The poets of the nineteenth century wrote on a variety of topics. One often used topic is that of death. The theme of death has been approached in many different ways. Emily Dickinson is one of the numerous poets who uses death as the subject of several of her poems.
In her poem “Because I Could Not Stop for Death,” death is portrayed as a gentleman who comes to give the speaker a ride to eternity.
Throughout the poem, Dickinson develops her unusual interpretation of death and, by doing so, composes a poem full of imagery that is both unique and thought-provoking. Through Dickinson’s precise style of writing, effective use of literary elements, and vivid imagery, she creates a poem that can be interpreted in many different ways.
The precise form that Dickinson uses throughout “Because” helps convey her message to the reader.
The poem is written in five quatrains. The way in which each stanza is written in a quatrain gives the poem unity and makes it easy to read. “I Could Not Stop for Death” gives the reader a feeling of forward movement through the second and third quatrain.
For example, in line 5, Dickinson begins death’s journey with a slow, forward movement, which can be seen as she writes, “We slowly drove-He knew no haste.”
The third quatrain seems to speed up as the trinity of death, immortality, and the speaker pass the children playing, the fields of grain, and the setting sun one after another.
The poem seems to get faster and faster as life goes through its course. In lines 17 and 18, however, the poem seems to slow down as Dickinson writes, “We paused before a House that seemed / A Swelling of the Ground-.” The reader is given a feeling of life slowly ending.
Another way in which Dickinson uses the form of the poem to convey a message to the reader occurs on line four as she writes, “And Immortality.”
Eunice Glenn believes that the word “Immortality” is given a line by itself to show its importance (qtd. in Davis 107). Perhaps the most notable way in which Dickinson uses form is when she ends the poem with a dash.
Judith Farr believes that the dash seems to indicate that the poem is never ending, just as eternity is never ending (331). In conclusion, Dickinson’s form helps the reader begin to comprehend the poem.
Figurative language is one of the literary elements that Dickinson uses to help convey hidden messages to the reader. Alliteration is used several times throughout the poem. An example of alliteration occurs in lines 9 through 12:
We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess-in the Ring-
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain-
We passed the Setting Sun-
Alliteration is used four times in the third quatrain alone. Bettina Knapp states that, “the alliterations…depict a continuity of scenes, thereby emphasizing the notion of never-endingness.” Another type of figurative language that is used is repetition.
The first instance of repetition occurs in lines 9, 11, and 12 as she writes, “We passed” three times. The speaker in the poem is passing through everything that she has already lived through, thus giving the reader a sense of life going by. Another instance of repetition occurs in the fourth stanza.
Dickinson repeats the word “ground” in lines 18 and 20 to help remind the reader that she is describing a grave, not a house. Figurative language is also used as Dickinson creates two instances of perfect rhyme. The first time perfect rhyme is used is in lines 2 and 4 with the rhyming of the words “me” and “immortality.”
The second, and last, time perfect rhyme is used is in lines 18 and 20 as she repeats the word “ground.” All in all, Dickinson’s use of figurative language contributes to the meaning of the poem.
Another literary element that Dickinson uses in her poem is tone, which is used to help create the general mood of the poem. It is interesting to note that her tone in regards to death contrasts with that of her time period. Farr states that the people of Dickinson’s era looked at death as being “a skeletal marauder-thief with a scythe and a grimace” (329).
Society in the 1800s viewed death as being morbid and evil. Dickinson, on the other hand, made death into being pleasant. She portrays death as being a kind gentleman, perhaps even a suitor, who is taking her out for a ride in a carriage. The imagery in “Because” assists in the creation of a pleasant tone.
Dickinson describes children playing, which also gives the poem a more affable mood. Another way in which Dickinson makes death a more agreeable subject for the reader is in the fifth quatrain as she compares the grave to a house. In line 17, she writes, “We paused before a House.”
As she does so, the reader gets the image of a young lady being dropped off at her home by her suitor. However, as Dickinson goes on to write in line 18, “A Swelling of the Ground-,” the reader is reminded that it is actually a grave that she is being taken to. Her grave is also portrayed as a house in lines 19 and 20 as she writes, “The Roof was scarcely visible- / The Cornice-in the Ground.”
The cornice can be viewed as being either the ornamental roofing around the speakers house, or as the molding around her coffin. By comparing the grave to a house, Dickinson helps to lighten the tone of the graveyard scene. The only time when Dickinson does give the reader a true sense of mortality is as the sun passes the speaker.
She portrays the sense of mortality is in lines 12 and 13 as she writes, “We passed the Setting Sun- / Or rather-He passed Us-.” Dickinson’s effective creation of a pleasant tone is seen throughout “Because.”
Dickinson uses the final literary element of symbolism to help the reader to understand the meaning that she is trying to convey. The carriage is symbolic of a hearse and carries the speaker, who is symbolized as humanity, and her suitor, who is symbolized as death.
The two characters create the third passenger of the carriage, who is immortality. Their carriage ride is also symbolic of time, since, like time, it moves slowly. The speaker looks outside of the carriage and sees children playing games in a ring, which symbolizes her looking back on memories of her childhood.
The children can also serve as a symbol of human life. Next, she sees fields of gazing grain, which symbolize her looking back on her adulthood and maturity. The gazing grain can also be viewed as a symbol of the inanimate parts of life. Finally, she sees the setting sun pass the carriage, which symbolizes either old age or death by showing that she is beyond mortal time.
Even though most readers would see the suitor as being symbolic of death, Charles R. Anderson sees the suitor, death, as standing in place of God. He writes, “Death, to be sure, is not the true bridegroom but a surrogate…He is the envoy taking her on this curiously premature wedding journey to the heavenly altar where she will be married to God” (qtd. in Davis 117).
Symbols give the poem a deeper outlook on death, eternity, and immortality.
Even though Dickinson’s style of writing is concise and to the point, she is able to use many vivid images to paint an everlasting picture in the reader’s mind. Each image that she uses builds upon the other images.
The first image that the reader sees is that of a carriage picking up the speaker, which is depicted in lines 1 and 2 as Dickinson writes, “Because I could not stop for Death- / He kindly stopped for me.” As the speaker looks outside of the carriage, she broadens the picture by describing what she sees around her.
Her first description is of children playing games in a ring. It moves on to describe the fields of grain she is riding through. Another image that is seen is that of the setting sun. In the fourth quatrain, she describes the speaker’s light form of dress in detail. She does so in lines 15 and 16 as she writes, “For only Gossamer, my Gown-, My Tippet-only Tulle-.”
Through the image of gossamer, the reader can see the fine, flimsy cloth that her gown is made of. The way in which Dickinson presents the speaker’s tippet allows the reader to receive the mental picture of a “bridal veil” (qtd. in Davis 117), as Anderson interprets it to be.
Next, Dickinson paints a picture of a house, but still reminds the reader that it is actually a grave that she is describing. The final image in the poem is that of the horses heads looking toward eternity. Knapp believes that the final image allows the speaker’s view to broaden from inside of the carriage to the rest of the outside world (94).
Thus, the reader is given a broader image than what he has yet experienced in the poem. Now, the reader is left with the image of eternity. The number of images lessen as the poem draws on. The reader is given a feeling of the speaker dying as the images lessen. Dickinson’s use of imagery is a perfect example of a picture painting a thousand words.
“I Could Not Stop for Death” can be interpreted in many different ways. The first interpretation deals with the Christian view of death and immortality. In the Christian view of death, a person dies and goes on to a better place to live forever. During a person’s life, time means everything, but once a person dies and enters eternity, time is irrelevant.
The irrelevancy of time can be seen as Dickinson writes in lines 21 and 22, “Since then-’tis Centuries-and yet / Feels shorter than the Day.” In another interpretation of the poem, death is viewed as being her suitor. He is described as being a kind gentleman taking her for a ride in a carriage. Her marriage to her suitor represents her marriage to God.
Additionally, the poem can be understood as being a short biography of her life. As the speaker passes her childhood, she brings back memories of the happy and normal part of her life. However, as she comes upon her maturity, the sun passes her, which represents life passing her.
The biographical interpretation of the poem is best summed up in the words of Anderson as he writes, “She was borne confidently, by her winged horse, ‘toward Eternity’ in the immortality of her poems” (qtd. in Davis 118). In other words, she was confident that, when she died, her poems would live on.
The poem has left a conflict among scholars who have interpreted the poem in many ways.
Dickinson’s imagery and effective use of the basic elements of poetry has produced a poem with several different meanings. Her conception of death and how she portrays it in “Because” exposes the reader’s mind to a variety of ideas about death.
Surely, after reading the poem, the reader could never view death in a singular way again. Poetry at its best leaves the reader with new ideas about the topic at hand.
As a result of the writing of the poets of the nineteenth century, readers are given many different ways of regarding various aspects of life.
Adventures in American Literature, Pegasus Edition. Ed. Francis Hodgins. Dallas: HBJ, 1989. 330.
American Literature: The Makers and the Making. Ed. Cleanth Brooks. Vol. 2. New York: SMP, 1973. 1250.
Davis, Thomas M. 14 by Emily Dickinson. Dallas: SFC, 1964. 101-18.
Farr, Judith. The Passion of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: HUP, 1992. 329-31.
Knapp, Bettina L. Emily Dickinson. New York: CPC, 1989. 91-5.
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