause, where the reader takes a fleeting breath before continuing….this tends to isolate a phrase in a manner different to, say, a comma or colon” (White 128).
There is nothing out of the ordinary about this poem’s rhythm. The poem features a four/three-beat rhythm in every four-line stanza. This approach helps in reinforcing the idea of a leisurely journey as described by the speaker. The poem’s rhyme scheme can be analyzed as ‘abcb’, with the second and fourth lines featuring similar slants. The only exception to this rhyme pattern is the fourth stanza. The fourth stanza is different because it is connected with the changing mood in the poem. In the third stanza, the speaker and the carriage pass the setting sun. Consequently, they enter into uncertainty where “The dews drew quivering and chill…For only Gossamer, my Gown…” (Mays 839). The wording in this stanza suggests that the speaker is barely covered at this time as all that remains is her soul. The description of the speaker’s attire, which includes a tippet, tulle, and Gossamer, can be interpreted to mean that she is now traversing the spirit world. This unusual dressing mode was a subtle message by Dickinson who was suggesting to the reader that in the end, only a very little aspect of the human element would be carried into the spirit world. The largesse of this life does not survive where the speaker is headed.
Although “Because I Could Stop Not For Death” appears to be a poem with a uniform tone and theme, there are deeper reflections within its setting. Specifically, there are three levels of contrast that are hidden within the rhythmic flow and the setting of the poem. Each of these levels comes with a varying degree of interpretation of life and death. The first stage of revelation in the poem is the two opening lines; “Because I could not stop for death…He kindly stopped for me” (Mays 839). These lines simply indicate how death works. Even though nobody expects it, death will be kind enough to pick a person up whenever and wherever. These opening lines introduce the readers to the poet’s philosophy about death. The second stage of revelation is found in the third and fourth stanzas. The last line of the third stanza and the first line in the fourth stanza read, “We passed the setting sun…Or rather…He passed us” (Mays 839).
This contrast indicates how death is intertwined with other natural phenomena such as the movement of the stars. This revelation is also another relevant aspect of Dickinson’s philosophy. When investigated critically, these lines suggest that death is both an end, and a beginning. The final contrast in Dickinson’s poem is revealed through the first two lines in the last stanza; “Since then…’tis Centuries…and yet…Feels shorter than the Day” (Mays 839). At this point, the poem takes the readers towards the essence of eternity. Also, this point of contrast reveals the poet’s willingness to accommodate different viewpoints including religion and science. Dickinson was raised as a strict Christian but she did not defend religion in an outright manner. This was a running theme in Dickinson’s life, as she remained agonistic about the teachings of the Church (Sewall 65).
The speaker in this poem can be taken to represent different things. On one part, she represents certain aspects of Dickinson’s life, and on the other, she signifies the mortal being. Research indicates that Emily Dickinson was a reclusive figure who went through an unspecified amount of emotional turmoil (Gilbert and Gubar 13). This fact can explain why the speaker does not appear to fear death because she welcomes it to some extent. In her reclusive state, Dickinson might have had no joy in life and this leads her to acquaint herself with the idea of death. On the other hand, all mortal beings have a mandatory date with death. This poem represents the most practical approach to the expectation of mortality.
Symbolism in the poem starts with a simple journey that leads to eternity. Symbolism in this poem indicates that time is a relative concept in the afterlife as opposed to its essence in this life. For instance, the speaker comes across children who are in recess and passes by fields of grazing grains. All these are symbols of the changing times and the responsibilities of this life (White 22). This symbolism of familiar aspects of this life is in contrast with that of the final stanzas where the speaker is entering into the unknown world of eternity.
In “Because I Could Not Stop For Death”, the poet delves into familiar themes but she ends up portraying them in a new light. The core message of the poem is not divinity, but it is about the simplicity and complexity of death. Death in this poem is a peaceful force that transports mortals to the spiritual realm. Bits of the poet’s personal life can be found in this poem including her mild resistance to basic religious teachings. The tone of the speaker is that of resignation, acceptance, and openness to adventure. The poem is rich in symbolism that accentuates different aspects of the speaker’s journey.
Gilbert, Sandra, and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. Yale University Press, 2008.
Mays, Kelly. The Norton Introduction to Literature. WW Norton & Company, 2015.
Miller, Cristanne. Reading in Time: Emily Dickinson in the Nineteenth Century. University of Massachusetts Press, 2012.
Sewall, Richard Benson. The Life of Emily Dickinson. Harvard University Press, 1994.
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White, Fred. Approaching Emily Dickinson: Critical Currents and Crosscurrents since 1960. Camden House, 2008.