Title:Dickinson's Because I Could Not Stop for Death.
Source:Explicator, Fall91, Vol. 50 Issue 1, p20, 2p
Author:Shaw, M.N.
Abstract:Analyzes the poem `Because I Could Not Stop for Death,' by Emily Dickinson. The use of remembered images of the past to clarify infinite conceptions through the establishment of a dialectical relationship between reality and imagination, the known and the unknown; The viewpoint of eternity; Understanding of the incomprehensible; The stages of existence.


In "Because I Could Not Stop for Death" (J712), Emily Dickinson uses remembered images of the past to clarify infinite conceptions through the establishment of a dialectical relationship between reality and imagination, the known and the unknown.[1] By viewing this relationship holistically and hierarchically ordering the stages of life to include death and eternity, Dickinson suggests the interconnected and mutually determined nature of the finite and infinite.[2]

From the viewpoint of eternity, the speaker recalls experiences that happened on earth centuries ago. In her recollection, she attempts to identify the eternal world by its relationship to temporal standards, as she states that "Centuries" (21) in eternity are "shorter than the [earthly] day" (22). Likewise, by anthropomorphizing Death as a kind and civil gentleman, the speaker particularizes Death's characteristics with favorable connotations. [3] Similarly, the finite and infinite are amalgamated in the fourth stanza:

The Dews drew quivering and chill-- For only Gossamer, my Gown--My Tippett--only Tulle--(14-16)

In these lines the speaker's temporal existence, which allows her to quiver as she is chilled by the "Dew," merges with the spiritual universe, as the speaker is attired in a "Gown" and cape or "Tippet," made respectively of "Gossamer," a cobweb, and "Tulle," a kind of thin, open net-temporal coverings that suggest transparent, spiritual qualities.

Understanding the incomprehensible often depends on an appreciation of the progression of the stages of existence. By recalling specific stages of life on earth, the speaker not only settles her temporal past but also views these happenings from a higher awareness, both literally and figuratively. In a literal sense, for example, as the carriage gains altitude to make its heavenly approach, a house seems as "A Swelling of the Ground" (18). Figuratively the poem may symbolize the three stages of life: "School, where Children strove" (9) may represent childhood; "Fields of Gazing Grain" (11), maturity; and "Setting Sun" (12) old age. Viewing the progression of these stages-life, to death, to eternity-as a continuum invests these isolated, often incomprehensible events with meaning.[4] From her eternal perspective, the speaker comprehends that life, like the "Horses Heads" (23), leads "toward Eternity" (24).[5]

Through her boundless amalgamation and progressive ordering of the temporal world with the spiritual universe, Dickinson dialectically shapes meaning from the limitations of life, allowing the reader momentarily to glimpse a universe in which the seemingly distinct and discontinuous stages of existence are holistically implicated and purposed.


[1.] Others who have written on Emily Dickinson's responses to death include Ruth Miller (The Poetry of Emily Dickinson [Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan U P, 1968]); Robert Weisbuch Emily Dickinson's Poetry [Chicago, 111.: U of Chicago P, 1975]); Carol Anne Taylor ("Kierkegaard and the Ironic Voices of Emily Dickinson ," Journal of English and German Philology 77 [1978]: 569-81); Charles Anderson ( Emily Dickinson's Poetry: Stairway of Surprise [New York: Holt, Reinhart, 1960]); Sharon Cameron (Lyric Time (Baltimore: John Hopkins U P, 1979]); Brita Lindberg-Seyersted (The Voice of the Poet: Aspects of Style in the Poetry of Emily Dickinson [Cambridge: Harvard U P, 1968]).

[2.] The theoretical foundation for aspects of this argument rests in part on the philosophies of such men as Immanuel Kant, who represents the notion of the boundary of human experience as a belt of mediation: "The sensuous world is nothing but a chain of appearances connected according to universal laws; it has therefore no subsistence by itself; it is not the thing in itself and consequently must point to that which contains the basis of this experience, to beings which cannot be cognised merely as phenomena, but as things in themselves" (Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics, trans. and ed. Paul Carus [Chicago: Open Court Publishing Co., 1902] 124).

[3.] In The Long Shadow, Clark Griffith grounds this poem in secular traditions, as he points out that Death's stopping for the Lady-Poet reflects a "tradition of nineteenth-century 'courtly love' " (129), an interpretation which allows the reader to evaluate "Death as either kind or malevolent" (130) and "Eternity" (131) as a "pleasant" place or realm of "nothingness" (132).

[4.] In The Rhetoric of American Romance (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U P 1984), Evan Carton says, "To approach God, for Dickinson, is generally to shape a more satisfying . . . relationship between oneself and the universe . . ." (270).

[5.] Jane D. Eberwein, in Dickinson: Strategies of Limitation (Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1985). argues that Death does not "launch the persona of this poem into another world" but rather leaves the persona in a "House" (218).

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