Because I Could Not Stop for Death by Emily Dickinson: Summary and Critical Analysis

Because I Could Not Stop for Death is one of the most admired poems of Emily Dickinson. The greatest charm of the poem is in its ambiguity and the elusive nature of the heart of the meaning of the poem. The poem inspires more doubts than can be answered and therefore lends itself to multiple interpretations. The poem is indeed a challenge to the critical insights of the reader. Because of its multiple layers of its significance and the scope, the poem offers for further exploration of newer layers of meaning, it has attracted a good number of great critics.

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

The speaker of the poem Because I Could Not Stop for Death by Emily Dickinson is a girl whose marriage proposal has been confirmed. Her fiancé (the boy fixed for the marriage) is dead. She and her fiancé are going out for a ride in a cart pulled by a horse. First, she describes the scenery on the journey and then expresses her idea that she had not yet started her real and married life but the life of eternity. The idea is that this life is only a wait before an everlasting life begins: according to Christianity, good people will live forever in heaven after dying from this life. But, since Dickinson says that she is in love with death, the idea is rather complicated. In simple words, we may say that this poem is a poem of 'suicidal feelings'.

In a bold and striking fashion, Emily Dickinson personifies death as a lover, kind and civil who stops at the house of his beloved to give her a courteous ride. The carriage has three characters, life represented by the beloved, Death and his inevitable companion, Immortality. The carriage drives forward its journey is a journey from life to death and ultimately to eternity. The hectic life and its setting in time and space, symbolized by the school children playing in the ring: the fields of gazing grain and the setting sun are left behind (presumably to the living), as the carriage moves forward. In the next phase of the journey, the carriage pauses before the house of death symbolized by the 'swelling of the ground' (grave). The last stanza speaks of eternity towards which the horse's heads have turned. Thus the three characters in the carriage. Life, Death and Immortality are represented by the three phrases of their journey presented in the structure of the poem.

The poem 'Because I could not Stop for Death' deals with the poet’s desire to leave her physical life in this world and begin the eternal spiritual life of the soul. For this, the speaker of the poem assumed Death as her fiancé. She has been engaged to death, and she is impatiently waiting for uniting with him, so as to begin her endless life. On the way to death, the speaker realized that her life before marriage (or death) is temporary, and the real life will only begin after that; in the eternal journey of the soul. She feels eager and impatient like a bride before marriage to access the path of the eternal journey of death.

The poem is a narrative one. It ends with the narrator’s commentary about waiting, or life. The journey (or drive) she made with her partner Death is an allegory of life. The carriage held the narrator and Death, and also immortality. This means that she is living a life (journey) with the certainty of death and also an immortal soul in her. She brings both of them along with her. After death, the married life would begin and extend to eternity. The short journey has parts: early, they passed a school which symbolizes childhood; then they went past a field which must stand for work, maturity and necessity; then they came to a grave with the setting of the sun. The grave reminds the narrators of her own marriage with death. The grave is a “Swelling of the Ground” under which must be a room for the body to rest. The surface looked like a roof to the house of the dead. There they paused for a while. The narrator realized the reality of this short life journey. Since then, it has been like a century of waiting for the right moment. She wants the wedding with Death very soon. She wants to live the life after that. Her gown and clothes are ready and she has put aside her labor as well as leisure. She is not willing to go on with the busy and the meaningless humdrum of this life.

The first line, which also makes the title now, is an odd one. The speaker, like any human being, cannot wait death on her choice. That is the fact and quite true, so we live until death waits for us. Life is a short span of time that death allows. As Dickinson would say, the real life will begin after death. The horse is time that pulls the narrator and her companions. That is “turned toward Eternity’. This means time is of two types: the time of our temporary life on earth and the eternal time of the soul. All this is rather religious and not agreeable to all people. Besides, the whole idea is rather pessimistic even to a devout religious person. But the poem is remarkable is its style and metaphor.

The style and form of the poem is also unique. The capital letters mark the emphasis to be given in words. The pauses also mark special emphasis and tones where demanded. The technique is Dickinson’s original technique. There are also strange phrases like “Gazing Grain.” This is a personification of the grain and the projection of human emotion into it. The poem is unique for both its style and its treatment of love and death as the same.

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Sharma, K.N. "Because I Could Not Stop for Death by Emily Dickinson: Summary and Critical Analysis." BachelorandMaster, 9 Nov. 2013,