Emily Dickinson did not give her poems names, but this one has been named for its first line, “Because I could not stop for death”.
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 –
Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886) published virtually none of her poems during her lifetime. This one appeared after her death in her Poems, Series 1 of 1890. It was originally named The Chariot by her editors.
Emily Dickinson was plagued by ill health for much of her adult life and lived reclusively. Death must often have seemed close. In this poem Death is personified as a gentleman caller, travelling in a carriage with the poet to her grave. Death is linked in the carriage with Immortality – death is certain, but immortality is a hope for any Christian, and therefore the poem ends only with the heads of the horses turned in the direction of eternity, but not guaranteed to get there.
The tone of the poem is a very calm one. The speaker does not fear death and speaks as if this is an ordinary carriage ride. Death simply appears to be part of the natural cycle, just one stage on a journey we must all take. In 1936 critic Allen Tate wrote of this poem: It “exemplifies better than anything else [Dickinson] wrote the special quality of her mind … If the word great means anything in poetry, this poem is one of the greatest in the English language; it is flawless to the last detail. The rhythm charges with movement the pattern of suspended action back of the poem. Every image is precise and, moreover, not merely beautiful, but inextricably fused with the central idea. Every image extends and intensifies every other … No poet could have invented the elements of [this poem]; only a great poet could have used them so perfectly. Miss Dickinson was a deep mind writing from a deep culture, and when she came to poetry, she came infallibly.”
The poem has been set to music by Aaron Copland in his song cycle of Dickinson’s poems, and also by John Adams in a choral symphony.
Here are two versions of the poem for you to listen to. I must admit I prefer to hear it read by a woman, as it was written by a woman, but decide for yourselves which reading you like best – and then let me know!
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