In her poem entitled “Because I could not Stop for Death,” Emily Dickinson uses poetic devices to convey the message that death and dying isn’t as simple as it appears. Many conventional patterns of poetry have been ignored throughout the writing, but the various styles that she uses are effective at communicating her ideas. But there are two styles that stand out as definitive. These are the phrases of reversal and the verbs of uncertainty. Both of these devices lead the reader to understand the confused state of mind in which the speaker finds herself. “We paused before a House that seemed / A Swelling of the Ground –“ (17-18, italics added). These lines offer the reader more questions than answers about what the “House.” No one knows if it was entered or if it wasn’t. But the reader could assume that the grave was looked at, but it wasn’t the final destination. There is also the question about whether the speaker in the poem was left in the “House,” during which the horses kept going along in their journey to an eternity while leaving her behind – though we don’t know if they have left her. The use of the word “seemed” indicates that the speaker in the poem doesn’t have any sense of what is actually going on. This is as if she is losing her spatial sense because she is dying. The following lines should also be noted: “Since then – ‘tis Centuries – and yet / Feels shorter than the Day / I first surmised the Horses’ Heads / Were toward Eternity –“ (21-24, italics added). These lines indicate that the speaker in the poem is assuming that the horses are going somewhere that there is no certainty to, (Johnson, 1997).
This confusion is further emphasized by the fact that she is continually changing her opinion about things. The following three examples give an idea about how she is unsure about what she is saying: (1) Because I could not stop for Death — / He kindly stopped for me – (1-2); (2) We passed the Setting Sun — / Or rather – He passed Us – (12-13); (3) Since then – ‘tis Centuries – and yet / Feels shorter than the Day (21-22, italics added). All of these three examples show a period of adjustment.
Near the beginning of the poem, it can be determined that the speaker is a naïve person. This is exemplified by the fact that she views Death as being a gentleman who is preparing her to come into his carriage, where they will go off to an unknown destination. The speaker didn’t even have the thought to dress warmly for the trip. She doesn’t have luggage and she isn’t wearing clothes appropriate for the type of weather that could be encountered on the trip.
The speaker also has a feeling of not being involved in something that is of this world, and it doesn’t conform to the rules of time, and this is obvious because time is usually irrelevant to anyone who is dead. While the Earth will keep rotating around the sun, her life is over.
It is because of qualities such as these that the poem is among the most “intriguing literary riddles of all time,” (Bernhard, 2000). Dickinson uses specific phrases to communicate what her ideas. For example, “a certain Slant of light” (258) indicates a forever change in people’s understanding of anything that is encountered. Dickinson certainly has a nature that is mischievous and she shows that in this work, where she plays with the meaning of each line and plays with the guidance of how she wants the reader to perceive the poem. Essentially, the first two lines of the poem are meant to create a tension and a sort of wordplay that is then followed up with the creative indulgences of various alternate scenarios and images that these first lines would suggest.
The entire poem seems to indicate several points of view between eternity and temporary, spiritual with corporal, and micro and macro views of life as we know it. She is clearly on a spiritual search, which is in contrast to what is expected of her. Ultimately, the poem boils down to the fact that Death is a gentleman who comes for the speaker of the poem to join him on the other side of life. This is showed in the first two lines of the poem: “Because I could not stop for Death — / He kindly stopped for me,” (1-2). It is interesting to note that people only stop doing one thing for death, and that is to stop living. The speaker in the poem would not stop for death. But death is not up to a person to decide. Every living thing on this planet eventually stops for death. The difference with the speaker is that she can’t recognize that Death has power over her life. Eventually, she reckons with an eternal or divinity within herself and then Death stops being an end. This suggests to the reader that dying is more of a state of mind, rather than an absolute outcome. This shows that the mind isn’t always capable of doing what is expected, but it is instead a very abstract thing.
The images of the “School,” “Gazing Grain and “Setting Sun” that are used in the third stanza are very sturdy representations of the “’three states of life.” This is in reference to the stages of a person’s career, where they are climbing the ladder of success. Also, the speaker considers her life to be in the present, past and future in a way that she has control over. This is a significant point in the break between the third and fourth stanzas.
The last stanza represents the reinforcement of life after death. Regardless of the speaker’s defiant attitude towards death, her carriage is going to an eternal place. Some form of the life force will go on, despite whether or not she wants it to. While time does not affect her, her existence will persist.
Dickinson, Emily, “Because I could not stop for Death—.” literature: A Pocket anthologyy. 5th
Edition. R.S. Gwynn, New York: Penguin Academics, 2010. 569. Print
Frank, Bernhard. “Dickinson’s ‘Because I could Not Stop for Death.’” Explicator 58 (2000): 82-83.
Johnson, Thomas H. readings on Emily Dickinson. Ed. Bruno Leone. San Diego: Greenhaven,