|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,
We passed the school, where children strove
Or rather, he passed us;
We paused before a house that seemed
Since then 'tis centuries, and yet each
|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?
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.