Brief Analysis of Emily Dickinson’s, “Because I could not stop for Death”

Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886) was born in Amherst, Massachusetts. After studying at the Amherst Academy for seven years in her youth, she briefly attended the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary before returning to her family’s house in Amherst. Dickinson never married, and most friendships between her and others depended entirely upon correspondence. For most of her life she lived as a recluse.

While Dickinson was a prolific poet, fewer than a dozen of her nearly 1,800 poems were published during her lifetime. Although her acquaintances were probably aware of her writing, it was not until after her death that her younger sister discovered Dickinson’s cache of poems. Today most experts consider Dickinson to be one of the greatest American poets. Here is probably her most well-known poem, followed by a brief analysis .

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 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 –

Analysis – In this poem, Dickinson speaks from beyond the grave about death—personified as a gentleman who picks her up in a carriage. They drive along slowly, as she ceases to work and views the world she is leaving behind. She grows cold as the dusk falls, and they stop at her burial-place, marked by a small headstone. In the final stanza, we learn that her ride with Death took place centuries ago, but seems to her as if it happened yesterday. When she took that ride with death she first realized that the horses and carriage were taking her to an afterlife.

Commentary – When reading this poem I visualize a deep and introspective woman imagining that she will find recompense for the loneliness of her life in a beautiful afterlife. This is touching, but the philosopher in me doubts any of this is true. Of course I could be wrong.

One thought on “Brief Analysis of Emily Dickinson’s, “Because I could not stop for Death”

  1. I think you missed the direction of the poem from your commentary. I think you saw sweetness where there is only the force of a savage.

    The use of euphemism is prominent when talking of Death. I will just play along with it, please take no offense.

    Death took the time out to come and get her because she just wasn’t able to get to him. That is really sweet, isn’t it? He is kind, like cancer and alzheimer’s and aging in general. If you couldn’t break so gently, how would you ever be captive in this fine gentleman’s company for all time?

    He is slow, she is several centuries in but it seems not longer than his arrival, which was unmistakably kind. Kind and eternal indeed. Moving through centuries as if it was the house of the grave, towering from floor to ceiling, the same height as it is the stillness of the ride. Surely she is on her way to the beautiful afterlife you speak of, it just isn’t a moment long and it never stops.

    She enjoys the ride wet, quivering and chill, clothed in veritable nakedness and wrapped up in a scarf of veil. She is immortally insubstantial, neither in labor or leisure, time sweeps up centuries and for her has all the substance of His arrival (the only day that can be referenced here). Her afterlife has all the civility of Death, passing all sights upon sight of him. She is moving, in the eternal house of grave, her sight all of oblivion.

    I don’t think in a few more centuries he is going to let her go. I think she has arrived at eternity, and she is neither finding or seeking compensation for her own company. She has the company of Death afterall, and His civility keeps her from even experiencing her own company.

    It such a civil thing to say, because I could not stop for death he kindly stopped for me. Or savage if you see the helplessness of that plight.

    Anyway, that is a good poem. The total threat of all loss as quiet as civility is seen here. It would be easy to miss the big picture.

    I come back often because you have the only philosophy blog worth reading. This is a real treasure of clarity in a field where one must make it for oneself.

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