Because I could not stop for Death –
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 –
Emily Dickinson was an innovative and talented American poet who wrote nearly 1800 poems during her brief lifetime from 1830 to 1886. Dickinson became publicly well known as a poet only after her death because she chose to publish only a very small number of her poems, somewhere between seven and twelve, during her lifetime.
Emily Dickinson’s Life
Emily Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, to a well known family. Her grandfather helped to found Amherst College and her father, a lawyer, served for numerous years in the Massachusetts legislature and in the United States Congress. Dickinson had a one year older brother and a three years younger sister.
As a young girl and teenager Dickinson acquired many friends, some lasting a lifetime, received approval and attention from her father, and behaved fittingly for a girl during the Victorian era. She received a classical education from the Amherst Academy and was required by her father to read the Bible. Though she attended church regularly only for a few years, her Christian foundation remained strong throughout her life.
Dickinson attended nearby Mount Holyoke College for only one year, due to numerous reasons, and then was brought back home by her brother, Austin. The Dickinson family lived in a home overlooking the town’s cemetery, where she is buried, for a few years before moving into the home her grandfather had built, called “The Homestead.”
At home in Amherst, Dickinson became a capable housekeeper, cook, and gardener. She attended local events, became friends with some of her fathers’ acquaintances, and read a number of books given to her by her friends and her brother. Most books had to be smuggled into the home for fear that her father would disapprove of them.
Emily Dickinson enjoyed the writings of an impressive list of contemporaries such as Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Longfellow, Whittier, Lowell, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. She also read from the Victorians, Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Thomas Carlyle, and George Eliot, and the Romantic poet Lord Byron. She also loved “David Copperfield” by Charles Dickens. When she discovered Shakespeare she asked, “Why is any other book needed?” In her home she hung portraits of Eliot, Browning, and Carlyle.
Dickinson grew more reclusive into the 1850’s. She began writing poems and received favorable response from her friends. Throughout the rest of her life she adopted the friendly practice of giving poems to her friends and bouquets of flowers from her garden. Her garden was so varied and well-cared that she was better known as a gardener than a poet.
During the Civil War years of the early 1860’s, Emily Dickinson wrote more than 800 poems, the most prolific writing period of her life. During this period Dickinson saw the death of several friends, a teacher, and the declining health of her mother who she had to tend closely. These unhappy events saddened Dickinson and led her to treat the subject of death in many of her poems.
Following the Civil War and for the remaining 20 years of her life, Dickinson rarely left the property limits of The Homestead. Her father, mother, and sister Lavinia all lived with her at home, and her brother lived next door at The Evergreens with his wife, Susan, a longtime friend to Emily, and their children. She enjoyed the company of her family and wrote often to her friends, but residents of Amherst only knew her as the “woman in white” when they infrequently saw her greeting visitors.
After several friends, a nephew, and her parents died, Dickinson wrote fewer and fewer poems and stopped organizing them, as she had been doing for many years. She wrote that, “the dyings have been too deep for me.” Dickinson developed a kidney disease which she suffered from for the remaining two years of her life. The final short letter that she wrote to her cousins read, “Little Cousins, Called Back. Emily.”
Characteristics of Dickinson’s Poetry
Emily Dickinson’s sister, Lavinia, gathered Emily’s poems and published them in 1890. Editors changed some of her words, punctuations, and capitalizations to make them conform to a certain standard. Later editions restored Dickinson’s unique style and organized them in a roughly chronological order.
Emily Dickinson’s poems have many identifiable features. Her poems have been memorized, enjoyed, and discussed since their first publication. Many critics consider her to have been extraordinarily gifted in her abilities to create concise, meaningful, and memorable poems.
The major themes in her poetry include Friends, Nature, Love, and Death. Not surprisingly, she also refers to flowers often in her poems. Many of her poems’ allusions come from her education in the Bible, classical mythology, and Shakespeare.
Dickinson did not give titles to her poems, an unusual feature. Others have given titles to some of her poems, and often the first line of the poem is used as a title.
She wrote short lines, preferring to be concise in her images and references. A study of her letters to friends and mentors shows that her prose style was composed of short iambic phrases, making her prose very similar to her poetry.
Dickinson’s poems are generally short in length, rarely consisting of more than six stanzas, as in “Because I Could Not Stop for Death.” Many of her poems are only one or two stanzas in length. The stanzas are quatrains of four lines. Some poems have stanzas of three or two lines.
The rhythm in many of her poems is called common meter or ballad meter. Both types of meter consist of a quatrain with the first and third lines having four iambic feet and the second and fourth lines having three iambic feet. The iambic foot is a unit of two syllables with the first syllable unstressed and the second syllable stressed.
In her quatrains the rhyme scheme is most often abcb, where only the second and fourth lines rhyme. Such a rhyme scheme is typical of a ballad meter.
Many other poems are written in a meter that is typical of English hymns. This rhythm pattern is characterized by quatrains where lines one, two, and four are written in iambic trimeter and the third line is written in iambic tetrameter.
Often her rhymes are near rhymes or slant rhymes. A near rhyme means that the two rhyming words do not rhyme exactly. They only make a near match.
In Dickinson’s poems, capitalizations and punctuations are unorthodox. She regularly capitalized the nouns but sometimes she was inconsistent and a few nouns were not capitalized. For punctuation, she frequently used a dash instead of a comma or a period, and sometimes she used a dash to separate phrases within a line. Some editions of her poems have attempted to correct the punctuation of her poems.
A dozen or more composers have set Dickinson’s poems to music, including Aaron Copland who produced “Twelve Songs on Poems of Emily Dickinson” in 1951. 0ne of the interesting ways to treat some of Dickinson’s most famous poems, often learned in school, is to sing them to the tune of “Amazing Grace,” or “The Yellow Rose of Texas, or most humorously, the theme to “Gilligan’s Island.”
Because I Could Not Stop for Death
“Because I Could Not Stop for Death” is a brilliant poem, well constructed, easily understood, and filled with many poetic conventions. The first stanza is often quoted alone and represents one of the most inspired quatrains in American poetry.
In the first stanza Dickinson has created a wonderful metaphor that is carried throughout the poem. She has personified death, giving him a name, a conveyance, and a companion. The presence of Immortality in the carriage softens the idea of the arrival of Death. And the fact that He kindly stopped is both a reassurance that his arrival was not unpleasant and an expression of the poet’s wit. It is ironic in a humorous way to imagine Death being kind. The speaker in the poem is speaking of an event that happened in the past, another reassurance that there is survival after death. Dickinson’s Christian view of eternity and the immortality of life are evident in these stanzas.
The second stanza is about Death arriving slowly such as the result of a disease, which in fact Dickinson did succumb to at the end of her life. Again, there is an ironic reference to Death, this time to his civility, which rhymes with “immortality” from the first stanza and ties the two stanzas together. Notice that there are a couple of examples of alliteration, one in the first line with “knew no,” and another in the third line with “labor” and “leisure.”
The third stanza gives a picture of the journey. The children and the school in the first line refer to early life. The fields of ripening grain in the third line refer to life’s middle stage. Finally, the setting sun in the fourth line refers to the final stage of life. Notice the use of anaphora to effectively tie all of the stages of life together. The repetition of the phrase, “we passed,” at the beginning of the lines is known as anaphora. There is also a pleasant example of alliteration in the second line, “recess” and “ring.”
The fourth stanza contains two more examples of effective alliteration and creates the image of a person who is not dressed appropriately for a funeral. In fact, the gossamer gown is more like a wedding dress, which represents a new beginning rather than an end. Notice also the near rhyme in this stanza as well as in several other stanzas. Oddly, this stanza was not included in early editions of Dickinson’s poems; however it appears in all of the more recent editions.
The grave or tomb is described in the fifth stanza as a house. The description indicates that the poet feels at ease with the location. The last stanza indicates that centuries have passed, though ironically it seems shorter than the day. The “horses’ heads” is a comfortable alliteration and ties the vision back to the first stanza. The final word, “eternity,” which rhymes with “immortality” in the first stanza also brings all of the stanzas together and brings the poem to a calm close.