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In "Because I could not stop for Death" Emily Dickinson envisions Death as a

person she knew and trusted, or believed that she could trust. He might be any Amherst

gentleman, a William Howland or an Elbridge Bowdoin, or any of the coming lawyers or

teachers or ministers whom she remembered from her youth, with whom she had exchanged

valentines, and who at one time or another had acted as her squire. . . . /222/ The

carriage holds but the two of them, yet the ride, as she states with quiet emphasis, is a

last ride together. Clearly there has been no deception on his part. They drive in a

leisurely manner, and she feels completely at ease. Since she understands it to be a last

ride, she of course expects it to be unhurried. Indeed, his graciousness in taking time to

stop for her at that point and on that day in her life when she was so busy she could not

possibly have taken time to stop for him, is a mark of special politeness. She is

therefore quite willing to put aside her work. And again, since it is to be her last ride,

she can dispense with her spare moments as well as her active ones. . . .

She notes the daily routine of the life she is passing from. Children playing games

during a school recess catch her eye at the last. And now the sense of motion is

quickened. Or perhaps more exactly one should say that the sense of time comes to an end

as they pass the cycles of the day and the seasons of the year, at a period of both

ripeness and decline. . . . How insistently "passed" echoes through the [third]

stanza! She now conveys her feeling of being outside time and change, for she corrects

herself to say that the sun passed them, as it of course does all who are in the grave.

She is aware of dampness and cold, and becomes suddenly conscious of the sheerness of the

dress and scarf which she now discovers that she wears. . . . /223/

The two concluding stanzas, with progressively decreasing concreteness, hasten the

final identification of her "House." It is the slightly rounded surface "of

the Ground," with a scarcely visible roof and a cornice "in the Ground." To

time and seasonal change, which have already ceased, is now added motion. Cessation of all

activity and creativeness is absolute. At the end, in a final instantaneous flash of

memory, she recalls the last objects before her eyes during the journey: the heads of the

horses that bore her, as she had surmised they were doing from the beginning,

toward—it is the last word—"Eternity." . . . Gradually, too, one

realizes that Death as a person has receded into the background, mentioned last only

impersonally in the opening words "We paused" of the fifth stanza, where his

services as squire and companion are over. In this poem concrete realism melds into

"awe and circumference" with matchless economy. /224/

from Emily Dickinson: An Interpretive Biography (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap

Press of Harvard University, 1955), pp. 222-224.


A comment by Richard Chase on Emily Dickinson’s "Because I Could not stop for

Death," reads in part as follows:

The only pressing technical objection to this poem is the remark that

"Immortality" in the first stanza is a meretricious and unnecessary

personification and that the common sense of the situation demands that Immortality ought

to be the destination of the coach and not one of the passengers. The personification of

death, however, is unassailable. In the literal meaning of the poem, he is apparently a

successful citizen who has amorous but genteel intentions. He is also God. . . .

The trouble with this remark is that it does not present the common sense of the

situation. Emily Dickinson was taught Christian doctrine—not simply Christian

morality but Christian theology—and she knew that the coach cannot head toward

immortality, nor can one of the passengers. Dickinson here compresses two related but

differing concepts: (1) at death the soul journeys to heaven (eternity), and thus the

image of the carriage and driver is appropriate; and (2) the soul is immortal, and our

immortality, therefore, "rides" always with us as a copassenger; it is with us

because the soul is our immortal part and so may be thought of as journeying with us. The

poet’s language is compact and oblique, but there is no false personification in it. Since

the soul is one’s true person (essence, not mask). no personification is needed, except

possibly what may be involved in the separable concept of the soul itself. Both

immortality and death, however, need personification and are given it. The horses’ heads

are toward eternity, but not toward immortality.

Incidentally, why "amorous but genteel"? To those who believe in an

,afterlife, death may be kind in taking us from a world of proverbial woe into one of

equally proverbial eternal bliss; the irony is in the contrast between our fear of death

and the kindness of his mission, and it seems unnecessary to call upon an amorous

implication. The idea of the "Bride of Christ" may be permissible but it seems

far-fetched in the context of the poem as we have it. /96/

from "’Becasue I Could Not Stop for Death,’" American Literature,

XXIX (March, 1957), 96.


[Emily Dickinson's] finest poem on the funeral ceremony [is "Because I could not

stop for Death"]. On the surface it seems like just another version of the procession

to the grave, but this is a metaphor that can be probed for deeper levels of meaning,

spiritual journeys of a very different sort. . . . /241/ At first reading, the orthodox

reassurance against the fear of death appears to be invoked, though with the novelty of a

suitor replacing the traditional angel, by emphasizing his compassionate mission in taking

her out of the woes of this world into the bliss of the next. ‘Death,’ usually rude,

sudden, and impersonal, has been transformed into a kindly and leisurely gentleman.

Although she was aware this is a last ride, since his ‘Carriage’ can only be a

hearse, its terror is subdued by the ‘Civility’ of the driver who is merely serving

the end of ‘Immortality.’ The loneliness of the journey, with Death on the driver’s

seat and her body laid out in the coach behind, is dispelled by the presence of her

immortal part that rides with her as a co-passenger, this slight personification being

justified by the separable concept of the soul. Too occupied with life herself to stop,

like all busy mortals, Death ‘kindly stopped’ for her. But this figure of a gentleman

taking a lady for a carriage ride is carefully underplayed and then dropped after two

stanzas. /242/

The balanced parallelism of the first stanza is slightly quickened by the alliterating

‘labor’ and ‘leisure’ of the second, which encompass vividly all that must be renounced in

order to ride ‘toward Eternity.’ So the deliberate slow-paced action that lies suspended

behind the poem is charged with a forward movement by the sound pattern, taking on a kind

of inevitability in the insistent reiteration of [stanza three]. . . . Here her intensely

conscious leave-taking of the world is rendered with fine economy, and instead of the

sentimental grief of parting there is an objectively presented scene. The seemingly

disparate parts of this are fused into a vivid re-enactment of the mortal experience. It

includes the three stages of youth, maturity, and age, the cycle of day from morning to

evening, and even a suggestion of seasonal progression from the year’s upspring through

ripening to decline. The labor and leisure of life are made concrete in the joyous

activity of children contrasted with the passivity of nature and again, by the optical

illusion of the sun’s setting, in the image of motion that has come to rest. Also the

whole range of the earthly life is symbolized, first human nature, then animate, and

finally inanimate nature. But, absorbed ‘in the Ring’ of childhood’s games, the players at

life do not even stop to look up at the passing carriage of death. And the indifference of

nature is given a kind of cold vitality by transferring the stare in the dead traveler’s

eyes to the ‘Gazing Grain.’ This simple maneuver in grammar creates an involute paradox,

giving the fixity of death to the living corn while the corpse itself passes by on its

journey to immortality. Then with the westering sun, traditional symbol of the soul’s

passing, comes the obliterating darkness of eternity. Finally, the sequence follows the

natural route of a funeral train, past the schoolhouse in the village, then the outlying

fields, and on to the remote burying ground.

In the concluding stanzas the movement of the poem slows almost to a stop, ‘We paused’

contrasting with the successive sights ‘We passed’ in the earlier stages of the journey.

For when the carriage arrives at the threshold of the house of death it has reached the

spatial limits of mortality. To say that it ‘passed the Setting Sun’ is to take it out of

/243/ bounds, beyond human time, so she quickly corrects herself by saying instead that

the sun ‘passed Us,’ as it surely does all who are buried. Then, as the ‘Dews’ descend

‘quivering and chill,’ she projects her awareness of what it will be like to come to rest

in the cold damp ground. The identification of her new ‘House’ with a grave is achieved by

the use of only two details: a ‘Roof’ that is ’scarcely visible’ and a ‘Cornice,’ the

molding around the coffin’s lid, that is ‘in the Ground.’ But the tomb’s horror is

absorbed by the emphasis on merely pausing here, as though this were a sort of tavern for

the night. When she wanted to she could invoke the conventional Gothic atmosphere, and

without being imitative, as in an early poem:

What Inn is this

Where for the night

Peculiar Traveller comes?

Who is the Landlord?

Where the maids?

Behold, what curious rooms!

No ruddy fires on the hearth—

No brimming Tankards flow—

Necromancer! Landlord!

Who are these below?


1891, p. 221]

The image of the grave as a ghastly kind of inn is there built up to a climax which

blasts all hopes of domestic coziness by the revelation that its landlord is a

‘Necromancer,’ a sorcerer who communicates with spirits.

In the poem under consideration, however, the house of death so lightly sketched is not

her destination. That is clearly stated as ‘Eternity,’ though it is significant that

she never reaches it. . . . An eminent critic, after praising this as a remarkably

beautiful poem, complains that it breaks down at this point because it goes beyond the

‘Limits of Judgment’; in so far as it attempts to experience death and express the nature

of posthumous beatitude, he says, it is ‘fraudulent.’ /224/ But in addition to being a

hyper-rational criticism, this is simply a failure to read the text. The poem does not in

the least strive after the incomprehensible. It deals with the daily realization of the

imminence of death, offset by man’s yearning for immortality. These are intensely felt,

but only as ideas, as the abstractions of time and eternity, not as something experienced.

Being essentially inexpressible, they are rendered as metaphors. The idea of achieving

immortality by a ride in the carriage of death is confronted by the concrete fact of

physical disintegration as she pauses before a ‘Swelling in the Ground.’

The final stanza is not an extension of knowledge beyond the grave but simply the most

fitting coda for her poem. In projecting the last sensations of consciousness as the world

fades out, she has employed progressively fewer visible objects until with fine dramatic

skill she limits herself at the end to a single one, the ‘Horses Heads,’ recalled in a

flash of memory as that on which her eyes had been fixed throughout the journey. These

bring to mind the ‘Carriage’ of the opening stanza, and Death, who has receded as a

person, is now by implication back in the driver’s seat. ‘Since then—’tis Centuries,’

she says, in an unexpected phrase for the transition from time to eternity, but this is a

finite infinity; her consciousness is still operative and subject to temporal measurement.

All of this poetically elapsed time ‘Feels shorter than the Day,’ the day of death brought

to an end by the setting sun of the third stanza, when she first guessed the direction in

which these apocalyptic horses were headed. ‘Surmised,’ carefully placed near the

conclusion, is all the warranty one needs for reading this journey as one that has taken

place entirely in her mind, ‘imagined without certain knowledge,’ as her Lexicon defined

it. The last word may be ‘Eternity’ but it is strictly limited by the directional

preposition ‘toward.’ So the poem returns to the very day, even the same instant, when it

started. Its theme is a Christian one, yet unsupported by any of the customary rituals and

without any final statement of Christian faith. The resolution is not mystical but


Read in this way the poem is flawless to the last detail, each image precise and

discrete even while it is unified in the central motif of the last journey. Yet another

level of meaning has suggested itself faintly to two critics. One has described the driver

as ‘amorous but genteel’; the other has noted ‘the subtly interfused erotic motive,’ love

having frequently been an idea linked with death for the romantic poets. Both of these

astute guesses were made without benefit of the revealing /245/ fourth stanza, recently

restored from the manuscript. But even in the well-known opening lines of the poem there

are suggestive hints for anyone who remembers that the carriage drive was a standard mode

of courtship a century ago. In the period of her normal social life, when Emily Dickinson

took part ill those occasions that give youthful love its chance, she frequently went on

drives with young gentlemen. Some ten years before the date of this poem, for example, she

wrote to her brother: ‘I’ve been to ride twice since I wrote you, . . . last evening with

Sophomore Emmons, alone’; and a few weeks later she confided to her future sister-in-law:

‘I’ve found a beautiful, new, friend.’ The figure of such a prospective suitor would

inevitably have come to the minds of a contemporary audience as they read: ‘He kindly

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