A Poem by Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
Revised in 2011...©
“Because I Could Not Stop for Death” is a lyric poem on the theme of death. The contains six stanzas, each with four lines. A four-line stanza is called a quatrain. The poem was first published in 1890 in Poems, Series 1, a collection of Miss Dickinson's poems that was edited by two of her friends, Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. The editors titled the poem "Chariot."
“Because I Could Not Stop for Death” reveals Emily Dickinson’s calm acceptance of death. It is surprising that she presents the experience as being no more frightening than receiving a gentleman caller—in this case, her fiancé (Death personified).
The journey to the grave begins in Stanza 1, when Death comes calling in a carriage in which Immortality is also a passenger. As the trip continues in Stanza 2, the carriage trundles along at an easy, unhurried pace, perhaps suggesting that death has arrived in the form of a disease or debility that takes its time to kill. Then, in Stanza 3, the author appears to review the stages of her life: childhood (the recess scene), maturity (the ripe, hence, “gazing” grain), and the descent into death (the setting sun)–as she passes to the other side. There, she experiences a chill because she is not warmly dressed. In fact, her garments are more appropriate for a wedding, representing a new beginning, than for a funeral, representing an end.
Her description of the grave as her “house” indicates how comfortable she feels about death. There, after centuries pass, so pleasant is her new life that time seems to stand still, feeling “shorter than a Day.”
The overall theme of the poem seems to be that death is not to be feared since it is a natural part of the endless cycle of nature. Her view of death may also reflect her personality and religious beliefs. On the one hand, as a spinster, she was somewhat reclusive and introspective, tending to dwell on loneliness and death. On the other hand, as a Christian and a Bible reader, she was optimistic about her ultimate fate and appeared to see death as a friend.
Speaker: A woman who speaks from the grave. She says she calmly accepted death. In fact, she seemed to welcome death as a suitor whom she planned to "marry."
Because I could not stop for Death,
We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
We passed the school, where children strove
Since then 'tis centuries,6and yet each
1...gossamer my gown: Thin wedding dress for the speaker's marriage to Death.
In each stanza, the first line has eight syllables (four feet); the second, six syllables (three feet); the third, eight syllables (four feet); and the fourth, six syllables (three feet). The meter alternates between iambic tetrameter (lines with eight syllables, or four feet) and iambic trimeter (lines with six syllables, or three feet). In iambic meter, the feet (pairs of syllables) contain an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. (For detailed information on meter, click here.) The following example demonstrates the metric scheme.
Be CAUSE..|..I COULD..|..not STOP..|..for DEATH,
He KIND..|..ly STOPPED..|..for ME;
The CARR..|..iage HELD..|..but JUST..|..our SELVES
And IM..|mor TAL..|..i TY.
.......The second and fourth lines of stanzas 1, 2, 4, 5, and 6 rhyme. However, some of the lines contain only close rhymes or eye rhymes. In the third stanza, there is no end rhyme, but ring (line 2) rhymes with the penultimate words in lines 3 and 4.
.......Dickinson also occasionally uses internal rhyme, as in the following lines:The carriage held but just ourselves (line 3)
We slowly drove, he knew no haste (line 5)
We passed the fields of gazing grain (line 11)
The dews grew quivering and chill (line 14)Symbols
.......In the fourth stanza, the school symbolizes the morning of life; the grain, the midday of life and the working years; the setting sun, the evening of life and the death of life.
.......Following are examples of figures of speech in the poem. (For definitions of figures of speech, click here.)
AlliterationBecause I could not stop for Death (line 1)
he knew no haste (line 5)
My labor, and my leisure too (line 7)
At recess, in the ring
gazing grain (line 11)
setting sun (line 12)
For only gossamer my gown (line 15)
My tippet only tulle (line 16)
toward eternity (line 24)AnaphoraWe passed the school, where children strove
At recess, in the ring;
We passed the fields of gazing grain,
We passed the setting sun. (lines 9-12)ParadoxSince then 'tis centuries, and yet each
Feels shorter than the day
I first surmised the horses' heads (lines 21-23)PersonificationWe passed the setting sun.
Or rather, he passed us (lines 12-13)
Comparison of the sun to a person
Death is personified throughout the poemCritic's View: One of the Great Poems in English
Allen Tate (1899-1979)—a distinguished American poet, teacher, and critic—observed that "Because I Could Not Stop for Death" is an extraordinary poem. In fact, he said, it deserves to be regarded as "one of the greatest in the English language; it is flawless to the last detail.—Quoted in Brown, Clarence A., and John T. Flanagan, eds. American Literature: a College Survey. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1961, page 436.
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