Emily Dickinson’s poem “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” is surprisingly touching in its depiction of the courtly way in which Death personified escorted her to her final rest. The six stanza poem tells the story of a woman’s experience of death, but rather than being the horrifying thing most people imagine it to be, Dickinson’s portrayal of it is much more peaceful. The character of Death is portrayed as a very courtly gentleman taking her out on an evening drive and ends with her drifting through the endless centuries in timeless wonder. The poem’s theme of laying aside the work of life to drift off into a relaxing and peaceful sleep is conveyed through Dickinson’s masterful use of personification, symbolism and imagery.
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The poem begins with the arrival of Death as a personified individual. This is suggested when the narrator comments “He kindly stopped for me” (2). This portrayal of the figure ‘kindly’ stopping suggests a benevolent figure, one interested in the welfare of the narrator and gently taking her in hand. He takes her for a ride in a carriage in the role of a suitor as he is careful to also include a chaperone in the form of a personified Immortality. This concept is suggested in her comment about how “he knew no haste” (p. 5). His appeal is so charming and ‘civil’ that she doesn’t even consider putting up a fight against him, quickly putting away her labor and leisure in order to join him wherever he wishes to take her. In giving Death form and figure in this way, Dickenson has personified the idea of Death into a more gentle, more loving figure than it is typically portrayed as being. Her trip into eternal peace is seen as the honeymoon trip of the bride as she is spirited away in a white dress to eternal bliss.
Symbolism is used within the poem to illustrate the depth of relief that washes over the speaker as she relinquishes the work of years on Earth. As she rides with Death to her destination, she looks out the window to see children playing in the schoolyard. These young people are used to symbolize life as something that the speaker is simply passing by, giving up and leaving the earth to them. The speaker tells her audience that the “children strove” (p. 9) with one another, which indicates that they were only just beginning to understand the struggle associated with living. The symbolism of the children presents a strong contrast between the activity of life seen in the activities of the children and the passive observation of death as the speaker laughs at their seriousness. These ideas of life are contrasted with the inactivity of death as the speaker passes “fields of gazing grain” (p. 11). The idea that the grain is gazing at the world around it again suggests that life is active while only death is permitted to silently observe. When she arrives at her destination, the speaker associates her cold and lifeless grave to the comforting aspects of a home whose “roof was scarcely visible, / The cornice but a mound” (pp. 19-20). She is anxious for its solitude and rest.
Imagery also plays a significant role in the feelings of peace and serenity conveyed by the poem in spite of its topic. The speaker’s description of the pleasant ride she shares with Death indicates a casual, quiet, genteel ride in the countryside. Nothing is presented that has any hope of frightening her or making her feel uncomfortable, even being provided with a decorous chaperone to guard her purity. Her companions are gentle and courtly and her only requirement is to sit and relax, having “put away / My labor, and my leisure too” (pp. 6-7). As she makes her journey from her work to her grave, the speaker is permitted to float through an unconcerned void in time and space with nothing presented that can pull at her conscious or cause her concern. The image of the children as they “strove, / At recess, in the ring” (pp. 9-10) heightens the contrast between her ability to do nothing and their need to continually struggle against one another as they are defined within a confined space. The final impression given by this poem is that it is preferable to be peacefully sitting within the cool shade of the carriage than to be struggling in the hot sun with the others.
Through character, symbolism and imagery, Dickenson is able to convey a sense of death that is strikingly different from its typical portrayals. Instead of being something frightening and disrupting, causing significant emotional upheavals and soul-crushing finality, Dickenson depicts it as a courtly gentleman coming to take her to a new world as if he were a groom. As she makes her way to the grave, she points out the various ways in which the world is forced to continue to struggle, from the seemingly carefree activities of the children down to the actively gazing grain. As she ends within the comforting coolness of her grave-home, she leaves her reader with the impression that this eternal peace is far more pleasurable than the struggle of the surface.
Dickinson, Emily. “Because I Could Not Stop for Death.” Book Title. Place of publication: Publisher name, Date of publication.