Because I could Not stop for Death” by Emily Dickinson, is a allegorical poem, which can be seen as a screenplay, which narrates the story of a lady being courted, kidnapped and finally murdered by a chivalrous gentleman. The lady in the poem, referred to as ‘I’, is a timid fictitious character, which draws several similarities with the character of “The Chimney Sweeper” by William Blake, as both are characterized as naïve, chatty, cheerful innocent people, unaware of the evil that exists in the world (Paglia p96; Dickinson and Howe; Blake).
“Because I could not stop for Death, He kindly stopped for me; the carriage held but just ourselves and immortality” (Dickinson p110). The poet uses the rhythm and the rhymes to sketch the childish confidence in the benevolence of all life-forms of the character “I”. Thus, the character is unable to see through the ‘ruse’ of civilly (good manners) shown by the gentleman (Death). The character of ‘death’ can be understood as a common villainous archetype of the nineteenth century American literature and folklore, as a trickster, seducer or a confidence man. And the pleasant journey eventually ends with a horrific ending (Paglia).
The poem starts with a mysterious gentleman who ‘kindly stopped’ for the lady, to give her a lift, as she seemed to be too busy with her busy life. This might have a disturbing symbolism, which showed that the reluctance of the lady to ‘stop’ was easily overcome due to the influence of this mysterious gentleman, which might point out to the grim truth that death can come at moments least expected. The ‘kind’ behavior can be understood as a common pun of the early nineteenth century, as also seen in Hamlet I.ii.65, and it points out towards the relation of mankind with mortality (Shakespeare).
The last two lines of the first stanza shows that the lady is being lured away from her home with the promise of “immortality, and depicts the carriage as a hearse possibly like the one in the poem “London” by William Blake, and it has only one destination (Ellis et al.). This is evidenced by the characterization of the carriage as slow moving, as it ‘knew no haste’, which can be compared to a funeral procession. The lady showed graciousness by deferring her own busy schedule as well as her leisure to make time for this gentleman (Paglia).
The third and fourth stanza tell the journey of the lady and the mysterious gentleman (death) through raw countryside, and shows that they passed school where the children were playing, showing the simple and innocence of the landscape juxtaposed on the melancholy of the journey. On a symbolic level, the school can also be understood as the society which indoctrinates people and creates a barrier against the grim reality that lurks beneath the calm, and the ‘children’ are the humanity itself in search of varieties or absolutes to survive. They are kept in their juvenile state by the lack of their independence, as they ‘strive’ at recess.
This also has a condescending and disapproving approach towards humanity from the perspective of ‘death’. This shows how both achievements and works are only trivial as are honor and wealth in the eyes of death, and their meanings vanish with the arrival of death. The ring, can also be understood as an arena, or even a padlock where people are schooled, it can also be understood as a communal circle dance as the one portrayed by Samuel Coleridge in “Kubla Khan”, which portrays regularity and order on one side and entrapment and conformity on the other side (Coleridge).
The Carriage passes ‘Fields of Grazing Grain’, which can be related to an army of silent bystanders, gathered in their masses, as they await to be gathered by the grim reaper, referring to his biblical portrayal of wielding the sickle of doomsday (Revelation 14.14:16.) (Oman). The carriage ‘passing’ through the country side also counts off the time, as it runs off, as the carriage leaves civilization being, and the progression of the journey turns to regression, leaving an orderly setting (of villages, farms and schools) to a disordered setting (the ‘setting sun’). After this, there seems to be a hesitation in the narration, as the personification of sun seemed to have vanished (passing the carriage), and the scenery quickly shifts towards a cold grim setting, which is where the lady finds herself underprepared for the nightfall (Paglia).
This points out towards a cold reality of a damp grave where is left abandoned, as the lady ‘quivers’ and no longer recognizes her body as her own. The ‘pause’ then turns to a full stop, at the end of the poem, with the depiction of a house with a cozy, honeymoon cottage setup, but the roof was hardly visible which quickly turns into a gloom, haunted and decaying mansion of a gothic horror story. The roof can be understood as the cemetery mound. The poem also ends with the regularity and rhythm of the first part of the poem to be replaced with irregularities and lack of specific rhythm, showing a probable loss of control, as well as portraying a systematic breakdown of the meanings of the different contexts. This shows the untimely and tragic demise of the lady in the hands of death.
Blake, William. "Chimney Sweeper." (1978): 2-2.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Volume 9: Aids to Reflection: Aids to Reflection. Vol. 9. Princeton University Press, 2017.
Dickinson, Emily, and Susan Howe. Because I could not stop for Death. ProQuest LLC, 2004.
Dickinson, Emily. The Poetry of Emily Dickinson. Simon and Schuster, 2015.
Ellis, Edwin, and William Butler Yeats. "The Works of William Blake." (2014).
Oman, John. Book of Revelation. Cambridge University Press, 2015.
Paglia, Camille. Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-three of the World's Best Poems. Vintage, 2007.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. ?????????????? ???????????? ?????????????, 2018.