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08 August 2013

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—
                                                                   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
In her mysterious Drawers—
Too tenderly, that any doubt
An ultimate Repose–
"Some, too fragile for winter winds"  (F91)
Some, too fragile for winter winds
The thoughtful grave encloses—
Tenderly tucking them in from frost
Before their feet are cold –
"Where bells no more affright the morn" (F114)
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
for long

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.


  1. This poem is so beautiful so masterful and so familiar that it is hard to comment on it.

    For me, the gentle, welcoming relationship with death is so powerful. The image of the grave as a home with a "Cornice -- in the ground" is part of this. And, as you point out, the fourth stanza is the fulcrum. For me, it evokes the feeling that you can sometimes have when you are on a train stopped on the tracks and another train on the next track begins to move -- it feels as if you are moving because the world is moving around you. Death is the axis mundi and life moving without us gives the illusion of travel and distance.

    I also love children "striving" in the Ring -- evoking all of the effort of life as if it were the play of children. "Gazing grain" is so familiar that we forget how beautiful the phrase is -- it is iconic -- like Keat's "alien corn".

    The poem ends with eternity -- and what is eternity, but timelessness -- no longer having a reference point. How could centuries be long in that place of eternity?

    This is one of the most accessible of EDs poems -- and it is a more powerful poem for that. In other poems it is necessary to meet ED on her terms -- to appreciate the extreme condensation of her language and to read the words over and over paying attention to the sparks that are given off as the words strike each other and to let your mind try to find the associations that ED made as she wrote. None of that is necessary here. This poem is so simple and so beautiful!

  2. Yes, it is indeed hard to know how to write about this poem. It took me days. I love that you filled in much of what is wonderful about the poem -- thanks. I could mull over "gazing grain" all day. Dickinson's three images of mortal life: children, grain, and the sun, could not better express the passage of time in mortal lives: life, season, and day.

    The final image of the horses heads is at once evocative, mysterious, and extremely visual

  3. I read the poem as a statement on the loss of a loved one. So, because she couldn't join her beloved, death kindly offered to show her a glimpse: maybe, just to entice her. She pauses before kids (play, mirth, or birth), pauses before the long grains (work, toil, or life), and pauses before the setting sun (sickness? or death). Death is kind enough to show her what she would be missing in life (birth, life, death), if she chooses to depart now.

    The setting sun eclipses her understanding of death--it passes her and the kind suitor who is showing her death. In this moment, she chooses life (as it shakes her being--"The Dews drew quivering and chill-") She's as beautiful as possible in this moment with a gossamer gown, and a tulle/veil filtering her understanding of death. She visits her beloved's tomb, and says I will join you in time to come. It has been long since our last meeting, feels like only a day, but my path is only toward's you.

    If one maybe substitutes the beloved for death, maybe that works too. So, she could be in effect mourning the death of death (or I'm just being silly here).

    1. I just don't see a loved one in here (except for the bridal dress imagery -- see following comment).

    2. I agree--there isn't much there in terms of explicit allusions to someone loved--unless you see them implicitly in the language. To me, "A swelling in the ground," can't be her own (unless you read this poem as a continuation or improvement of "Twas this time last year, I died.") I mean there is nothing that prevents the reader from interpreting it that way, but... all the questions I have regarding are more easily answered when I picture her at the grave of a loved one.

      Getting off the journey of life is easy to understand as death... but death stopping for someone--that's a tough one! Of course, the reader can think of death as the physical 'grim reaper' paying a visit, but, seeing someone dead or someone's grave could work just as well. Or, it could be reference to actively choosing life instead of death.

      "The Carriage held just Ourselves-//And Immortality." The plural "Ourselves" could be reference to her and her loved--"Immortality" could be the union between her and her loved one in the afterlife. "Ourselves" could also be reference to her and the "Death" calling--except isn't "And Immortality" then redundant as "Immortality" a feature of "Death." I see the poem as a continuation of "A wife-at daybreak-I shall be-" So, here the wedding dress is inadequate as "only gossamer" and "only tulle" precisely because the promise of being a wife isn't enough to forsake this life.

      For me--in terms of logistics it doesn't quite make sense for "Death" (the grim reaper) to be with her in the carriage, and then to pass (the setting sun) her and her fellow passenger, and be there at the grave again. "Death" didn't leave only her behind--it "Or rather-He passed Us-"

      I was trying to find her poem about her union with her lover in the grave, but I can't seem to find it. Am I making up a poem? Is there a Dickinson poem like that?

    3. You might be thinking of EDs famous poem about truth and beauty. Susan mentions it above (448).

    4. Thanks--that's the one--can't believe I missed it above--really sorry about that! After a while, important poems seem to change spontaneously in my mind--the truth and beauty one (448) in particular was way different to what I remembered!

    5. Zefirino - I don't quite understand your penultimate paragraph. I'm not sure what your reading of that stanza is, but I see it as Death, the narrator, and Immortality paused at a grave. The narrator corrects herself from thinking that they had passed the sun (for she was thinking of a journey to heaven, perhaps); she realizes that they are still at the grave: she, Death, and Immortality. That trio can be explored.

      Thank you for explaining your reading of the poem as one of coming to terms with a great loss. I see what you mean, but for me the simplest explanation is that, as in other poems, Dickinson is talking from a vantage beyond Death.

    6. Apologies--for that obscure penultimate paragraph. I understand your 'bride of christ' analogy, and I even see how your reading could be simpler.

      For me, I like to think she's narrator throughout--maybe, just cause it's a bit of leap for me otherwise. Initially, I had a bit of trouble seeing how the narrator could switch from her to Death at the grave. I mean, I guess once death has taken over--I guess the narrator becomes death (stooped over a grave--is it hers?)--I didn't read it like that at first. And, then it switches back when she corrects herself.

      I see now how your trio works--with death as the narrator at the grave. For me--this poem has themes eerily similar to those given in "Our journey had advanced-" So, my trio is her, her beloved, and death. In my reading: as she remains narrator throughout, when he (death) passes them, he finally takes her beloved--earlier it was just birth, life, sickness (children, grain, setting sun). All of these items they pass--as they are in her and her beloved's past, as she sits reflecting on their time together. Maybe, my issue is that I'm wanting/hoping the metaphors to have real events in her life--the grave (her beloved's), the carriage (their journey through sickness and in health), and finally her solitude (horses' heads pointing toward Eternity all the same). I have trouble reading the last stanza--is the mood one of resignation or of exultation? That I can't decipher. I read "Eternity" as continual discovery forever, as opposed to "Immortality" as static life. So, if she continues to live here on earth, she'll join her beloved in "Eternity," as they'll continue to grow together. If she leaves now, well, she's just succumbed to the pull of death, and they'll forever be static together in death. But--this part I still don't fully get.

      Is there any other ED poem where there is a narrator switch? Or, a potential narrator switch?

      Thank you for explaining the narrator switch--it is a pretty cool reading.

  4. Maybe-the gossamer gown doesn't have to be her funeral clothes-but a wedding dress signifying her promise to eternity and her beloved.

    1. I agree that that gossamer gown and tulle tippet conjure up a bridal outfit. Perhaps Dickinson intended some resonance with the "Bride of Christ" imagery she has used in earlier poems. But any such hopes are dashed as the gown proves completely inadequate.

  5. Emily Dickinson's Because I could not stop for death is one of my favorite poems. You have given a new perspective on it. Therefore, I appreciate the work you have done.

  6. This was the first poem used in the Dickinson tv show. Have you seen? I am quite enjoying it.

  7. Two things to add here. First, compare

    "Since then—'tis centuries— and yet
    Feels shorter than the Day
    I first surmised the Horses' Heads
    Were toward Eternity—"


    "The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’
    And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?"

    The latter is a response to "great pain". Time slows waaaay down. A day seems centuries. The former
    is the opposite, centuries seem shorter than a day. It makes me think that eternity is, perhaps, fun? Time flies! Eternity isn't so bad after all, even if it seems so when first learning the horses were pointed that way.

    The second point is a little more on "gazing grain". I think ED is playing with the words. You want to read "grazing grain" there. This would make no sense, but still the mind wants to do it. In fact if you watch the movie "A Quiet Passion" (not good in my opinion), you'll notice that in the voice-over of this poem during the death scene near the end, the actress says "grazing grain" instead of "gazing grain". (Easy mistake, since the mind wants to do it, but how could they have gotten that wrong?) I've noticed ED does this kind of "trick" in other poems, though I can't remember which ones now. But it just goes to show that a slow reading is the way to go. In fact, I love your idea above of "mulling over" gazing grain all day.

  8. Wow!

    On the morning of August 8, 2013, after “days” of rethinking ‘Because I could not stop for Death—‘, Susan K posted her explication. At lunchtime, Anonymous responded, closing with a paragraph worth repeating:

    “This is one of the most accessible of EDs poems -- . . . . In other poems it is necessary to meet ED on her terms -- to appreciate the extreme condensation of her language and to read the words over and over paying attention to the sparks that are given off as the words strike each other and to let your mind try to find the associations that ED made as she wrote. None of that is necessary here. This poem is so simple and so beautiful!”

    At suppertime, Susan K. confessed, “Yes, it is indeed hard to know how to write about this poem.”

    During the next four days, Zefirino and Susan K played tennis batting the poem to and fro.

    d. scribe finished out the ten years since SK began “gazing grain all day” with a little of his/her own "gazing".

    That’s quite a buggy ride, maybe not eternal, but certainly not "simple".

  9. Talk about a vivid imagination, one day ED’s begging/demanding God provide some credible evidence that He/Heaven exist (‘Just Once! Oh least Request!, F478), and in the very next poem (‘Because I could not stop for Death—‘, F479) she’s in a carriage with Death, a stranger, taking an buggy ride “toward Eternity” and seems to be having a good time rubbernecking. Hope she doesn’t bore easily because she’s in for a long ride ahead.

    How can I not love this poetic heartbreaker?