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 grew 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 but a mound.

Since then 'tis centuries, and yet each
Feels shorter than the day
I first surmised the horses' heads
Were toward eternity.


Dickinson left several versions of this poem. I have followed the version used by Thomas H. Johnson in The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, because I think this version is more effective than the one in your textbook. The early editors of Dickinson's poems dropped the fourth stanza of this poem, a practice which the editors of your textbook have, unfortunately, followed. I have included the deleted stanza because I believe it strengthens the poem.

Death is personified as a gentleman caller or suitor. Thomas H. Johnson calls him "one of the great characters of literature." But exactly what kind of person is he?

  • Is Death a kind, polite suitor? The speaker refers to his "kindness" and "civility." He drives her slowly; is this an expression of tact and consideration for her? If he is the courteous suitor, then Immortality, who is also in the carriage (or hearse) would be their chaperon, a silent one.

  • Is Death actually a betrayer, and is his courtly manner an illusion to seduce her? Because of his kindness in stopping for her, she agrees to go with him ("put away / My labor and my leisure too"). Is Death really cruel? She is not properly dressed for their journey; she is wearing only a gossamer gown and tulle tippet (gossamer: very light, thin cloth; tulle: a thin, fine netting used for veils, scarfs, etc.; tippet: covering for the shoulders). Is Immortality really an accomplice to Death's deception?

The drive symbolizes her leaving life. She progresses from childhood, maturity (the "gazing grain" is ripe) and the setting (dying) sun to her grave. The children are presented as active in their leisure ("strove"). The images of children and grain suggest futurity, that is, they have a future; they also depict the progress of human life. Is there irony in the contrast between her passivity and inactivity in the coach and their energetic activity?

The word "passed" is repeated four times in stanzas three and four. They are "passing" by the children and grain, both still part of life. They are also "passing" out of time into eternity. The sun passes them as the sun does everyone who is buried. With the sun setting, it becomes dark, in contrast to the light of the preceding stanzas. It also becomes damp and cold ("dew grew quivering and chill"), in contrast to the warmth of the preceding stanza. Also the activity of stanza three contrasts with the inactivity of the speaker in stanzas four and five. They pause at the grave. What is the effect of describing it as a house?

In the final stanza, the speaker has moved into death; the language becomes abstract; in the previous stanzas the imagery was concrete and specific. What is Dickinson saying about death or her knowledge of death with this change? The speaker only guesses ("surmised") that they are heading for eternity. Why does she have to guess? She has experienced life, but what does she specifically know about being dead? And why didn't death tell her? If eternity is their goal, can Immortality be a passenger? Or is this question too literal-minded?

Why does Dickinson change from past tense to present tense with the verb "feels" (line 2, stanza 6)? Does eternity have an end?

In this poem, exclusion occurs differently than it does in "The soul selects her own society" Here the speaker is excluded from activities and involvement in life; the dead are outside "the ring" of life. As you read Dickinson's poems, notice the ways in which exclusion occurs and think about whether it is accurate to characterize her as the poet of exclusion.

Dickinson, Online overview
"For each ecstatic instant," p. 2
"I taste a liquor never brewed," p. 2
"Safe in their alabaster chambers," p. 3
"I heard a fly buzz when I died," p. 21
"It was not death, for I stood up," p. 22
"A bird came down the walk," p. 13
"I like to see it lap the miles," p. 27
"Pain has an element of blank," p. 31
"A narrow fellow in the grass," p. 44
"I'm nobody! Who are you?" p. 9
"After great pain a formal feeling comes" (handout)
"The soul selects her own society" (handout)
"The heart asks pleasure first," p. 24
"I'll tell you how the sun rose," p. 11
"Presentiment is that long shadow on the lawn," p. 36
"Success is counted sweetest" (handout)
"I cannot live with you," p. 29
"He fumbles at your spirit," p. 11
"I felt a cleaving in my mind," p. 43
"My life closed twice before its close," p. 49
"Wild nights! Wild nights!" p.5
"She sweeps with many-colored brooms," p. 3
"Hope is the thing with feathers," p. 5
"I felt a funeral in my brain," p. 8
"I had been hungry all the years," p. 26
"I started Early--took my Dog--" (handout)
"My life had stood a loaded gun" (handout)
"Because I could not stop for Death," p. 35
"If you were coming in the fall," p. 23
**Supplemental Reading**
      Sample Midtern and Student Answers

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