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—
F479 (1862) J712
There's an interesting distinction in this famous poem between Immortality, which rides with the narrator in Death's carriage, and Eternity, which is their destination. As a teen, Dickinson had no love of Eternity, as evidenced by a letter she wrote to her friend Abiah Root: "Does not Eternity appear dreadful to you? I often get thinking of it and it seems so dark to me that I almost wish there was no Eternity" (L 10).
The poem seems to echo this early dread. Death is welcome, particularly coming as a gentleman caller rather than as the Grim Reaper. He was "kindly" and drove "slowly," giving his passenger time to review the mortal life she was leaving behind. That Immortality was also a passenger caused no alarm. It, too, was a passenger and served as a chaperone. In fact, without Immortality, there would have been no conscious narrator; Death would have obliterated consciousness upon his arrival. So Immortality was a welcome companion for this gentle, farewell journey to the grave.
The poem leaves us paused at the grave (perhaps – Dickinson leaves the narrator's vantage point purposefully ambiguous), the "House that seemed / A Swelling of the Ground," for "centuries." In what seems to me a sad coda, the poet adds that even those centuries of pause seem shorter than when she realized her consciousness was not destined for the oblivion of the tomb. There is an undertone of betrayal: the kindly gentleman caller was not going to leave her in an everlasting sleep; his horses were headed to eternity.
The last stanza gives us no reason to think that the poet's early dread of eternity wasn't warranted. It may be the infinite but not unpleasant tedium of waiting in the grave, as Dickinson described in other poems. In "Safe in their alabaster chambers," for example, the "meek members of the Resurrection" wait while up above "Worlds scoop their Arcs – / And firmaments – row" (F124). It's a comfortable enough image, as is the tomb where Truth chats with Beauty until the moss silenced them (448) .
In other poems, Death comes as sleep at the soothing hand of a mother putting her children to bed:
The Months have ends – the Years – a knot – (F417)
The Earth lays back these tired lives"Some, too fragile for winter winds" (F91)
In her mysterious Drawers—
Too tenderly, that any doubt
An ultimate Repose–
Some, too fragile for winter winds"Where bells no more affright the morn" (F114)
The thoughtful grave encloses—
Tenderly tucking them in from frost
Before their feet are cold –
Where tired Children placid sleep
Thro' Centuries of noon
This place is Bliss—this town is Heaven—
|This little tippet wouldn't keep you warm
In these three poems, however, the image is of rest and sleep. There is no sleep in the current poem. As in "Safe in their alabaster chambers," the dead wait ... and wait ....
The fourth stanza (omitted by the editors in the first posthumous publication), gives us – and the narrator – the first clue that something is wrong. The third stanza is safe enough: They pass a schoolyard where perhaps the narrator once played, and then "the Fields of Gazing Grain" – which seems to indicate a rather vegetable sameness to adult life. Finally, they pass the "Setting Sun" – long a symbol for the end of life. Ah, but the tricky fourth stanza takes that back. No, the narrator corrects herself; the sun "passed Us."
The difference is between going into some after-death realm and leaving earth and sun behind, or staying put while the sun continues his rounds. The narrator realizes her mistake: they are staying put! Not only that, but the "Gossamer" dress and the dainty tulle shawl do not keep her warm. The carriage finally pauses at the narrator's final "House," which is the grave with its covering.
The offhand final stanza suggests that nothing has changed, only that centuries have passed. The poem, which started out in gracious acceptance of Death and his companion, ends in sad resignation.
Poet and critic Allen Tate considered this poem "One of the perfect poems in English," "Flawless to the last detail.... " Numerous others agree. I was never particularly fond of this poem until studying it for this commentary when I realized just how much thought Dickinson put into concept, form and diction. It would be hard to suggest a single change that might improve the poem. And while there at first seems to be a clear story, with further scrutiny we find that Death retains all its mystery.