The poem “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” was written by Emily Dickenson and it tells the story of a woman who has died. It seems to tell her story from the time she dies until the time she arrives in her grave. This sounds morbid, but it’s really pretty touching because it is really straightforward and romantically worded. Her journey is like a ride through the country and so she makes death sound more like a date than something to be afraid of. I think a lot of why the poem is so successful is because the poet used literary techniques like symbolism, personification and imagery. Dickinson uses a lot of symbolism in this poem in order to show her reader what she hopes for in a peaceful death. The way that she describes her journey is like a date as she rides in a carriage. This carriage ride is a symbol of the journey the soul makes from the living body to be dead. She sits in the carriage and enjoys the company of Death as they travel as if he was a boyfriend she’s been waiting for all her life. As they travel, she sees children playing in the schoolyard. These children are a symbol that life will continue to go on after Dickenson is dead just as if nothing was missed, but the way she says it makes it sound like she’s the lucky one because she gets to rest now. In the poem, she says, the “children strove” (9). This word choice makes it clear that the children still have a lot of work and struggle in front of them and really brings a lot of attention to the idea that Dickenson has ‘stopped’ and is now resting inside the carriage. She also mentions the “fields of gazing grain” (11) which is another symbol of growth and gain. Instead of talking about how cold and alone the grave is, she describes her gravesite as a place where the “roof was scarcely visible, / The cornice but a mound” (19-20).
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Dickenson also uses personification in her poem. She starts it with the presentation of Death as a person, like a date, who “kindly stopped for me” (2). The way that she says this is very cultured like he came by to pick her up and encourage her to have some fun. This makes him something that can be talked to as they go to an event that she has looked forward to instead of the scary guy in the black robe with the big knife. The idea that this is a date is also shown in the way that he picks her up in a carriage like Cinderella and even thought to bring along a chaperone which is another personification, this time of Immortality. Their ride is not a chase through the shadows, but a gentle ride, “he knew no haste” (5). Death is so charming and ‘civil’ during the ride that Dickenson doesn’t seem to have any fear at all and is quickly able to put down her work to take a ride with him even though she hasn’t usually stopped for anyone else. By personifying Death like this, Dickenson makes the whole process seem much friendlier than the horror movies.
Dickenson also uses imagery to make her poem seem peaceful and serene even though it is about the moment of death. While she describes her ride, she makes it a quiet ride through the country instead of a wild ride through the city. At no point in the poem does she sound like she’s scared. Death and Immortality are courtly in their behavior, stopping and helping her into the carriage, making sure that everything’s cool by having a chaperone. All she has to do is sit back and relax since she has now managed to “put away / My labor, and my leisure too” (6-7). The children are described as they “strove, / At recess, in the ring” (9-10) which makes the reader think about how the children are struggling against one another. The way she describes it makes it sound like the kids are fighting like in a boxing ring or a fighting match, which makes the reader think about what they’ll be doing when they’re grown up.
The ending concept of the poem is that death is very peaceful in the cool shade of the carriage. Through the way that she uses imagery, personification and symbolism, Dickinson manages to present an idea that death is a peaceful, pain-free journey. Even though she never thought she could stop for death when she was living, she is very happy with her dead state now that she’s looking at it from the other side. The way she describes it removes the fear of death and makes it sound happy as compared to the efforts of life.
Dickinson, Emily. “Because I Could Not Stop for Death.” Literature: Approaches to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2006: 374-375.