Emily Dickinson’s Because I could not stop for Death – Analysis
November 4, 2023
I first made a “Because I could not stop for death” analysis as a high school freshman. My English teacher described Emily Dickinson as “one of America’s two greatest poets.” The other, he concluded, was her contemporary, Walt Whitman. Stretching his arms out in an open V-shape, he explained, “Whitman’s poems are about being inside the clamor of the world.” Dickinson was his opposite. Picture two arms coming to a point, like an A-frame roof. Her poetry stole bright bits of the world—bees, butterflies—and brought them back to the self. She wrote to understand her quiet life.
“Because I could not stop for death,” like most of Dickinson’s poems, is universal in content. It’s about—and this is hardly a spoiler—death, a reality we all encounter at some point. Yet this poem, like the rest of her oeuvre, is intricately connected to her introspective life. For this reason, I find it’s best to learn a bit of the poet’s biography. Let’s do so now, before reading more into this particular Emily Dickinson death poem.
Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) lived most of her life in Amherst, Massachusetts. While her mother (another Emily) was cold and aloof, her father Edward was a public figure. He worked as a lawyer and a trustee of Amherst College, which was founded in part by his father. (This was not the founder Lord Jeffrey Amherst, who used smallpox blankets as biological warfare against the Delaware people.) Dickinson’s brother, Austin, attended Amherst College and Harvard Law School before joining Edward’s law practice. Neither Emily nor her sister Lavinia were allowed a college education. They attended Amherst Academy, a former all-boys school. After seven years there, Dickinson went to a female seminary in 1848. Ten months later she returned home, where she settled into a life that many a young lady succumbed to in her time. (She baked.)
Around this time, a religious revival called the Second Great Awakening was taking place in Amherst. Unsurprisingly, Dickinson dipped a finger in the holy water, so to speak. In fact, her ancestors had come to New England some 200 years prior, during the Great Puritan Migration. Yet while her ancestors had crossed an ocean for religious freedom, Dickinson’s fervor for organized religion didn’t last. By 1852, poetry had replaced her Church.
Dickinson’s complicated relationship with spirituality offers readers insight into her deep preoccupation with death. So too do her real-life encounters with death, which began at an early age. The passing of Sophia Holland, a close friend and second cousin, traumatized her. Given the daily dangers and contagions of the time, including typhus and tuberculosis, it’s no surprise that more close friends would follow. This list includes Benjamin Franklin Newton, Dickinson’s first writing mentor.
Emily Dickinson’s secret writing life took off in the summer of 1858. This period of prolific writing lasted through 1865. (I say secret, though her family knew she wrote. Still, after Dickinson’s death, Lavinia was astounded to come upon sixty packets of poetry containing around 900 poems.) Dickinson took inspiration from a range of Romantic and Transcendental writers. She loved the Brontë sisters, who, like Dickinson, had lived opposite a cemetery. They knew a thing or two about the way gloomy weather could mirror the inner atmosphere of the soul. Yet Dickinson’s writing style became uniquely her own. In 1863, she sent four poems to the publisher Thomas Wentworth Higginson, asking if her poems “breathed.” Decades later, Higginson would write of her “wholly new and original poetic genius.” And yet, he rejected Dickinson’s poetry in 1863, believing it was “odd” and “too delicate—not strong enough to publish.”
(Ironically, Higginson would first publish Dickinson’s poetry after her death. Unprepared for her progressive artistic choices—slant rhymes, dashes, mysterious capitalization—he edited her work heavily. He corrected rhymes, standardized meter, removed jargon, and replaced unusual metaphors with ones he deemed appropriate.)
By 1865, Dickinson rarely left her house. Her world narrowed to the size of her family and those who came to visit, including cyclical visitors to her beloved gardens. Some speculate that her seclusion resulted from sickness. Others hypothesize that Dickinson’s failed relationships (with her sister-in-law, or with a married minister) left her utterly dejected. We cannot discount the devastating rejection from Higginson. Soon after, Dickinson’s poetry began to address a new fear: her work would go unrecognized. Today, we can see that Dickinson’s poetry is built on this isolation and fear. It is equally tied to a deep capacity for feeling and an uncanny understanding of death.
“Because I could not stop for death” Analysis & Meaning: The Poem
This context brings us to the topic of Emily Dickinson’s death poems. Perhaps we should think of them as immortality poems, because Dickinson wanted to know what came after. (She called this her “Flood subject.”) “Because I could not stop for death” is one of Dickinson’s most studied and acclaimed poems. It deals with questions of life, death, and the beyond. Let’s take a look at the poem itself.
“Because I Could Not Stop for Death” by Emily Dickinson
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 Ground –
Since then – ’tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity –
“Because I could not stop for death” Analysis and Meaning: Poetic Form
Immediately, the theme of death jumps out at us. But before driving further down that darkening lane, let’s get a grasp of the poetic form. This will show us how the poem’s underlying mechanisms influence our reading. In other words, let’s see how the form fits the function.
The poem contains six verses. Each verse contains four lines, making them quatrains. As for each line, we find alternating iambic meter. Students who’ve read up on their poetic devices will remember that an iamb begins with an unstressed syllable and ends on a stressed syllable. Looking at the first stanza, we find the lines alternate between tetrameter (four iambs per line) and trimeter (three iambs per line). Take a look: Because I could not stop for Death – (4 iambs) / He kindly stopped for me – (3 iambs). Does this remind you of the clip-clop, clip-clop, clip-clop of horse’s hooves? This steady meter creates a sensation of forward movement. It’s fitting for a poem whose action plays out over the course of a carriage ride.
Moreover, church hymns use this meter. Thus, Dickinson imbued the poem with familiarity, both for New England residents of her time and contemporary churchgoers. The whiff of Christianity lends itself well to a poem about a passage from life to death to afterlife. Finally, notice that halfway through the poem, at the volta in the fourth stanza, the meter changes. It becomes an iambic sequence of 3, 4, 4, 3. This reversal happens as the setting sun passes the carriage, marking the moment when the narrator dies. Readers don’t need to take conscious note of the changed meter to feel a hiccup in the rhythm. It causes us to pause and take stock of the change.
Analysis: Other Poetic Devices
Personification appears in the figure of “Death,” a male “he.” This “Death” figure stops the carriage and accompanies the narrator throughout the journey, as seen in the pronoun “we.” (Meanwhile, the narrator remains nameless and genderless. Readers are free to imagine the narrator as they like. “I” could be Emily Dickinson, or me, or you. In fact, it’s easy to identify with the narrator and place ourselves in their shoes.) The “Setting Sun” and “Immortality” can also be seen as personified, though I like to think of Immortality as more of an atmosphere in the carriage. Overall, personification works to create company for the narrator, ultimately acting as a buffer against the loneliness we fear when facing death.
We can also count alliteration among the primary poetic devices in our “Because I could not stop for death” analysis. It pops up in phrases like “Recess – in the Ring,” “Gazing Grain” and “Setting Sun.” Alliteration creates a sense of charming tidiness. It sounds pleasant, which is soothing in the context of confronting one’s mortality.
Readers may notice the occasional enjambement. For example, it appears in lines 6-7: “And I had put away / My labor and my leisure too.” Enjambement works as a practical device for Dickinson to string together ideas that are longer than a tetrameter. It also adds a sense of forward momentum. Finally, Dickinson uses her trademark dashes, capitalizations, and slant rhymes. We find them throughout Emily Dickinson’s death poems, and even in her letters. Apart from giving her poetry unique identifiable characteristics, I believe they work to uproot, unsettle, and beguile us. Poetry readers wish for originality above all. These particular features made Dickinson’s work singular and timeless.
“Because I could not stop for death” Analysis: Stanzas 1-2
Now that know how form reinforces content, let’s look at what’s happening in this Emily Dickinson death poem. In the first stanza, the nameless narrator is picked up by a Death and given a ride. “Kindly” might be read with irony, for the narrator and readers alike would not willingly step inside this carriage. The final line ends on “Immortality,” giving readers a clue to the driving force behind the poem. In other words, Dickinson wishes to investigate what remains after death. Knowing how her own religious views deviated from Christianity, this question was of the utmost importance to her. Perhaps she sought to create a personal understanding of eternal life by writing this poem.
In the second stanza, the carriage rolls on slowly. Readers might begin to notice that the narrator never reveals their own emotions, be they fear, dismay, or complacency. This absence invites readers to imbue the narrator with their own feelings while imagining the carriage ride. Some readers might find themselves pleasantly surprised by Death’s “Civility” and by the lack of traditional Gothic trappings. (In contrast, think of Edgar Allan Poe’s poems.) Others may feel trepidation. Personally, I get discouraged to read that “I had put away my labor and my leisure too.” Clearly, this road trip is not going to be productive or enjoyable. But perhaps that’s the point. After death, all the things that kept one busy must be left behind.
Analysis & Meaning: Stanzas 3-4
And yet, the sights beyond the window in the third stanza leave a lasting mark. Children continue to learn and play at school, striving to become their future selves. The “Gazing Grain” (another personification) indicates the next stage in life, when adults have jobs, such as farming the land. This grain will turn into bread, and thus symbolizes the harvest, and the need to eat to stay alive. The grain operates on another symbolic level, referring to the seasonal cycles of the earth. All this cyclicality, alongside circular symbols (carriage wheels, the “Ring,” and the “Setting Sun”) suggest that after death comes life. Finally, the appearance of the “Setting Sun” signifies the end of a day and the end of a life.
In the fourth stanza, the reversal in the syllabic structure coincides with a change of perspective. The narrator explains that they didn’t pass the sun, but “rather – He passed Us –.” Picturing the sun moving past a carriage invokes immense weight and speed. Readers understand that the wheels are in motion. There is no turning back. This cosmic passage moves the narrator beyond the earthly realm and into a spiritual orbit. We see this transition in the narrator’s clothes. The thin, sheer fabrics of “Gossamer” and “Tulle” turn the narrator into a ghost.
“Because I could not stop for death” Analysis: Stanzas 5-6
In the fifth stanza, the carriage finally stops at what sounds like a house, though it is clearly a grave. Here the narrator will spend eternity. Interestingly, Dickinson has placed her narrator back inside the earth, rather than in a more heavenly setting. Thus, the cyclical earthly life that the narrator noticed from the carriage window now resonate with greater significance. By remaining in the ground, the narrator will eventually become one with Earth. They will join the cycle that fertilizes the grain and feeds the children at play.
In the final stanza, the narrator notes that centuries have passed since the carriage (with its “Horses Heads”) took them to eternity. In four lines, Dickinson unravels the meaning of time completely. Centuries feel “shorter than a day.” In fact, time itself ceases to mean anything to a dead narrator, for it carries on without interruption. The inconceivable notion of timelessness is one of the hardest ideas humans grapple with when facing death. Dickinson broaches the subject by offering both comfort and irony. Impossibly, her narrator recounts their death in a voice so seemingly alive.
Through this Emily Dickinson death poem, Dickinson gave herself the immortality she sought. She meets “Immortality” in the carriage ride. Moreover, her readers will remember her for as long as they read her poem, long after her death.
We hope you enjoyed our “Because I could not stop for death” analysis. For helpful guides to reading comprehension, essay writing skills, and more, visit our page on High School Success. You’ll find links to other literary analyses, such as The Lottery by Shirley Jackson, “We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks and “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin. And, pick up a collection of Emily Dickinson’s poetry in a bookstore near you!