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Analysis by Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
The Poem Annotations
Because I could not stop for Death, cckc: alliteration; Death, He: personification/metaphor He kindly stopped for me; e,y: end rhyme The carriage held but just ourselves el and el:internal rhyme And Immortality. Immortality: This word rhymes with civility in Stanza 2, Line 4 . . We slowly drove, heknew no haste, e:internal rhyme; kn, n: alliteration And I had put away hhhh:alliteration My labor, and my leisure too, lll:alliteration For his civility. civility: politeness, courtesy . . We passed the school, where children strove We passed: The repetition of these words at the beginning of At recess, in the ring; of three lines constitutes anaphora. rr:alliteration We passed the fields of gazing grain, school, fields, setting sun: symbols. School is the morning of We passed the setting sun. life, childhood; fields, midday of life, the working years; setting . sun, the evening of life, dying. gazing: ripe . . Or rather, he passed us; he passed: personification of sun The dews grew quivering and chill, ew: internal rhyme. gossamer gown: wedding dress for For only gossamer my gown, marrying death; gg: alliteration. tippet: scarf for neck and My tippet only tulle. shoulders; tulle: netting. tt: alliteration. . . We paused before a house that seemed house: her tomb, where she will "reside" during eternity A swelling of the ground; ss: alliteration with an "s" sound The roof was scarcely visible, ss: alliteration with a "z" sound The cornice but a mound. cornice: horizontal molding along top of a wall . . Since then 'tis centuries, and yet each 'tis centuries: centuries have passed since her death Feels shorter than the day shorter than the day: paradox in which a century is shorter I first surmised the horses' heads than a day Were toward eternity. hh: alliteration
Narrator: She is a woman who calmly accepts death. In fact, she seems to welcome death as a suitor who she plans "marry."
Death: The suitor who comes calling for the narrator to escort her to eternity.
Immortality: A passenger in the carriage.
Children: Boys and girls at play in a schoolyard. They symbolize early life.
Each of the six stanzas has four lines. A four-line stanza is called a quatrain.
In each stanza, the first line has eight syllables (four feet); the second, six syllables (three feet); the third, eight syllables (four feet); and the fourth, six syllables (three feet). In each line (whether eight or six syllables), the first syllable is unstressed, the second is stressed, the third is unstressed, the fourth is stressed, and so on. Thus, the first and third lines of each stanza are in iambic tetrameter, and the second and fourth lines are in iambic trimeter. (If you need detailed information on meter, click here.) The following example demonstrates the metric scheme of the first two lines of Stanza 1. The unstressed syllables are in red; the stressed are in blue capital. Over each pair of syllables is a number representing the foot. Also, a black line separates the feet.
Be CAUSE..|..I COULD..|..not STOP..|..for DEATH,
He KIND..|..ly STOPPED..|..for ME;
Allen Tate (1899-1979)–a distinguished American poet, teacher, and critic–observed that "Because I Could Not Stop for Death" is an extraordinary poem. In fact, he said, it deserves to be regarded as "one of the greatest in the English language; it is flawless to the last detail–Quoted in Brown, Clarence A., and John T. Flanagan, eds. American Literature: a College Survey. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1961, Page 436.
.......“Because I Could Not Stop for Death” reveals Emily Dickinson’s calm acceptance of death. It is surprising that she presents the experience as being no more frightening than receiving a gentleman caller–in this case, her fiancé.
.......The journey to the grave begins in Stanza 1, when Death comes calling in a carriage in which Immortality is also a passenger. As the trip continues in Stanza 2, the carriage trundles along at an easy, unhurried pace, perhaps suggesting that death has arrived in the form of a disease or debility that takes its time to kill. Then, in Stanza 3, the author appears to review the stages of her life: childhood (the recess scene), maturity (the ripe, hence, “gazing” grain), and the descent into death (the setting sun)–as she passes to the other side. There, she experiences a chill because she is not warmly dressed. In fact, her garments are more appropriate for a wedding, representing a new beginning, than for a funeral, representing an end.
.......Her description of the grave as her “house” indicates how comfortable she feels about death. There after centuries pass, so pleasant is her new life that time seems to stand still, feeling “shorter than a Day.”
.......The overall theme of the poem seems to be that death is not to be feared since it is a natural part of the endless cycle of nature. Her view of death may also reflect her personality and religious beliefs. On the one hand, as a spinster, she was somewhat reclusive and introspective, tending to dwell on loneliness and death. On the other hand, as a Christian and a Bible reader, she was optimistic about her ultimate fate and appeared to see death as a friend.
An existential poem