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Emily Dickinson's Because I Could Not Stop for Death Analysis

Posted by Ashley Robinson | Jan 3, 2021 2:00:00 PM

General Education

 

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Emily Dickinson is one of the most important American poets of the nineteenth century. Dickinson takes a unique and artistic approach to her poetry, which can sometimes make its meaning and themes difficult to pin down. 

In this article, we’re going to give you a crash course in the poetry of Emily Dickinson by focusing on one of her most famous poems, “Because I could not stop for Death.” We’ll give you:

  • An overview of the life and career of Emily Dickinson
  • A thorough “Because I could not stop for Death” summary
  • A discussion of the “Because I could not stop for Death” meaning
  • An explanation of the top three themes and top two poetic devices in the poem

Let’s begin!

 


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Because Dickinson was so reclusive, there aren't many pictures available of her. This is one of the only authenticated images of Emily Dickinson in existence!

 

Meet the Author: Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

Emily Dickinson was born on December 10, 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts. Dickinson grew up in an educated family. Her father, Edward Dickinson, was involved in state and local politics. He even served in Congress for one term. Dickinson herself was an excellent student. She began writing poetry as a teenager and corresponding with other writers to exchange written drafts and ideas.

After completing seven years at Amherst Academy, she attended Mount Holyoke Female Seminary for a year for religious education. It isn’t known why she left the school, but some scholars believe that mental illness may have led to her departure. (They also think Dickinson’s emotional struggles may have led to her reclusiveness, too.) 

After leaving seminary, Dickinson never joined a particular church or denomination. This was a serious rejection of the cultural and religious tradition in her small, Puritan hometown. Dickinson’s complicated relationship with religion, God, and Puritan values pops up in her poetry, too. 

Dickinson was a big fan of the metaphysical poets of seventeenth century England—such as John Donne and George Herbert—and their works influence Dickinson’s poems. Metaphysical poetry is characterized by philosophical exploration and themes such as love, religion, and morality. The metaphysical poets often considered these themes through the lens of social and cultural events of their time, such as scientific advancements and contemporary issues. Like these older poets, Dickinson’s work focuses on nature, mortality, and morbidity.

Like so many poets, Emily Dickinson was not famous during her lifetime. After her death, her friends discovered her collection of poems, which she had meticulously organized and assembled in individual pamphlets. The first volume of her poetry was published in 1890, four years after her death. 

Though Dickinson’s influence was not celebrated while she was alive, she’s now considered one of the defining poets of her time period. Additionally, “Because I could not stop for Death” is recognized as one of Dickinson’s most widely read poems. 

 

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Emily Dickinson, “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” (1890)

“Because I could not stop for Death” is a lyrical poem by Emily Dickinson. It was first published posthumously in the 1890 collection, Poems: Series One. This collection was assembled and edited for publication by Dickinson's friends, Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and it was originally published under the title "The Chariot.”

Because Dickinson herself never authorized the publication of her poetry, it’s not known whether “Because I could not stop for Death” was a completed or unfinished work. But that hasn’t stopped it from being widely read and studied. 

Find the full text of the poem below:

 

“Because I Could Not Stop for Death” by Emily Dickinson

Before we get into the analysis, it's worth reading the full text of the poem again. Here it is: 

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.

We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –

Or rather – He passed Us –
The Dews drew quivering and Chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground –

Since then – 'tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses' Heads
Were toward Eternity –

 

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Emily Dickinson spent most of her life in Amherst, Massachusetts. The house where she was born is now home to the Emily Dickinson Museum. 

 

The Background Behind the Poem

Because Dickinson’s poems were not published until after she passed away, it’s not totally clear what motivated her to write “Because I could not stop for Death.” However, scholars have divided Dickinson’s extensive writings up into three periods: before 1861, 1861-1865, and after 1865. “Because I could not stop for Death” was written during the period from 1861-1865, Dickinson’s most creative period. 

This period is thought to be the time when Dickinson focused on two of her poetry’s dominant themes: life and mortality. As you’ll see when we dig into the meaning of this poem, “Because I could not stop for Death” definitely explores both. 

There were also things going on in Dickinson’s personal life that can help us understand what may have motivated her to write this poem. In the 1850s, Dickinson visited Philadelphia and fell in love with a married minister. Unsurprisingly, the relationship didn’t work out, resulting in a disappointment in romantic relationships that would define the rest of Dickinson’s life. She would later experience an emotional crisis (the details of which are unknown) and become a recluse. 

“Because I could not stop for Death” portrays the personification of Death, who visits the poem’s speaker and takes her on a carriage ride to the afterlife. Over the course of the poem, the speaker contemplates scenes of natural cycles of life and death that she observes during the carriage ride with Death. Some may read the poem as a reaction to the disappointments and solitude that Dickinson experienced during her life. Others view it as portraying her reconciliation with Christian faith. Regardless, knowing more about Dickinson, her life, and the circumstances that may have informed this poem can help us analyze her work more accurately. 

 

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Now let's take a closer look at "Because I could not stop for Death" and analyze the poem! 

 

“Because I Could Not Stop for Death” Analysis, Meaning, and Themes

To help you understand the significance of Emily Dickinson’s poetry, we’ll break down the overarching meaning through a “Because I could not stop for Death” analysis next. 

But before we do, go back and reread the poem. Once you have that done, come back here...and we can get started! 

 

“Because I Could Not Stop for Death” Meaning

At its core, this is a poem about death. (Surprise!) 

At the beginning of the poem, Death comes to fetch the speaker for a carriage ride. The rest of the poem shows the speaker coming to terms with the transition from life into death. 

In fact, the journey into death is what Dickinson really grapples with throughout the poem. Once Death picks the speaker up for their carriage ride, they travel along a country path that allows the speaker to observe children at play and the beauties of nature. Death takes a leisurely pace and treats the speaker kindly along the way. 

These depictions of the speaker’s journey to death reveal what death means to the speaker of the poem. The speaker seems to be saying that the hardest part about death isn’t always the act of dying itself. In fact, they say that they “could not stop for Death,” possibly because they were too busy living! 

However, this poem takes a closer look at the process of coming to terms with death...and how death is unavoidable. This is a struggle that any reader can relate to, since death is something we will all have to confront someday. 

By the final stanza of the poem, the speaker has achieved something that we all might hope for as well: they are at peace with her life coming to an end. They see a new home rising up from the earth, with its “Roof” in the ground. In other words, Death has taken the speaker to their grave. But the speaker doesn’t view their grave negatively. It’s not a scary place! Instead, it’s the location where the speaker comes face-to-face with Eternity. 

Understanding the overarching message of “Because I could not stop for Death” can help us pick out more specific themes that help us understand the poem better. Next, we’ll dig into three important themes from this poem: the inevitability of death, the connection of life with death, and the uncertainty of the afterlife. 

 

Theme 1: The Inevitability of Death

We already know that the process of dying is central to “Because I could not stop for Death.” Even more specific than that, though, is the idea that death is inevitable. 

We can see that the speaker is facing the inevitability of death from the very first stanza. The speaker saying that they “could not stop for Death” shows they had not necessarily planned to die--but Death came for them anyway.   

If we look at the meaning of “stopped” in the poem, we can get a better idea of how the speaker was feeling about the inevitability of Death’s approach. “Stopped” seems to mean “picked up” or “collected” in the context of the poem—at least when referring to Death stopping for the speaker. In other words, “stopped” doesn’t mean that Death halted its pursuit of the speaker to search for another mortal. It actually means that Death is making a stop to pick her up, similar to a taxi or bus. 

But “stopped” is also used in the first line of the poem when the speaker says that she “could not stop for Death.” So what’s up with that? The use of “stop” in the first line could imply that the speaker was too busy living their life to acknowledge Death’s approach. Instead of the speaker traveling to meet Death, Death came for them...regardless of the speaker’s original plans. 

The first line could also be interpreted another way. Perhaps the speaker could not stop for Death because she was too afraid. (In that way, this could be read a lot like Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night.” In this reading, the speaker “could not stop” because they were nervous about what accepting Death would be like. 

Regardless of how you interpret the speaker’s position--whether they were too busy or too scared to stop--the speaker definitely can’t avoid their trip with Death. When Death stops for them, they have to go with Death. 

While perhaps too apprehensive or preoccupied to stop for Death at first, once she settles into the carriage ride, the speaker is put at ease by Death’s civility and the leisurely pace he takes on the journey. The path the speaker travels isn’t frantic--there’s no rush! This gives the speaker the time to reflect on all the beautiful things of life and consider what’s to come at the end of the journey. 

In fact, Dickinson’s speaker paints Death in a favorable light here. Death isn’t the terrifying grim reaper who shows up with a sickle and whisks you away to the afterlife. Nor is the trip with Death like a Final Destination movie where everything is scary. In fact, Death is described as “civil,” or courteous, in line eight. The journey that the speaker takes to “Eternity” (mentioned in the last line of the poem) is calm, quiet, and pensive. 

Death isn’t cheery in this poem--but it’s also not a terrifying, horrible process. In this case, Death gives the speaker a chance to reflect on life from beginning (symbolized by the playing children) all the way to the end (symbolized by the setting sun). 

 

Theme 2: The Connection of Life and Death

The second theme that we’ll cover here is the beauty of life. From beginning to end, “Because I could not stop for Death” portrays how the process of dying is actually characterized by the vibrancy and fullness of life. 

Like we talked about earlier, this poem is all about the journey with Death as a person transitions from life to Eternity. But the carriage ride isn’t what you might expect! It’s not full of sadness, darkness, and...well, dead people. 

Instead, the speaker sees a series of vignettes: of children playing, fields of growing grain, and the setting sun. Each of these images represents a phase of life. The children represent the joy and fun of childhood, the grain represents our growth and productiveness as adults, and the setting sun represents the final years of life.

As the speaker dies, they are able to revisit these peaceful and joyful moments again. In that way, dying is as much about experiencing life one final time as it is about making it to your final rest. 

 

Theme 3: The Uncertainty of the Afterlife

The final theme that’s prominent in “Because I could not stop for Death” is the uncertainty of the afterlife. The speaker seems to imply that, just as much as we can’t control when Death stops for us, we can’t control what happens (or doesn’t happen) in the afterlife. 

This theme pops up pretty explicitly when the speaker mentions Immortality in line four. At the end of the poem’s first stanza, the speaker states that Immortality (also personified!) came along for the carriage ride. Presumably, Death picked Immortality up along the way to the speaker’s house. 

So what are Death and Immortality doing riding in the same carriage? Well, the poem doesn’t actually make that totally clear. But we can make some inferences based on the remainder of the poem!

After the first stanza, the speaker doesn’t mention Immortality explicitly again. This might mean that, like us, the speaker is unsure about what Immortality is going to do at the end of the carriage ride, which ends at the speaker’s grave. Will Immortality leave the speaker to rest peacefully in Death? Or will Immortality take over the journey when Death’s responsibilities end? 

The truth is, we just don’t know—and it seems that the speaker doesn’t either. That’s reinforced by the end of the poem, where the speaker reflects on guessing that Death’s carriage horses heads were pointed toward “Eternity.” Readers never get an image or explanation of what Eternity’s like. The afterlife remains a mystery to the reader...just as it was for the speaker while they were on their journey. 

This uncertainty can be frustrating for readers, but it’s actually kind of the point! It’s as if the speaker views the possibility of immortality as something we can build into our process of coming to terms with the inevitability of death. While Death is inevitable, the speaker is saying that Immortality, or the afterlife, is unknowable. 

Immortality seems to be an idea that we can choose to take along with us on the carriage ride with Death. What Immortality will do when we reach our destination isn’t something we can know for sure when we’re alive—but Dickinson is leaving the possibility of Immortality through the afterlife totally open. 

This is sometimes read as evidence of Dickinson’s reinvigorated Christian faith...or as a throwback to her conservative Calvinist upbringing. But, those factors aside, Immortality is presented as a potential companion to the speaker—a belief or presence that can give comfort and peace as she faces the inevitability of Death.

 

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Poetic devices are tools you can use to analyze a poem. Let's check out two that will help you unlock this poem's meaning.

 

The Top 2 Poetic Devices in “Because I Could Not Stop for Death”

Analyzing poetic devices can help us better understand the meaning and themes of a work of poetry. Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for Death” relies on several poetic devices, but the most important are personification and a volta

 

Personification

Personification is a poetic device that assigns human characteristics to something nonhuman or abstract. For instance, naming your favorite plant--and talking to it like it can listen!--is an example of personification in action!

In “Because I could not stop for Death,” Dickinson uses personification to lend human qualities to Death and Immortality. Death and Immortality are concepts, not people...but in her poem, Dickinson makes them act like people by having them drive and/or ride in a carriage. 

Through the personification of Death and Immortality, Dickinson presents these very familiar ideas in a way that is likely totally unfamiliar to her readers. When Death and Immortality come to mind, we probably don’t jump to images of a kind carriage driver and a quiet, stately passenger. By giving Death and Immortality human qualities, Dickinson helps the readers connect with these complex ideas and makes them more approachable. 

Personification also helps readers ask important questions about the poem. Why is Death driving a carriage and picking the speaker up? Why is Immortality along for the ride? And, most of all, how can we think about Death and Immortality in a whole new way by perceiving them similarly to human beings? While we might not have exact answers to these questions--just like the speaker doesn’t know what to expect from Eternity!--they allow us to critically think about existential concepts in a more concrete way. 

Here’s one example of what we mean. We already talked about how Dickinson is trying to portray Death as more than something to fear. She’s suggesting that Death is a journey that we all must take, and one that can give us the chance to reflect on our lives and find peace in the inevitability of Death. When Death is personified, we can see qualities in Death that may change how we think and feel about it. 

And that’s really what personification is all about: creating powerful stories that make big ideas easier to understand. By the end of the poem, just like the speaker, we see Death in a whole new way. 

 

Volta

A volta, or a turn, is often used by poets to create a significant shift in the tone and theme of a poem. Put another way: a volta can sometimes turn a poem on its head and take it in a different or new direction. 

Dickinson uses a volta in “Because I could not stop for Death” to shift the personification of Death from pleasant to more ambiguous. 

Before the volta, Death is portrayed as a civil and courteous gentleman. You can see this in the first two stanzas, or sections, of the poem. After the volta, which occurs in line thirteen of the poem, Death takes on a more mysterious quality. 

Instead of the happy children and fields of grain, the landscape changes after the volta. The dews quiver and chill, which sets a more ominous and melancholy tone. Then Death takes the speaker to her destination: a house “that seemed / A swelling of the ground.” While this is certainly a metaphorical description of a grave, it’s also something more: it’s honing in on the unknown. The speaker knows that they’ve been taken to their resting place, but it’s at least partially hidden. They can’t see what’s next for them, which turns the poem’s tone from a thoughtful reflectiveness to something more mysterious and enigmatic. This ties into one of the poem’s major themes: the uncertainty of the afterlife. 

So, now that we’ve talked about what the volta in this poem does...how can you tell when the volta is happening? In “Because I could not stop for Death,” you can find the volta by paying attention to the language Dickinson uses. Line thirteen begins, “Or rather--He passed us.” Those words--”or rather”--signify that the speaker’s thoughts and feelings are changing course, or making a turn toward a new idea. 

Another way to identify a volta is through changes to the structure of the poem. If you read “Because I could not stop for Death” out loud, you might notice that it has a lyrical quality. It’s rhythmic, almost like a song. This is because it follows a strict syllabic structure. At the volta, the pattern of syllables in each stanza changes from 8-6-8-6 to 6-8-8-6. 

This might seem like a small change, but you can feel a change in the lyrical quality of the poem when the syllabic pattern changes. It’s like when the beat changes in a song: the song just feels different! In the poem, the change in syllabic pattern helps propel the change in the portrayal of Death forward. And in this case, the volta helps us understand the speaker’s journey through death to the afterlife in a more nuanced way. 

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What's Next?

The key to analyzing poetry is making sure you have the right tools at your disposal. That’s where our list of poetic devices comes in handy! These will help you understand the techniques poets use in their works...and ultimately help you grasp poems’ meanings and themes.

If you’re still a little confused about how to analyze a poem, don’t worry. We have other expert poetry analyses on our blog! Why not start with this one on Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night”? 

Knowing how to analyze poetry is a key skill you need to master before you take the AP Literature exam. You can learn tons more about what to expect from the AP Lit test here. 

 

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Ashley Robinson
About the Author

Ashley Sufflé Robinson has a Ph.D. in 19th Century English Literature. As a content writer for PrepScholar, Ashley is passionate about giving college-bound students the in-depth information they need to get into the school of their dreams.



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