In the vast literary heritage left by one of the world’s unique poets, Emily Dickinson, the topics of death and immortality appear to occupy a prominent position. Among multiple poems dealing with that issue, “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” is notable for the author’s fearless attitude to death since the latter is viewed as an inevitable and consistent development within the eternal cycle of existence, and such attitude reflects both the personality and the religious views of the poetess.
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The atmosphere of the poem and the general tone of it appear to be those of total calmness and tranquility. Dickinson metaphorically depicts the process of dying as a journey in a horse-driven cart, with Death and Immortality being the only trip companions for her. The iambic tetrameter of the first and third lines in each stanza creates the rhythm of horse hooves clatter, an effect which is intensified by alliteration of the [k] sound in the opening stanza: “Because I could not stop for Death,/ He kindly stopped for me;/ The carriage held just ourselves…”. Personification of Death and attribution to it such qualities as kindness and civility in lines 2 and 8 impart an attitude of trust and confidence in Death as a guide who leads the way to the unknown.
Referring to the apparitions typical of dying people, Dickinson represents them in a series of symbolic images. As the cart proceeds unhurriedly, the passenger sequentially witnesses stages of human life: the school, as the daybreak of life, as childhood; the fields of ripe grain, as the mature years; and the sunset, as the last years of life (lines 9-12). Here the whole life passes before one’s eyes step by step, with the graduality expressed by means of anaphora “we passed”; however, the dying person watches the procession of scenes not in a fit of panic but in a calm observation and comprehension. A symbol vital to understanding the inevitability of death is the type of game the schoolchildren are playing. By saying “…children played/ At wrestling in a ring,” in lines 9-10, Dickinson alludes to “Ring-a-Ring o’ Roses”, a popular child rhyme, the last line of which goes “We all fall down” (Mother Goose 91). Considering the symbolic meaning behind those words, it appears that the direction towards ‘fall-down’, i.e. death, can be observed from the very first years of human life. Thus the inevitability of death is emphasized over and again.
In order to establish and intensify the feeling of calmness and resignation in the face of death, Dickinson continuously introduces new images and symbols indicative of her attitude. As the lifetime runs to its end, a feeling of chilliness creeps over the passenger, as she is only dressed in a gossamer gown, a wedding outfit for marrying the Death (lines 14-15). Accepting Death as a spouse constitutes a paradox: on the one hand, marriage is traditionally viewed as a start of a new life; on the other hand, death symbolizes the end of life. Continuing the idea of matrimonial life, Dickinson envisages further life in a new house, which in fact is a grave (lines 17-20). However cold and cheerless the image might seem to an average person, the narrator of the poem appears to perceive the grave as a final resort, a resting place providing the ultimate comfort for the dead.
Taking into consideration the fact that Dickinson’s life was secluded and solitary as that of a spinster, one may suggest that the poetess’ retrospective dwelling on the distressing issues of death and loneliness was far from random. Her closeness to ideas of Christianity, on the other hand, communicated an air of enlightenment and optimism in view of death that is treated as the ultimate fate and welcomed as a friend — an idea explicated in “Because I Could Not for Death” by means of developed symbolism and revealing imagery of one’s last journey.
Dickinson, Emily. “Because I Could Not Stop for Death”. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Boston: Little, Brown, 1924; Bartleby.com, 2000. Web.
“Ring-a-Ring o’Roses”. Mother Goose. Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1994.
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