Emily Dickinson’s poem “Because I Could Not Stop for Death’ expresses the writer’s perception of death. The writer focuses mainly on the construct of life after death. The setting of the poem reflects the contexts in which death draws near, and the writer puts these circumstances as genial and compassionate. Through prognostication of immortality, fear fades away and death becomes acceptable and welcomed. In principle, human beings never think that death comes at the right time because we are never prepared for it. This is a six-stanza poem with each stanza giving a different perception from the others. In the first, the writer is so busy to stop for death, but it stops for her instead while in the second stanza the writer draws a personal view of death. On the other side, in the third stanza, she observes the steps of life; the fourth stanza talks of death, and in the fifth stanza, she reflects on life without time. The sixth talks of the destiny of this journey called life.
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The poem opens by stating how the writer is too busy for death. When she says, ‘because I could not stop for death”, the reader is most likely to wonder why it was so. Nevertheless, just like any other mortal being, the writer was so much engrossed in her life that she had no time to reflect on death. Interestingly, the fact that people do not think about death, does not mean that it does not exist. Dickinson comes to this reality when she says, “He kindly stopped for me.” Then she startles the reader again by saying ‘The Carriage held but just ourselves — And Immortality.” The reader gets the notion that life is our highly valued possession and it assures immortality. The reader can almost see the writer on a carriage drawn by a horse and a genial, polite gentleman having made great efforts to stop for her. In this ride, they are only two, the writer and the polite gentleman and a third ‘party’; immortality. Even though the reader has read-only four lines of the poem to this point, he or she can sense that the writer is talking of an unusual barmy ride, death. The word “he” in reference to death constitutes a metaphor.
This stanza talks of the writer doing away with her labor and leisure. In the carriage, they are traveling without haste. There is no work or leisure and the reader anticipates this because in death these things are no more. The only thing remaining here is a journey; a journey the writer is traveling with a polite gentleman on a leisurely carriage. Due to this man’s civility, the writer gives away the things she treasured in life easily.
This stanza describes how life passes before one’s eyes. There is a portrayal of passing landscape as the writer and the gentleman continue in their journey in the company of ‘immortality.’ As they move on, they “passed the school, where children strove”, “the fields of gazing grain”, and “the setting sun.” Dickinson uses these stages as a symbol of the three stages of life. School here means childhood, the morning of life. Gazing fields represent midday of lifetime. These are the working and maturity years. Lastly, the setting sun stands for the evening time of life. This is how life passes before one’s eyes as he or she watches. It is the process of the soul parting with the body. The stylistic device used in this stanza is anaphora. This comes out through the repetition of ‘we passed’ at the start of every line.
This is contradicting stanza. In stanza three, the carriage seems to overtake the sun. However, in stanza four, the reader is thrown into confusion, as the sun appears to overtake the carriage. The writer leaves the reader without further comment on the reversed occasions. She plunges into some frigidity, as the air turns cold with the formation of the dew. The writer never anticipated this kind of weather as she was in a thin robe and lace shawl “tippet.” This is a symbolism of marrying death. The form of dressing and the weather also depicts how unprepared for death we are. The writer is dressed in a “gossamer gown” and this is a gown for wedding death. The ‘tt’ in ‘tippet’ and ‘tulle’ amounts to alliteration.
This stanza can be dubbed “A House in the Ground.” This house is the grave. This point unveils the destiny of this long slow journey. Dickinson could not describe this house better: “A Swelling of the Ground — / The Roof was scarcely visible — / The Cornice — in the Ground.” The reader understands without a doubt that, the house here refers to the grave, where the writer is destined to reside forever. The invisibility of the roof depicts how death is complex and no one can understand it in terms of what happens after one die. There is also alliteration in ‘ss’ portrayed in ‘swelling’ ‘was’ and ‘visible’.
In this stanza, the reader is taken into centuries in the future, only to realize that the writer is speaking from the comfort of her cosmic abode in eternity. She recounts the day she died. She muses over the things she saw during her lifetime. Nevertheless, there seems to be a paradox as she compares the period it took for those things to happen and how time is from her cosmic abode. She realizes that in eternity, a century is like a day. This is true given the fact that the life she is in is of eternity: timelessness. She finally realizes that the horse that was pulling the carriage was headed to eternity.
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“Because I Could Not Stop for Death” is a mastery poem by Emily Dickinson and it depicts her cool espousal of death. The experience of death to her is not frightening and it comes in form of a polite, kind, gentleman. This is a journey to the grave running from stanza one when death stops for her and they enter into a carriage with immortality on board. The journey takes a slow pace. This may symbolize death coming in form of a disease that may take a long time to kill. Stanza 3 is a review of the writer’s journey in life starting from childhood, through maturity to death. Dickinson presents this symbolically from school (childhood), through the fields of gazing grain (maturity), to sunset (death). Stanza 4 throws the reader into some confusion as one figures out who overtook whom, the sun or the carriage. The writer is not prepared for the adverse weather but instead, her dressing fits a wedding, the wedding of death. Stanza 5 refers to the grave as a house and this shows how the writer is comfortable with death. Actually, in death, life is so cool that a century seems like a day.
The theme of the poem is to show that death is a natural part of life and people should not fear it. This view reflects Dickinson’s personality and her Christian religion. Dickinson was an unmarried woman and never mingled with people often. As a Christian, she believed in immortality hence the friendly approach she had for death.