Dickinson once put a question in a letter to Abiah Root, “Does not Eternity appear dreadful to you…I often get thinking of it and it seems so dark to me that I almost wish there was no Eternity. To think that we must forever live and never cease to be. It seems as if Death which all so dread because it launches us upon an unknown world would be a relief to so endless a state of existence” (poets.org). Emily Dickinson was known as a “white hermit”. She did not leave the house during the last twenty years of her life, wore only white clothes, and talked even with rare visitors through the slightly open door. The fact that nobody (even relatives) knew that she was writing poems makes her fate only more mysterious and tragic.
Dickinson’s poem Because I could not Stop for Death was written in 1862. There are several facts from the poetess’ life that might have caused her to write this poem. On April, 12, 1862 Thomas Wentworth Higginson received a letter from her, in which she asked his opinion about her poems and literary style. The poetess sent the famous critic four poems; one of these poems had been worked over many times. Hoping that her works would be accepted by such an outstanding figure as Higginson, Dickinson wrote an accompanying letter, asking the latter “to say if her verse was alive.” The excerpt from her letter that follows highlights her hopes, “Should you think it breathed—and had you the leisure to tell me, I should feel quick gratitude; If I make the mistake – that you dared to tell me – would give me sincerer honor – toward you”.
The critic, however, was not impressed by the verses he received. His attitude towards Dickinson’s poetry could be characterized as scornful. This is what he has written in his letter to James T. Fields, Atlantic Monthly editor, “I foresee that “Young Contributors” will send me worse things than ever now. Two such specimens of verse as came yesterday & day before – fortunately not to be forwarded for publication!” (poetryfoundation.org). Although Higginson was interested in the poetess’ poems, he felt that they were “raw” enough – lacked good structure – and he could not imagine that those works could give birth to a published poet. That is why Higginson advised Dickinson to work harder and longer on her poetry before she tried to publish it. Presumably, this rejection of her literary personality might have influenced her decision not to be published at all; and, from this standpoint, Because I could not Stop for Death could stand for her death as an accepted poetess. At the same time, Dickinson responded to Higginson’s piece of advice in the following way, “I smile when you suggest that I delay “to publish” – that being foreign to my thought, as Firmament to Fin”.
Love and Death in Poetry and Life
Apart from this literary defeat of the poetess, one more real event might have served as the background for the poem in question. In 1855, Dickinson got acquainted with the Reverend Charles Wadsworth, and they fell in love (despite the fact that the man was married). They carried this reciprocal love throughout their lives – love consisting of continuous parting and love absolutely hopeless (as both were people with high moral principles). After an unexpected visit to Dickinson’s home in 1860, Wadsworth left for the West Coast in 1861 (some critics mention it happened in 1862). According to Dickinson’s biographers, exactly this event has made the poetess put on white clothes and start leading a secluded life. That is why it may be reasonably argued that the departure of Dickinson’s “dearest earthly friend” has caused her inner crisis and, presumably, death of hopes for proximity with the beloved person.
In her poem Because I could not Stop for Death, Dickinson argues that death is not frightful since it puts an end to painful earthly life and. Consequently it should be treated as a relief to “an endless state of existence.” This positive attitude towards Death is revealed in the first stanza. First of all, this meaning is communicated with the help of personification. “It” becomes “he” – a kind carrier that displays civility and cordiality, which can be underpinned by the following lines: “Because I could not stop for Death, / He kindly stopped for me” (lines 1-2); “For his Civility”. Line 5 “We slowly drove – he knew no haste” implies that the carrier wants to comfort the speaker and make her enjoy the “journey”, which once more underlines carrier’s fair essence.
Surely, the speaker cannot ignore her “admirer’s” kindness; that is why she decides to get rid of her daily routine affairs: “And I had put away/ My labor, and my leisure too,/ For his Civility” (lines 6-8). However, it should be also mentioned that the first line of the poem Because I could not stop for Death witnesses that the speaker was too absorbed in everyday life; presumably, she loved life too much to willingly part from it. She wrote, “Life is so amazing by itself that it leaves practically no space for other activities” (poetryfoundation.org). Thus, it may be claimed that man values life in its every aspect, with its “labor” and “leisure.” Nevertheless, a human is inherently weak and prone to death; moreover, nobody knows when their hour strikes – suddenly a person acknowledges his/her mortality, and fate gives no other chance to enjoy life. That is why the speaker says exactly “had put away”; the verb “had”, in this case, presupposes an outer influence.
Personification, Metaphors and Other Poetic Devices in the Verse
Trying to consider the poem in the frames of real life, one can draw parallels between the carriage ride with Death in the poem and the same carriage ride with Charles Wadsworth, who visited Emily unexpectedly in 1860. Surely, the poetess could not but join her beloved man; that is why she had “put away her labor and leisure.” Emily’s sister Lavinia was even afraid that Emily would go away with Charles, but both returned. This carriage ride has really had a profound negative influence on poetess’ health, both mentally and physically. Dickinson did not leave her room and stayed in bed during the week after the meeting. It seemed that she had experienced a shock; therefore, her family decided to call for a doctor. The latter told that Dickinson’s nervous system had suffered a shock, the causes of which could not be established. As a result of the experienced stress, the poetess’ eyesight started to decline rapidly. This is the source, where human innate weakness, which is depicted in the poem, emanates from.
Apart from personification, Dickinson uses bright metaphors. The ride in the carriage can be perceived as a metaphor of living life and dying (as a process of the soul’s leaving the earth and departing for heaven). As the speaker describes it, “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” (lines 9-13). First comes the beginning of life – careless innocent childhood (“striving children at recess”; the ring symbolizes a vicious circle of life); then – the middle of life/ fruitful maturity (“gazing grain:” personification of nature); finally, the sun of our life sets. As far as line 13 goes “Or rather, he passed us”, the speaker again underlines human weakness and liability to decay and death: the sun passed them so that the speaker turns out to be a passive object of the landscape. The poetess’ passiveness can be also understood literally – as her eyesight declined, it could have been difficult for her to see the sun and the surrounding world.
Secondly, if the ride is viewed as a preparation for death, the speaker’s light clothing that she has on during the ride stand for her funeral dress: “The Dews grew quivering and chill,/ For only Gossamer my Gown,/ My Tippet only Tulle”. From the same point of view, the house that the travelers pause before symbolizes a grave: “We paused before a House that seemed/ A Swelling of the Ground;/ The Roof was scarcely visible,/ The Cornice – in the Ground” (lines 17-20). It is common knowledge that before the soul leaves the body, somebody’s life may flash between his/her eyes in a moment, and Dickinson reflects this moment in the last lines: “Since then ‘tis Centuries, and yet each/ Feels shorter than the Day/ I first surmised the Horses’ Heads/ Were toward Eternity”.
Apart from metaphors, the author uses other poetic devices in the verse. The anaphora “We passed” stresses the monotonous vicious circle of earthly life, whereas the use of alliteration “gossamer” – “gown” and “tippet” – “tulle” alleviates the ominous slant of the poem. The internal rhyme in “held” and “ourselves” helps the author to render the feeling of trust and intimacy between her and the carrier.
On balance, the poem in question represents a non-traditional interpretation of Death that is conventionally believed to bring sorrow and destruction. For Dickinson, Death is an ordinary phase of a life cycle that helps a person get rid of her pains and troubles. As her fate was deeply tragic (secluded life; death of the nearest people and the inability to incarnate her love dreams), there is no wonder that she welcomed death as a release from the cruel world that has rejected and despised her.
Emily Dickinson can be reasonably named the greatest poetess of the United States of all times. She was neither a mystic nun nor an eccentric person. All her “quirks” emanated from her intimate life and the spiritual situation that, at those times, prevailed in America and New England. Actually, all the reasons were rooted in Romanticism as a form of protest against spiritual impoverishment and meanness of the world, which surrounded the poetess; the world with all its wars, struggles for social position, influence, and literary acceptance.
What makes Dickinson’s literary style so peculiar is that she violated boldly the rigid structure of English sentences; in the same way, she knew no rules concerning rhymes and word usage. Exactly this innovation bewildered Higginson – the metre was floating, the rhymes were imbued with assonances and dissonances; finally, all these “frivolities” were found in quite a trite form, based on the metre of English church hymns. Besides, the poetess used too many hyphens, which was also new to American poetry, and constantly wrote words with capital letters (this concerns not only nouns but even verbs and adjectives).
Emily Dickinson’s poems are worth reading for a number of reasons. First of all, in her poems, one can always find light, ease, and romantic irony, which are tightly interwoven with desperation and “boiling sorrow.” Secondly, peculiarities of Dickinson’s “rough poems” are highly topical nowadays since they reflect a frantic pace of modern life and its corrupt values (such as acceptance, lust after author’s emoluments, etc.). Thirdly, the poetess has proved that every person can revolt against conventions and survive without the corrupt outer world. Last but not least, her poems teach us that core human values (love, faiths, and hope) are vital to human existence.