Thoughts on Poem 712 by Emily Dickinson: Because I could not stop for Death

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 –

Over the past few months, I have been having virtual literature discussions with one of my closest friends, and we recently discussed this poem. I had read through it multiple times prior to our discussion and took many notes. Still, in talking about the nuances of this masterpiece, we discovered more hidden symbolism and meaning. So my goal in this post is to cover some of the themes we discovered in the text. It is by no means exhaustive, and if you have insights you would like to share, please do so in the comments section (available for 14 days after publication of this post).

The obvious theme is that the speaker is describing the afterlife by personifying Death and Immortality. As is implied in the first stanza, many of us hasten through our lives without giving much thought to our impending deaths. But eventually, Death does come for us all. It is also worth noting that Dickinson differentiates between Death and Immortality. One could conclude that dying does not necessarily mean that the soul will unite with the Eternal.

Something that my friend and I discussed was the possibility that the speaker is somehow wedded, either to Immortality or to Death. There are multiple images that support this interpretation. When couples get married, they would often leave together in a Carriage. In the third stanza, there is mention of a Ring and Children. And in the fourth stanza, we learn that she is wearing a Gown, and more importantly, a Tulle, which is a veil.

Now, one could argue that the Tulle might represent the veil between this world and the afterlife. This is also a valid interpretation and worth considering.

Finally, there is one other symbol that we discussed which may be of interest, and that is the biblical Scarlet Woman from Revelation. If you look closely at the sixth stanza, you can find the imagery there. The mention of “Centuries” implies the passing of a millennium, which feels shorter than “the Day.” The Day could be interpreted as the Judgement Day. The “Horses’ Heads” could then be viewed as a reference to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. All of these signs are pointing “toward Eternity,” manifested by the Second Coming of Christ. If one accepts this interpretation, then the conclusion of this poem takes on an ominous tone.

Again, these are just thoughts and impressions regarding this poem. I suspect there is even more going on than I am aware of. There are definitely layers of symbolism and hidden meaning in this text. I welcome you to share any thoughts you may have.

Thanks for stopping by.

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2 responses to “Thoughts on Poem 712 by Emily Dickinson: Because I could not stop for Death

  1. This is great, Jeff. And how cool to have a virtual discussion with your friend! I’ve always liked Emily Dickinson’s poetry. Take care!