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Because I Could Not Stop for Death
A Poem by Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Commentary and Theme
Characters
Text and Notes
Meter
End Rhyme
Internal Rhyme
Symbols
Figures of Speech
Critic Praises Poem
Question, Writing Topics
Biography
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
Revised in 2011...©
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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."

Commentary and Theme

“Because I Could Not Stop for Death” reveals Emily Dickinson’s 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 fiancé (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. 

Characters

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 childhood as a stage of life.  
 

Text and Notes
 

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.

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.
4...house: 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.
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Meter

In each stanza, the first line has eight syllables (four feet); the second, six syllables (three feet); the third, eight syllables (four feet); and the fourth, six syllables (three feet). The meter alternates between iambic tetrameter (lines with eight syllables, or four feet) and iambic trimeter (lines with six syllables, or three feet). In iambic meter, the feet (pairs of syllables) contain an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. (For detailed information on meter, click here.) The following example demonstrates the metric scheme. 
.......1..................2...............3....................4
Be CAUSE..|..I COULD..|..not STOP..|..for DEATH,
......1..................2.................3
He KIND..|..ly STOPPED..|..for ME;
........1.................2.................3...................4
The CARR..|..iage HELD..|..but JUST..|..our SELVES
....1..............2............3
And IM..|..mor TAL..|..i TY.
 
End Rhyme

.......The second and fourth lines of stanzas 1, 2, 4, 5, and 6 rhyme. However, some of the lines contain only close rhymes or eye rhymes. In the third stanza, there is no end rhyme, but ring (line 2) rhymes with the penultimate words in lines 3 and 4.

Internal Rhyme

.......Dickinson also occasionally uses internal rhyme, as in the following lines:

The carriage held but just ourselves (line 3)
We slowly drove, he knew no haste (line 5)
We passed the fields of gazing grain (line 11)
The dews grew quivering and chill (line 14)
Symbols

.......In the fourth stanza, the school symbolizes the morning of life; the grain, the midday of life and the working years; the setting sun, the evening of life and the death of life.

Figures of Speech

.......Following are examples of figures of speech in the poem. (For definitions of figures of speech, click here.)

Alliteration

Because I could not stop for Death (line 1)
he knew no haste (line 5)
My labor, and my leisure too (line 7)
At recess, in the ring
gazing grain (line 11)
setting sun (line 12)
For only gossamer my gown (line 15)
My tippet only tulle (line 16)
toward eternity (line 24)
Anaphora
We passed the school, where children strove 
At recess, in the ring;
We passed the fields of gazing grain,
We passed the setting sun. (lines 9-12)
Paradox
Since then 'tis centuries, and yet each
Feels shorter than the day
I first surmised the horses' heads (lines 21-23)
Personification
We passed the setting sun.
Or rather, he passed us (lines 12-13)
Comparison of the sun to a person

Death is personified throughout the poem

Critic's View: One of the Great Poems in English

Allen Tate (1899-1979)a distinguished American poet, teacher, and criticobserved that "Because I Could Not Stop for Death" is an extraordinary poem. In fact, he said, it deserves to be regarded as "one of the greatest in the English language; it is flawless to the last detail.Quoted in Brown, Clarence A., and John T. Flanagan, eds. American Literature: a College Survey. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1961, page 436. 

Study Questions and Writing Topics

  • Write an essay explaining Emily Dickinson's views on the afterlife.
  • Write a short poem on the theme of death. 
  • In what ways does Emily Dickinson's views of death differ from those of Edgar Allan Poe?
  • Is the poem uplifting? Or do you find it morbid? Explain your answer.

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