'Because I could not stop for Death' by Emily Dickinson: Summary, Analysis and Study Questions

One of Dickinson’s most quoted poems, ‘Because I could not stop for Death’ is based on the speaker’s journey from the earth to the grave; and the Death has appeared in the poem as a trusted friend and fellow sojourner of the speaker from the earth to the grave. Here follows the summary and analysis of the poem:

Because I could not stop for Death–
He kindly stopped for me–
The Carriage held but just Ourselves–
And Immortality.

The speaker visualizes Death as a person whom she knew and trusted or believed that she could trust. He might be a gentleman, who at one time or another has acted as her escort. She cannot stop Death when she wants to. So, she has to abide by the call of Death. As soon as the Death arrives, she gets into the carriage, which holds both the speaker and Death and Immortality. 

Dickinson personifies “Death” and uses alliteration of the “c”
She describes this as a pleasant event that takes place in a carriage 
She uses end rhyme in lines 2 and 4 and internal rhyme in line 
Immortality: (or eternal life) is the concept of living in physical or spiritual form for an infinite length of time. 

We slowly drove—He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility–

The speaker and Death drive in a leisurely manner, and she feels completely at ease. The speaker walks away from her busy schedule, such as work and even her leisure time for death. Since she understands it to be a last ride, she of course expects it to be unhurried. 

Civility- politeness, courtes
Uses alliteration of the letters “h” and “l”

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess--in the Ring–
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain–
We passed the Setting Sun–

The speaker notes the daily routine of the life she is leaving behind. Dickinson is talking about the different stages of her life or seeing her own life flash before her eyes. The children at recess symbolize the beginning of her life. The fields of grazing grain symbolize adolescence/adulthood and the setting sun symbolizes the writer’s final years. The tone gets changed. Now, the sense of motion is quickened or perhaps, more exactly, the sense of time comes to an end as they pass the cycles of the day and the seasons of the year.

 The repetition of “we passed” is called anaphora
 She also uses alliteration of the letters “s” “r” and “g”

Or rather--He passed us—
The Dews drew quivering and chill–
For only Gossamer, my Gown–
My Tippet--only Tulle–

The speaker corrects herself and says that the Sun has passed them, as it of course does all who are in the grave. She conveys her feeling of being outside time and change. She is aware of dampness and cold, and becomes suddenly conscious of the sheerness and the dress and scarf which as she now discovers that she has not taken any winter clothes, as she had to start the journey unprepared.

 Sun is personified as “He
Describing being inside the ground; being cold
Also talks about what she is wearing gossamer- material for a wedding dress, tippet (scarf) & Tulle (netting)
Slant rhyme “chill/ tulle”

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground–
The Roof was scarcely visible–
The Cornice--in the Ground–

Finally, the speaker and Death have stopped their carriage and they have reached their destination- a house. It is the slightly rounded surface ‘of the ground’, with a scarcely visible roof and a cornice ‘ in the ground.’   

The house/swelling of the ground symbolizes her gravesite
Cornice: a decorative framework to conceal curtain fixtures at the top of a window casing
Alliteration of the letter “s”

Since then--'tis Centuries—but each
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses' Heads
Were toward Eternity—

Cessation of all activity and creativeness is absolute. At the end, in a final instantaneous flash of memory, she recalls the last objects before her eyes during the journey: the heads of the horses that carried her, as she had surmised they were going from the beginning, toward ‘eternity.’ 

Time has passed since her carriage ride with death
Paradox- century (100 yrs) feels shorter than a day
Ends with her realizing that towards the end of her ride with death she figured out that this wasn’t temporary
“Horses Heads  were toward eternity” meaning the horses pulling the carriage were taking her somewhere she couldn’t return from 

She realizes she is dead; that this “ride” is for all eternity 

This is typical Dickinson poem, in which each stanza is a quatrain- four lines. In each stanza the first line has 8 syllables, the second has 6 syllables, the third has 8 syllables, and the fourth has 6 syllables. The overall theme of the poem seems to be that death is not to be feared because it is part of the endless cycle of nature. Her tone is optimistic because she sees death as a friend. 
This poem is a good example of her style, with punctuation dominated by dashes and words intermittently given initial capital letters. The poem is slightly disconcerting, presenting the arrival of death as a friend, or even a bridegroom, to escort the narrator in a leisurely manner towards her tomb.

The personified Death’s actions are ‘kindly’, he shows ‘Civility’ and the journey has ‘no haste’. The central stanza poignantly contrasts children at play with death and the children are the first of three references to the passing of time towards the end of life. They are followed by the ripening grain, ready for harvest, and the setting sun, a frequent metaphor for the end of life.

Describing the tomb as a ‘House’ suggests comfort and the final stanza confirms this, compressing the ‘Centuries’ since the journey into less ‘than the Day’.

There are a number of repetitions, internal rhymes and examples of alliteration in the poem. Consider what these sound features add to a reading and understanding of the poem.

A number of Dickinson’s poems are based on the theme of death. This particular poem is the finest in this category. On the surface this poem seems like just another version of a procession to the grave, but here it is also a metaphor that can be probed for deeper levels of meaning, spiritual journeys of a different sort.

Study Questions:

  1. Focus on the form of the poem , looking at the structure, punctuation, line lengths and the arrangement of the poem’s stanzas. How do these features add interest and meaning to the poem? Also examine the arrangements of the words, phrases and sentences in the poem.
  1. Examine the language used  in the poem, looking at the meaning of words and whether they have negative or positive connotations.
  1. Look at the techniques, imagery and sound devices, alliteration, that has been used? How do these techniques bring out the main themes and ideas in the poem? 
  1. How does the poet make use of rhyme (end and internal), repetition and rhythm?  Why does she do this?
  1. What are the poet’s main ideas that she brings out in the poem and how does he do this? Explain the feelings that the poet conveys throughout the poem.  Describe the poet’s attitude to his subject. Does this change as the poem progresses? Carefully examine the tone throughout the poem and find vocabulary to back up your discussion.
  1. How do you react to this poem?  Does it bring any particular thoughts to mind?  Which poems would you compare this one with?