Analysis: Dickinson's Because I Could Not Stop for Death

Topics: Emily Dickinson, Harvard University Press, Death Pages: 5 (1279 words) Published: April 19, 2005
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
ISSN/ISBN: 00144940
Text Word Count 1077
Document URL: 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

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 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

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...

Cited: Farr, Judith. The Passion of Entity Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1992.
Griffith, Clark. The Long Shadow: Entity Dickinson 's Tragic Poetry. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1964. Johnson, Thomas H. The Complete Poems of Entity Dickinson. Boston, Little, 1955. All references to Dickinson 's poems are to this edition.
Miller, Ruth. The Poetry of Entity Dickinson Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 1968.
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