One of the perfect poems in English is The Chariot, /13/ and it exemplifies better than anything else [Emily Dickinson] wrote the special quality of her mind. . . . If the word great means anything in poetry, this poem is one of the greatest in the English language; it is flawless to the last detail. The rhythm charges with movement the pattern of suspended action back of the poem. Every image is precise and, moreover, not merely beautiful, but /14/ inextricably fused with the central idea. Every image extends and intensifies every other. The third stanza especially shows Miss Dickinson's power to fuse, into a single order of perception, a heterogeneous series: the children, the grain, and the setting sun (time) have the same degree of credibility; the first subtly preparing for the last. The sharp gazing before grain instils into nature a kind of cold vitality of which the qualitative richness has infinite depth. The content of death in the poem eludes forever any explicit definition. He is a gentleman taking a lady out for a drive. But note the restraint that keeps the poet from carrying this so far that it is ludicrous and incredible; and note the subtly interfused erotic motive, which the idea of death has presented to every romantic poet, love being a symbol interchangeable with death. The terror of death is objectified through this figure of the genteel driver, who is made ironically to serve the end of Immortality. This is the heart of the poem: she has presented a typical Christian theme in all its final irresolution, without making any final statement about it. There is no solution to the problem; there can be only a statement of it in the full context of intellect and feeling. A construction of the human will, elaborated with all the abstracting powers of the mind, is put to the concrete test of experience: the idea of immortality is confronted with the fact of physical disintegration. We are not told what to think; we are told to look at the situation.
The framework of the poem is, in fact, the two abstractions, mortality and eternity, which are made to as- /15/ sociate in perfect equality with the images: she sees the ideas. and thinks the perceptions. She did, of course, nothing of the sort; but we must use the logical distinctions, even to the extent of paradox. if we are to form any notion of this rare quality of mind. She could not in the proper sense think at all, and unless we prefer the feeble poetry of moral ideas that flourished in New England in the eighties, we must conclude that her intellectual deficiency contributed at least negatively to her great distinction. Miss Dickinson is probably the only Anglo-American poet of her century whose work exhibits the perfect literary situation— in which is possible the fusion of sensibility and thought. Unlike her contemporaries, she never succumbed to her ideas, to easy solutions, to her private desires. /16/
. . . No poet could have invented the elements of The Chariot; only a great poet could have used them so perfectly. Miss Dickinson was a deep mind writing from a deep culture, and when she came to poetry, she came infallibly.
Infallibly, at her best; for no poet has ever been perfect, nor is Emily Dickinson. Her unsurpassed precision of statement is due to the directness with which the abstract framework of her thought acts upon its unorganized material. The two elements of her style, considered as point of view, are immortality, or the idea of permanence, and the physical process of death or decay. Her diction has two corresponding features: words of Latin or Greek origin and, sharply opposed to these, the concrete Saxon element. It is this verbal conflict that gives to her verse its high tension; it is not a device deliberately seized upon, but a feeling for language that senses out the two fundamental components of English and their metaphysical relation: the Latin for ideas and the Saxon for perceptions—the peculiar virtue of English as a poetic tongue. Only the great poets know how to use this advantage of our language.
Like all poets, Miss Dickinson often writes out of habit; /22/ the style that emerged from some deep exploration of an idea is carried on as verbal habit when she has nothing to say. . . . .
But she never had the slightest interest in the public. Were four poems or five published in her lifetime? She never felt the temptation to round off a poem for public exhibition. Higginson's kindly offer to make her verse "correct" was an invitation to throw her work into the public ring—the ring of Lowell and Longfellow. He could not see that he was tampering with one of the rarest literary integrities of all time. Here was a poet who had no use for the supports of authorship-flattery and fame; she never needed money. /23/
She had all the elements of a culture that has broken up, a culture that on the religious side takes its place in the museum of spiritual antiquities. Puritanism, as a unified version of the world, is dead; only a remnant of it in trade may be said to survive. In the history of puritanism she comes between Hawthorne and Emerson. She has Hawthorne's matter, which a too irresponsible personality tends to dilute into a form like Emerson's; she is often betrayed by words. But she is not the poet of personal sentiment; she has more to say than she can put down in anyone poem. Like Hardy and Whitman she must be read entire; like Shakespeare she never gives up her meaning in a single 1ine.
She is therefore a perfect subject for the kind of criticism which is chiefly concerned with general ideas. She exhibits one of the permanent relations between personality and objective truth, and she deserves the special attention of our time, which lacks that kind of truth.
She has Hawthorne's intellectual toughness, a hard, definite sense of the physical world. The highest flights to God, the most extravagant metaphors of the strange and the remote, come back to a point of casuistry, to a moral dilemma of the experienced world. There is, in spite of the homiletic vein of utterance, no abstract speculation, nor is there a message to society; she speaks wholly to the individual experience. She offers to the unimaginative no riot of vicarious sensation; she has no useful maxims for men of action. Up to this point her resemblance to Emerson is slight: poetry is a sufficient form of /24/ utterance, and her devotion to it is pure. But in Emily Dickinson the puritan world is no longer self-contained; it is no longer complete; her sensibility exceeds its dimensions. She has trimmed down its supernatural proportions; it has become a morality; instead of the tragedy of the spirit there is a commentary upon it. Her poetry is a magnificent personal confession, blasphemous and, in its self-revelation, its implacable honesty, almost obscene. It comes out of an intellectual life towards which it feels no moral responsibility. Mather would have burnt her for a witch. /25/
From Reactionary Essays on Poetry and Ideas (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1936), pp. 13-16, 22-25. A revised version of this essay appears in Collected Essays by Allen Tate (Denver: Alan Swallow, 1959). Copyright 1959 by Allen Tate.
There are a few curious and remarkable poems representing a mixed theme, of which ["Because I could not stop for Death"] is perhaps the finest example. . . . /288/ In the fourth line we find the familiar device of using a major abstraction in a somewhat loose and indefinable manner; in the last stanza there is the semi-playful pretence of familiarity with the posthumous experience of eternity. so that the poem ends unconvincingly though gracefully, with a formulary gesture very roughly comparable to that of the concluding couplet of many an Elizabethan sonnet of love; for the rest the poem is a remarkably beautiful poem on the subject of the daily realization of the imminence of death—it is a poem of departure from life, an intensely conscious leave-taking. In so far as it concentrates on the life that is being left behind, it is wholly successful; in so far as it attempts to experience the death to come, it is fraudulent, however exquisitely, and in this it falls below her finest achievement. Allen Tate, who appears to be unconcerned with this fraudulent element, praises the poem in the highest terms; he appears almost to praise it for its defects: "The sharp gazing before grain instils into nature a kind of cold vitality of which the qualitative richness has infinite depth. The content of death in the poem eludes forever any explicit definition . . . she has presented a typical Christian theme in all its final irresolution, without making any final statement about it." The poem ends in irresolution in the sense that it ends in a statement that is not offered seriously; to praise the /289/ poem for this is unsound criticism, however. It is possible to solve any problem of insoluble experience by retreating a step and defining the boundary at which comprehension ceases, and by then making the necessary moral adjustments to that boundary; this in itself is an experience both final and serious, and it is the experience on which our author's finest work is based. /290/
From "Emily Dickinson and the Limits of Judgement," In Defense of Reason, 3rd ed. (Denver: Alan Swallow, 1947), pp. 283-299.
Allen Tale is indisputably correct when he writes (in Reactionary Essays) that for Emily Dickinson "The general symbol of Nature . . . is Death." Death is, in fact, her poetic affirmation. Yet he continues with a questionable declaration: ". . . and her weapon against Death is the entire powerful dumb-show of the puritan theology led by Redemption and Immortality."
It is true that she is forced to experience and deal with nature before she can turn her back on it, but redemption and immortality are for her neither weapon nor protection. If these concepts deserve any place at all, it is rather because they are avenues of escape from death. In her love poems, as well as in the group dealing with time and eternity, she returns constantly to her preoccupation with death—both as it is incorporated in all of nature, and as it encompasses it on all sides. Here she faces and resolves the issue many times, but never wholly with what Tale is pleased to call her "puritan theology."
Certainly the love poems provide the more personally representative passages from which to draw an argument against Tate's statement. A recurrent theme in these poems is the separation of two lovers by death, and their reunion in immortality. But Emily Dickinson's conception of this immortality is centered in the beloved himself, rather than in any theological principle. . . . The immortality which concerns her arises directly from her connection with a second person, and never exists as an abstract or Christian condition. . . . /115/
In this same way, redemption is also reduced to the simplest personal equation. In these poems redemption, as such, is never mentioned; rather, the awareness of it permeates the entire section. Redemption for Emily Dickinson is too synonymous with immortality to receive much individual distinction. There is little talk of heaven or hell, except as they exist within the poet herself. . . .
It is not the "dumb-show of the puritan theology" which protects the poet, but her own redefinition of Christian values. This redefinition is not important because of any radical deviation from the church's precepts, but because the catchwords of pulpit and hymnal have been given an intimate and casual interpretation. She speaks of Death's coming for her, yet has him arrive in a carriage to take her for an afternoon's drive. She writes of Calvaries, but they are "Calvaries of Love"; the grave is "my little cottage." . . . The familiar and comforting words that, for her, spell everyday life are used to mask unrealized abstractions. It is by contracting the illimitable spaces of after-life to her own focus, that she can find peace, for "their height in heaven comforts not." She fills the abyss with her talk of tea and carriages and the littleness of time. Puritan theology may have given her a fear of the loneliness of death, the Bible and hymnal may have provided her with patterns and phrases, but these equip her with terminologies, molds in which her personal conceptions can take form, rather than actual Christian conceptions.
Death for Emily Dickinson, therefore, was an uncomfortable lacuna which could in no way be bridged, except by transposing it into a more homely metaphor. Death as a caller, the grave as a little house—these are a poetic whistling in the dark. In a safe and ordered microcosm, she found death an ungoverned and obsessing presence. It could be neither forgotten nor accepted in its present form. Death had possessed too many of her friends to be reckoned with as a complete abstraction. But when she translated this oppression into a language of daily routine, she could blot out the reality of death with pictures conjured up by the surrounding images:
See where it hurts me,—that's enough,—
And wade into liberty?
[#277—Poems, 1891, p. 107] /116/
. . . this is said to be
But just the primer to a life
Unopened, rare, upon the shelf
Clasped yet to him and me.
[#418—Poems, 1890, p. 132]
I sing to use the waiting. . .
And tell each other how we sang
To keep the dark away.
[#850—Poems, 1896, p.170]
The idea of filing it off, of wading into death and its liberty, of calling death a primer, or of singing away eternity, is the balance of known with unknown which Emily Dickinson must portion out to herself before she can rest.
Allen Tale is on the right track in referring to death as her "general symbol of Nature." It is the logical culmination of nature, and the greatest example of the change which is constantly moving through nature. Emily Dickinson regards nature as resembling death in that it can, for the moment, be brought within her garden walls, but still spreads around her life and beyond her door, impossible to hold or to measure. Both are forces which must be discussed and rehearsed constantly. They are too present and compelling to be pushed into the recesses of the mind. The brute energy of both must be leashed to the minutely familiar. Emily Dickinson's wild nights are bound and her fears assuaged with the images of her immediate reality. But this immediate reality is made up of her personal terms, and has come from her own heart, not from the tenets of her church. /1171/
From "Three Studies in Modern Poetry," Accent, III (Winter, 1943), 115-117.
The central theme [of "Because I could not stop for Death"] is the interpretation of mortal experience from the standpoint of immortality. A theme stemming from that is the defining of eternity as timelessness. The poet uses these abstractions— mortality, immortality, and eternity—in terms /585/ of images. How successfully, then, do these images fulfill their intention, which is to unite in filling in the frame of the poem?
In the first two lines Death, personified as a carriage driver, stops for one who could not stop for him. The word "kindly" is particularly meaningful, for it instantly characterizes Death. This comes with surprise, too, since death is more often considered grim and terrible. The third and fourth lines explain the dramatic situation. Death has in the carriage another passenger, Immortality. Thus, in four compact lines the poet has not only introduced the principal characters metaphorically, but she has also characterized them in part; in addition, she has set the stage for the drama and started the drama moving. It may be noted; in passing, that the phrase, "And Immortality," standing alone, helps to emphasize the importance of the presence of the second passenger.
In the first line of the second stanza, "slowly drove" and "knew no haste" serve to amplify the idea of the kindliness of the driver, as well as the intimacy which has already been suggested by "held just ourselves." In the fourth line, "For his civility" further characterizes the polite, kindly driver. The second, third and fourth lines tie in perfectly with the first two lines of the poem: she who has not been able to stop for Death is now so completely captivated by his personality that she has put away everything that had occupied her before his coming.
The third stanza contains a series of heterogeneous materials: children, gazing grain, setting sun. But under the poet's skillful treatment these materials, seemingly foreign to one another, are fused into a unit and reconciled. How? Not, obviously, by simply setting them side by side, but by making them all parts of a single order of perception. They are all perceived as elements in an experience from which the onlooker has withdrawn. In its larger meaning this experience is Nature, over which, with the aid of death, the individual triumphs. "Gazing grain," shifting "gazing" from the dead woman who is passing to a common feature of Nature at which she is astonished, gives the grain something of the fixity of death itself, although the grain is alive. /586/ This paradox is highly significant in the context of the poem: "grain" symbolizes life, mortality; "gazing" suggests death, immortality. "Setting sun" is no less powerful in its suggestion of the passage of time; and "the school where children played, / Their lessons scarcely done" makes a subtle preparation for it.
In the next stanza the house, appearing as a "swelling of the ground," the roof "scarcely visible" and the cornice, "but a mound," suggest the grave, a sinking out of sight. "Paused" calls to mind the attitude of the living toward the lowering of a coffin into the ground, as well as other associations with the occurrence of death.
"Centuries" in the last stanza refers, of course, to eternity. "Each feels shorter than the day" ties in with "setting sun" in the third stanza and suggests at the same time the timelessness of eternity. Indeed, an effective contrast between the time of mortality and the timelessness of eternity is made in the entire stanza.
"Horses' heads" is a concrete extension of the figure of the carriage, which is maintained throughout the poem. The carriage is headed toward eternity, where Death is taking the passenger. The attitude of withdrawal, or seeing with perspective, could not have been more effectively accomplished than it has been by the use of the slowly-moving carriage. Remoteness is fused with nearness, for the objects that are observed during the journey are made to appear close by. At the same time, a constant moving forward, with only one pause, carries weighty implications concerning time, death, eternity. The person in the carriage is viewing things that are near with the perspective of distance, given by the presence of Immortality.
The poem could hardly be said to convey an idea, as such, or a series of ideas; instead, it presents a situation in terms of human experience. The conflict between mortality and immortality is worked out through the agency of metaphor and tone. The resolution of the conflict lies in the implications concerning the meaning of eternity: not an endless stretch of time, but something fixed and timeless, which interprets and gives meaning to /587/ mortal experience. Two seemingly contradictory concepts, mortality and immortality, are reconciled, because several seemingly contradictory elements which symbolize them are brought into reconciliation.
The interaction of elements within a poem to produce an effect of reconciliation in the poem as a whole, which we have observed in these analyses, is the outstanding characteristic of "Metaphysical" poetry. This poetry Cleanth Brooks defines as that in which "the opposition of the impulses which are united is extreme" or, again, that "in which the poet attempts the reconciliation of qualities which are opposite or discordant in the extreme." I have no intention of forcing this classification upon the poetry of Emily Dickinson. Indeed, I have no intention of forcing any classification upon her; I have tried to focus more upon the mechanics of her poetry. It seems fairly clear however, . . . that she is free from the limitations of the romantic poet, which she is generally mistaken to be. She does not employ metaphor only for illustration or decoration of some "truth," as the romantic poet usually does. She does not merely introduce an element of paradox, as the romantic poet tends to do; rather she succeeds in bringing it to the surface and in reconciling seemingly contradictory concepts. She does not use disparate materials sparingly and put them down in juxtaposition without blending them, as the romantic poet is often inclined to do. And her liberty in the use of words would hardly be sanctioned by the typically romantic poet, for fear of being "unpoetic" and not "great" and "beautiful."
The kind of unity, or reconciliation that we have been observing at work in these poems is chiefly responsible for their success. Proof of this is found in the fact that the few poems of Emily Dickinson's that are not successful show no evidence of the quality; and some others that are only partially successful show less of it. In this sense we are justified in referring to Emily Dickinson as a metaphysical poet. /588/
From "Emily Dickinson's Poetry: A Revaluation," The Sewanee Review, LI (Autumn, 1943), 585-588.
Emily Dickinson's poems on death are scattered in clusters through the two volumes which contain her poetic works. Drawn together in one of the several orders that suggest themselves, they constitute a small body of poems equal to the most distinguished lyric verse in English.
She is surely unparalleled in capturing the experience of New England deathbed scenes and funerals. Of this kind the three best poems are "How many times these low feet staggered," "I heard a fly buzz when I died," and "I felt a funeral in my brain." Her most successful device in these poems is her juxtaposition of the sense of the mys- /246/ tery of death with the sense of particular material stresses, weights, motions, and sounds so that each clarifies and intensifies the other:
And creak across my soul
With those same boots of lead, again.
Then space began to toll
As all the heavens were a bell,
And Being but an ear,
And I and silence some strange race,
Wrecked, solitary, here.
[#280—Poems, 1896, p. 168]
Few other writers have expressed such astonishing loneliness as this.
The objection has been made that no poet ought to imagine that he has died and that he knows exactly what the experience is like. The objection does not apply, at any rate, to "I heard a fly buzz," since the poem does not in the least strive after the unknowable but deals merely with the last sensations of consciousness. . . . /247/
[The differing versions] remind the reader of the textual difficulties in the Dickinson canon which are still to be cleared up. "I heard a fly buzz" has again and again been reprinted in the altered version of the early Todd Higginson editions. This version substitutes "round my form" for "in the room" (second line), preferring an insipidity to an imperfect rhyme. It reads "The eyes beside" instead of "The eyes around," substitutes "sure" for "firm," and says in place of "witnessed in the room," "witnessed in his power." Both "sure" and "power" have generalized moralistic and honorific connotations which Higginson and Mrs. Todd thought (perhaps rightly) would be more pleasing to late Victorian readers than the poet's more precise, concrete words. These editors left the fourth stanza intact but wrote the third stanza thus:
What portion of me I
Could make assignable—and then
There interposed a fly.
[#465—Poems, 1896, p. 184]
To gain a rhyme, that is, they did not scruple to add the gratuitous and poetically neutral "Could make" and to sacrifice the voiced "s" sound which the poet had provided in "It was." Higginson and Mrs. Todd did not publish this poem at all until Poems, Third Series, in 1896. This leads one to conjecture that they thought it unusually awkward in its versification and that, consequently, when they did get around to publishing it, they edited it with unusually free hands. These are questions which can be an- /248/ swered only by the much desired definitive edition of Emily Dickinson's work.
Of the several poems which describe death as a gentleman visitor or lover the most familiar is also incomparably the best ["Because I could not stop for Death"]. . . . The only pressing technical objection to this poem is the remark that "Immortality" in the first stanza is a meretricious and unnecessary personification and that the common sense of the situation demands that Immortality ought to be the destination of the coach and not one of the /249/ passengers. The personification of death, however, is unassailable. In the literal meaning of the poem, he is apparently a successful citizen who has amorous but genteel intentions. He is also God. And though as a genteel citizen, his "civility" may be a little hollow—or even a confidence trick—as God his "civility" is that hierarchic status which he confers upon the poet and for which she gladly exchanges the labor and leisure of the less brilliant life she has been leading.
The word "labor" recalls Emily Dickinson's idea that life is to be understood as the slow labor of dying; now this labor is properly put away. So is the leisure, since a far more desirable leisure will be hers in "eternity." The third stanza is a symbolic recapitulation of life: the children playing, wrestling (more "labor") through the cycle of their existence, "in a ring"; the gazing grain signifies ripeness and the entranced and visionary gaze that first beholds the approach of death of which the setting sun is the felicitous symbol.
The last two stanzas are hardly surpassed in the whole range of lyric poetry. The visual images here are handled with perfect economy. All the poem needs is one or two concrete images—roof, cornice—to awake in our minds the appalling identification of house with grave. Even more compelling is the sense of pausing, and the sense of overpowering action and weight in "swelling" and "mound." This kinaesthetic imagery prepares us for the feeling of suddenly discerned motion in the last stanza, which with fine dramatic tact presents us with but one visual image, the horses' heads. There are progressively fewer visible objects in the last three stanzas, since the seen world must be /250/ made gradually to sink into the nervously sensed world—a device the poet uses to extraordinary effect in the last stanza of "I heard a fly buzz." /251/
From Modern Poetry and the Tradition, Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1939.
Thomas H. Johnson
. . . In 1863 Death came into full stature as a person. "Because I could not stop for Death" is a superlative achievement wherein Death becomes one of the great characters of literature.
It is almost impossible in any critique to define exactly the kind of reality which her character Death attains, simply because the protean shifts of form are intended to forestall definition. A poem can convey the nuances of exultation, agony, compassion, or any mystical mood. But no one can successfully define mysticism because the logic of language has no place for it. One must therefore assume that the reality of Death, as Emily Dickinson conceived him, is to be perceived by the reader in the poems themselves. Any analysis can do no more than suggest what may be looked for .
In "Because I could not stop for Death" Emily Dickinson envisions Death as a person she knew and trusted, or believed that she could trust. He might be any Amherst gentleman, a William Howland or an Elbridge Bowdoin, or any of the coming lawyers or teachers or ministers whom she remembered from her youth, with whom she had exchanged valentines, and who at one time or another had acted as her squire. . . . /222/ The carriage holds but the two of them, yet the ride, as she states with quiet emphasis, is a last ride together. Clearly there has been no deception on his part. They drive in a leisurely manner, and she feels completely at ease. Since she understands it to be a last ride, she of course expects it to be unhurried. Indeed, his graciousness in taking time to stop for her at that point and on that day in her life when she was so busy she could not possibly have taken time to stop for him, is a mark of special politeness. She is therefore quite willing to put aside her work. And again, since it is to be her last ride, she can dispense with her spare moments as well as her active ones. . . .
She notes the daily routine of the life she is passing from. Children playing games during a school recess catch her eye at the last. And now the sense of motion is quickened. Or perhaps more exactly one should say that the sense of time comes to an end as they pass the cycles of the day and the seasons of the year, at a period of both ripeness and decline. . . . How insistently "passed" echoes through the [third] stanza! She now conveys her feeling of being outside time and change, for she corrects herself to say that the sun passed them, as it of course does all who are in the grave. She is aware of dampness and cold, and becomes suddenly conscious of the sheerness of the dress and scarf which she now discovers that she wears. . . . /223/
The two concluding stanzas, with progressively decreasing concreteness, hasten the final identification of her "House." It is the slightly rounded surface "of the Ground," with a scarcely visible roof and a cornice "in the Ground." To time and seasonal change, which have already ceased, is now added motion. Cessation of all activity and creativeness is absolute. At the end, in a final instantaneous flash of memory, she recalls the last objects before her eyes during the journey: the heads of the horses that bore her, as she had surmised they were doing from the beginning, toward—it is the last word—"Eternity." . . . Gradually, too, one realizes that Death as a person has receded into the background, mentioned last only impersonally in the opening words "We paused" of the fifth stanza, where his services as squire and companion are over. In this poem concrete realism melds into "awe and circumference" with matchless economy. /224/
From Emily Dickinson: An Interpretive Biography (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1955), pp. 222-224.
Theodore C. Hoepfner
A comment by Richard Chase on Emily Dickinson's "Because I Could not stop for Death," reads in part as follows:
The only pressing technical objection to this poem is the remark that "Immortality" in the first stanza is a meretricious and unnecessary personification and that the common sense of the situation demands that Immortality ought to be the destination of the coach and not one of the passengers. The personification of death, however, is unassailable. In the literal meaning of the poem, he is apparently a successful citizen who has amorous but genteel intentions. He is also God. . . .
The trouble with this remark is that it does not present the common sense of the situation. Emily Dickinson was taught Christian doctrine—not simply Christian morality but Christian theology—and she knew that the coach cannot head toward immortality, nor can one of the passengers. Dickinson here compresses two related but differing concepts: (1) at death the soul journeys to heaven (eternity), and thus the image of the carriage and driver is appropriate; and (2) the soul is immortal, and our immortality, therefore, "rides" always with us as a copassenger; it is with us because the soul is our immortal part and so may be thought of as journeying with us. The poet's language is compact and oblique, but there is no false personification in it. Since the soul is one's true person (essence, not mask). no personification is needed, except possibly what may be involved in the separable concept of the soul itself. Both immortality and death, however, need personification and are given it. The horses' heads are toward eternity, but not toward immortality.
Incidentally, why "amorous but genteel"? To those who believe in an ,afterlife, death may be kind in taking us from a world of proverbial woe into one of equally proverbial eternal bliss; the irony is in the contrast between our fear of death and the kindness of his mission, and it seems unnecessary to call upon an amorous implication. The idea of the "Bride of Christ" may be permissible but it seems far-fetched in the context of the poem as we have it. /96/
From "'Becasue I Could Not Stop for Death,'" American Literature, XXIX (March, 1957), 96.
Charles R. Anderson
[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:
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—
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:
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:
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:
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.
Yvor Winters has spoken of the poem's subject as "the daily realization of the imminence of death—it is a poem of departure from life, an intensely conscious leave-taking." But in its final claim to actually experience death, Winters has found it fraudulent. There is, of course, a way out of or around the dilemma of posthumous speech and that is to suppose that the entire ride with death is, as the last stanza indicates, a "surmise," and " 'tis Centuries—," a colloquial hyperbole. But we ought not insist that the poem's interpretation pivot on the importance of this word. For we ignore its own struggle with extraordinary claims if we insist too quickly on its adherence to traditional limits.
In one respect, the speaker's assertions that she "could not stop for Death—" must be taken as the romantic protest of a self not yet disabused of the fantasy that her whims, however capricious, will withstand the larger temporal demands of the external world. Thus the first line, like any idiosyncratic representation of the world, must come to grips with the tyranny of more general meanings, not the least of which can be read in the inviolable stand of the universe, every bit as willful as the isolate self. But initially the world seems to cater to the self's needs; since the speaker does not have time (one implication of "could not stop") for death, she is deferred to by the world ("He kindly stopped for me—"). In another respect, we must see the first line not only as willful (had not time for) but also as the admission of a disabling fact (could not). The second line responds to the doubleness of conception. What, in other words, in one context is deference, in another is coercion, and since the poem balances tonally between these extremes it is important to note the dexterity with which they are compacted in the first two lines.
There is, of course, further sense in which death stops for the speaker, and that is in the fusion I alluded to earlier between interior and exterior senses of time, so that the consequence of the meeting in the carriage is the death of otherness. The poem presumes to rid death of its otherness, to familiarize it, literally to adopt its perspective and in so doing to effect a synthesis between self and other, internal time and the faster, more relentless beat of the world. Using more traditional terms to describe the union, Allen Tate speaks of the poem's "subtly interfused erotic motive, which the idea of death has presented to most romantic poets, love being a symbol interchangeable with death." It is true that the poem is charged with eroticism whose end or aim is union, perhaps as we conventionally know it, a synthesis of self and other for the explicit purpose of the transformation of other or, if that proves impossible, for the loss of self. Death's heralding phenomenon, the loss of self, would be almost welcomed if self at this point could be magically fused with other. . . .
. . . death is essence of the universe as well as its end, and the self is wooed and won by this otherness that appears to define the totality of experience.
Indeed the trinity of death, self, immortality, however ironic a parody of the holy paradigm, at least promises a conventional fulfillment of the idea that the body's end coincides with the soul's everlasting life. But, as in "Our journey had advanced," death so frequently conceptualized as identical with eternity here suffers a radical displacement from it. While both poems suggest a discrepancy between eternity and death, the former poem hedges on the question of where the speaker stands with respect to that discrepancy, at its conclusion seeming to locate her safely in front of or "before" death. "Because I could not stop for Death," on the other hand, pushes revision one step further, daring to leave the speaker stranded in the moment of death.
Along these revisionary lines, the ride to death that we might have supposed to take place through territory unknown, we discover in stanza three to reveal commonplace sights but now fused with spectacle. The path out of the world is also apparently the one through it and in the compression of the three images ("the School, where Children strove," "the Fields of Gazing Grain—," "the Setting Sun—") we are introduced to a new kind of visual shorthand. Perhaps what is extraordinary here is the elasticity of reference, how imposingly on the figural scale the images can weigh while, at the same time, never abandoning any of their quite literal specificity. Hence the sight of the children is a circumscribed one by virtue of the specificity of their placement "At Recess—in the Ring—" and, at the same time, the picture takes on the shadings of allegory. This referential flexibility or fusion of literal and figural meanings is potential in the suggestive connotations of the verb "strove," which is a metaphor in the context of the playground (that is, in its literal context) and a mere descriptive verb in the context of the implied larger world (that is, in its figural context). The "Fields of Gazing Grain—" also suggest a literal picture, but one that leans in the direction of emblem; thus the epithet "Gazing" has perhaps been anthropomorphized from the one-directional leaning of grain in the wind, the object of its gazing the speaker herself. The "Children" mark the presence of the world along one stage of the speaker's journey, the "Gazing Grain—" marks the passing of the world (its harkening after the speaker as she rides away from it), and the "Setting Sun—" marks its past. For at least as the third stanza conceives of it, the journey toward eternity is a series of successive and, in the case of the grain, displaced visions giving way finally to blankness.
But just as after the first two stanzas, we are again rescued in the fourth from any settled conception of this journey. As we were initially not to think of the journey taking place out of the world (and hence with the children we are brought back to it), the end of the third stanza having again moved us to the world's edge, we are redeemed from falling over it by the speaker's correction: "Or rather—He passed Us—." It is the defining movement of the poem to deliver us just over the boundary line between life and death and then to recall us. Thus while the poem gives the illusion of a one-directional movement, albeit a halting one, we discover upon closer scrutiny that the movements are multiple and, as in "I heard a Fly buzz when I died," constitutive of flux, back and forth over the boundary from life to death. Despite the correction, "Or rather—He passed Us—," the next lines register a response that would be entirely appropriate to the speaker's passing of the sun. "The Dews drew" round the speaker, her earthly clothes not only inadequate, but actually falling away in deference to the sensation of "chill—" that displaces them as she passes the boundary of the earth. Thus, on the one hand, "chill—" is a mere physiological response to the setting of the sun at night, on the other, it is a metaphor for the earlier assertion that the earth and earthly goods are being exchanged for something else. Implications in the poem, like the more explicit assertions, are contradictory and reflexive, circling back to underline the very premises they seem a moment ago to have denied. Given such ambiguity, we are constantly in a quandary about how to place the journey that, at anyone point, undermines the very certainty of conception it has previously established.
[Cameron here inserts an analysis of George Herbert's "Redemption"]
While Dickinson's representation of the ride with death is less histrionic, it is as insistent in our coming to terms with the personalization of the even and of its perpetual reenactment in the present. For the grave that is "paused before" in the fifth stanza, with the tombstone lying flat against the ground ("scarcely visible—"), is seen from the outside and then (by the transformation of spatial considerations into temporal ones) is passed by or through: "Since then—'tis Centuries—." The poem's concluding stanza both fulfills the traditional Christian notion that while the endurance of death is essential for the reaching of eternity, the two are not identical, and by splitting death and eternity with the space of "Centuries—," chal1enges that traditional notion. The poem that has thus far played havoc with our efforts to fix its journey in any conventional time or space, on this side of death or the other, concludes with an announcement about the origins of its speech, now explicitly equivocal: "'tis Cen- turies—and yet / Feels shorter than the Day." What in "There's a certain Slant of light" had been a clear relationship between figure and its fulfillment (a sense of perceptive enlightenment accruing from the movement of one to the other) is in this poem manifestly baffling. For one might observe that for all the apparent movement here, there are no real progressions in the poem at all. If the correction "We passed the Setting Sun— / Or rather—He passed Us—" may be construed as a confirmation of the slowness of the drive alluded to earlier in the poem, the last stanza seems to insist that the carriage is standing still, moving if at all, as we say, in place. For the predominant sense of this journey is not simply its endlessness; it is also the curious back and forth sweep of its images conveying, as they do, the perpetual return to what has been perpetually taken leave of.
Angus Fletcher, speaking in terms applicable to "Because I could not stop for Death," documents the characteristics of allegorical journeys as surrealistic in imagery (as for example, the "Gazing Grain—"), paratactic in rhythm or structure (as indeed we can hear in the acknowledged form of movement: "We passed . . . We passed . . . We passed . . . Or rather—He passed Us . . . We Paused . . . "), and almost always incomplete: "It is logically quite natural for the extension to be infinite, since by definition there is no such thing as the whole of any analogy; all analogies are incomplete, and incompletable, and allegory simply records this analogical relation in a dramatic or narrative form."
But while the poem has some of the characteristics of allegory, it nonetheless seems to defy such easy classification. Thus the utterance is not quite allegory because it is not strongly iconographic (its figures do not have a one-to-one correspondence with a representational base), and at the same time, these figures are sufficiently rigid to preclude the freeing up of associations that is characteristic of the symbol. We recall Coleridge's distinction between a symbolic and an allegorical structure. A symbol presupposes a unity with its object. It denies the separateness between subject and object by creating a synecdochic relationship between itself and the totality of what it represents; like the relationship between figure and thing figured discussed in the first part of this chapter, it is always part of that totality. Allegory, on the other hand, is a sign that refers to a specific meaning from which it continually remains detached. Through its abstract embodiment, the allegorical form makes the distance between itself and its original meaning clearly manifest. It accentuates the absolute cleavage between subject and object. Since the speaker in "Because I could not stop for Death" balances between the boast of knowledge and the confession of ignorance, between a oneness with death and an inescapable difference from it, we may regard the poem as a partial allegory. The inability to know eternity, the failure to be at one with it, is, we might say, what the allegory of "Because I could not stop for Death" makes manifest. The ride with death, though it espouses to reveal a future that is past, in fact casts both past and future in the indeterminate present of the last stanza. Unable to arrive at a fixed conception, it must rest on the bravado (and it implicitly knows this) of its initial claim. Thus death is not really civilized; the boundary between otherness and self, life and death, is crossed, but only in presumption, and we might regard this fact as the real confession of disappointment in the poem's last stanza.
From Lyric Time: Dickinson and the Limits of Genre. Copyright © 1979 by The Johns Hopkins UP.
Jane Donahue Eberwein
Dickinson's most famous poem spoken from beyond the grave confronts precisely this problem: the assertiveness of the circuit world ["the world of matter and time and intellectual awareness . . . busyness is the circuit world’s dominant characteristic, industry its major value"] against the claims of complementary vision . . . The representative of the verse here is a decidedly imaginary person—not Emily Dickinson's self-projection (which would be of one straining for escape beyond circumference and intensely alert to all details of transition) but a woman contented within the routine of circuit busyness. Her opening words echo some of Dickinson's own habitual usages but present a contradictory value system adapted to worldly achievements. This lady has been industrious—too busy to stop her work, whatever it may have been. Dickinson, too, proclaimed herself too busy in her self-descriptive July 1862 letter to Higginson and in a letter to Mrs. Holland that Johnson and Ward place conjecturally at the same time on the basis of obvious verbal echoes (L 268; 269). To Higginson she wrote: "Perhaps you smile at me. I could not stop for that—My Business is Circumference—." To Mrs. Holland, "Perhaps you laugh at me! Perhaps the whole United States are laughing at me too! I can't stop for that! My business is to love." Her businesses, then, differed from the routine employments of the circuit citizens who might be mocking her. What the poet could not stop for was circuit judgments. Her businesses, as she reported them that intensely productive summer, were love, song, and circumference—all of them leading her outside the circuit. Circumference, from the perspective of the circuit world, was death and the cessation of industry, although there might be a different life beyond it. The speaker of this poem, however, is too busy with ordinary duties to stop for Death, who naturally stops her instead. She is less like Emily Dickinson than like that whirlwind of domestic industriousness, Lavinia, whom her sister once characterized as a "standard for superhuman effort erroneously applied" (L 254).
Caught up in the circuit world of busyness, the speaker mistakes Death for a human suitor; her imagination suggests no more awesome possibility. Two persons, in fact, have come for her, Death and Immortality, though her limited perception leads her to ignore the higher-ranking chaperon. The relationship between the two figures—analogous to that between circumference and awe (P 1620)—attracts none of her notice. In fact, she pays little attention even to her principal escort, being occupied instead with peering out the carriage window at the familiar circuit world. She sees the schoolchildren playing in their circumferential ring, little realizing that she has now herself become that playfellow who will go in and close the door—thus breaking the circle (P 1098). And she sees the "Gazing Grain" indicative of the late-summer crop Death is already reaping even as she herself gazes back into the circuit, indicative also of some farmer's midlife industriousness—the sort another circuit-minded speaker pitied when death deprived him of harvest (P 529). Rather than attending to mysteries, this speaker focuses only on the familiar until a novel perspective on the sunset jolts her into awareness of her own transitional state. Rather than making friends with Immortality, she concentrates on mortality.
The consequence of her distorted values is that the speaker winds up with eternity as an inadequate substitute for either: the endless static stretch of time that young Emily had repudiated in an 1846 letter to Abiah Root (the same letter in which she confessed her inability to imagine her own death). "Does not Eternity appear dreadful to you," she asked then, "I often get thinking of it and it seems so dark to me that I almost wish there was no Eternity. To think that we must forever live and never cease to be. It seems as if Death which all so dread because it launches us upon an unknown world would be a relief to so endless a state of existense" (L 10). Indeed, Death does not launch the persona of this poem into another world (Immortality would have to be enlisted for that, rather than sitting ignored in the back seat of the carriage in which she and Death will eventually ride off together after abandoning the speaker). Instead Death leaves his date buried within the margin of the circuit, in a "House" that she can maintain like one of those "Alabaster Chambers" (P 216) in which numb corpses lie but which are designed and built of elegant materials still gratifying to the circuit-locked mentality. A quester for circumference would greet Death more enthusiastically, and would both value and cultivate Death's ties to Immortality. For such a quester, the destination of the journey might prove more wondrous.
From Dickinson: Strategies of Limitation. Copyright © 1985 by The University of Massachusetts Press.
Cynthia Griffin Wolff
The speaker is a beautiful woman (already dead!), and like some spectral Cinderella, she is dressed to go to a ball: "For only Gossamer, my Gown—/MyTippet—onlyTule—." Her escort recalls both the lover of Poe's configuration and the "Bridegroom" that had been promised in the Bible: "We slowly drove—He knew no haste / And I had put away / My labor and my leisure too, / For His Civility—." Their "Carriage" hovers in some surrealistic state that is exterior to both time and place: they are no longer earth-bound, not quite dead (or at least still possessed of consciousness), but they have not yet achieved the celebration that awaits them, the "marriage supper of the Lamb."
Yet the ultimate implication of this work turns precisely upon the poet’s capacity to explode the finite temporal boundaries that generally define our existence, for there is a third member of the party—also exterior to time and location—and that is "Immortality." True immortality, the verse suggests, comes neither from the confabulations of a mate lover nor from God's intangible Heaven. Irrefutable "Immortality" resides in the work of art itself, the creation of an empowered woman poet that continues to captivate readers more than one hundred years after her death. And this much-read, often-cited poem stands as patent proof upon the page of its own argument!
From The Columbia History of American Poetry. Ed. Jay Parini. Copyright © 1993 by Columbia University Press.
"Because I could not stop for Death" was first published in much-diminished form as "The Chariot"—changed in several important respects to take the sting out of the lines. For Emily Dickinson, death, God, and the eternities were regarded too conventionally, even lightly, by those around her, but her poetic stance and her themes—interpretations of mortal experience—were in turn too much for her first editors, her friends Thomas Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd. The poems in the 1860 edition were trimmed down, when deemed necessary, to the Puritan dimensions that her sensibility exceeded. Sixty-five years later they were restored to the original, as written by her, and sewn into fascicles starting in 1858.
Interpreters of "The Chariot" are meant to believe that death's chariot (one that "swings low"?) comes to bring the dead one to everlasting life—that with death the immortal soul journeys to heaven. But for Dickinson the theological notion that Christ offers redemption was not a fait accompli, as her early letters prove—"give up and become a Christian. It is not now too late, so my friends tell me, so my offended conscience whispers, but is hard for me to give up the world" (letter to Abiah Root, May 1849). Her understanding remained in flux even as her girlhood friends succumbed to revival and scripture, and even as she felt strong pricks of conscience "I am one of the lingering bad ones, and so I slink away, and pause, and ponder ... and do work without knowing why—not surely for this brief world, and more sure it is not for Heaven—and I ask what this message means that they ask for so eagerly" (letter to Abiah Root, 1850).
Death, and what comes thereafter, is the heart of the matter for religious faith, which offers reassurances against death's impersonal and sudden power. At the heart of this heart is fear. That the fear could be washed away simply by baptism, Dickinson, it seems, couldn't entirely believe or accept. She chose instead to live with and admit death's power and to express the fear, committing herself to "My second Rank," after having "ceded": "I've stopped being Theirs– / The name They dropped upon my face / With water, in the country church / is finished using, now, / And They can put it with my Dolls, / My childhood, and the string of spools, / I've finished threading—too—."
On the surface, the first lines of "Because I could not stop for Death" appear to invoke orthodox reassurance against the fear of death. Death is portrayed as sensitive to the ordinary busy life of mortals—too occupied with life to stop—when he "kindly" stops and invites her for a carriage ride. In reality, the lines offer the first of several ironic reversals of what Dickinson suggests might be but isn't. If the conditional phrase seems to suggest that the dead one has rights and options in the matter—a choice of when to die—the main clause is the reminder of death's absolute nature. He stops, and that's that. The sentence points to the very human capacity to fool ourselves when we are afraid. Faced with the large unknown, we pretend it is manageable. Because it is unacceptable in its brute form, we make it governable. We whistle in the dark. That death, "kindly" and civil, is really in charge is pointed out in lines 2 and 5. He is in the driver's seat, and he drives as slowly as he likes.
There is a third occupant in the carriage, Immortality—shadowy, and if not a person, a condition to be desired. Immortality is consoling and recognizable, what one hopes will come with death. With Immortality as a companion, the speaker can accede to the trip in death's carriage; it becomes a leisurely afternoon drive—a gentleman taking a lady and her friend (a chaperone?) for a ride in the country. "And Immortality," on a line by itself, helps to emphasize the importance of the presence of the other passenger. Without Immortality present, might not the speaker have been afraid? Perhaps she'd have refused to go along to the otherwise undisclosed destination.
Death by itself in Dickinson's other poems and letters is not so gentle or refined. In "He fumbles at your Soul," for instance, death (or deity) "scalps your naked soul" while "The Universe is still." If "The Maker's cordial visage" (1718) provides something hopeful for the drowning man (who drowns), death produces a "Stiff stare" (1624), a "Forehead" that "copied stone," and "congealed" eyes. In her letters death is ever present:
I can't stay any longer in a world of death. Austin is ill of fever. I buried my garden last week—our man, Dick, lost a little girl through scarlet fever. I thought perhaps you were dead, and not knowing the sexton's address, interrogate the daisies. Ah! Dainty—dainty Death! Ah! democratic death—grasping the proudest zinnia from my purple garden,—then deep to his bosom calling the serf's child. Say, is he everywhere? Where shall I hide my things? Who is alive? The woods are dead. Is Mrs. H. alive? Annie and Katie—are they below, or received to nowhere? (letter to the Hollands, 1858)
Who would go along willingly with death, forgetting all terror, unless a promise were offered? Dickinson offers the reader Immortality, as the Congregational ministers once offered it to her in their sermons. Is it a ruse? The reader, like a member of the congregation, will have to wait to see.
In the second stanza Death and the speaker ride along without concern for time. Her "labor" and her "leisure," are done, and she is content to be in the carriage, as if now there were no other concern but death's luxury. The word labor in line 7 recalls the good works to be done for God's world by true Christians—works now no longer necessary. Dickinson means for us to regard the word ironically. In lines 9 and 10 the poem reads, "We passed the School, where Children strove / At Recess in the Ring." In the use of strove to indicate labor, we are meant to understand something more than, and including, "play," for isn't that what children do at recess, after their lessons and schoolwork? Strove emphasizes the children's energy, while the speaker, her life over, sits passively in the carriage; but it is also a reminder that as Christians children are meant to start early to labor for their salvation. Should they be allowed simply to play? In the 1860 version of the poem the lines read, "We passed the school where children played, / Their lessons scarcely done." Why did Dickinson write "strove"? Was it because she knew from experience that time pressed, even upon children, and death often came early? "How swiftly summer has fled and what report has it home to heaven of misspent time & wasted hours. Eternity only will answer. The ceaseless flight of the seasons is to me a very solemn thought, & yet Why do we not strive to make better improvement of them?" Dickinson wrote to her friend Abiah Root when she was fifteen and a student at Amherst Academy in September 1846. As much in danger from death as adults and thus in need for early belief in the trinity, children strove.
The word choice seems clearly ironic, with Dickinson playing reality against the romantic view of childhood and death, where one's salvation is so little in danger that a schoolyard is solely for play ("the school where children played," "The Chariot"). The speaker enters the carriage as a believer, immortal soul intact, but the adult Dickinson was not such a one in the conventional sense. The poem is informed ironically with theology; it is the inexorable law of time's direction that the little narrative uncovers: the carriage seems to be going where God's chariots are supposed to go, but it ends up in the graveyard.
I had been perplexed by the line, "We passed the Setting Sun," turning over all its possible implications and a little in awe of Dickinson's ability to make the situation of the poem seem both commonplace and ominously strange. Perhaps the carriage had turned heavenward after all and made a celestial pass by the sun. But wasn't the sun setting, which meant that the point of perception was on earth? How could one pass the sun? Surely the line was not there only to set up the next line's reminder of nature's significant power over us, "Or rather—He passed Us." Then I remembered a ride in the country late one night in my husband's big old Buick. The moon was full and always a little ahead and to the right of us as we traveled east on Route 7; but when the road curved north, the moon seemed to fall behind. We passed it in a sense. The poet's essential task isn't to hold up a mirror to nature, but even when Dickinson is altering reality—bringing the dead to life, condensing and stretching time and space—her oblique language contains the necessary details to make her readers believe that what they've read has happened.
The third stanza takes note of the daily routine of the life the speaker is passing from, starting with children at recess and ending with the setting sun. The day seems to have gone down quickly, in part because of the dual suggestion of both a day's cycle and the cycle of the seasons. How clever the mixture of details that suggest both beginnings and decline, youth and ripeness. Time speeds, in part because of the insistent echo, in the short lines, of the verb ("passed") as the carriage travels through realms of living—human, animated nature, and nature becoming passive—the "setting sun," which seems even more passive in contrast with the striving children.
The imaginative reach in this stanza is for me most evident in the phrase "Gazing Grain," with all its implications about what it is like to be alive and dead at the same time—the condition of the speaker throughout the poem. The phrase emphasizes the speaker's passivity, assigning the human task to nature, animating the grain. By its placid and constant presence, it seems to stare. But it is the speaker, who has gone with death, who takes note of this. She watches from the carriage as mortality slips by—though with death, and passive, she still registers sensory details. She sees, and as long as she does, she still is. This sense of an unwillingness to relinquish the world and the self—of being—carries throughout Dickinson's work; and if death offers, as here, immortality, immortality had better provide an experience like the one life offers: it had better let her see. In a somber mood Dickinson writes this in a letter to Abiah Root: "I cannot realize that friends I have seen pass from my sight ... will not walk the streets and act their parts in the great drama of life, nor can I realize that when I again meet them it will be in another & far different world from this." It is interesting to me that in her depictions of this "different world," the speaker is by herself, as in the poem under consideration. She is alone to experience death and the nature of posthumous grace. Is this not what frightens one likely to die?
In the same letter Dickinson asks, "Does not Eternity appear dreadful to you? I often get thinking of it and it seems so dark to me.... To think that we must forever live and never cease to be." As the sun sets, darkness and a chill set in in stanza four, the stanza that was entirely removed in "The Chariot," perhaps because it was too grim, or because the editors didn't understand it. Death has been kind and civil, but he drives the carriage toward the dark and cold of the grave. The speaker feels the chill, for she is flimsily dressed with a scarf not made of fur or wool but of "Tule" (a thin, fine machine-made net), and in "Gossamer." Gossamer brings to mind the light gauze used for veils (Is she to be Christ's bride?) and the cobwebs I've walked through in the grass fields and scrub in September and October. The details are consistent with death: autumn and winter are death's perennial seasons. The subtle emphasis in the poem on a growing cold mimics both the process of dying, as if the dead one were dying even more, and our earthly answer to the mystery that separates the warm living from the cold dead. Cold (and dark) also represents our fear, as in "And zero at the bone," from "A Narrow Fellow in the Grass."
The supernatural journey ends in the graveyard, where the carriage pauses by a "House that seemed / A Swelling of the Ground," with its cornice "in the Ground." By rhyming ground with itself Dickinson emphasizes the carriage's destination and the body's disposition. For her even death is a physical experience—the dead experiencing the cool damp air after the sunset and hard on that arriving at the tomb where one imagines a similar quality of air. In the Todd/Higginson version of the poem the rhyme is altered to ground/mound, softening Dickinson's thematic intentions and nudging the verses toward conventionality, as indeed the editors tried to do throughout.
What a shock it was to first open the first edition of Poems by Emily Dickinson after having known the poem first in the version published in 1955. How could you? I heard myself think. When ever was Dickinson's emphasis on the peace that passeth all understanding? How could they not see that hers was no romantic sensibility but one capable of writing about death as it is? The carriage isn't a chariot, it's a hearse. How could they change the extraordinary rhyme? The ground/ground rhyme had always been a favorite of mine, unusual, I thought, in poetry, though not unheard of, and pretty unusual in Dickinson. The Concordance to the Poems of Emily Dickinson (S. P. Rosenbaum, Cornell University Press, 1964) shows how rarely she used a same-word rhyme. Though death is an important word and concept in Dickinson, the rhyme never appears. Out-of-stanza both die and dead are rhymed with each other once. Other such rhymes occur with the words passion, noon, dark, day, green, sky, night, rose, soul, grave, and god (once in-stanza and four times out-of-stanza). Excluding refrains, then, the in- and out-of-stanza same-word rhymes occur infrequently except for the words me, which rhymes with itself in fifty-three of her poems, and be, rhyming with itself sixteen times.
Having given up her identity as a conventional Christian, continuing to wonder about the nature of those things past ordinary understanding, trusting her eye and things face-to-face over the vision of the true believer, thinking death certain and God remote, by turns defiant, wry, perplexed, wouldn't she consider the question of how to "be" and doesn't she find its expression and emphasis in many of her poems? "Because I could not stop for Death" certainly addresses itself to the question of being by describing the state of being alive and dead at the same time. She doesn't explain how the dead live, except to give us glimpses of the perceptions the living have, ending with the partial, remembered age of the "Horses' Heads" facing eternity.
The speaker is in the cemetery, left to wonder at her progress from the moment of her first encounter with Death, with his promise of immortality, to her present situation. Immortality has changed into Eternity—an uncomfortable change, one would think, from everlasting life to a long time of waiting for redemption. The final stanza is written in the present tense, which emphasizes the hereness and withness (the existence) of the speaker after death and also suggests that the implied questions cannot be answered. What is Immortality like? We don't know—he has disappeared. Death and his carriage also recede. Only snatches of memory are left and a little narrative in stanza three representing life and also death. Time has elapsed quickly and been agonizingly slow, a psychological truth that is recognizably real—when people are excited, bored, fearful—but things for the speaker are much the same. Why hasn't redemption come? The questions, Dickinson implies, persist. People will always wonder what heaven is like and live with the hope that immortality will be granted. And until the unknown bliss is achieved, then, Dickinson suggests, the world of grain and carriage rides and, yes, graveyards, is all there is. "Instead of getting to Heaven, at last," Dickinson says in an earlier poem (#324), a person can be "going, all along." And in another wording of a similar sentiment, Dickinson says in a letter to Mrs. J. Holland in 1856, "if God had been here this summer, and seen the things that I had seen—I guess that He would think His Paradise superfluous."
Emily Dickinson's poems are personal and, however strange the experience she presents, inviting. If they are strange, they are no less real for that, the strangeness relating less to her oblique language (which can be read, even in the difficult stanzas) than to her refusal to put down the experience as if it had been experienced the same way by everyone, or as if there were conventions for feeling and knowing. Her untrammeled imagination and intellect require an individual reading and reader. The good reader intuits this and feels welcomed. Higginson and Todd, like other of her acquaintances, her family, and some of her literary heirs, felt the poems alien to what they knew, having predilections toward a style of versification and thematic locus that weren't sufficiently present in Dickinson's poems for them to understand the lines, and so they changed entire verses, radically altering the poems. They were unwilling to accept the elite place among writers she chose for herself as early as 1855 or 1856 and managed to reach a scant five or six years later, by then "Erect / With Will to Choose, or to reject" (508). Critics today, it often seems, are guilty of similar dismantlings, and for the same reasons: putting forth central meanings that they find more agreeable or more theirs, and being unable to accept the authorial ambition to write not "adequate" (508) but great poems. They are too willing to discard the individual reach toward meaning in individual poems and to replace it with what society, they think, ought to be aware of—truths they deem more significant or revealing than what the writer intended. And so with all the best intentions (one hopes) critics can do a disservice to the reading public. Any author's death, corporeal and real or greatly exaggerated, makes that possible. (Higginson would not publish Dickinson's poems in the Atlantic Monthly during her lifetime.) Authors of the caliber of Emily Dickinson don't stay dead when there are good readers to read the poems as they were written. In "Because I could not stop for Death," perhaps her finest poem on the theme of what lies beyond death, both in cosmic terms and in the feeling of those bound to die, she presents us with the strangeness of such a condition. There are no lectures and no overt theological speculations, though the experience is every way conditioned by the abstract: motion and stasis; everlasting life; youth; nature; time; immortality; what it is to be. The poem allows us to feel our own discomfort at not fully knowing, despite what we might surmise, and to experience fears and wonders about time's evanescence and the mystery of death. We yearn for immortality, so he accompanies one of us, the one invited into death's carriage. We feel the yearning and the fear as Dickinson must once have, their expression being so palpable, and while we do the poem belongs to us, common readers.
Carol Frost has published two chapbooks and six full-length collections of poems, including Pure (1994) and Venus & Don Juan (1996) from Northwestern University Press, which will print Love & Scorn, her new and collected poems, in the spring 2000. She has taught at Washington University, Syracuse University, and for writers’ conferences at Bread Loaf and Sewanee. She teaches at Hartwick College, where she directs the Catskill Poetry Workshop.
From Touchstones: American Poets on a Favorite Poem. Copyright © 1996 by the President and Fellows of Middlebury College. Reprinted with the permission of the author.
Emily Dickinson’s 'Because I could not stop for Death—':
Irony and Sublimity in Theme and Rhythm.
Unlike [the folk ballad] "Lord Randal," "Because I could not stop for Death—" is written in what is usually called ballad measure in its neat, pure form—an obvious sign of its being a literary rather than an oral product. In the ballad measure, there are four beats per line, and four lines per stanza, as in "Lord Randal"; but here, the second and fourth lines leave the fourth beat in silence, as a musical rest. Words realize a pattern of four beats, then three, then four beats, then three. The silent beat at the end of the even-numbered lines adds a sense of cadential completion to the pattern, a completion supported by the rhymes between the second and fourth lines. One might think of them as elongations of the third beat to cover the fourth, giving those lines a sense of finality and closure because of the double-long unit at the end. The ballad measure is also called the common measure because it is used for hymns in the early versions of the Book of Common Prayer; it is often used for other Christian hymns as well (such as, for example, the American hymn "Amazing Grace"). If we consider the meter of the poem in semiotic terms, as a sign of the poem's genre, then its ambiguity between the hymn and the ballad, the sacred and the profane, will be important in our reading of the poem's thematic content. Necessarily, in order to read that content, it will also be useful to glance at some other Dickinson poems for context. All of the ones to be cited will be in the ballad or common measure.
" Because I could not stop for Death—" functions clearly as an allegory. On the literal level, a woman recounts how she eloped with (or was carried off, abducted, or seduced by) a genteel gentlemen named Death. She is naive to the otherworldly qualities of Death, unaware that she must leave this world behind to go with him, that his "House" is a grave, and that she must remain in that "House" forever, until, at some later moment in the day recollected in retrospect, she "surmised the Horses' Heads / Were toward Eternity." Upon leaving to go with Death, the speaker must put away both her labor and her leisure: she must give up her life in her household (or her parents' household) in order to labor for her new husband; as the mistress of his house, she will not have much of the leisure of her girlhood. On the way to Death's house, which is driven by Immortality (the coachman?), the bride and groom pass schoolchildren fighting or wrestling in the center of a circle of onlookers, and then fields of grain, which seem to gaze at them as they go by as if they were townspeople. The next stanza is the first clue, not for us (we already know) but for the speaker, that she is leaving, not her world, but the world behind: passing the setting sun is impossible before the age of jet airplanes, and the correction ("Or rather—He passed Us") renders the speaker appropriately passive, as would be a dead body. She recognizes her unpreparedness, wearing thin clothes that ambiguously connote a bridal gown or burial clothes, and the elements encroach upon her through them.
On the allegorical level, we know that the speaker is actually recounting her death. The children striving suggest the business of life, which becomes small and childlike from the distant perspective of the passage into death. The grain becomes one's townspeople as one becomes a thing of nature rather than an agent to farm or to eat the grain—and so forth. The disparity between the somewhat belabored allegory and the obvious meaning creates a sense of intense dramatic irony.
But there is another kind of irony as well: a situational irony. If this ballad recounts a marriage, then it should end either (a) tragically, as most ballads do, with the death of one of the marital partners-but since it cannot be the speaker, it would have to be the beloved husband; or (b) happily as a celebration of the married state. If the poem should be taken as a hymn, then it should end happily, with the speaker's joy in her eternal union with God after death. These two expected patterns—marital bliss for ballads and beatific bliss for hymns—are closely related to each other, since Christianity perennially uses marriage as an allegorical figure for the relationship between the blessed soul and its maker in the afterlife, and since, in the Protestant (and especially the Puritan) tradition, earthly marriage is a typological figure for the union between the soul and God that will, for the elect, be realized in the world to come. This view of marriage would be central to the Christianity that characterizes the social milieu of Dickinson's poetry—more specifically, the Congregationalist church in New England, which was the heir of New England Puritan ideology. Thus on both counts, in both genres, ballad and hymn, in both the secular and sacred spheres, and in both the marriage and death strands of the allegory, the ending is a shock, a surprising anticlimax.
It is not that the poem ends with the opposite of our expectations—at least, not exactly. Rather, instead of heavenly jubilation or earthly satisfaction, we have—nothing at all: "Since then—'tis Centuries—and yet / Feels shorter than the Day" recounted, which is the last day the speaker lived, the day of her death. This is because her dying day was the last day in which anything happened. Centuries feel shorter than a day because there is no event to fill them up, just the recollection of the day before they began. So, to her surprise (in terms of marriage) and ours (in terms of death and the afterlife), despite everything everyone has told her and us, it turns out that the state being described is one of utter emptiness. It is negative when we expected something positive. But the very idea of centuries of such emptiness is, itself, sublime. The thought boggles the imagination, and is a suitable place for the poem to end—that is, on the word "Eternity," with all its irony, because it is not the eternity we expected, but with all its deep truth, because it is much more sublime, since it is truly without image, unimaginable. By comparison, Christian mythology crowds its sublime moments with images that reflect earthly realities—God as King, the Son at his right hand, the choruses of the blessed singing their praise, and so forth.
Dickinson calls to mind the Christian paradigm of life's meaning, which is found in the salvation of the soul in the afterlife and not in this world, in order to reveal its failure and to propose in that very revelation an alternative source for the experience of mystical sublimity, This procedure summarizes Dickinson's project in a great many of her poems. Again and again, she explicitly defeats Christian expectations of what comes after death or of the nature of God. Again and again, she puts forth poetry itself as an alternative religious experience because of its ability to reveal the sublime within the world of the senses and within the very logic that negates Christianity. In poem no. 1545 ("The Bible is an antique Volume"), Dickinson views the Bible through an ironic lens by considering it an oppressively didactic and less than engaging romance or ballad, and then contrasts it with lyrical poetry:
Other Boys are "lost"—
Had but the Tale a warbling Teller—
All the Boys would come—
Orpheus' Sermon captivated—
It did not condemn—
What matters is the "warbling." The speaker here does not so much recommend that the behests of Christianity be clothed in the seductive garments of musical verse, but rather that verse itself—rhythm itself, is a "sermon" or a spiritual experience that affords enlightenment without the condemnation and exclusion so central to institutional religion, which is, in this case, Christianity. "I like a look of Agony," Dickinson writes elsewhere (241), "Because I know it's true– / Men do not sham Convulsion " as they do, one may infer, sham conversion within those Christian sects, such as the Congregationalist and Holiness churches, that demand of their members a conversion experience to demonstrate their status within the elect.
That poetry itself is Dickinson's religious alternative to Christianity is clear from the conclusion of no. 657:
A fairer House than Prose—
More numerous of Windows—
Of Chambers as the Cedars—
Impregnable of Eye—
And for an Everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky—
Of Visitors—the fairest—
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise—
The house of poetry, which is the house of "Possibility," is sublime in the infinitude of the reading experience. It defamiliarizes the world that we think we know too well—"numerous of Windows"—and it offers an infinite variety of possible ways of thinking or imagining. Its visitors are the readers, eager to explore its many mansions. But the speaker busies herself within the house, not doing mundane housework, but gathering "Paradise" with her "narrow Hands"—that is, with the sparseness and brevity of her lines. One need not wait for the afterlife to gain paradise—in fact, it would not come that way. Paradise is available "to Him of adequate desire" (370) through poetry—and, in other poems, through the keen observation of the world of the senses, as it is made possible and celebrated in poetry.
In "Because I could not stop for Death—" the relationship between poetry and the sublime is not made explicit. This is because the speaker in this case is naive, the vehicle of dramatic irony, so that she can witness the failure of the mythological dogma which she and the audience expect. In contriving such a situation, Dickinson makes possible a critique that cuts both ways, against both marriage and the afterlife as they would be understood in conventional Christian terms. Insofar as marriage should be like the afterlife, it turns out to be surprisingly empty and anticlimactic: the woman puts away her labor and her leisure in order to get, quite literally, nothing. The emphasis is not on the state of this nothingness, about which nothing really can be said, but on the process of getting there—so the act of getting married is really rather like death, and the state of marriage is a living death. Insofar as the afterlife should be like an earthly marriage, that promise, from the point of view of a woman within the framework of post-Puritan Protestant Christianity, is no great bargain. In retrospect, giving up both her own labor and her own leisure for the sake of a state of nothingness in someone else's house would not exactly be her idea of heaven. But this emptiness must be the result of both marriage and death because they are, for the speaker, the permanent loss of her own proper sphere, her own joys, her own pain, and her own voice. The moment at which she recalls the recognition of this loss is the moment at which her voice, in the present, ceases once more.
And yet at the same time, this nothingness has a positive side to it, not for the speaker, but for the reader. In clearing away the baggage of imagery that makes of religion a stick with which to beat women over the head and cause them to fall in line beneath the authority of their earthly husbands, Dickinson's poem demonstrates that these images and their earthly, political practices (such as hierarchical marriage) come in the way of the sublime experience. The poem puts away the labor and leisure of dogma and convention in order for us to experience the sublime space where they fail.
This final moment is carefully prepared by earlier images and moments within the poem. Each of them involves, simultaneously, a renunciation ("I had put away ... We passed ... We passed") and a defamiliarization. To begin with, the appearance of Death as a suitor with his carriage literalizes the overfamiliar metaphor of death being a passage to the afterlife where the innocent soul becomes a bride of Christ. Here, the suitor is not called Christ, but Death, as if to call a spade a spade. (He is called "Savior" in another, somewhat similar, poem: "A Wife—at Daybreak I shall be—" [no. 461].) The strangeness of the situation, eloping with Death, reflects back upon the original myth to reveal its grotesqueness. At the same time, the moment brackets off, puts at a distance, and questions the supreme importance of the speaker's daily activities; her labor is, itself, her conventional service to her household.
The strife of the children at recess provides a marked contrast with the peaceful but indescribably empty nothingness of the end. This is the only glimpse of human activity we have in the poem's passage from the speaker's house to that of Death, and it is one of leisure ("Recess"), learning ("School"), and struggle ("strove"). What are they fighting over? Our passing by, and renouncing, this strife as we go on toward eternal nothingness challenges the necessity and importance of the small tasks and causes that, in their overfamiliarity, fill up our minds in everyday life. Since the poem was probably composed near or at the close of the Civil War, it is possible that this passage and renunciation defamiliarizes the passions and parochialisms that wrought so much destruction. They are among the social codes that the forward rhythm of the poem undermines.
The fields of gazing grain are what preoccupy people when they are adults: the labor that sustains them. These, too, seem small as they stand gazing while the speaker and her escorts pass on. Thus not only the smaller struggles of people—their strife in the ring—but the larger, more fundamental labor of survival also seems less urgent and more distant. Next, even the cosmic movement of the sun, the passage of earthly days, seems small and limited: "We passed the Setting Sun."
At the next moment, the last of the renunciation-passages, the speaker is compelled to challenge the last item of her that pertains to the social code: her own identity. In correcting herself from "We passed the Setting Sun" to "Or rather—He passed Us—" the speaker draws attention to her own having become a mute object of nature. This aspect of death, of course, makes the speech we are witnessing quite impossible—but that is the paradox inherent in the poem and in many of Dickinson's poems in which a speaker speaks from a state after death. It is also the paradox of poetry, where speech and images are attempting to address the experience of rhythm, which is, precisely, the state of being in which there is neither imagery nor speech. Likewise, the fragility of the speaker's dress comes to her attention because of the greater power of earthly elements: "The Dews drew quivering and chill– / For only Gossamer, my Gown– / My Tippet—only Tulle—." The speaker's clothing here provides a neat allegorical symbol for the imagery of the poem itself—a veil of illusion that simultaneously protects and fails to protect the elemental power of the bodily rhythm which it renders socially visible.
The ambiguity between the social (labor, strife, farming, gown, house) and the elemental (dews, ground) is emphasized in the next quatrain: is the grave a "House" or a "Swelling of the Ground"? The terms house and cornice, because of their ironic application to the grave, stress the inadequacy of the conventional, sentimental, and mythic metaphors we cherish and live by as compared to the elemental infinitude of earth, death, and rhythm.
In "Because I could not stop for Death—" as in most of Dickinson's poems, the principle of diachrony is to proceed from the familiar to the bizarre, from the expected to the sublime. In many poems, this process is even reflected in the syntax, which becomes increasingly tortuous and difficult to follow toward the end. But along with this movement toward the surprising and sublime—that is, toward the point at which words fail, there is a movement analogous to the one we found in the traditional ballad, "Lord Randal": a movement of revelation, from the hidden to the patent. When the secret is hidden from the speaker, she can generate stanza after stanza, figure after figure, allegorizing the process of death without knowing it. But when the secret is revealed to her as well as to us, there is nothing left to allegorize; we are left with the eternal emptiness itself. One's own nonbeing is utterly unimaginable . . . so the speaker must be driven on by the figure of Immortality; but what fills up this immortal eternity is nothing. When the sublime nothingness is revealed to her—to borrow words from poem no. 7—her "figures fail" her, and the poem must come to an end.
This movement from narrative to revelation and the end of narrative and of images altogether coincides with the movement of the carriage—"We slowly drove ... We paused . . . " And both of these coincide with the movement of the meter itself, with its built-in pause, which is a silent beat, on every second and fourth line. It is as if the thematic content of the poem, its images, reproduce on large scale what the meter is doing on the smaller scale at every half quatrain. The emptiness at the end of the poem stands as an image for the rhythm of the whole, in which, at every eighth beat, one feels the rhythm go on even when there are no words. Every eighth beat reminds us that, behind an before the words, there is the demand of rhythm. This demand is not metaphysical, it is not in the afterlife; it functions within the world of the senses, although it takes us beyond the limits of the construction of the self. And this is just what Death does with the speaker—he takes her beyond her "labor and her leisure too" to the point where she has no more words to speak her own existence. The words of the poem can only exist in retrospect, as she retraces her path to the present. But her present condition is a nonself, in which she has no words. Yet this condition is not a mere negative; it is the vastness of eternity, a powerful, sublime moment.
From Telling Rhythm: Body and Meaning in Poetry. Copyright © 1994 by the University of Michigan. Reprinted with the permission of the author.
Martha Nell Smith
That this poem begins and ends with humanity's ultimate dream of self-importance—Immortality and Eternity—could well be the joke central to its meaning, for Dickinson carefully surrounds the fantasy of living ever after with the dirty facts of life—dusty carriage rides, schoolyards, and farmers' fields. Many may contend that, like the Puritans and metaphysicals before her, Dickinson pulls the sublime down to the ridiculous but unavoidable facts of existence, thus imbues life on earth with its real import. On the other hand, Dickinson may have argued otherwise. Very late in her life, she wrote, "When Jesus tells us about his Father, we distrust him. When he shows us his Home, we turn away, but when he confides to us that he is 'acquainted with Grief,' we listen, for that is also an Acquaintance of our own." Instead of sharing their faith, Dickinson may be showing the community around her, most of whom were singing "When we all get to Heaven what a day of rejoicing that will be," how selfishly selective is their belief in a system that bolsters egocentrism by assuring believers not only that their individual identities will survive death, but also that they are one of the exclusive club of the saved. Waiting for the return of Eden or Paradise, which "is always eligible" and which she "never believed ... to be a superhuman site," those believers may simply find themselves gathering dust. Surrounded by the faithful, Dickinson struggled with trust and doubt in Christian promises herself, but whether she believed in salvation or even in immortality is endlessly debatable. Readers can select poems and letters and construct compelling arguments to prove that she did or did not. But for every declaration evincing belief, there is one like that to Elizabeth Holland:
The Fiction of "Santa Claus" always reminds me of the reply to my early question of "Who made the Bible" – "Holy Men moved by the Holy Ghost," and though I have now ceased my investigations, the Solution is insufficient –
What "Because I could not / stop for Death – " will not allow is any hard and fast conclusion to be drawn about the matter. Once again, as she does in her layouts, by mixing tropes and tones Dickinson underscores the importance of refusing any single-minded response to a subject and implicitly attests to the power in continually opening possibilities by repeatedly posing questions.
From Comic Power in Emily Dickinson. By Suzanne Juhasz, Cristanne Miller, and Martha Nell Smith. Copyright © 1993 by the University of Texas Press.
Joanne Feit Diehl
In a most attenuated, urbane vision, Dickinson crosses the threshold between life and death, yet she retains the power of speech to assert an audacious authority over all experience. The poem is "Because I could not stop for Death," which I read through Freud's "The Theme of the Three Caskets," a text that, in its antithetical argument clarifies Dickinson's relationship to desire and to the awareness of her own death. In his essay, Freud suggests that the male character in Shakespeare's tragedies, when faced with a choice that would fulfill his desire, elects silence, and that his choice signifies the conversion of his own inevitable death, over which he has no control, into an active choosing on his part. Thus, a man may strive to convert the necessity of dying into a willed gesture; in Freud's words, he is therefore able to "make friends with the necessity of dying." Freud draws upon Bassanio's choice in The Merchant of Venice of the casket containing lead, the apparently least valuable and dullest of the three caskets before him, which wins him the supremely articulate Portia. Here Freud makes the connection between the caskets or boxes and women as representatives of enclosure or womblike space. He reminds us that the silent Cordelia is King Lear's choice among his daughters and that as the silent woman, Cordelia is both origin and end: mother/mate/fate. Freud cites the end of Lear.
Enter Lear with Cordelia dead in his arms. Cordeila is Death. Reverse the situation and it becomes intelligible and familiar to us—-the Death-goddess bearing away the dead hero from the place of battle, like the Valkyr in German mythology. Eternal wisdom, in the garb of the primitive myth, bids the old man renounce love, choose death and make friends with the necessity of dying.
Freud concludes, "But it is in vain that the old man yearns after the love of woman as once he had it from his mother; the third of the Fates alone, the silent goddess of Death, will take him into her arms."
Silent too, is that accommodating gentleman who stops for the woman in Dickinson's poem. Here the speaker is carried by death, and the poem attempts the kind of consolation Freud understands as a requirement for the male imagination before it can accept its fate. Although the speaker wishes to discover a means of converting inevitability into active choice, the poem's strategy is complex, going beyond a simple shift in sexual identification. What marks the break between Freud's Shakespearean women and Dickinson's persona is that Dickinson's woman refuses to be silent; she speaks throughout the experience. If there is no conversation between death and the woman, we nevertheless hear a voice that leads us through the journey to death and beyond, and that voice is the lyric "I" of the supposed victim who becomes the poem's controlling consciousness. The initial refusal of the woman to stop for death is identical to the male character's resistance manifested at the approach of death. Dickinson not only has him "stop" to pick her up, but also, as Harold Bloom has noted, she stops him. Death stops at her bidding, winning for the poet the privilege to lie against time. Death, though he may be kind, is no conversationalist, and what she knows, she learns through her own observation and surmise. The third party to this aide, "the chaperone, immortality," Bloom identifies with Dickinson's poems, thus leading to the triumph of art over death. And though this triumph is assuredly true for us who have her poems, I would suggest a different identity than the one Bloom assigns the chaperone, for if the poems offer a way of ensuring immortality (the texts themselves placed in a drawer, a box reminiscent of a casket?), this version of immortality does not ease the shock the self undergoes at the poem's close. The speaker is stunned not because she has achieved immortality, but because the acute awareness of the passage of time is just what has not fallen away. Immortality, with its promised freedom from the anxieties of chronos, is endlessly deferred at the poem's close.
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses' Heads
Were toward Eternity—
The feeling of being "shorter than the Day" is not equivalent to that of atemporality. The speaker knows it has been centuries; time is measurable, but that first day, despite the cover, the protection, the civility, could not be made easier. Nothing protects her from the realization of her own death, nor is she freed by it.
Immortality provides no consolation, only prolonged consciousness of the end. It therefore functions as a blocking agent rather than the casket of art and more likely represents the presence of the absent Mother who vigilantly and for all time restrains the daughter from fulfilling her desire for the Father, from making friends with death. Although she is carried in a carriage (a sort of moving casket), the speaker nonetheless keeps her voice and maintains her awareness. Although death stops for her, her journey itself becomes an endless quest for Eternity. That one cannot triumph over time or over death may be this poem's most sorrowful wisdom. What remains within the speaker's control despite this defeat is the power of speech, a consciousness even death cannot efface. The triumph for art may be not that it will last beyond the poet, but that it continues to witness her refusal to make friends with death. Thus, Dickinson metaphorically murders death in order to control him; rather than make him her friend, she envisions him as the composite power that would seduce, wed, and silence her. Poem after poem strives to release death's hold by imagining his death as her freedom.
The lead casket will not be dumb, nor will Dickinson accept her appointed role as death mother through silence or concealment. Dickinson's revisionist rejection evolves out of the imperative to speak against the silent Father and the Mother who restrains her from fulfilling her desire. Thus, the "I" is doubly dependent. Yearning for the unattainable Father, she discovers him within her psyche; his strength turns against the self, making her victim of what she most desires. Thus, Dickinson must encounter and continually reenact the struggle with the exclusionary male who prefers to withhold rather than confer. Refused the assurance of becoming the Christa of American poetry or the new Christ as Whitman might triumphantly proclaim himself, Dickinson does not inherit Emerson's powers unchallenged. She first must resolve through aggression her need for supremacy in imaginatively murderous acts that recur because murder of the tradition is a most illusory triumph. Hers is a poetics as aggressive as any male oedipal struggle, yet complicated by an intensified vulnerability, a consciousness of perpetual exile, the awareness of the impossibility of winning adequate patriarchal recognition. With her characteristic astuteness, Dickinson once remarked, "When the subject is finished, words are handed away." But her words, though they may have slowed in her final years, were never discarded because her subject achieves no resolution. Conflict over death becomes, indeed, a form of poetic life. Unable to write without the "Father," yet forced to vanquish him in order to survive, Dickinson, with subtlety, wit, and death-defying irony, practices her murderous poetics. Sharp as surgeon's steel, this very praxis redeems the dependence her poems counter and magnificently, if sacrificially, destroy.
From Women Poets and the American Sublime. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1990. Copyright © 1990 by Joanne Feit Diehl
Collamer M. Abbott
Emily Dickinson's "Because I could not stop for Death" (no. 712) has aroused conflicting interpretations. For example. Clark Griffith in The Long Shadow sees death as a "courtly lover," and "kindness" and "civility" he accepts "at face value" as describing "Death" as a "gentleman" (127-31). We can accept little at face value in Dickinson, and this is why she is so difficult to interpret.
Griffith has a point, however. "Death," in this poem, may represent the funeral director, because in modem life we find no one more "courtly" in the true sense of the word, nor anyone more full of unctuous "kindness" and "civility" while escorting "the Lady to her bridal rooms," as Griffith says. Funeral processions always proceed "slowly" and often majestically. The speaker in the poem, who is dead, has certainly put away her labor and leisure to confront Death's "courtly civility." We might take "Immortality" at face value, but immortality is not a person; it is each individual's concept of "unending existence" or "lasting fame," according to Webster's. The word then has no "face value."
Ruth Miller reads "paused" literally, and sees "no burial" (193-94). But can we take words literally? I think not. Because "Centuries [...] Feel shorter than the Day" in this poem, a "pause" can constitute a complete if brief stop for burial in what Dickinson describes precisely: an above-ground, or partly-above and partly-below-ground, burial vault; a key to the deeper meaning of the poem. We may also note that any burial in the time frame of eternity is but a pause.
Burial vaults were once formed by two parallel dry-stone walls, six to eight feet apart, six to eight feet high. The vaults had a stone slab or corbeled roof, a back wall, and a dry-stone facade with a portal closed by a door (or slab of marble or slate) inscribed, when used for burial, with the names of the interred. The entire structure was banked with earth and sod and grassed over, creating Dickinson's "Swelling of the ground." The roof was "scarcely visible," sodded over and grassed. "The Cornice" was "in the ground" because the two flanks of the mound at each side of the door sloped down to ground level, where they were, in effect, buried, or hidden. Such structures still survive in Massachusetts around Amherst and throughout New England and were also used for storage of root crops, barrels of cider or salt pork, or other winter provisions.
This interpretation expands the accurate description of a vault with its image of a "House" (capitalization is important) with architectural features, such as cornices. It also corrects the explication of Judith Farr in The Passion of Emily Dickinson where she sees the "House" as "a new-made grave"; the "roof' as a "tombstone [...] covered over (with grass?)" [sic]; and the "sunken cornice" as the "rectangular upper-edge of the tombstone" (329-31), an interpretation that does not conform to Dickinson's precise if metaphoric description.
Once we see that Emily Dickinson is talking about a stone burial vault, an image that expands the metaphoric power of the poem, we can appreciate more fully related imagery in her poems, "The grave my little cottage is" (no. 1743) and "I died for Beauty—but was scarce" (no. 449).
Houses had significance for Dickinson, and housekeeping and domestic chores had a special place in her life, whether she liked them or not. Making bread, the staff of life, for her Father (capitalized like the Lord), also played an important role in her sheltered, reclusive, inward-looking existence. All of this imploded into her poems.
"The grave my little cottage is" is an example of this. She is talking about life after death in a "little cottage," which is a neat description of the house-like burial vault with its mounded roof and "Cornice—in the [g]round—" as in poem no. 712. She envisions Keeping house" in her cottage, which, with its side and back stone walls and front entry, harbors a "parlor" where she "lay[s] the marble tea," which certainly suggests death. A stone vault with the names of the occupants engraved on the marble door slab can easily be visualized as a cozy cottage with a room where tea is served.
"I died for Beauty" plays on the same imagery of a loved house with rooms. The speaker is "scarce / adjusted in the tomb / When One who died for Truth, was lain / in the adjoining Room—" The "One" of this poem can represent another lover or master, a brother, or a kinsman. They talk "between the Rooms– / Until the Moss had reached our lips– / And covered up—our names—," that is, their names inscribed on the stone door slab.
Thus is extended the whole figurative evocation of preservation for which these structures are used, not only of vegetables in a root cellar, but of roses, and of the "Immortality" of Dickinson's speaker for "Centuries" that "feel shorter than the day"—for "Eternity." The figure of the "House" in these poems expands the symbolism immeasurably beyond the moldy receptacle of an underground grave, to a hospitable dwelling.
Farr, Judith. The Passion of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1992.
Griffith, Clark. The Long Shadow: Emily Dickinson's Tragic Poetry. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1964.
Johnson, Thomas H. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Boston, Little, 1955.
Miller, Ruth. The Poetry of Emily Dickinson. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 1968.
From The Explicator 58.3 (Spring 2000)
Although the poem "Because I could not stop for Death—" (no. 712) may seem to have been picked clean by extensive and repeated dissections, that jewel in the crown of Emily Dickinson's poetic oeuvre can still surprise us with some facets which have eluded scrutiny.
Analyzing the poem sequentially, line by line, has tended to obscure some structural patterns. From a satellite view, however, two significant features stand out: verbs of uncertainty and phrases of reversal.
The former, like too many unknowns within an equation, both lead to the multiplicity of meanings that encumber the poem and attest to the speaker's confused state of mind. "We paused before a House that seemed/A Swelling of the Ground—" (17-18, italics added) poses more questions than it answers: Was the "House" actually entered, or not? Conceivably, the grave was inspected, yet proved not to be the final destination. Or, was the speaker indeed deposited in the "House," while the horses continued their journey toward eternity without her? And why "seemed"? Is the speaker losing her worldly spatial sense with the onset of death? Lastly, in the lines
[q|Since then—'tis Centuries—and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses' Heads
Were toward Eternity—(21-24)
the speaker assumes what the horses' destination may be, but is far from certain.
This sense of the speaker's confusion becomes accentuated in the three reversals of opinion she undergoes in the course of so brief a poem:
He kindly stopped for me– (1-2)
2. We passed the Setting Sun—
Or rather—He passed Us– (12-13) (stanza break)
3. Since then—'tis Centuries—and yet
Feels shorter than the Day (21-22)
These reversals offer three stages in the speaker's metamorphosis from her human state back into the universal: They are her period of adjustment.
At poem's opening the speaker is, to say the least, naive. She sees Death as kind and gentlemanly, readily getting into his carriage to journey to destinations unknown. She does not even have the foresight to dress warmly; her gown and tippet are the sheerest of the sheer, and there is no luggage. Her first realization is that she is at the mercy of Death—she cannot call on him.
The second reversal has always been given much attention. Thomas H. Johnson took a rational approach, sensing that the speaker "now conveys her feeling of being outside time and change, for she corrects herself to say the sun passed them, as it of course does all who are in the grave" (72). Bettina L. Knapp offers "the dichotomy existing between linear and cyclical time, mortality and immortality" (90). The speaker, in correcting herself, may have come to understand that whereas the sun, depicting circular time, will keep revolving, her own journey is destined to come to an abrupt, irreversible halt.
In her final temporal adjustment, the resetting of her internal clock, the speaker comes to realize that in death, as in a black hole (to use an anachronism), time is collapsed and compacted. With that realization, her adaptation to the eternal is complete.
Dickinson, Emily. "Because I could not stop for Death—." The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. Thomas H. Johnson. New York: Little, 1960.
Johnson, Thomas H. Readings on Emily Dickinson. Ed. Bruno Leone. San Diego: Greenhaven, 1997.
Knapp, Bettina L. Emily Dickinson. New York: Continuum, 1989.
From The Explicator 58.2 (Winter 2000)
Karen Ford - www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/a_f/dickinson/dickinson.htm