By Ian Fletcher
Before I start my humble analysis, here is the poem to refresh the memories of those who know it and to introduce it to those who haven’t read this masterpiece of nineteenth century poetry:
Because I could not stop for death
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
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 –
Death in Western culture and literature was traditionally personified as ‘the Grim Reaper.’ ‘Grim’ means somber (unhappy) or gloomy and also fierce (violent): all negative meanings. A ‘reaper’ is someone who cuts a crop with a scythe and gathers / harvests it. The Grim Reaper is therefore gathering people in the terrible process of death. This personification of death is a frightening figure to be feared and avoided for as long as possible. However, he cannot be avoided forever and eventually comes to collect everyone, whoever they are. Therefore ‘Death’ when mentioned in literature is generally to be feared and his / its approach is dreaded.
At the beginning of Dickinson’s poem we may believe, in accordance with our traditions and cultural preconceptions, that she shares this view. The first line, “Because I could not stop for Death-” might suggest that the poet is busy living her life and death’s arrival would not be convenient. Who would “stop for death”? – stop living in order to die?
Yet, the line is in the past tense (“I could not stop”), so already we can sense something unusual. The poet must be writing either as a dying or dead person whose normal life Death has interrupted. Perhaps she cannot stop in the sense she has no control over her life/destiny and is just doing rather meaningless activities in her life automatically. Or, she is just too busy to bother to think about death. (Here we have two senses of ‘stop’: ceasing of an activity and stopping moving.)
The next line comes as a surprise:
“He kindly stopped for me”.
The capitalized “Death” is a personification because the poet uses the personal pronoun “He” to refer back to the abstract noun, which usually is “it”. Death is also, apparently, not the frightening “Grim Reaper” because he “kindly” stopped for the poet (if we assume the speaker of the poem to be the poet Emily Dickinson or her idea of her dead self). We may note that there is a level of irony here in that Dickinson plays on our traditional fear of death’s arrival, so “kindly” has an ironical tone in that it implies its opposite “unkindly” (the kind of irony used when people say “Oh, great!” when something bad has actually happened).
The Grim Reaper carries a scythe to kill the person but this personification of Death stops for the poet in a “Carriage,” presumably for a smooth transition – journey – to everlasting life (“Immortality”). So, Death is both personified and is also a metaphorical journey to an afterlife, we can assume at the end of the first stanza. He is a carrier, a transporter of souls.
Carriages were used by wealthy people in the nineteenth century to travel. If Death is the driver this means he is honoring the poet by giving her a luxury ride and treating her well. Nevertheless, the carriage also reminds us of a funeral hearse which were also horse-drawn carriages in the nineteenth century, so there are morbid and ambiguous overtones despite Dickinson’s transformation of the vehicle.
But is Death driving? Carriages were pulled (‘drawn’) by horses that were controlled by a driver at the front of the carriage. The inside of the carriage would hold the passengers. We now hear of another entity, “Immortality”, also in the carriage. This abstract noun, which means ‘living forever,’ is apparently personified as a kind of supernatural being. “The Carriage held but just Ourselves – / And Immortality.” “Ourselves” would be Death and the now dead poet, so there are either three in the carriage, or two with Death driving. Or possibly Death, Immortality and the poet are in the carriage and the horses are driving themselves, this being a supernatural vehicle.
Horses are an assumption at this point, supplied by our imaginations and preconceptions, both of which Dickinson plays upon in the poem. We only know for sure that there are horses – and more than one – from later in the poem (line 23). Immortality on the other hand might be conceived as a kind of essence, ambience or prospect that the Carriage and the event of being collected by Death entails.
The next (second) stanza describes the beginning of their journey. Presumably we might say Death is the driver now. “We” “drove” still doesn’t clearly state that ‘Death drove me’ but describes the action of the vehicle moving, the “We” being Death, Immortality and the poet – or rather her spirit. It also suggests the conscious participation of the dead poet in the journey – she is no inert corpse in a hearse, therefore.
They are driving “slowly” because Death knows “no haste”. Perhaps the activity of life, where the poet could not stop, always hurrying to do daily activities, is now no longer necessary, as a longer idea of time has taken over with a completely different tempo, rhythm, dimension and significance. The poet says “And” she had “put away / My labor and my leisure too.” Her earthly life’s work (“labor”) and free time (“leisure”) are of course no longer important because she is dead (or transformed), and it is significant that they with the ‘haste’ in the same stanza, are the only non-capitalized nouns in the whole poem, to which we can add the non-capitalized “me” the poet uses to refer to herself – Death is “He / His” and the Setting Sun “He.”
But what does the “And” mean? At first it appears as the merely listing conjunction, but the stanza seems to weight the word with more meaning and import than this. The “And” may contribute to the meaning of the going slowly in the sense “in addition to” (‘and’ in the sense of describing a logical consequence): she (like Death) also has no need of “haste” now that she has no tasks to do or activities.
The putting away of the “labor and leisure” are also linked to the following line “For his Civility.” She relinquishes her worldly actions and concerns because of (‘for’ is a formal word for ‘because of’) the politeness and courtesy (“Civility”) of Death. Death appears now as a kind of gentlemen in his treatment of the “lady” poet. There may even be a kind of sexual / romantic undercurrent here as Death the gentleman has wooed the poet and persuaded her to join him in his carriage, ‘sweeping her off her feet’ in the words of the old cliché. “And” therefore links to “Civility” and implies the poet chooses to go at the same pace as Death because she respects his kind treatment (as well as the previously mentioned idea she no longer needs to go at a fast pace as her time on earth has finished).
On a darker note could there be some simultaneous irony operating in the stanza? If the poet had been a woman of faith would she not have been so worldly with her “labor and leisure” (not “put away” before His arrival) that Death interrupts? This irony may be akin to the sinister irony of Marvell’s “The grave’s a fine and private place”. If this is an ironical undercurrent it is a very subtle and barely perceptible one. “Civility” is also a very formal, even cold word, and suggests the kind of politeness we would associate with Count Dracula welcoming Jonathan Harker to his castle in Transylvannia – politeness with a sense of menace.
So now the poet, Death and Immortality are in the carriage and are driving, but where to? The third stanza mentions three locations they pass on their journey: a school with children playing at break time (“Recess”), the countryside’s grain fields and the setting sun. There is no indication of what the carriage is travelling on – or in. Are we on a road looking across at these features, or in the air looking down?
The vagueness has a dreamy quality, but my mind follows the view from the carriage as an aerial one, from above but not too high because we still need to see the children and the grain. However the “Setting Sun” might take us into space as in a dream transition. The whole movement at first glance suggests a moving away from the smaller details of earthly life (human activity, nature and the actual star of the sun) to wider space or even a new dimension. The choice of children as the first thing seen on the journey may also suggest a “flashback” to the poet’s course from early life to death, the beginning of life to the end of life – and beyond.
Let’s look at these parts of the journey in more detail and examine their possible significance. What kind of school is it? The poet uses the word “Children” rather than ‘pupils’ or ‘students’ which emphasizes youth. They are at “Recess” and are in a “Ring.” What is the “Ring”? We are forced to focus on this word: it ends a line, it is capitalized and it is isolated between two slashes (Dickinson’s eccentric punctuation) in the phrase
“– in the Ring –”.
It may be the playground built as a circle but not all playgrounds are like this, some being squares. Maybe the children are playing together in a ring, a circle of children with linked hands. But the poet uses the word “strove” not ‘played’, which seems odd. ‘To strive’ means ‘to try very hard to do or get something’ which doesn’t seem, at first, to tie in with children playing at recess. However, perhaps the children are playing some kind of competitive game, or just playing hard. Possibly we can link the verb to the noun “labor” (hard work) in the previous stanza as suggesting the struggle of daily life on earth, which the poet is now free or freed from.
There could even be here a deep allusion to the children’s playground song “Ring a ring a roses” – quite possible, even probable, with a poet of Dickinson’s greatness – in which the children dance around in a ring and then all fall down:
Two versions of this song are:
“Ring-a-ring o’ roses,
A pocket full of posies,
We all fall down!”
Ring-a-round a rosie,
A pocket full of posies,
We all fall down.
This song has a hidden traditional meaning (unknown to most children singers and adults). It is believed that the song developed in the seventeenth century as a response to the terrible disease, known as “the Plague” that swept through Europe killing millions of people.
Of course the European immigrants to America would have known about this song and brought it with them to the American colonies. In the seventeenth century many people in cities like London and all through the English countryside died a horrible death from the Plague. One of the symptoms of the Plague was a rose-like rash on the skin. People believed that a ‘posie’ of herbs would protect them from catching the disease.
Another symptom of the disease was sneezing. When someone sneezed at the time of the Plague it was a sign they may have caught the disease and were going to die. “A-tishoo” is the sound of sneezing written in English, and the “We all fall down” means therefore ‘we all die’. In the other version, “Ashes! Ashes!” seems to refer to the Biblical reference to the body in death which becomes like the earth or burnt wood, as in the Christian burial prayer: “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust” based on the Bible:
“Dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return” (Genesis 3:19), and “I will bring thee to ashes upon the earth in the sight of all them that behold thee” (Ezekiel 28:18).
The Plague was also known as ‘The Black Death’ so maybe here in the poem there is a sinister hidden allusion to the traditional idea of death as the Grim Reaper.
This possibility could be confirmed by the next thing we see on the poet’s journey. They “passed the Fields of Gazing Grain”. “Gazing Grain,” like the word “Ring” catches our attention at the end of its line in the poem, and its force is strengthened by the sound of the words which have both alliteration (Gazing Grain) and assonance (Gazing Grain), plus repeated extra “g” at the end of “gazing” and the “n” in both words. Here we have another example of personification to add to “Death” and “Immortality.”
Dickinson describes the grain as “Gazing”. Why? To gaze means to look steadily at something. What would the “Grain” be staring at? It may be the sun which is over the fields (though the poem doesn’t mention that it is a sunny day). Or could it be that the grain is gazing at the carriage as it passes? Remember that Death is traditionally personified as the Grim Reaper. So, here, is the material of his reaping: reapers reap crops like grain. The grain is personified, so could it be that the grain is symbolic of masses of people – humanity – waiting to be reaped or destroyed by death? At a stretch the “Grain” may be the people at a funeral watching a hearse (the poet’s) pass by.
In addition, a poet looking at innocent children playing is a feature of Romantic and pre-Romantic reflections on death and doom. Dickinson would have been well versed in such poetry. Here is Thomas Gray on children playing in his “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College”:
Alas, regardless of their doom,
The little victims play!
No sense have they of ills to come,
Nor care beyond to-day
Yet see how all around ’em wait
The ministers of human fate,
And black Misfortune’s baleful train!
He also looks at the fields and reflects:
Ah, happy hills, ah, pleasing shade,
Ah, fields belov’d in vain,
Where once my careless childhood stray’d,
A stranger yet to pain!
Of course Dickinson is a far more subtle poet than Gray but her lines have depths that seem to contain the tenor of his sentiments
Therefore, the third stanza seems to have some deep – almost subliminal (functioning below the level of consciousness until we examine the lines more closely) – dark allusions, that are not immediately apparent on the superficial level of seeing happy children playing and a pleasing rural farmland landscape.
Nevertheless, the grain may, on one level, also be gazing out of simple curiosity or wonder at the supernatural carriage, and this is a possibility that softens the impact of the concealed allusion to the Grim Reaper. The grain, coming after the playing children, may even be thought of as childlike in that it gazes perhaps in innocent fascination like children do.
The final line of the second stanza is:
“We passed the Setting Sun”
Taken in isolation and up to this point we might logically assume that now the carriage is zooming off into space beyond the earth and sunset. However, Dickinson seems to be disorientating us (again) because of the information we discover in the first line of the fourth stanza:
“Or rather – He passed Us –”
The “He” pronoun was previously used for “Death” and initially we might think the poet is repeating the reference back to the noun of the personified Death. But Death, if He is the driver, would be ‘passing’ “Us” (who would be the dead poet and Immortality) actively as in passing another vehicle, but this seems an awkward interpretation and stretches the meaning of the word ‘pass’.
Here, it seems, we have another (the fourth) personification – the Setting Sun. The sun passes the travelers in the carriage (who are thus Death, the dead poet and Immortality). This is supported by the earlier information in line 5 “We slowly drove”. So, what does “We passed” mean if the poet has to rephrase it as “He passed Us”?
It seems that the spatial and the temporal are mixed here. Passing the setting sun can be geographical, but here if they pass the setting sun it suggests that they are passing through day time into night: the setting sun passes them spatially (in space) and they pass the setting sun temporally (in time). Indeed, this seems to be the case when we read the next line:
“The Dews drew quivering and chill –”
Dew forms on objects like grass and leaves. It is water in the form of droplets that appears on thin, exposed objects in the morning or evening. As the sun is setting, or the setting sun passes them, we can assume that this is the dew of night. Night is also associated with Death in poetry (compare Dylan Thomas’ later poem “Do not go gently into that good night”) and the previous images of the day, the school and the gazing grain, are now replaced by a nightscape.
The dew is “quivering and chill”. The poet is cold and coldness is associated with Death and also when ghosts are present. The poet is a ghost now, presumably, but she still seems to have bodily experiences. Is this a transition stage from mortality to immortality? The poet is not dressed to bear the cold:
“For only Gossamer my Gown –
My Tippet only Tulle –”
Gossamer is both a material to make clothes and the name for the material of a spider’s web. Dew also collects on spiders’ webs, so the poet may be “dressed” in some natural-supernatural material, if it can be material at all in the context! Perhaps the objects with the dew are “quivering” (to shake with a slight but rapid motion, tremble) because of the weight of the dew and by transference we can think of the poet shivering with the cold.
The poet now appears vulnerable and uncomfortable. She is certainly not experiencing the joys of Heaven – at least not yet. So, the carriage has moved slowly from the day into the chilliness of night. Yet again, however, the personification of the Setting Sun softens the coldness of the description and we can think that with the Gazing Grain nature is given a human-like warmth through this anthropomorphism (giving human characteristics to nonhuman things).
However, given the allusive undercurrents previously discussed, could there be a more sinister resonance in the “Gossamer” of the “Gown”? A gown enfolds someone. It clothes the dead poet or her spirit as the fabric but in conjunction with the “Dew” we can think of the natural gossamer too as part of this nightscape. Gossamer in nature is the material of a spider’s web. In that case the poet is inside a web. Spiders use webs to trap their prey and consume them. Is Death the spider and is the poet being in one sense consumed by Death and Immortality? Has she left the world of life and become entangled in the web of Death?
This is probably an exaggeration but Dickinson’s use of language and imagery can trigger such associations and trains of thought. Her “Tippet” is “only” “Tulle.” A tippet is a scarf-like piece of clothing women used to wear over their shoulders. Tulle is a lightweight, fine netting used in making garments. The garment and its material would not keep out the cold (“only Tulle”), so this suggests the poet is uncomfortable and unprepared for this trip, even that she has been abducted (though, paradoxically, with “Civility”).
The stanza also marks the transition from day to night in the poem and death is traditionally associated with night and darkness and the ‘putting out of the light’ of life. Has the poet now entered eternal night or an immortal twilight realm? In addition coldness is associated in tradition with the presence of ghosts, and the poet is of course herself a ghost. All this is a possible creepy undercurrent to the tripping, ‘light’ meter of lines like “My Tippet only Tulle.”
The fifth stanza begins by stating that the travelers “paused” before a “House.” The movement has stopped and the imagination would naturally picture a carriage in front of a rather genteel nineteenth century house, perhaps a country house. However, again Dickinson disorientates us and makes us rethink and then reject our expectations with a surprising revelation that nevertheless has to be inferred by close reading and working out from the information presented, about the nature of this “House”.
Houses are usually large structures much taller than carriages or people, but this one, oddly (at first) “seemed / A Swelling of the Ground –.” A swelling is an enlargement of a surface, usually because of some medical condition or an accident such as bumping hard into something causing the skin the swell on the area of impact. It can also refer to unusually enlarged features of nature such as a high sea. It seems, at first glance, to have the more neutral meaning here. However, there is some disorientation or discomfort in our morbid discovery about the nature of this “House”, and ‘swellings’ as a result of injury and impact can be morbid, and this idea may be lurking in the background.
The House’s roof is “scarcely visible”. Why? Is it an ancient house almost buried over the centuries? Then we read that its “Cornice” is, seemingly illogically, “in the Ground”.
A cornice is: (from the Italian cornice meaning “ledge”) generally any horizontal decorative molding that crowns a building. This “House” if we think about it is not a house at all, but a grave. The poet is using “House” as a metaphor. The swelling may be the raised earth of the grave – the poet would actually be buried a few feet underground.
The cornice is therefore not the decorative part of a roof but the decorative part of the grave: the gravestone with the inscription of the dead person’s name on it. We can imagine the whole ‘house’ to be largely underground, therefore, with the poet’s coffin and body a few feet below the ‘cornice’ which is in fact the gravestone.
Thr transition from an expected image of a house to that of a grave is another twist in the poem, from a house – the home of the living – to a grave the ‘home’ of the dead.
This can be taken two ways. Firstly as an eerie image that adds to the cold, chill world that we experience after the Setting Sun has passed the travelers. Or conversely, the house may be a more “homely” image of the grave as a resting place of comfort. The image operates on both levels, I believe, making our responses complicated and even contradictory, yet capturing a complex range of emotions associated with death. The repetition of “the Ground” in the stanza at the end of lines instead of the poet choosing a rhyme (as in Ground / Sound”) suggests strongly the fact that the poet (or her body) is “in the Ground” too, the stanza ending with the finality of the idea of death causing people to be “in the Ground.”
This gloomy idea is countered by the final stanza, and also by the fact that the poet’s spirit (in the Carriage) is observing her body’s resting place “in the Ground.” She has survived and transcended physical death. The final stanza makes a great leap forward in time:
“Since then – ‘tis Centuries –”
The time, in contrast to the slow progress of the carriage in the previous stanzas, has however gone quickly:
“Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity –”
The “Day” would be the day of the journey of the carriage (which includes the night after the setting sun), but now “Centuries” seem shorter. We now first hear that the carriage has horses pulling it. These supernatural horses have taken the poet to “Eternity” – an immortal state after death and it also means endless time.
Centuries would be like seconds in such time and the view back over time to the carriage’s journey is from another dimension and a totally different time frame (if it can be understood as time as we know it). In the carriage the poet had guessed (“surmised”) it was going to “Eternity” and this would be supported by the “kindly” personification of Death and the fellow-traveler “Immortality.”
The final lines confirm the comforting ideas of the first stanza. The perspective of the final stanza is of time, not space: “then”, “Centuries”, “shorter”, “Day”. We are not given a description of any details of the poet’s location but we know that it is ‘another world’, a transcendent dimension, where she can nevertheless recall her earthly existence.
The poem was written about 150 years ago, so the “Centuries” that Dickinson describes as having elapsed would put the poem’s speaker in a time beyond the span of modern readers’ lifetimes! In a sense the poem is speaking from the future (if Eternity includes such a concept) not the past, which is yet another disorientation for the reader apparently reading a past narrative sequence.
On a simple, rather superficial, level the poem appears to be an optimistic and comforting account of the journey from death to an immortal afterlife. However, the effect of the poem, stanza by stanza can be disorientating. The first stanza seems to be introducing a negative idea (Death) but then turns it around to the positive (Death is kind). The second stanza carries on the more positive idea of Death, though possibly there is a hint of irony in the rather cold and formal “Civility.”
The third stanza has seemingly positive images of children and wheat which are yet undermined by the hidden allusions to Death as the Grim Reaper. The fourth stanza has the personified sun (presumably another positive figure like Death and Immortality) passing, but we are now in a cold world and there is the double meaning of “Gossamer” with possible dark undertones of entrapment.
The fifth stanza is disconcerting. A place of the living (the house) is introduced and then transposed into a place of the dead (the grave), though this may have a comforting element. The final stanza is again positive in tone but we are suddenly, perhaps shockingly, transported through time to look back on the now distant events of the journey.
The poem’s spatial and temporal perspectives are very varied and although the overall mood of the poem may be positive and optimistic, there seem to be darker elements – perhaps best described as subtones – working (lurking?) under the surface of the poem, and the very fact that it takes a panoramic view of life on the journey makes us reflect about our own mortality, the short time we have on earth, and that Death comes to everyone. Do we have the same attitude to Death as the poet seemingly has, and does the overall effect of the poem lead us in that direction? And if the poem is “optimistic” why is Death the caller, not an angel for example?
Whether, all the moods, attitudes and allusions in the poem are coherent in a logical sense is debatable. However, for me at least, what is not debatable is that this is a very powerful piece of writing. Like many great poems the poem seems finally to examine us with its inexhaustible suggestiveness more than we can examine or fully understand it, and seems to read us as much as we read it. There is much depth and much to reflect on in its 24 lines and mere 127 words!
Born and raised in Cardiff, Wales, Ian has an MA in English from Oxford University. He lives in Taiwan with his wife, two daughters and cat. He teaches English in a high school. He has had poems and short stories published in Tuck Magazine, The Ekphrastic Review, Literary Yard, 1947 A Literary Journal, Spillwords Press, Dead Snakes, Your One Phone Call, The Drabble, Schlock! Webzine, Short-story.me, Anotherealm, Under the Bed, A Story In 100 Words, Poems and Poetry, Friday Flash Fiction, and in various anthologies.