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Because I Could Not Stop for Death

Emily Dickinson
Emily Dickinson
Emily Dickinson, the "Belle of Amherst", is one of the most highly-regarded poets ever to write. In America, perhaps only Walt Whitman is her equal in legend and in degree of influence. Dickinson, the famous recluse dressed in white, secretly produced an enormous canon of poetry while locked in her room and refusing visitor after visitor. Her personal life and its mysteries have sometimes overshadowed her achievements in poetry and her extraordinary innovations in poetic form, to the dismay of some scholars. Dickinson was born in December of 1830 to a well-known family, long established in New England. Her family lived in the then-small farming town of Amherst, Massachusetts. The middle child, Dickinson was adored by both her older brother Austin and her younger Dickinson Lavinia. Her relationship with her mother was distant, and though she was likely her father's favourite, her relationship with him was sometimes frosty. Dickinson regularly attended her family's church, and New England Calvinism surrounded her. Dickinson stood out as an eccentric when, as a young girl, she refused to join the church officially or even to call herself a Christian. At school she proved a good student, but spent only one year at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary before leaving the school due to health problems. In the years prior to her cloistered existence at the house in Amherst, Dickinson was quite social, attending parties, impressing her father's Washington political comrades during a trip there, and amusing everyone with her witticisms. Emily Dickinson was a fun, fiercely intelligent, young woman. Something changed in her life, and that change is one of the greatest mysteries surrounding Dickinson's legend. Some time around 1850 she began writing poetry. Her first poems were traditional and followed established form, but as time passed and she began producing huge amounts of poetry, Dickinson began experimenting. In 1855, Dickinson, already a homebody, took a trip to Washington D.C. after much prodding from her family. She also went to Philadelphia, spending three weeks there. While in Philadelphia, she made the acquaintance of a brilliant, serious man named Dr. Charles Wadsworth, a married reverend at one of the Presbyterian churches in the city. He was an arresting figure and Dickinson deeply admired him. Most scholars agree that Wadsworth was the man Dickinson fell in love with, and the man who inspired much of her love poetry. Just before he left his Philadelphia church in 1861 to move to San Francisco, Wadsworth visited Dickinson to tell her of his plans to leave. No one in the family witnessed their meeting, but when he left, Dickinson suffered a nervous breakdown that incapacitated her for a week and nearly ruined her eyesight. Dickinson was experimenting with the form and structure of the poem. Many of her innovations form the basis of modern poetry. She sent her poems as birthday greetings and as valentines, but her love poetry was private. She tied it in tight little bundles and hid it away. She did, however, seek out a mentor in Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a prominent literary critic in Boston. They began a correspondence that would last for the rest of her life. Though she doggedly sought out his advice, she never took the advice he gave, much to Higginson's annoyance. During the 1860s and 1870s, Dickinson grew even more reclusive. She stopped wearing clothes that had any hint of colour and dressed only in white, she turned away almost every visitor who came to see her, and she locked herself in her room for days at a time. In the late 1870s and early 1880s, a number of people close to Dickinson died in quick succession, including her mother, her friend Judge Otis Lord, her young nephew, her good friend Helen Fiske Hunt and Dr. Charles Wadsworth. In 1886, Dickinson's health began deteriorating and she found herself slowly becoming an invalid. Dickinson was only fifty-six, but she was suffering from a severe case of Bright's disease. She died on May 15, 1886, and was buried in a white coffin in Amherst.

Type of Work
Because I Could Not Stop for Death is a lyric poem on the theme of death. The contains six stanzas,

each with four lines. A four-line stanza is called a quatrain. The poem was first published in 1890 in Poems, Series 1, a collection of Miss Dickinson's poems that was edited by two of her friends, Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. The editors titled the poem "Chariot."

Because I Could Not Stop for Death reveals Emily Dickinsons calm acceptance of death. It is surprising that she presents the experience as being no more frightening than receiving a gentleman callerin this case, her fianc (Death personified). The journey to the grave begins in Stanza 1, when Death comes calling in a carriage in which Immortality is also a passenger. As the trip continues in Stanza 2, the carriage trundles along at an easy, unhurried pace, perhaps suggesting that death has arrived in the form of a disease or debility that takes its time to kill. Then, in Stanza 3, the author appears to review the stages of her life: childhood (the recess scene), maturity (the ripe, hence, gazing grain), and the descent into death (the setting sun)as she passes to the other side. There, she experiences a chill because she is not warmly dressed. In fact, her garments are more appropriate for a wedding, representing a new beginning, than for a funeral, representing an end. Her description of the grave as her house indicates how comfortable she feels about death. There, after centuries pass, so pleasant is her new life that time seems to stand still, feeling shorter than a Day. The overall theme of the poem seems to be that death is not to be feared since it is a natural part of the endless cycle of nature. Her view of death may also reflect her personality and religious beliefs. On the one hand, as a spinster, she was somewhat reclusive and introspective, tending to dwell on loneliness and death. On the other hand, as a Christian and a Bible reader, she was optimistic about her ultimate fate and appeared to see death as a friend.

Speaker: A woman who speaks from the grave. She says she calmly accepted death. In fact, she
seemed to welcome death as a suitor whom she planned to "marry."

Death: Suitor who called for the narrator to escort her to eternity. Immortality: A passenger in the carriage. Children: Boys and girls at play in a schoolyard. They symbolize early life.

Because I could not stop for Death, He kindly stopped for me; The carriage held but just ourselves And Immortality.

We slowly drove, he knew no haste, And I had put away My labor, and my leisure too, For his civility. We passed the school, where children strove

At recess, in the ring; We passed the fields of gazing grain, We passed the setting sun.

Or rather, he passed us; The dews grew quivering and chill, For only gossamer my gown,1 My tippet2 only tulle.3

We paused before a house4 that seemed A swelling of the ground; The roof was scarcely visible, The cornice5 but a mound.

Since then 'tis centuries,6 and yet each Feels shorter than the day I first surmised the horses' heads Were toward eternity.

Word Notes:
1.gossamer my gown: Thin wedding dress for the speaker's marriage to Death. 2.tippet: Scarf for neck or shoulders. 3.tulle: Netting. Speaker's tomb. 5.cornice: Horizontal molding along the top of a wall. 6.Since . . . centuries: The length of time she has been in the tomb. Because I could not stop for Death :Short Summary Death, in the form of a gentleman suitor, stops to pick up the speaker and take her on a ride in his horse-drawn carriage. In his carriage, she was accompanied by Immortality. They move along at a pretty relaxed pace and the speaker seems completely at ease with the gentleman. As they pass through the town, she sees children at play, fields of grain, and the setting sun. As dusk sets in the speaker gets a little chilly, as she is completely under-dressed only wearing a thin silk shawl for a coat. She was unprepared for her impromptu date with Death when she got dressed that morning.

They stop at what will be her burial ground, marked with a small headstone. In the final stanza, we find out the speaker's ride with Death took place centuries ago (so she's been dead for a long time). But it seems like just yesterday when she first got the feeling that horse heads (like those of the horses that drew the "death carriage") pointed toward "Eternity"; or, in other words, signalled the passage from life to death to an afterlife. Because I could not stop for Death:Analysis In Because I could not stop for Death, one of the most celebrated of any poems Emily Dickinson wrote, the deceased narrator reminisces about the day Death came calling on her. In the first stanza, the speaker remarks that she had been too busy to stop for Death, so in his civility, he stopped for her. In his carriage, she was accompanied by Immortality as well as Death. Many readers have wanted to know why Immortality also rides in the carriage, but when thinking of the courting patterns in Dickinsons day, one recalls the necessity of a chaperon. In any event, Dickinson considers Death and Immortality fellow travellers. This interaction with Death shows the complete trust that the speaker had placed in her wooer. It is not until the end of the poem, from the perspective of Eternity, that one is able to see behind the semblance of Death. Far from being the gentlemanly caller that he appears to be, Death is in reality a ghoulish seducer. Perhaps Dickinson, in her familiarity with the Bible, draws upon Satans visitation of God in similar pose as a country gentleman. In this way, Dickinsons poem resembles the Gothic novel, a popular Romantic genre given to the sinister and supernatural. In the second stanza, the reader learns that the journey was leisurely and that the speaker did not mind the interruption from her tasks because Death was courteous. Along the way, they passed the childrens school at recess time and fields of ripened grain. They even passed the setting sunor rather, it passed them, so slow was their pace. With the coming of evening, a coolness had fallen for which the speaker found herself unprepared with regard to clothing. They drew near a cemetery, the place where the speaker has been dwelling for centuries. In the realm of Death, time has elapsed into centuries for the speaker, though it seems shorter than her last day of life when she first surmised that her journey was toward Eternity.

Forms and Devices

Tone, or the emotional stance of the speaker in the poem, is a central artifice in Because I could not stop for Death. Though the subject is death, this is not a somber rendering. On the contrary, Death is made analogous to a wooer in what emerges as essentially an allegory, with abstractions consistently personified. Impressed by Deaths thoughtfulness and patience, the speaker reciprocates by putting aside her work and free time. Judging by the last stanza, where the speaker talks of having first surmised their destination, it can be determined that Death was more seducer than beau. The tone of congeniality here becomes a vehicle for stating the proximity of death even in the thoroughfares of life, though one does not know it. Consequently, one is often caught unprepared. The journey motif is at the core of the poems stratagem, a common device (as in poem 615, Our Journey had Advanced) in Dickinsons poetry for depicting human mortality. Stanza 3 offers an example of Dickinsons substantial capacity for compression, which on occasion can create a challenge for readers. This stanza epitomizes the circle of life, not so much as to lifes continuity despite death, but more in fusion with the journey within the poemlife as procession toward conclusion. Thus, the School, where Children strove applies to childhood and youth. Dickinsons dictional acuity carries over to Recessin the Ring. Early life, with its sheltering from duress and breakdown and death, its distance in experience from the common fate, is but a deceptive lullits own kind of seduction and, hence, recess from decline. Yet children are said to be in the Ring. Time is on the move even for them, though its pace seems slow. Ironically, the dictional elements coalesce in the stanza to create a subrendering of the greater theme of the poem: the seduction of the persona by Death. The children are also without surmise, and like the speaker, they are too busy with themselves (as represented in the verb strove) to know that time is passing.

Dictional nuance is critical to the meaning of the last two lines of the third stanza. The word passed sets up verbal irony (the tension of statement and meaning). The carriage occupants are not merely passing a motley collection of scenes, they are passing out of lifereaching the high afternoon of life, or maturity. Maturation, or adulthood, is also represented in the Fields of Gazing Grain. This line depicts grain in a state of maturity, its stalk replete with head of seed. There is intimation of harvest and perhaps, in its gaze, natures indifference to a universal process. Appropriately, the next line speaks of the Setting Sun, meaning the evening of life, or old age. Reiteration of the word passed occurs in stanza 4, emphasizing the idea of life as a procession toward conclusion. Its recurring use as a past-tense verb suggests the continuation of an action in the past, yet the noncontinuance of those actions in the present in keeping with the norms of the imperfect tense. Human generations will collectively engage in the three life stages, dropping out individually, never to engage in them again. Dictional elements in stanza 5 hint at unpreparedness for death. The personas gown was but Gossamer, a light material highly unsuitable for evening chill. For a scarf (Tippet), she wore only silk netting (Tulle). The poem is written in alternating iambic tetrameter and trimeter lines, with near rhyme occasionally employed in the second and fourth lines. Regular rhyme occurs sporadically and unexpectedly in its spatial distancing. The use of the dash in the stanzas concluding line compels the reader to pause before entering into the monosyllabic prepositional phrase in which there is a heaviness that suggests the graves finality. The seemingly disheveled rhyme scheme in actuality intimates one of the poems central themes: unpreparedness.

Themes and Meanings

Death is a frequent concern of Dickinsons poetry. Often as a means to its exploration, she will seek its objectification through a persona who has already died. In other poems, she is quite sensitive to the fact of death and its impoverishment of those who remain. In some poems, she is resentful toward God, who robs people of those they love and is seemingly indifferent to such loss. One cannot explore the catalyst of life events behind Dickinsons marked sensitivity with any certainty because she lived a remarkably private life. For her, death was only one more form of distancing. As she wrote in poem 749: All but Death can be Adjusted. Perhaps two of her most famous lines express it best: Parting is all we know of heaven,/ And all we need of hell . Emily Dickinson was very familiar with death. Thirty-three of her acquaintances had died between February, 1851, and November, 1854, including her roommate at Holyoke College. Her mothers family seemed predisposed to early deaths. Then the momentous death of her father occurred in 1874. In 1882, eight years after the death of her father, she wrote that no verse in the Bible has frightened me so much from a Child as from him that hath not, shall be taken even that he hath. Was it because its dark menace deepened our own Door? Some may see this poem as conciliatory, even Christian, given that Immortality rides in the carriage and that the persona speaks of Eternity in the end. Death, by this notion, becomes Gods emissary taking one into Eternity. For others, however, there is no resurrection, no specifying of an afterlife. Immortality is employed ironically, not to suggest everlasting life, but everlasting death. As a consort of death, one need not be puzzled by Immortalitys presence in the carriage. This is the import of the final stanza, when the speaker exclaims, Since thentis Centuriesand yet/ Feels shorter than the Day/ I first surmised the Horses Heads/ Were toward Eternity. There is a sense that the journey has never ended and never will. There is much eternity up ahead, for death is a realm without temporalspatial parameters. The truth is that life is short and death is long. Perhaps in this sobering truth one may find that Dickinsons poem is as much about lifeabout how one ought to redeem it from the banalas it is

about death.