Within literature, Death has worn a myriad of faces. As the Grim Reaper he appears as a terrifying murderer, harvesting ripe lives still mature with promise and vitality and leaving pallid corpses behind. Humanity has long feared the unknown, and death is one of life’s most guarded secrets. Those who look upon death with curiosity are considered morbid. Those who view it with calm collection are sometimes feared and sometimes revered. In “Because I could not stop for Death,” poet Emily Dickinson uses personification, extended metaphor, and imagery to reveal Death as civil, courteous, and serene. Dickinson creates contrasts between readers’ expectations and her own vision to allow readers to see death as an eternal continuation of life.
Dickinson’s poem opens with a dependent clause that encapsulates modern life and its juxtaposition with death: “Because I could not stop for Death–”. In Dickinson’s time as well as now, upright society hums with busyness. Each reader can promptly identify with the lack of time available for certain tasks, especially undesirable ones. Yet, how very egotistical of humanity to view death as something that can be brushed aside due to packed schedules. However, courteousness dictates that if someone seems too pressed for time to complete a task, especially in the case of maintaining social connections, then a good neighbor would assist in that task’s completion. The speaker in Dickinson’s poem depicts Death as “kindly” performing a courteous house call. Rather than stopping in as a visitor, Death takes on the active role of host by picking up the speaker in his carriage. The arrangement feels particularly cozy, with the speaker and Death sharing the intimate space within the carriage. The additional passenger, “Immortality,” triply emphasized by being set off with a dash, occupying a lone line, and ending the first stanza, works to contradict the closed-in space of the carriage. Immortality is expansive and endless. The proximity of Immortality and Death link the opposites into a unified, slightly disconcerting, concept. Dickinson wishes readers to see Immortality and Death combined.
The second stanza continues the active progress of the carriage ride, countering the notion of death as a stopping point. Instead, the speaker emphasizes Death’s “Civility,” not only with a capital letter, but with Death’s mannerly pace. While in life the speaker “could not stop,” now she has “put away” her activities as if they were excessive. Her action is presented in the past perfect, as something that happened prior to the carriage driving slowly. I find it easy to picture the speaker riding calmly with her hands placed in her lap, all other actions having happened previously. Yet, within her stillness, she continues to move forward, her progress accentuated by the thrice repeated “We passed.” The third stanza, delineating points that her carriage, or rather Death’s carriage, is passing, represents the stages of life, from childhood to the setting sun. Perhaps this is a reference to one’s life passing before one’s eyes upon death, or perhaps, as touched upon by “the Ring” at recess, Dickinson wants us to see the circular, cyclic nature of life, which links to death. Not only will the children at school one day meet death, but so will the fields of grain and all other living things.
After the sun sets, the poem grows colder. Death has been so courteous and present. The fourth stanza turns towards Death’s separateness. Suddenly the speaker is part of “Us,” as opposed to Death, who remains the subjective “He.” Death continues to be active. The speaker is not dressed for the “Chill,” leading the reader to imagine both the cold of a corpse and a grave. Her funereal attire of “Gossamer” and “Tulle” connect her with spiderwebs and death shrouds. The imagery has transitioned from Romantic to Gothic. Within the extended metaphor of her carriage ride, the speaker has arrived at a “House.” Since the “Cornice,” or ceiling molding, of the house rests “in the Ground,” its location preceded by an eerie pause induced by another dash, we know this new house to be her burial chamber. However, since the “Roof” of the house is “scarcely visible,” Dickinson has returned to the expansive spaciousness of death that she first introduced along with “Immortality.” The frightening, “quivering” imagery that makes the reader wonder what might burst from that “Swelling of the Ground” drops away as her final stanza returns to the openness of great expanses of time without time’s weight: “Since then — ‘tis Centuries — and yet / Feels shorter than the Day.” Time, similar to Death, can be seen as heavy with burden or light with possibility. Since the speaker mentions that she “first surmised” something, the reader knows that she continues to be actively thinking and present–death does not remove one’s sensibilities or mind. A reference to the speaker noticing the direction the horses were headed returns the readers to the carriage and its steady progress. A destination has disappeared. Instead, hundreds of years pass, as we move “toward” infinite time. The speaker, time, and action are all in progress. Death, once more, has become a serene journey.
Whether or not someone wishes to stop for Death, eventually Death will stop for each person. Dickinson reframes this eventuality as the arrival of a courteous gentleman and the continuation of a long enduring cycle. As a passenger, one does not control the carriage, but neither does one regress into victimization. Dickinson offers graceful acceptance over ineffectual fear and flight. I am reminded of T. S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and the poem’s promise that “There will be time, there will be time,” despite the clear fear that there may, indeed, not be time. The speaker within “Because I could not stop for Death” continues on, but she sets aside the tasks she had been pursuing. Dickinson’s suggestion of perpetuation offers the reader a journey that remains eternal even after the arrival of death, but still the peregrination requires a change of objectives. Within the active stillness of a passenger rests an enduring mystery that one is urged to meet with grace and calm.