Dickinson's Because I Could Not Stop For Death
Collamer M Abbott. The Explicator. Washington: Spring 2000.Vol. 58, Iss. 3; pg. 140, 4 pgs People: Dickinson, Emily (1830-86)
Author(s): Collamer M Abbott
Document types: Feature
Publication title: The Explicator. Washington: Spring 2000. Vol. 58, Iss. 3; pg. 140, 4 pgs Source type: Periodical
Text Word Count 1077
Document URL: http://proquest.umi.com/pqdweb?did=000000056709394&Fmt=3&cli entId=43168&RQT=309&VName=PQD Abstract (Document Summary)
Once one realizes that Emily Dickinson is talking about a stone burial vault in "Because I could not stop for Death," an image that expands the metaphoric power of the poem, one can appreciate more fully related imagery in her poems. The figure of the "House" in "Because I could not stop for Death" and "I died for Beauty" expands the symbolism immeasurably beyond the moldy receptacle of an underground grave, to a hospitable dwelling.
Full Text (1077 words)
Copyright HELDREF PUBLICATIONS Spring 2000
Because I could not stop for Death
He kindly stopped for me
The Carriage held but just Ourselves
We slowly drove-He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility
We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess-in the Ring
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain
We passed the Setting Sun
Or rather-He passed Us
The Dews drew quivering and chill
For only Gossamer, my Gown
My Tippet-only Tulle
We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground
The Roof was scarcely visible
The Cornice-in the GroundSince then--'tis Centuries-and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses' Heads
were toward Eternity--*
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 modern 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 partlyabove 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...
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