(Note: this is the third post about Poetry and Death based on a research project that I recently finished for my Medical Humanities class in Fall 2016. This post analyzes “Because I Could Not Stop For Death” by Emily Dickinson and attempts to highlight how this poem enables readers to cope with death. I hope that you will find this post interesting and thought provoking.)
Rather than speaking as someone still alive, Emily Dickinson, in her poem “Because I Could Not Stop For Death,” writes from the perspective of someone who already died. She highlights the complex nature and inevitability of death, and encourages her readers to accept it, but realize that it is not the end. After all, “death is normal [and] it is also the natural order of things” (Gawande 8). While she does not go so far as to say death is good or something worth looking forward to, Dickinson portrays death as moderately annoying but nothing extremely terrible. And because of the inevitability of death, we are better off accepting it than fighting it.
Similar to Thomas, Dickinson’s beginning lines bear significant weight and set the tone for the rest of the poem. She writes, “Because I could not stop for Death – / He kindly stopped for me – ” (Lines 1-2). Dickinson implies that individuals are often too busy and preoccupied with life to die, yet death is merely an interruption, a “kind stop” of sorts. Further, “by anthropomorphizing Death as a kind and civil gentleman, the speaker particularizes Death’s characteristics with favorable connotations” (Shaw 20). Compared to commonly held negative views of death, Dickinson’s perspective is unique and potentially refreshing. However, one possible explanation for the speaker’s view of death is that we, as humans, “seem to fear and deny the reality of death. […] We use euphemisms, we make the dead look as if they were asleep, we ship the children off to protect them from the anxiety and turmoil” that surrounds the death process (Kübler-Ross 6). So while the speaker’s perspective might seem pleasingly positive, this euphemistic personification might be an attempt to deny the reality of death’s awfulness.
In another sense, however, these opening lines subtly acknowledge a component of death’s dreadfulness. Dickinson declares that individuals cannot decide when they die; therefore, this stopping is not discretionary. After all, “it is simply not her nature to stop for Death,” meaning that death is inevitable and quite deviant from human nature (Engle 74). Throughout this poem, Dickinson’s view of death comes across as multifaceted, which is admirable given death’s complex nature.
The next few lines highlight the complicated and intriguing view of death that Dickinson possesses. She implies that existence continues beyond death when she writes, “The Carriage held but just Ourselves – / And Immortality” (Lines 3-4). Reiterating the inevitability and uncontrollability of death, she notes, “We slowly drove – / He knew no haste” (Line 5). Death operates at its own speed and does not change its course based on the whims of its victims. In the next lines the speaker discusses some of the multifaceted effects of death, saying, “And I had put away / My labor and my leisure too, / For His Civility – ” (Lines 6-8). Death marks the end of both work and leisure, which, if work is difficult and leisure is enjoyable, means death’s effects are net neutral.
Dickinson observes that death allows us to remember the past when she writes, “We passed the School, where Children strove / At Recess – in the Ring –” (Lines 9-10). She believes that death gives individuals an opportunity to consider the nature of life. She says, “We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain – / We passed the Setting Sun –” (Lines 11-12). The phrase “fields of gazing grain” seems to symbolize the beginning of life, while the “setting sun” seems to symbolize the end of life. Therefore, it seems that death offers a comprehensive view of and appreciation for life and its brevity.
Continuing, Dickinson employs interesting imagery as she writes, “Or rather – He passed us – / The Dews drew quivering and chill – / For only Gossamer, my Gown – / My Tippet – only Tulle –” (Lines 13-16). These lines employ cryptic imagery, making their meaning difficult to determine. However, it is apparent that the speaker feels cold and potentially underprepared in the face of death. Dickinson, consequently, shows that by advocating acceptance, she does not assume the absence of fear or unpreparedness. By nature, death instigates some level of uneasiness. Nevertheless, Dickinson’s tone shifts slightly as she recommends acceptance in the following lines, “We paused before a House that seemed / A Swelling of the Ground – / The Roof was scarcely visible – / The Cornice – in the Ground –” (Lines 17-20). This description spins death’s effects quite positively. If a grave is a home, then death marks a homecoming of sorts and should be welcomed.
Although the speaker’s situation was previously alluded to, it becomes apparent in the following lines when Dickinson writes, “Since then – ‘tis Centuries – and yet / Feels shorter than the Day” (Lines 21-22). These words make it clear that the speaker has already died and is commenting on the nature of life, death, and eternity. It seems that “viewing the progression of these stages – life, to death, to eternity – as a continuum invests these isolated incomprehensible events with meaning. From the eternal perspective, the speaker comprehends that life, like the ‘Horses Heads’ (23), leads ‘toward Eternity’ (24)” (Shaw 20). Undoubtedly, death has brought forth a greater meaning and significance to life, which can often feel brief or confusing. The final lines emphasize that death transports individuals to eternity, which is the final the destination, “I first surmised the Horses’ Heads / Were toward Eternity – ” (Lines 23-24). Death and life are merely vehicles; eternity is the endpoint.
As far as the stylistic structure of this poem goes, Dickinson made a number of choices to accentuate the themes of the poem. The frequent dashes and unpredictable breaks in the lines highlight the interrupting and impulsive nature of death. Using a rhythm similar to a drumbeat, this poem emphasizes the systematic, indefatigable human march from life to death to eternity. Although this poem portrays the human experience of death, it employs a “nonlinear, dream-like progression,” which is fitting because humans may experience death or other traumatic situations in a nonlinear form (Engle 75).
To summarize this poem we must note that Dickinson’s complicated perspective describes death as a slight aggravation, but nothing close to an enemy. Because death interrupts life, individuals should acknowledge the brevity and value of life. Ultimately, death, as our benevolent chauffeur, transports us from life into eternity, which is where we belong. Thus, acceptance is the appropriate response to death. If there is an afterlife, then “death may be kind in taking us from a world of proverbial woe into one of equally proverbial eternal bliss” (Hoepfner 96). Dickinson alludes to some sort of religious beliefs as she advocates for acceptance of death because it is not the end.
For further reading, check out the following sources:
Dickinson, Emily. “Because I Could Not Stop For Death.” Poets.org. Academy of American Poets, n.d. Web. 23 Oct. 2016.
Engle, Patricia. “Dickinson’s BECAUSE I COULD NOT STOP FOR DEATH.” Explicator 60.2 (2002): 72. Academic Search Premier. Web. 21 Sept. 2016
Gawande, Atul. Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. New York: Metropolitan , Henry Holt, 2014.
Hoepfner, Theodore C. “Because I Could Not Stop For Death.” American Literature 29.1 (1957): 96. Academic Search Premier. Web. 21 Sept. 2016.
Kübler-Ross, Elisabeth. On Death and Dying. New York: Macmillan, 1969.
Shaw, M.N. “Dickinson’s Because I Could Not Stop For Death.” Explicator 50.1 (1991): 20. Academic Search Premier. Web. 21 Sept. 2016.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Feel free to leave a comment or shoot me an email with your reactions to this post. I’d love to hear what you have to say and thanks for reading!