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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
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
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
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.
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
- ... of Emily Dickinson." Reprinted in On Lies, Secrets, and Silences. ... Without his initiating pressure on the trigger, there would ... In Shakespeare’s Sisters: Feminist Essays on Women Poets. Copyright ? 1979 ... story, which confers identity on the gun. The "Sovereign ...
- ... the first — Crowned — Crowing — on my Father’s breast — A half unconscious ... baptism corresponded to Jesus’ mortification on Golgotha—a humbling experience over which ... expectations because its power depends on conformity within established symbology. Situated ...
- ... case attention should be centered on the feeling itself and ... what the previous poems on pain merely note. Dickinson ... behavior, because it relies on predetermined patterns, because it ... appears throughout her poetry on mental experience. This particular ...
- ... "seal" (suggesting the seal on some important official document), and ... thing, they are predicated on a structure of simultaneous ... in a lifetime’s musing on essential problems of language, ... sometimes–," Dickinson probably relied on the memoirs of American ...
- ... , uncertain, stumbling," and emphasis on the finite physical reality goes ... speaker’s concern is focused on others, for being the center ... poem is so predicated on the phenomenon of displacement and ... this poem, they buzz ‘on the/ chamber window,’ and speckle ...