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Because I Could Not Stop for Death  (479)  ~ Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

By Peter Kalnin, October 23, 2019

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 – 

From The Poems of Emily Dickinson, Ralph W. Franklin ed., Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Copyright © 1998 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Copyright © 1951, 1955, 1979, by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Emily Dickinson haunts us, even today 133 years after her death in Amherst, Massachusetts in 1886 because she asks questions that make most people uncomfortable – about life, death and what happens to “us” once we die.  She gives us no one definitive answer in her poetry but instead leaves us with a multiplicity of possibilities: endless eternal life, endless eternal non-existence or a general sense of the implacability of such a question.  She gives the reader more doubts than certitudes, yet we find comfort in Dickinson’s thoughts since most people will have contemplated such matters over the course of their lives.

The poem starts out with a gentle, easy pace, imitating the sound of a horse’s hoofs on a road, which was a common enough phenomena in the 19th century but which we may not experience in a world of automobiles, trains and jets.  We need to go back in time to grasp this poem in the era it was composed so we can see what Dickinson sees.  She writes of a leisurely ride in a carriage with a personified “Immortality.” They travel past a school filled with children and fields of “gazing grain,” both of which suggest the stages of development of a person’s life: childhood, and an adulthood that succumbs to the harvest of death.  They ultimately arrive at “a house that seemed a swelling of the ground,” or a burial crypt, which is cold for the passenger who wears “only tulle” (silk lace used for veils) because she is now the “bride” of Immortality.  

The final four lines suggest that the carriage ride to the cemetery happened long, long ago because time is now endless and therefore truly meaningless. Overall, the tone of the poem is one of peaceful acceptance of the end of life.

Does Dickinson truly see eternal life after leaving this world as a positive thing?  In this poem yes, but in a letter to Abiah Root, she suggests that death “would be a relief to so endless a state of existence [sic]” [https://poets.org/poem/because-i-could-not-stop-death-479]. It seems to me that Dickinson is much more in tune with the Buddha’s teachings of nirvana than the Christian constructs of salvation and eternal life.  Suffering (dukkha) or “dissatisfactoriness” continues beyond one’s lifetime on this physical plane if we follow her point of view. It is only by directly perceiving the nature of existence and non-existence that one can relinquish such graspings.  To be free, to be happy, and to celebrate life and death one must give up all attachments to this world. Only by forgetting our desire to live, we become truly alive. 

~ Peter Kalnin, Riverside, California   23 October 2019

[Emily Dickinson’s manuscript of Because I Could Not Stop for Death; Pinterest]