Because I could not stop for death
Meditation on Emily Dickinson’s poems
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 labour, and my leisure too, For his civility. We passed the school where children played At wrestling in a ring; We passed the fields of gazing grain, We passed the setting sun. We paused before a house that seemed A swelling of the ground; The roof was scarecely visible, The cornice but a mound. Since then ’tis centuries; but each Feels shorter than the day I first surmised the horses’ heads Were toward eternity.
IF NOTHING else, Emily Dickinson had a picturesque imagination, particularly in visualising herself attending funerals, witnessing death scenes or visualising being part of the actual dying. This poem, with the oft-quoted opening line, “Because I could not stop for death”, is a memorable example of the death process.
Another example is the poem, “I died for beauty”, which described herself as already dead, inside a tomb, holding a conversation with another corpse. Although the idea of corpses talking seems morbid on first thought, yet the scene was lively (a visual irony) and familiar:
And so, as kinsmen met a night We talked between the rooms, Until the moss had reached our lips And covered up our names.
It would be impossible for anyone, after reading the poem, to look at moss-covered tombstones indifferently. Dickinson’s lucent lines, with their “certain slant of light”, have planted such a strong perceptual suggestion that the reader could not help but see, in her mind’s eye, the dead under the earth holding shrouded conversations on beauty, truth and higher things. Such is the peril of reading Emily Dickinson and other poets of power.
“Because I could not stop for death” describes the dying process as a pleasant drive in a carriage, much like the afternoon trips of the genteel folks of 19th-Century New England. Death is outside of me, a separate entity, a civil gentleman, waiting politely for me to join him in the carriage. I don’t really die; I go on a long drive with a nice couple – Death and Immortality.
Death takes his time, “he knew no haste”, in contrast to me who had been too belaboured to stop for him. So, on this trip,
I had put away / my labour, and leisure too, / For his civility.
The trip brings memory scenes of children playing in school, older teenage years wrestling in a ring, working in the harvest field as an adult, and finally the autumn days of setting sun. In this one stanza, the poet describes an entire lifespan in the rural community.
Now the carriage pauses before a house, that looks no more than a swelling of the ground, a grave mound, that must have housed my earthly remains. And so Death drives on – the trip is pleasant enough and I hardly notice the time, where centuries feel shorter than the day I first realised that the horses were heading towards eternity.
The poem is rich in ironic imagery and paradoxical juxtapositions. The narrator takes part in the death process but is pictured as someone who is lively (too busy to die, so death has to wait for her), with sharp powers of observation and comments. Death drives the carriage but the narrator’s companion is Immortality, life without end.
Death directs the journey but the destination is Infinity, not, as it were, a “dead end” (pardon the pun). The trip is a metaphor of dying but nobody is dead – the narrator's observations are all of lively people. So, who is doing the dying? The short answer is, nobody.
The narrator is merely departing for a new, pleasanter and more permanent location. Judging from the confident, reportorial tone, she did embark on a journey with her two companions. Perhaps she did not die but merely underwent a psychological or mystical experience and returned to report about it.
Each reader takes what she can from this densely-layered poem. My perception is that the narrator went through a near-death experience in the midst of a busy, productive life. The poem is her insight, or rather a "second sight" into that experience which we are privileged to share. It is difficult to write a verbatim description; hence her metaphorical report.
For Emily Dickinson, the sentiment of death is never maudlin. There is respect, familiarity, even a touch of restrained humour, but no weepy, moralistic scenes, no schoolboy call to duty and sacrifice, and no excess of grief. In another, succinct poem, she reports,
The last night that she lived, It was a common night, Except the dying; this to us Made nature different. We noticed smallest things Things overlooked before, By this great light upon our minds, Italicized, as ’twere...
Dying gives an emphasis (italicized, as it were) and a mental clarity (this great light) to the little things that are overlooked – taken for granted – when one is alive and well, but which assume a certain importance when one lies dying. And, when the dying person, like a bent reed, is finally dead,
...we placed the hair, And drew the head erect And then an awful leisure was, Our faith to regulate.
(“awful leisure” implies that, now the person is dead, we are free of the burden of caring for her, we have leisure although it is of an awful kind, something we do not really like; and we got to “regulate” it as best as we could.)
A modern-day poet sums up Emily Dickinson thus:
She never saw a moor She never saw the sea But from the hilltop of her heart She scans infinity.
This was in response to her description of her own life situation:
I never saw a moor I never saw the sea; Yet know I how the heather looks, And what a wave must be. I never spoke with God Nor visited in heaven; Yet certain am I of the spot As if the chart were given.
– Francis Chin, April 14, 1999