Friday, June 13, 2008

Summary of "Because I Could Not Stop for Death"

This is the kind of poem that makes me hate poetry.

After reading this poem several times, I still had absolutely no idea what Dickinson was trying to communicate. All I gathered was that she was riding in a carriage, slowly, past a schoolyard, then through fields of grain, and eventually to a house that was buried up to it's roof. It was here in this house that she spent centuries, though it felt like less than a day.

So, after reading some interpretations of this poem, and a little bit about Emily Dickinson, I could grasp more of its meaning, but still not completely. Here's as much as I got:

I assume that Dickinson was beginning to be aware of her mortality at the time she wrote this. I imagine she's thinking that, when she gets old, she will still be working away, keeping busy, and not simply waiting to die, but Death will "kindly" come when it's time.

As Death arrives and takes her away, the carriage held "Ourselves"--she and Death--"And Immortality". Knowing that she attended a Seminary and was a devout Christian, I'm sure that this is a reflection of her faith. She recognizes that with Death, comes Immortality, so she has no reason to fear Death--but also no reason to seek it.

So, when Death arrives, she puts away her "labors" and "leisures"--the things of life--and gracefully goes without a struggle, on this new journey.

Now, I really don't know what she means when she describes Death taking her through the stages of life represented by the shool, the fields, and the setting sun. Is she seeing her own life pass before her eyes? Or is it a representation of her new immortal journey, with a new childhood, mid-life, and sunset?

And then why, if she's dead, is she getting cold? Maybe it's just a device for her to explain that she's wearing something like a wedding gown, indicating again that she's looking at death/immortality as a new life, rather than an end. (but then, if that's what she means, why doesn't she just say that?)

Then, finally she arrives at a house--a tomb? a sepulchre? (or is it a hobbit's hole?)--her final resting place. But this part I don't understand: Why is she then stuck in her grave for eternity if she's immortal? Why isn't her immortal soul off in a heaveny mansion, leaving her dead and useless body in the ground? Perhaps the specific doctrines of her faith would explain this? Maybe she is simply using the tomb::house metaphor to symbolize that she will be comfortable in her new existence--so comfortable that she didn't even notice when centuries have passed.

Now, while I'm sure that Emily Dickinson was trying to communicate something about accepting Death as an inevitable part of life, this communication is vague and limited by cramming these thoughts into a few lines of obscured language. If I have to try this hard to understand her message, perhaps the author has done a poor job of using language.


Because I Could Not Stop for Death
by Emily Dickinson

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.

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 –