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Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Poetry Study Aid: Emily Dickinson: Because I Could Not Stop For Death

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was an American poet who lived, for the most part, an introverted and solitary life. Dickinson was a productive closed-door poet: most of her poems were published posthumously, and critics now consider Dickinson to be a major American poet. Her poems mainly deal with themes of deathwpid-img_a0507099aa1h and immortality. The poem Because I could not stop for death is typical Emily Dickinson in its presentation of Death. Death is considered as positive, even desirable, feature of life as it brings immortality to the mortals. Contrary to the common perception of death as fearful and terrible, Emily Dickinson depicts death as a lover and a suitor that takes her to the land of eternity- a realm of timelessness- where she experiences ultimate bliss.
The poem Because I could not stop for Death is in the form of a monologue and the speaker, a woman , communes from beyond the grave, from the domain of Eternity.Each stanza of the poem can be considered to represent a particular aspect: the first stanza shows the arrival of Death as a suitor at the woman’s door; the second stanza describes the journey of the two lovers; the woman and Death accompanied by Immortality; the third stanza presents the sights  on their journey; the fourth stanza brings the realisation of death by the woman; in the fifth stanza  the lovers arrive at the house of death; and the sixth stanza is located at Eternity from where the woman speaks of her journey and the attainment of immortality.
The speaker can be presumed to be the poet herself in an imaginary situation.
Stanza I
Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.

1. Who is the speaker of the poem? Why could the speaker not stop for Death?
The speaker of the poem is a woman, presumably the poet herself in an imaginary situation. The poet could not stop for Death as she was too preoccupied with her worldly affairs.
Emily Dickinson personifies Death here. Personification is a figure of speech in which objects or ideas are endowed with human attributes.
2. What is the significance of the use of the word ‘ kindly’ in the context?
As the poet was immensely engrossed in the fret and fever of her life, she could not find time to stop for anything even for her need for love, or for her lover Death. Then Death, kindly and  caringly comes to her doorstep as a suitor and lover, like  a true gentleman. Death desires to take her for a jaunt in his carriage.
Death is caring and understanding. In spite of the poet’s inability to keep her appointment with Death, he kindly (caringly and with full understanding) arrives at her house to take her for a journey to his house.
Death is kindly in the sense that the journey with Death relieves her from the humdrum of her harsh  busy life.
3. What is the significance of Immortality in the carriage of Death?
While Death and the poet are on their journey, the Carriage carries Immortality also. Immortality is personified as a chaperon (A chaperone is someone who accompanies another person somewhere in order to make sure that they do not come to any harm.)
The presence of Immortality in the carriage of Death accentuates the theme of the poem. Death is always accompanied by Immortality, his constant companion. In a way the poet is suggesting that Immortality follows Death, that is, Death brings immortality to the ordinary mortals: and through immortality men and women master death.
Stanza II
We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labour, and my leisure too,
For his civility.

1. Who are the ‘We’ referred to in the extract? Explain: he knew no haste.
The ‘We’ referred to in the extract are the poet and Death, her suitor. They, along with Immortality, are in the carriage of Death on their way to the House of Death.
Death has arrived, like a gentleman lover, at the door step of the poet. The poet was too immersed in her routine life and the harried poet found the relaxed and smooth journey with Death a welcome relief . The poet appreciates Death’s suave and elegant nature of Death.
The picture of a Death as a charming elegant gentleman recurs in this stanza too. Moreover, there is a contrast between the hustle and bustle of her life  suggested in the first stanza and the leisurely and pleasurable journey with death in this stanza.

2. What do you construe from the use of the phrase We slowly drove
We here are the poet and Death in his carriage along with Immortality. The journey is slow and leisurely and the poet is pleased that Death knew no haste. The slow leisurely journey is in direct contrast with the poet’s hectic life life suggested in the first stanza of the poem.
Besides, the slow pace of the carriage suggests the image of a funeral procession where the mourners slowly wend their way to the church graveyard. In this aspect, the journey of the poet with Death in the carriage can be looked upon as her funeral procession where her coffin is slowly driven to her grave at the church graveyard.
3. Explain: My labour, and my leisure too,
Here labor and leisure refers to the poet's worldly activities. The poet was so much occupied with the mundane yet wearying material world that she could not find time for her lover Death. Yet, Death, like a true gentleman came to her. As a reward to his civility, the poet abandons her material world to go on a journey with Death.
Note: The poet Emily Dickinson uses the American spelling labor. The students are advised to use the British spelling labour when explaining this line.
Stanza III

     We passed the School, where Children strove
     At Recess – in the Ring –
     We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
     We passed the Setting Sun –
      In this stanza the poet catalogues the different sights she sees on her journey with Death. First she passes a     school where children play in an enclosed place during their recess, then she passes a field full of ripened grain ready to be harvested, and then she passes the setting sun. These three sights symbolically represent the three phases of life; the children at play suggests the childhood; the fully grown grains suggests adulthood; and the setting sun stands for old age. 
   The repetition of the phrase ‘We passed’ accentuates the sense of movement as well as suggests the      transition from one stage (life) to another stage (death).

  Stanza IV
Or rather – He passes Us-
The Dews drew quivering and chill-
For only Gossamer, my Gown-
My Tippet-only Tulle-
In this stanza the phrase “Or rather’ introduces a break in the narrative tone. The poet, in contrast to the sense of life in the previous stanza, realises that she has entered the domain of Death. She comes to terms with the process that it is the sun that has passed them and not the other way round. She recognises that the carriage of Death has ventured into a different clime- the kingdom of Death.
This realisation comes through the change in the weather; the atmosphere suddenly becomes chilly and cold. Though the poet feels that the chillness she feels is because of her clothes that are made of thin fabric, she discerns that it is the wintry world of Death that arouses this sense of quiver.
The light gown and the cape she wears are made of gossamer and tulle (very thin fabric) and it was a custom to dress the dead with clothes of this type.
      Stanza V
      We paused before a House that seemed
      A Swelling of the Ground –
      The Roof was scarcely visible –
      The Cornice – in the Ground –
      The journey of the poet ends at the House of Death, which is her grave; the House is her grave is implied by         her description that the house was swelling on the ground with scarcely visible roof and the cornice projecting  from the ground.
   A cornice is a strip of plaster, wood, or stone which goes along the top of a wall or building.
    Stanza VI
   Since then – 'tis Centuries – and yet
   Feels shorter than the Day
    I first surmised the Horses' Heads
   Were toward Eternity –
    The last stanza places the poet in Eternity- a realm of infinite space and timelessness. Eternity is  from where the poet utters her monologue. Even though centuries have gone by since her death, it appears to her that it is shorter than a day. She feels that only a short span of time has fleeted by since Death had come to her door; Eternity is beyond space and time and you do not feel the passage of time as felt by the mortals. Thus, through  death she has attained immortal bliss. The poet wants to assert that death is not the ultimate end; there is a world beyond death- the world of eternity and immortality.