On ‘Because I could not stop for Death’ by Emily Dickinson

Dickinson’s speaker “could not stop for Death”. Death has not yet arrived; she is living still and could not stop; she could not stop living. There are no stops within living, there is only a stop at its end. The stop at living’s end is Death, who “kindly stop[s] for me”. Death arrives with a “Carriage” and masculine pronouns. The speaker meets him in a gown of “Gossamer” and a tippet of “Tulle” — she is dressed up for the occasion. With these things in sight, Death resembles a gentleman caller, courting Dickinson’s speaker. We are led then to ask: what is the romantic appeal of Death? In the idiom of traditional heterosexual romance, the appeal of the man lies in what he can do for or give to the woman. Death first gives a stop to life but in doing so gives a second thing: the view from the perspective of the eternal, sub specie aeternitatis. Hence the other thing that Death holds in his carriage: “Immortality”. The view from Death’s carriage is under the condition of Immortality, it is a view of the changing from a fixed state. So, from Death’s carriage, we see the worldly unfold in its changing. We see life in its stages. First, we see children, striving “in the Ring”. Had it been “strode” instead of “strove” the school-yard’s “ring” would lie more quiet as a symbol. Yet, with “strove” (which has a shared root in Old French with ‘strife’) the children become amid struggle in the confines of the “the Ring” and “the Ring” begins to stand for life, its strife and its circularity. This circularity is bolstered by the poem’s undulating feet that come regular in 4–3–4–3 and irregular in 3–4–4–3 and 4–3–4–4, giving the text a swaying cadence that references circular movement.

Moving along time’s circle we pass the children and reach the “Fields of Gazing Grain” which are products brought forth into maturity by labour and seasonal change. Then, arrives “The Setting Sun”, that is the thing that will recur passing into absence. In the procession of these three symbols, Dickinson describes the contours of change in the passage of life: youth, maturity and death with the promise of rebirth. The shape of which presents itself visible in temporal extension wherein centuries feel “shorter than the Day”. Death reveals time as Spinoza’s time, that it is as a subjective illusion (Fritzman and Riley, p. 78). Sub specie aeternatis, each point in time is just as real as every other point — Death, in his gift of fixity, reveals this to Dickinson’s speaker, who in learning so surmises that “the Horses’ Heads / Were toward Eternity — ”.

References:

Fritzman, J.M. and Riley, Brianne. “Not Only Sub Specie Aeternitatis, but Equally Sub Specie Durationis: A Defense of Hegel’s Criticisms of Spinoza’s Philosophy”. The Pluralist, vol. 4, no. 3, 2009, pp. 76–97.

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Because I could not stop for Death — (479)

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 –

Every day I steal a pear