February 22, 2023

From Gerald R. Lucas

Because I Could Not Stop for Death[1]
By: Emily Dickinson (1890)

Because I could not stop for Death—
He kindly stopped for me—
The Carriage held but just Ourselves—
And Immortality.[2]

We slowly drove—He knew no haste, 5
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility—

We passed the School, where Children played,
At Recess—in the Ring— 10
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain—
We passed the Setting Sun—[3]

Or rather—He passed Us—
The Dews drew quivering and chill­—
For only Gossamer, my Gown— 15
My tippet—only tulle

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground—
The Roof was scarcely visible—
The cornice—in the Ground. 20

Since then—’tis Centuries—but each
Feels shorter than the Day[4]
I first surmised the Horses Heads
Were toward Eternity—


  1. Many suggest that Dickinson’s poem, No. 712, is a Christian poem since the narrator personifies both Death and Immortality, as if these two metaphysical companions accompany the narrator into eternity. Yet, while there does seem to be this hope, the poem expresses an anxiety in waiting: as if the poet watches her persona die, but has yet to reach immortality herself, literally of course, but her figurative implication dominates. The horses look toward eternity, but they have not reached it, nor has the one side of the narrator’s perspective. Perhaps “eternity” remainds forever out of reach for the poet/narrator. Seriously, her grave-house in the fourth stanza is pretty damn frightening.
         However, Dickinson’s calm tone does seem to support the idea that Death is nothing to fear. Notice, too, the cyclical images of life and nature and time seem to suggest a continuity, a hope perhaps of a promise in death that suggests eternity at least. Birth, death, re-birth?
         Polarities and opposites abound within the poem, and the contrast between real life and imagination might be central.
  2. Death’s persona here seems to be equated to a gentleman suitor, or maybe even a fairytale prince. Indeed, “carriage” here suggests a regality to the experience, and the tone of the poem is one of formal gentility, as if Death is an honored suitor. There might also be a suggestion, then, of Death as bridegroom, and the narrator as bride. Indeed, Death does bring the narrator to her new house in the fourth stanza. This interpretation is further supported by the presence of “Immortality,” since marriage is supposed to last forever. Maybe this is a stretch, but whatever the case, Death is certainly not a “grim reaper” here.
  3. The journey of life seems represented in this stanza, one of human endeavors marked by the natural cycle of the sun. Paradoxically, the experience of death can only come about through life, perhaps the central irony of the poem.
  4. Time is irrelevant in death?