Toward Eternity

An Explication of Emily Dickinson’s Poem “Because I Could Not Stop for Death”

by Conrad Martin

Because I Could Not Stop For Death

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 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

—Emily Dickinson

This poem is a pleasant sound in the empty space between terror and calm—between helplessness and the power to choose to meet death with resignation. The calm is deliberate, speaking out of an undying resistance to nothingness. The poem is a gentle sigh overtaking a gasp.

Exploringly, the poem imagines consciousness continuing in and beyond death. Making peace with death through acceptance is communicated by the abnormally detached tone, but the poet seems aware that this choice to be detached is a claim to retain the upper hand. Resignation conceals a deeper rebellion—no peace of this kind can be absolute. The truce is unsigned. The gasp hangs.

Perhaps this seems too cold an interpretation of the poem. Undoubtedly it can be read simply as an exploratory meditation on the curious deadness of death—and it is that, and additional levels of interpretation should not diminish the first one. I think there is more. Dickinson wrote about death often, and her treatment of the theme is characterized by a tenacious love of life:

I never hear that one is dead
Without the chance of Life
Afresh annihilating me

Her vision of immortality seems overmastered by the keenness of her vision of mortal life, and the afterlife is portrayed as very dubious comfort at best. In “I Know That He Exists,” after considering that perhaps God’s intangibility is a happy game of surprise and discovery, she counters:

But—should the play
Prove piercing earnest—
Should the glee—glaze—
In Death’s—stiff—stare—

Would not the fun
Look too expensive!
Would not the jest—
Have crawled too far!

In “Because I Could not Stop for Death,” dying happens not as dramatic discontinuity but as a journey in a carriage with the gentleman Death—death seems not an end but a stage of life. The trip is inevitable—apparently expected and accepted from beginning to end. The speaker neither grieves nor raves; overt negativity and pathos are ringingly absent—even the melancholy grandeur we increasingly anticipate remains resisted—this is a mood almost mathematically surreal. The tone is detached and abstract, expressing intangible mysteries fearfully alien to human sympathy in language of familiarity and calm. Yet there is no more bitter cynicism than there is sentimentality—the mood is emphatically empty.

Yet the serenity is skillfully overplayed. If there is irony here, it is pure. Addressing this subject must create a charged context, but the voice is genial and subdued, and within a space thus cleared the poem simply enjoys and suffers the sheer dimensions of the conscious experience of time against eternity. Dickinson feels the irony but does not flaunt the feeling over the irony. The tension is part of the wonder and absurdity of life and death, and the resistance is both irreducible and wholly integrated into the widest possible perspective.

From the first line the resistance has been well buried. “I could not stop for death” softens our antipathy with the commonness of carriage rides and forgetfulness and busy schedules. “He kindly stopped for me” sweeps our attention on to gentler thoughts, past the consideration of why it was impossible for her to stop for death; but this impossibility is vital to the tone of the poem, and the sweeping past is a technique vital to keeping that all important detail well buried.

“He kindly stopped for me”—yet nothing in the rest of the poem reassures us that the kindness is genuine. Death is personified, yet no further information about him appears; the speaker is not interested in him. Immortality may be personified as well, though she is mentioned almost as afterthought: “The Carriage held but just Ourselves/ and Immortality.” This mood of intensely solitary individual expression defines the poem. She is alone—so wholly now alone—but seems oddly equal to it.

Death is inexorable. “He knew no haste.” The speaker has put away for “His Civility” not only her labor (sounds fine), but even her leisure (worrisome). This slow pace is neither busy nor un-busy—it is not life—it is not hers—she is being emptied. For what? “His Civility” speaks of cool propriety at best—this is what just must be. To put away both work and leisure is to be put away completely. Yet the statement comes off gently, peacefully; she has not lowered herself to overt resistance, which would result in compelled loss, rather “I had put away.”

They pass scenes of life; the three examples seem arranged in descending order: first the school children at “striving” play, then a field of grain “gazing,” then the setting (dying) sun. The sun leads into the next stanza, where it seems important to say that it is not truly they who pass the sun, but the sun which passes them. This contrast sharpens their status of irrelevance and spectatorship. A line length change (4,3,4,3 to 3,4,4,3) highlights a turn in mood, to the colder “The Dews drew quivering and chill—.” She is not dressed for cold, wearing only Gossamer and Tulle, both light, filmy materials, and both alluding to burial garb. Does the quivering hint of fear? Her protection is cold, weightless, beautiful.

They stop—rather they “pause” (is this introduction to the new lodgings perhaps more summary than ceremonious?) before an underground house. It is mostly buried; it is very old; it seems to have been forgotten. The suggestion is of a grave site, the gravestone “scarcely visible.” Describing it as a house fits the poem’s insistence on euphemizing death as normal life.

The fourth line’s repetition “in the Ground” all but breaks the high peace of the poem with a hint of human pathos—dwelling on the buried-ness of the house to even this small extent relaxes the merest edge of the poem’s detachment.

Nothing is said about dismounting from the carriage and entering the house, and there is no mention of Death and Immortality leaving or staying. Moving straight from a detailed description of the house to a later reflection leaves an ominous gap.

The last stanza intensifies the disorientation that has been building. First, we are dizzied by a perspective shift into enormous distances of time; the carriage ride has not happened just recently, but centuries ago. Immediately the new perspective is folded and creased; the speaker claims to feel them “shorter than [a] day.” Thus far the scene has been built with a consistency and a vividly internal consciousness which induces a kind of believability. The direct language of these two lines, coming as it does after such convincing strangeness and the bold gap between the last stanzas, maintains their absurdity in a suspense which allows credibility to flow unimpeded into the last lines, where it is deepened by another shift in perspective and then sealed.

If the poem ended at “Feels shorter than a Day,” the absurdity would very soon collapse into disbelief. But it is not just a day in the abstract, but “the Day / I first surmised. . .” Immediately our attention is drawn further beyond, and the folded centuries remain in that moment, hanging in cool impossibility. We are drawn deeper into the speaker’s consciousness as she muses on a memory; we feel honored by her assumption that we are tracking closely and not questioning.

Our attention is also drawn because in this memory there is a new perspective on an earlier event. We had not heard that she was surprised by death, but here she implies she was taken off guard, not discovering that she was dying until after the carriage ride had begun. The connotation of “surmise” hints darkly, and the specificity of “Horses’ Heads” convinces. These heads seem apocryphal—archetypally portentous symbols for inscrutable purposes. In their innocent austerity, animal features point toward eternity in dumb, fearless dread, powerlessly proud.

It is possible to feel this poem simply as peaceful resignation. Though immortality here is more perpetual Pause than Paradise, one might find it within themselves to desire oblivion. But even supposing it is humanly possible to desire nothing, it is not artistically possible. Expression is desire for something (for an existence of mere expression, if nothing else). A poem which longs for oblivion must be a metaphor for transcendent longing, and a poem confessing itself resigned to nothingness must be irony, either subconscious or hyperconscious—and Dickinson is, if anything, aware. The kind of thought mood which is at once too clean for irony but too bright for observation, haunted, but too bracing to be dream, is the gift Emily Dickinson gives her reader.

Source: “Because I Could Not Stop for Death.” The Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by R.W. Franklin (Harvard University Press, 1999)

Artwork: Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902), Tyrolean Landscape

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