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.
.......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)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.)
Because I could not stop for Death (line 1)Anaphora
We passed the school, where children stroveParadox
Since then 'tis centuries, and yet eachPersonification
We passed the setting sun.Critic'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.