Skip to main content

[Emily Dickinson's] finest poem on the funeral ceremony [is "Because I could not stop for Death"]. On the surface it seems like just another version of the procession to the grave, but this is a metaphor that can be probed for deeper levels of meaning, spiritual journeys of a very different sort. . . . /241/ At first reading, the orthodox reassurance against the fear of death appears to be invoked, though with the novelty of a suitor replacing the traditional angel, by emphasizing his compassionate mission in taking her out of the woes of this world into the bliss of the next. 'Death,' usually rude, sudden, and impersonal, has been transformed into a kindly and leisurely gentleman. Although she was aware this is a last ride, since his ‘Carriage' can only be a hearse, its terror is subdued by the ‘Civility' of the driver who is merely serving the end of ‘Immortality.' The loneliness of the journey, with Death on the driver's seat and her body laid out in the coach behind, is dispelled by the presence of her immortal part that rides with her as a co-passenger, this slight personification being justified by the separable concept of the soul. Too occupied with life herself to stop, like all busy mortals, Death ‘kindly stopped' for her. But this figure of a gentleman taking a lady for a carriage ride is carefully underplayed and then dropped after two stanzas. /242/

The balanced parallelism of the first stanza is slightly quickened by the alliterating 'labor' and 'leisure' of the second, which encompass vividly all that must be renounced in order to ride 'toward Eternity.' So the deliberate slow-paced action that lies suspended behind the poem is charged with a forward movement by the sound pattern, taking on a kind of inevitability in the insistent reiteration of [stanza three]. . . . Here her intensely conscious leave-taking of the world is rendered with fine economy, and instead of the sentimental grief of parting there is an objectively presented scene. The seemingly disparate parts of this are fused into a vivid re-enactment of the mortal experience. It includes the three stages of youth, maturity, and age, the cycle of day from morning to evening, and even a suggestion of seasonal progression from the year's upspring through ripening to decline. The labor and leisure of life are made concrete in the joyous activity of children contrasted with the passivity of nature and again, by the optical illusion of the sun's setting, in the image of motion that has come to rest. Also the whole range of the earthly life is symbolized, first human nature, then animate, and finally inanimate nature. But, absorbed 'in the Ring' of childhood's games, the players at life do not even stop to look up at the passing carriage of death. And the indifference of nature is given a kind of cold vitality by transferring the stare in the dead traveler's eyes to the 'Gazing Grain.' This simple maneuver in grammar creates an involute paradox, giving the fixity of death to the living corn while the corpse itself passes by on its journey to immortality. Then with the westering sun, traditional symbol of the soul's passing, comes the obliterating darkness of eternity. Finally, the sequence follows the natural route of a funeral train, past the schoolhouse in the village, then the outlying fields, and on to the remote burying ground.

In the concluding stanzas the movement of the poem slows almost to a stop, 'We paused' contrasting with the successive sights 'We passed' in the earlier stages of the journey. For when the carriage arrives at the threshold of the house of death it has reached the spatial limits of mortality. To say that it 'passed the Setting Sun' is to take it out of /243/ bounds, beyond human time, so she quickly corrects herself by saying instead that the sun 'passed Us,' as it surely does all who are buried. Then, as the 'Dews' descend 'quivering and chill,' she projects her awareness of what it will be like to come to rest in the cold damp ground. The identification of her new 'House' with a grave is achieved by the use of only two details: a 'Roof' that is 'scarcely visible' and a 'Cornice,' the molding around the coffin's lid, that is 'in the Ground.' But the tomb's horror is absorbed by the emphasis on merely pausing here, as though this were a sort of tavern for the night. When she wanted to she could invoke the conventional Gothic atmosphere, and without being imitative, as in an early poem:

What Inn is this 

Where for the night 

Peculiar Traveller comes? 

Who is the Landlord? 

Where the maids? 

Behold, what curious rooms! 

No ruddy fires on the hearth— 

No brimming Tankards flow— 

Necromancer! Landlord! 

Who are these below?

                    [#115—Poems, 1891, p. 221]

The image of the grave as a ghastly kind of inn is there built up to a climax which blasts all hopes of domestic coziness by the revelation that its landlord is a 'Necromancer,' a sorcerer who communicates with spirits.

In the poem under consideration, however, the house of death so lightly sketched is not her destination. That is clearly stated as 'Eternity,’ though it is significant that she never reaches it. . . . An eminent critic, after praising this as a remarkably beautiful poem, complains that it breaks down at this point because it goes beyond the 'Limits of Judgment'; in so far as it attempts to experience death and express the nature of posthumous beatitude, he says, it is 'fraudulent.' /224/ But in addition to being a hyper-rational criticism, this is simply a failure to read the text. The poem does not in the least strive after the incomprehensible. It deals with the daily realization of the imminence of death, offset by man's yearning for immortality. These are intensely felt, but only as ideas, as the abstractions of time and eternity, not as something experienced. Being essentially inexpressible, they are rendered as metaphors. The idea of achieving immortality by a ride in the carriage of death is confronted by the concrete fact of physical disintegration as she pauses before a 'Swelling in the Ground.'

The final stanza is not an extension of knowledge beyond the grave but simply the most fitting coda for her poem. In projecting the last sensations of consciousness as the world fades out, she has employed progressively fewer visible objects until with fine dramatic skill she limits herself at the end to a single one, the 'Horses Heads,' recalled in a flash of memory as that on which her eyes had been fixed throughout the journey. These bring to mind the 'Carriage' of the opening stanza, and Death, who has receded as a person, is now by implication back in the driver's seat. 'Since then—'tis Centuries,' she says, in an unexpected phrase for the transition from time to eternity, but this is a finite infinity; her consciousness is still operative and subject to temporal measurement. All of this poetically elapsed time 'Feels shorter than the Day,' the day of death brought to an end by the setting sun of the third stanza, when she first guessed the direction in which these apocalyptic horses were headed. 'Surmised,' carefully placed near the conclusion, is all the warranty one needs for reading this journey as one that has taken place entirely in her mind, 'imagined without certain knowledge,' as her Lexicon defined it. The last word may be 'Eternity' but it is strictly limited by the directional preposition 'toward.' So the poem returns to the very day, even the same instant, when it started. Its theme is a Christian one, yet unsupported by any of the customary rituals and without any final statement of Christian faith. The resolution is not mystical but dramatic.

Read in this way the poem is flawless to the last detail, each image precise and discrete even while it is unified in the central motif of the last journey. Yet another level of meaning has suggested itself faintly to two critics. One has described the driver as 'amorous but genteel'; the other has noted 'the subtly interfused erotic motive,' love having frequently been an idea linked with death for the romantic poets. Both of these astute guesses were made without benefit of the revealing /245/ fourth stanza, recently restored from the manuscript. But even in the well-known opening lines of the poem there are suggestive hints for anyone who remembers that the carriage drive was a standard mode of courtship a century ago. In the period of her normal social life, when Emily Dickinson took part ill those occasions that give youthful love its chance, she frequently went on drives with young gentlemen. Some ten years before the date of this poem, for example, she wrote to her brother: 'I've been to ride twice since I wrote you, . . . last evening with Sophomore Emmons, alone'; and a few weeks later she confided to her future sister-in-law: 'I've found a beautiful, new, friend.' The figure of such a prospective suitor would inevitably have come to the minds of a contemporary audience as they read: 'He kindly stopped for me— / The Carriage held but just Ourselves. . . .' Such a young couple likewise would have driven beyond the village limits into the open country and then, romantically, past the 'Setting Sun.' Restraint kept her from pushing this parallel to the point of being ludicrous, and the suitor image quickly drops into the background.

The love-death symbolism, however, re-emerges with new implications in the now restored fourth stanza, probably omitted by previous editors because they were baffled by its meaning:

For only Gossamer, my gown—

My Tippet—only Tulle— 

This is certainly not a description of conventional burial clothes. It is instead a bridal dress, but of a very special sort. 'Gossamer' in her day was not yet applied to fine spun cloth but only to that filmy substance like cobwebs sometimes seen floating in the autumn air, as her Lexicon described it, probably formed by a species of spider. This brings to mind her cryptic poem on the spider whose web was his 'Strategy of Immortality.' And by transforming the bridal veil into a 'Tippet,' the flowing scarf-like part of the distinctive hood of holy orders, she is properly dressed for a celestial marriage. 'Death,' to be sure, is not the true bridegroom but a surrogate, which accounts for his minor role. He is the envoy taking her on this curiously premature wedding journey to the heavenly altar where she will be married to God. The whole idea of the Bride-of-the-Lamb is admittedly only latent in the text of this poem, but in view of the body of her writings it seems admissible to suggest it as another metaphor for the extension of meanings. . . . /246/

'Because I could not stop for Death' is incomparably the finest poem of this cluster. In it all the traditional modes are subdued so they can, be assimilated to her purposes. For her theme there, as a final reading of its meaning will suggest, is not necessarily death or immortality in the literal sense of those terms. There are many ways of dying, as she once said:

Death—is but one—and comes but once— 

And only nails the eyes—

                        [#561—Poems, 1896, pp. 47-48]

One surely dies out of this world in the end, but one may also die away from the world by deliberate choice during this life. In her vocabulary 'immortal' is a value that can also attach to living this side of the grave:

Some—Work for Immortality—  The Chiefer part, for Time—                         [#406—Further Poems, 1929, p. 5]

As an artist she ranked herself with that elite. At the time of her dedication to poetry, presumably in the early 1860's, someone 'kindly stopped' for her—lover, muse, God—and she willingly put away the labor and leisure of this world for the creative life of the spirit. Looking back on the affairs of 'Time' at any point after making such a momentous deci- /248/ sion, she could easily feel 'Since then—'tis Centuries—' Remembering what she had renounced, the happiness of a normal youth, sunshine and growing things, she could experience a momentary feeling of deprivation. But in another sense she had simply triumphed over them, passing beyond earthly trammels. Finally, this makes the most satisfactory reading of her reversible image of motion and stasis during the journey, passing the setting sun and being passed by it. For though in her withdrawal the events of the external world by-passed her, in the poetic life made possible by it she escaped the limitations of the mortal calendar. She was borne confidently, by her winged horse, 'toward Eternity' in the immortality of her poems. /249/


From Emily Dickinson's Poetry: Stairway of Surprise (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1960), pp. 241-246 and 248-249.