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Emily Dickinson: Because I Could Not Stop For Death

Emily Dickinson’s poetry is known for its philosophical but tragic touch. Death is one of the key elements in her works, which she treats in multiple perspectives. The poem Because I Could Not Stop For Death is based on the contrast between mortality and eternity, which are two dimensions of human existence. By choosing a dead person as the speaker, the poet raises questions of afterlife, which have always concerned people in all ages.

Although the theme of dying is a common one for Dickinson’s works, it should be noted that this poem gives a totally unique vision of death. The reason for that is the author’s use of personification device, which gives death truly human features. This approach helps both the speaker and the reader reconcile with Death because its true face is revealed. Traditionally, culture has frightening incarnation for death, which evokes fear and tension. However, because of Death’s calm presence and positive attitude, the heroine is not scared. She realizes perfectly that Death is just a mediator between the two worlds, that the carriage runs her to the next station called eternity.

It is also interesting that death and eternal life are always linked to each other:

The Carriage held but just Ourselves –

And Immortality ( Dickinson 3-4)

So, in fact, there is the third invisible guest in the carriage between two of them, who gives a totally new meaning to the travel. Immortality is also personified, though just briefly mentioned, it does not exactly have human traits but it feels like a guardian angel who keeps a human from being taken by Death forever and reminds them of the final destination. Yet, there is no clash between Death and Immortality because they appear to be two elements of the same eternity. In fact, when dying, the speaker stops dividing the world into polarities and realizes that each of its aspects are just part of universal laws, so a person needs to take these laws with gratitude. It is impossible to enjoy life for a person if existence is poisoned by terror of death. The speaker has warm feelings to death, though it does not feel that she is either sorry or happy about what is happening; her state can be best described by the word humility. She takes the inevitable and transforms from involvement to observation of life.

It is remarkable that Death is not only personified but he is also male, which apparently can add some shades of implication. Because he gives a ride to the speaker girl and shows her around being classy and elegant, this scene reminds of a date between a man and a woman. In fact, if death can be seen as a date, then the question arises if dying is a form of love. The poem makes one think about accepting death gracefully instead of fighting with it. The poet implies, through this truly gothic kind of romance, that there is no need to be afraid of death because if ones gives in, there is a chance to die gracefully and see the beauty of this transformation, just like one enjoys watching the season change in an endless circle.

There is one reason why the heroine is not especially desperate about dying: she believes that life is not as good as people think, while death is not as bad as it is thought of. She seems to finds her middle way on the road to wisdom and maturing. At the same time it is impossible to ignore the fact that Dickinson’s picture of reality is quite dark and does not have joy as its essential part. There is rather a feeling of being weird because people get tired of suffering. They cannot suffer any longer when it has consumed all their emotions, so indifference is quite a natural gray stage.

The second stanza gives an idea that when a person dies, his or her usual sense of time is erased:

We slowly drove – He knew no haste

And I had put away

My labor and my leisure too,

For His Civility (5-8).

Because the carriage is on its way to eternity, the resource of time is endless. This is why there is no need to hurry because they move beyond the time. Besides, haste is usually a mark of desires, while the heroine does not seem to have any desires any longer. On the contrary, she has left behind everything that was pleasant and unpleasant, and gave in Death. There is no haste because there are no goals or purposes to be run for. Eternity will last forever, so there is no need to speed up the travel for its sake.

The final stanza is intriguing because it reveals the truth about the speaker:

Since then – 'tis

Centuries – and yet

Feels shorter than the Day

I first surmised the Horses' Heads

Were toward Eternity –(21-24)

Thus, this passage reveals that the speaker is part of eternity now and that centuries have passed since the time of death. Yet, because she remembers this event as if it happened yesterday, it feels to be an important milestone of her existence. There are a lot of open questions, and it is not accidental that the author uses punctuation, namely a dash at the end, to reveal the idea of this open end. There is not even a hint about what has changed to the woman after she died, except her time perception. It is not clear whether it is better or worse now when she lives her afterlife, where she is, whether she is a bodiless soul or another form of life, and so on. The author prefers to leave these questions unanswered to make the themes of death and eternity remain mysterious, as no one will ever have an opportunity to find out the truth before meeting with death actually takes place.

Finally, it should be noted that the poem has several basic archetype symbols, which help the poet convey her idea and related her vision to previous cultural background. Thus, for instance, Death in the carriage reminds several figures from ancient mythology whose role was to bring a person from the world of living beings to the world of dead. For instance, it reminds of Greek mythology character Charon, who takes the people in his boat to the world of dead. Sunset is another symbol that is often used in literature and art to imply death, because it marks the end of the day, which is a little death. The traveler feels cold at this moment, which suggests that night is coming.

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In conclusion, it is worth saying that the themes of death and eternity are treated by the poet in parallel. Dickinson demonstrates that they are not opposites but rather two essential part of reality, which continue each other as a cycle of life changes. The picture drawn by the poet suggests that death should be taken gracefully as a good guest, and that there is no reason to be afraid because eternity is waiting. Yet, she leaves the question open about what kind of eternity is ahead and whether it is worth living or dying for.