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On 712 ("Because I Could Not Stop For Death") Essay, Research Paper


One of the perfect poems in English is The Chariot, /13/ and it exemplifies

better than anything else [Emily Dickinson] wrote the special quality of her mind. . . .

If the word great means anything in poetry, this poem is one of the greatest in the

English language; it is flawless to the last detail. The rhythm charges with movement the

pattern of suspended action back of the poem. Every image is precise and, moreover, not

merely beautiful, but /14/ inextricably fused with the central idea. Every image extends

and intensifies every other. The third stanza especially shows Miss Dickinson’s power to

fuse, into a single order of perception, a heterogeneous series: the children, the grain,

and the setting sun (time) have the same degree of credibility; the first subtly preparing

for the last. The sharp gazing before grain instils into nature a kind of

cold vitality of which the qualitative richness has infinite depth. The content of death

in the poem eludes forever any explicit definition. He is a gentleman taking a lady out

for a drive. But note the restraint that keeps the poet from carrying this so far that it

is ludicrous and incredible; and note the subtly interfused erotic motive, which the idea

of death has presented to every romantic poet, love being a symbol interchangeable with

death. The terror of death is objectified through this figure of the genteel driver, who

is made ironically to serve the end of Immortality. This is the heart of the poem: she has

presented a typical Christian theme in all its final irresolution, without making any

final statement about it. There is no solution to the problem; there can be only a

statement of it in the full context of intellect and feeling. A construction of the human

will, elaborated with all the abstracting powers of the mind, is put to the concrete test

of experience: the idea of immortality is confronted with the fact of physical

disintegration. We are not told what to think; we are told to look at the situation.

The framework of the poem is, in fact, the two abstractions, mortality and eternity,

which are made to as- /15/ sociate in perfect equality with the images: she sees the

ideas. and thinks the perceptions. She did, of course, nothing of the sort; but we must

use the logical distinctions, even to the extent of paradox. if we are to form any notion

of this rare quality of mind. She could not in the proper sense think at all, and unless

we prefer the feeble poetry of moral ideas that flourished in New England in the eighties,

we must conclude that her intellectual deficiency contributed at least negatively to her

great distinction. Miss Dickinson is probably the only Anglo-American poet of her century

whose work exhibits the perfect literary situation— in which is possible the fusion

of sensibility and thought. Unlike her contemporaries, she never succumbed to her ideas,

to easy solutions, to her private desires. /16/

. . . No poet could have invented the elements of The Chariot; only a great poet

could have used them so perfectly. Miss Dickinson was a deep mind writing from a deep

culture, and when she came to poetry, she came infallibly.

Infallibly, at her best; for no poet has ever been perfect, nor is Emily Dickinson. Her

unsurpassed precision of statement is due to the directness with which the abstract

framework of her thought acts upon its unorganized material. The two elements of her

style, considered as point of view, are immortality, or the idea of permanence, and the

physical process of death or decay. Her diction has two corresponding features: words of

Latin or Greek origin and, sharply opposed to these, the concrete Saxon element. It is

this verbal conflict that gives to her verse its high tension; it is not a device

deliberately seized upon, but a feeling for language that senses out the two fundamental

components of English and their metaphysical relation: the Latin for ideas and the Saxon

for perceptions—the peculiar virtue of English as a poetic tongue. Only the great

poets know how to use this advantage of our language.

Like all poets, Miss Dickinson often writes out of habit; /22/ the style that emerged

from some deep exploration of an idea is carried on as verbal habit when she has nothing

to say. . . . .

But she never had the slightest interest in the public. Were four poems or five

published in her lifetime? She never felt the temptation to round off a poem for public

exhibition. Higginson’s kindly offer to make her verse "correct" was an

invitation to throw her work into the public ring—the ring of Lowell and Longfellow.

He could not see that he was tampering with one of the rarest literary integrities of all

time. Here was a poet who had no use for the supports of authorship-flattery and fame; she

never needed money. /23/

She had all the elements of a culture that has broken up, a culture that on the

religious side takes its place in the museum of spiritual antiquities. Puritanism, as a

unified version of the world, is dead; only a remnant of it in trade may be said to

survive. In the history of puritanism she comes between Hawthorne and Emerson. She has

Hawthorne’s matter, which a too irresponsible personality tends to dilute into a form like

Emerson’s; she is often betrayed by words. But she is not the poet of personal sentiment;

she has more to say than she can put down in anyone poem. Like Hardy and Whitman she must

be read entire; like Shakespeare she never gives up her meaning in a single 1ine.

She is therefore a perfect subject for the kind of criticism which is chiefly concerned

with general ideas. She exhibits one of the permanent relations between personality and

objective truth, and she deserves the special attention of our time, which lacks that kind

of truth.

She has Hawthorne’s intellectual toughness, a hard, definite sense of the physical

world. The highest flights to God, the most extravagant metaphors of the strange and the

remote, come back to a point of casuistry, to a moral dilemma of the experienced world.

There is, in spite of the homiletic vein of utterance, no abstract speculation, nor is

there a message to society; she speaks wholly to the individual experience. She offers to

the unimaginative no riot of vicarious sensation; she has no useful maxims for men of

action. Up to this point her resemblance to Emerson is slight: poetry is a sufficient form

of /24/ utterance, and her devotion to it is pure. But in Emily Dickinson the puritan

world is no longer self-contained; it is no longer complete; her sensibility exceeds its

dimensions. She has trimmed down its supernatural proportions; it has become a morality;

instead of the tragedy of the spirit there is a commentary upon it. Her poetry is a

magnificent personal confession, blasphemous and, in its self-revelation, its implacable

honesty, almost obscene. It comes out of an intellectual life towards which it feels no

moral responsibility. Mather would have burnt her for a witch. /25/

from Reactionary Essays on Poetry and Ideas (New York: Charles Scribner’s

Sons, 1936), pp. 13-16, 22-25. A revised version of this essay appears in Collected

Essays by Allen Tate (Denver: Alan Swallow, 1959). Copyright 1959 by Allen Tate.


There are a few curious and remarkable poems representing a mixed theme, of which

["Because I could not stop for Death"] is perhaps the finest example. . . .

/288/ In the fourth line we find the familiar device of using a major abstraction in a

somewhat loose and indefinable manner; in the last stanza there is the semi-playful

pretence of familiarity with the posthumous experience of eternity. so that the poem ends

unconvincingly though gracefully, with a formulary gesture very roughly comparable to that

of the concluding couplet of many an Elizabethan sonnet of love; for the rest the poem is

a remarkably beautiful poem on the subject of the daily realization of the imminence of

death—it is a poem of departure from life, an intensely conscious leave-taking. In so

far as it concentrates on the life that is being left behind, it is wholly successful; in

so far as it attempts to experience the death to come, it is fraudulent, however

exquisitely, and in this it falls below her finest achievement. Allen Tate, who appears to

be unconcerned with this fraudulent element, praises the poem in the highest terms; he

appears almost to praise it for its defects: "The sharp gazing before grain

instils into nature a kind of cold vitality of which the qualitative richness has infinite

depth. The content of death in the poem eludes forever any explicit definition . . . she

has presented a typical Christian theme in all its final irresolution, without making any

final statement about it." The poem ends in irresolution in the sense that it ends in

a statement that is not offered seriously; to praise the /289/ poem for this is unsound

criticism, however. It is possible to solve any problem of insoluble experience by

retreating a step and defining the boundary at which comprehension ceases, and by then

making the necessary moral adjustments to that boundary; this in itself is an experience

both final and serious, and it is the experience on which our author’s finest work is

based. /290/

from "Emily Dickinson and the Limits of Judgement," In Defense of Reason,

3rd ed. (Denver: Alan Swallow, 1947), pp. 283-299.


Allen Tale is indisputably correct when he writes (in Reactionary Essays) that

for Emily Dickinson "The general symbol of Nature . . . is Death." Death is, in

fact, her poetic affirmation. Yet he continues with a questionable declaration: ". .

. and her weapon against Death is the entire powerful dumb-show of the puritan theology

led by Redemption and Immortality."

It is true that she is forced to experience and deal with nature before she can turn

her back on it, but redemption and immortality are for her neither weapon nor protection.

If these concepts deserve any place at all, it is rather because they are avenues of

escape from death. In her love poems, as well as in the group dealing with time and

eternity, she returns constantly to her preoccupation with death—both as it is

incorporated in all of nature, and as it encompasses it on all sides. Here she faces and

resolves the issue many times, but never wholly with what Tale is pleased to call her

"puritan theology."

Certainly the love poems provide the more personally representative passages from which

to draw an argument against Tate’s statement. A recurrent theme in these poems is the

separation of two lovers by death, and their reunion in immortality. But Emily Dickinson’s

conception of this immortality is centered in the beloved himself, rather than in any

theological principle. . . . The immortality which concerns her arises directly from her

connection with a second person, and never exists as an abstract or Christian condition. .

. . /115/

In this same way, redemption is also reduced to the simplest personal equation. In

these poems redemption, as such, is never mentioned; rather, the awareness of it permeates

the entire section. Redemption for Emily Dickinson is too synonymous with immortality to

receive much individual distinction. There is little talk of heaven or hell, except as

they exist within the poet herself. . . .

It is not the "dumb-show of the puritan theology" which protects the poet,

but her own redefinition of Christian values. This redefinition is not important because

of any radical deviation from the church’s precepts, but because the catchwords of pulpit

and hymnal have been given an intimate and casual interpretation. She speaks of Death’s

coming for her, yet has him arrive in a carriage to take her for an afternoon’s drive. She

writes of Calvaries, but they are "Calvaries of Love"; the grave is "my

little cottage." . . . The familiar and comforting words that, for her, spell

everyday life are used to mask unrealized abstractions. It is by contracting the

illimitable spaces of after-life to her own focus, that she can find peace, for

"their height in heaven comforts not." She fills the abyss with her talk of tea

and carriages and the littleness of time. Puritan theology may have given her a fear of

the loneliness of death, the Bible and hymnal may have provided her with patterns and

phrases, but these equip her with terminologies, molds in which her personal conceptions

can take form, rather than actual Christian conceptions.

Death for Emily Dickinson, therefore, was an uncomfortable lacuna which could in no way

be bridged, except by transposing it into a more homely metaphor. Death as a caller, the

grave as a little house—these are a poetic whistling in the dark. In a safe and

ordered microcosm, she found death an ungoverned and obsessing presence. It could be

neither forgotten nor accepted in its present form. Death had possessed too many of her

friends to be reckoned with as a complete abstraction. But when she translated this

oppression into a language of daily routine, she could blot out the reality of death with

pictures conjured up by the surrounding images:

What if I file this mortal off,

See where it hurts me,—that’s enough,—

And wade into liberty?


1891, p. 107] /116/

. . . this is said to be

But just the primer to a life

Unopened, rare, upon the shelf

Clasped yet to him and me.


1890, p. 132]

I sing to use the waiting. . .

And tell each other how we sang

To keep the dark away.


1896, p.170]

The idea of filing it off, of wading into death and its liberty, of calling death a

primer, or of singing away eternity, is the balance of known with unknown which Emily

Dickinson must portion out to herself before she can rest.

Allen Tale is on the right track in referring to death as her "general symbol of

Nature." It is the logical culmination of nature, and the greatest example of the

change which is constantly moving through nature. Emily Dickinson regards nature as

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