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In the poem "Because I could not stop for death", Emily Dickinson talks about her acceptance of death as something inevitable that comes to her and she has no control over it; although she seems confused about being alive or dead as she keeps narrating.
Arthur Yvor Winters, an American poet and literary critic stated "This is a remarkably beautiful poem on the subject of daily realization of the imminence of death" it’s a poem of departure from life, an intensely conscious leave-taking. And Allen Tate, a distinguished American poet, teacher, and critic called this "An extraordinary poem".
In the first stanza, when she says" I could not stop for death, He kindly stopped for me", she’s not ready to die but accepts the fact that it is a natural thing that happens to all human beings, and comes at its own time, no matter what you are doing or where you are it will come and take you, to which she seems content with. She personifies death as if it was a kind gentleman, or her groom that comes to pick her up and take her away in his carriage on a pleasant ride; she also realizes that ironically someone else is riding along with them, Immortality—looking at it in a positive way. It is also interesting to point out how she separates death from immortality, when she says “The carriage held but just ourselves—and immortality”.
She seems excited about her journey with her two companions, and feels so pleased by this gentleman’s courtesy that she gives up her distress and freedom to enjoy it –when you are dead, there are no more troubles and no more leisure time. She feels happy with her exchange of life for death’s civility. It now seems that she wanted to die sooner but couldn’t, and death came to her but in slow form as if she was ill. She doesn’t realize where she is headed as he drives the carriage away slowly, with no hurry – this means that she is already dead, and being taken in a hearse.
She sees her life as movie being played in front of her as they pass the school, the fields of grain, and the setting sun. Children at play reminds her of her own childhood, being energetic and full of life; the grains suggest harvest time (growing, being productive, ripe), adulthood; and she gazes at them as if there is something that she missed or didn’t do at that time of her life, a time she should have enjoyed.
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It must have been early morning as she talks about how the air felt so chilly and how it made her tremble when she says: “The dews drew a quivering chill”. Also because she is wearing this soft, delicate, thin fabric gown and cape, she feels this chill when it gets damp and cold, in contrast to the warmth she felt while gazing at the grains; but it is also because she realizes where she is heading. Her attire, the flowing, transparent look of her gossamer and tulle (a thin translucent material) gives a ghostly impression of her.
In the last part of the poem, as they paused before the house, which could also mean home, her new home; she starts to contemplate that this is a grave, with the swelling ground, a roof that is hard to see (the top of the casket), and the cornice in the ground (the tombstone), and realizes that she is buried there.
She comes to the conclusion that she has been buried a long time ago, although it feels like it has been less than a day. She senses that her life has passed her by like the sun did before she arrived there and that time went by faster than she thought. This sounds like her soul has been wandering around and she kept thinking that she was still alive, until she saw her own grave. She also sounds shocked and disappointed about finding her destiny, since all along she assumed the horses were taking her carriage toward eternity, because of the position of the horse’s heads while riding.
Everything starts to make sense; the slow pleasant ride suggests that death is an experience that should not be feared, and seeing all the images showed her how to view life before death. She also believes in eternity, that there is no reason to worry about dying if there is life after death; to enjoy the journey until that day comes, because when it comes you can’t stop it, and you have no other choice but to receive it and let it take you away.
The tone of the poem changes as you read along. In the first two stanzas, Emily Dickinson sounds happy and eager to go on her journey with this gentleman, she felt confident and pleased, as if she was ready to go. But in the last three stanzas, as she sees everything they pass, taking a look back at her life, her tone changes and she starts to sound more confused as if not wanting to accept what is coming ahead, as if being in denial, or as if wishing she could have had more time to live and enjoy life to the fullest. The gentleman is escorting her to her grave but she keeps thinking about immortality. By now she has to accept that her journey ends there, that there is no way back, and that death is the actual destination. But in the end she is willing to confront death and willing to go.
The theme of this poem is human life in relation with death and eternity. The author describes death as a gentle and pleasant experience, and eternity as a reward. She does not talk about Heaven or Hell as an alternative; it gives the impression that to her these don’t exist, but either eternity or immortality.
In this poem, death is also compared to a vehicle which picks you up wherever you are. You do not wait for it because you don not want to. But then you have no option, death will definitely stop for you, he does not have to hurry or be harsh, you are destined to be his passenger however willing you may be. The speaker accepts her situation with calm because she knows it is inevitable.
It is interesting to seen how Emily Dickinson portrays death in an uplifting, positive way, the beginning of eternity rather than a tragedy, and by putting away her sorrows and troubles she feels she can finally rest. Her view of death and eternity shows her personality and religious beliefs. She seemed fascinated with them, but why is she thinking about immortality? Death and immortality do not seem to correlate with each other, one being the cessation of life, the other one being perpetual life, although she puts them in the same carriage with her. Did she think of them as options?
This poem is a recount of the day she died, the things she saw during her long carriage ride. It gives the impression that she is looking back from eternity, although her death happened centuries ago, she feels that it has been shorter than a day, giving the sense that perhaps in eternity, time is not measured in the same way as it is measured on earth.
It seems that Emily Dickinson’s experience with religion and the deaths of those around her prompt her to write this poem, and made her feel comfortable with it as well. She also learned to accept that it is a natural process, and knew that there is no escape from it, as there was no escape from the carriage.
In conclusion, the author encourages the readers to take advantage of life, to recognize how short life is, and makes us realize that death does not wait for us, instead it comes without warning not caring time and/or place.
Bloom, Harold. Bloom’s Major Poets: Emily Dickinson. Broomall, PA: Chelsea House, 1999.
---.Bloom’s BioCritiques: Emily Dickinson. Broomall, PA: Chelsea House, 2003.
Grabher, Gudrun, Roland Hagenbuchle, and Cristanne Miller. The Emily Dickinson Handbook. Massachusetts: U of Massachusetts P, 1998