Emily Dickinson’s poem “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” relates the concept of a woman who has died during the course of her regular duties. With its simple presentation and gentle rhyme, the poem is surprisingly touching. The poem’s great emotional effect is largely due to Dickinson’s masterful use of personification, symbolism and imagery.
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The poem begins with the assumption that Death is an individual as the speaker of the poem tells us “He kindly stopped for me” (2). The genteel way in which this is expressed gives the impression that this Death is not someone to be feared but is instead something along the lines of a suitor. He picks her up in a carriage complete with a chaperone in the form of Immortality and takes her on a gentle ride, “he knew no haste” (5). He is so charming and ‘civil’ that she voluntarily puts away her labor and leisure in order to go with him. In giving Death form and figure in this way, she has personified the idea of Death into a more gentle, more graceful, more loving figure than it is typically portrayed as being.
Dickinson also employs a great deal of symbolism within this poem in order to reinforce her conception of a peaceful death. The travel from the physical world of the body to the world of the spirits is symbolized by the gentle ride in a carriage shared with pleasant company. The children seen playing in the schoolyard that is passed upon this journey symbolize the continuation of life even in the face of death. The “children strove” (9), indicating that they were not finished with their toil and play as the speaker now is, thus presenting a strong contrast between the activity of life and the passive observation of death as the speaker passes silently by. This idea of the activity of life contrasted with the inactivity of death is also supported by the “fields of gazing grain” (11) that symbolize growth and gain. Meanwhile, the chill of the grave is compared to a house whose “roof was scarcely visible, / The cornice but a mound” (19-20).
Imagery also plays a large role in the peace and serenity of the poem despite the topic. In her description of her pleasant ride, Dickinson depicts a quiet slow ride through the countryside with nothing to frighten her or make her uncomfortable. Her companions are gentle and courtly and she is expected to do nothing but sit and relax, having “put away / My labor, and my leisure too” (6-7). The children are depicted as they “strove, / At recess, in the ring” (9-10), raising the image of children struggling against one another within a confined space, perhaps fighting as in a boxing or wrestling match. The impression is that it is preferable to be peacefully sitting within the cool shade of the carriage than to be struggling in the sun with others.
Through her delicate use of imagery, strong ability to employ symbolism and her characterization of Death, Dickinson manages to present a conception of death as a peaceful, pleasant, pain-free journey. Her comparisons of death to the activity of living consistently illustrate death’s preferred status as it is viewed from the other side of the divide, yet her opening lines, indicating that she “could not stop for Death” (1), recognize that this preference is not necessarily discernable by the average living person. This removes the fear that the author might have felt suicidal or the uncomfortable suspicion that the author might have been anxiously awaiting death and allows the reader to simply experience Dickinson’s ideas of a peaceful passing.
Dickinson, Emily. “Because I Could Not Stop for Death.” The Complete Poems of Emily Dickenson. Thomas Johnson (Ed.). New York: Amereon Limited, 1976.