Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...©
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."
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 caller—in
this case, her fiancé (Death
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
along at an easy, unhurried pace, perhaps suggesting
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
a new beginning, than for a funeral, representing an
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
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.
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
called for the narrator to escort her to
in the carriage.
girls at play in a schoolyard. They symbolize
childhood as a stage of life.
could not stop
stopped for me;
carriage held but just
drove, he knew
And I had
and my leisure
the school, where
in the ring;
the fields of
the setting sun.
he passed us;
gossamer my gown,1
before a house4
of the ground;
was scarcely visible,
but a mound.
and yet each
shorter than the day
surmised the horses'
my gown: Thin wedding dress for the speaker's
marriage to Death.
Scarf for neck or shoulders.
Horizontal molding along the top of a wall.
. . . centuries: The length of time she has
been in the tomb.
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
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.
also occasionally uses internal rhyme, as in the
but just ourselves
drove, he knew no
haste (line 5)
the fields of
and chill (line 14)
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.
are examples of figures of speech in the poem. (For
definitions of figures
of speech, click
I could not
stop for Death (line 1)
no haste (line
labor, and my
in the ring
grain (line 11)
sun (line 12)
For only gossamer
my gown (line
in the ring;
fields of gazing
then 'tis centuries, and yet each
shorter than the day
first surmised the horses'
heads (lines 21-23)
passed the setting
View: One of the Great Poems in English
he passed us
of the sun
to a person
poet, teacher, and critic—observed
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
a College Survey. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1961,
Questions and Writing Topics
essay explaining Emily
Dickinson's views on the afterlife.
short poem on the theme
ways does Emily Dickinson's
views of death differ from those of Edgar
poem uplifting? Or do
you find it morbid? Explain your answer.