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stopped for me— / The Carriage held but just Ourselves. . . .’ Such a young couple

likewise would have driven beyond the village limits into the open country and then,

romantically, past the ‘Setting Sun.’ Restraint kept her from pushing this parallel to the

point of being ludicrous, and the suitor image quickly drops into the background.

The love-death symbolism, however, re-emerges with new implications in the now restored

fourth stanza, probably omitted by previous editors because they were baffled by its


For only Gossamer, my gown—

My Tippet—only Tulle—

This is certainly not a description of conventional burial clothes. It is instead a

bridal dress, but of a very special sort. ‘Gossamer’ in her day was not yet applied to

fine spun cloth but only to that filmy substance like cobwebs sometimes seen floating in

the autumn air, as her Lexicon described it, probably formed by a species of spider. This

brings to mind her cryptic poem on the spider whose web was his ‘Strategy of Immortality.’

And by transforming the bridal veil into a ‘Tippet,’ the flowing scarf-like part of the

distinctive hood of holy orders, she is properly dressed for a celestial marriage.

‘Death,’ to be sure, is not the true bridegroom but a surrogate, which accounts for his

minor role. He is the envoy taking her on this curiously premature wedding journey to the

heavenly altar where she will be married to God. The whole idea of the Bride-of-the-Lamb

is admittedly only latent in the text of this poem, but in view of the body of her

writings it seems admissible to suggest it as another metaphor for the extension of

meanings. . . . /246/

‘Because I could not stop for Death’ is incomparably the finest poem of this cluster.

In it all the traditional modes are subdued so they can, be assimilated to her purposes.

For her theme there, as a final reading of its meaning will suggest, is not necessarily

death or immortality in the literal sense of those terms. There are many ways of dying, as

she once said:

Death—is but one—and comes but once—

And only nails the eyes—


1896, pp. 47-48]

One surely dies out of this world in the end, but one may also die away from the world

by deliberate choice during this life. In her vocabulary ‘immortal’ is a value that can

also attach to living this side of the grave:

Some—Work for Immortality—

The Chiefer part, for Time—


Poems, 1929, p. 5]

As an artist she ranked herself with that elite. At the time of her dedication to

poetry, presumably in the early 1860’s, someone ‘kindly stopped’ for her—lover, muse,

God—and she willingly put away the labor and leisure of this world for the creative

life of the spirit. Looking back on the affairs of ‘Time’ at any point after making such a

momentous deci- /248/ sion, she could easily feel ‘Since then—’tis Centuries—’

Remembering what she had renounced, the happiness of a normal youth, sunshine and growing

things, she could experience a momentary feeling of deprivation. But in another sense she

had simply triumphed over them, passing beyond earthly trammels. Finally, this makes the

most satisfactory reading of her reversible image of motion and stasis during the journey,

passing the setting sun and being passed by it. For though in her withdrawal the events of

the external world by-passed her, in the poetic life made possible by it she escaped the

limitations of the mortal calendar. She was borne confidently, by her winged horse,

‘toward Eternity’ in the immortality of her poems. /249/

from Emily Dickinson’s Poetry: Stairway of Surprise (New York: Holt, Rinehart

and Winston, Inc., 1960), pp. 241-246 and 248-249.

Sharon Cameron

Yvor Winters has spoken of the poem’s subject as "the daily

realization of the imminence of death—it is a poem of departure from life, an

intensely conscious leave-taking." But in its final claim to actually experience

death, Winters has found it fraudulent. There is, of course, a way out of or around the

dilemma of posthumous speech and that is to suppose that the entire ride with death is, as

the last stanza indicates, a "surmise," and " ’tis Centuries—," a

colloquial hyperbole. But we ought not insist that the poem’s interpretation pivot on the

importance of this word. For we ignore its own struggle with extraordinary claims if we

insist too quickly on its adherence to traditional limits.

In one respect, the speaker’s assertions that she "could not stop for

Death—" must be taken as the romantic protest of a self not yet disabused of the

fantasy that her whims, however capricious, will withstand the larger temporal demands of

the external world. Thus the first line, like any idiosyncratic representation of the

world, must come to grips with the tyranny of more general meanings, not the least of

which can be read in the inviolable stand of the universe, every bit as willful as the

isolate self. But initially the world seems to cater to the self’s needs; since the

speaker does not have time (one implication of "could not stop") for death, she

is deferred to by the world ("He kindly stopped for me—"). In another

respect, we must see the first line not only as willful (had not time for) but also as the

admission of a disabling fact (could not). The second line responds to the doubleness of

conception. What, in other words, in one context is deference, in another is coercion, and

since the poem balances tonally between these extremes it is important to note the

dexterity with which they are compacted in the first two lines.

There is, of course, further sense in which death stops for the speaker, and that is in

the fusion I alluded to earlier between interior and exterior senses of time, so that the

consequence of the meeting in the carriage is the death of otherness. The poem presumes to

rid death of its otherness, to familiarize it, literally to adopt its perspective and in

so doing to effect a synthesis between self and other, internal time and the faster, more

relentless beat of the world. Using more traditional terms to describe the union, Allen

Tate speaks of the poem’s "subtly interfused erotic motive, which the idea of death

has presented to most romantic poets, love being a symbol interchangeable with

death." It is true that the poem is charged with eroticism whose end or aim is union,

perhaps as we conventionally know it, a synthesis of self and other for the explicit

purpose of the transformation of other or, if that proves impossible, for the loss of

self. Death’s heralding phenomenon, the loss of self, would be almost welcomed if self at

this point could be magically fused with other. . . .

. . . death is essence of the universe as well as its end, and the self is wooed and

won by this otherness that appears to define the totality of experience.

Indeed the trinity of death, self, immortality, however ironic a parody of the holy

paradigm, at least promises a conventional fulfillment of the idea that the body’s end

coincides with the soul’s everlasting life. But, as in "Our journey had

advanced," death so frequently conceptualized as identical with eternity here suffers

a radical displacement from it. While both poems suggest a discrepancy between eternity

and death, the former poem hedges on the question of where the speaker stands with respect

to that discrepancy, at its conclusion seeming to locate her safely in front of or

"before" death. "Because I could not stop for Death," on the other

hand, pushes revision one step further, daring to leave the speaker stranded in the moment

of death.

Along these revisionary lines, the ride to death that we might have supposed to take

place through territory unknown, we discover in stanza three to reveal commonplace sights

but now fused with spectacle. The path out of the world is also apparently the one through

it and in the compression of the three images ("the School, where Children

strove," "the Fields of Gazing Grain—," "the Setting

Sun—") we are introduced to a new kind of visual shorthand. Perhaps what is

extraordinary here is the elasticity of reference, how imposingly on the figural scale the

images can weigh while, at the same time, never abandoning any of their quite literal

specificity. Hence the sight of the children is a circumscribed one by virtue of the

specificity of their placement "At Recess—in the Ring—" and, at the

same time, the picture takes on the shadings of allegory. This referential flexibility or

fusion of literal and figural meanings is potential in the suggestive connotations of the

verb "strove," which is a metaphor in the context of the playground (that is, in

its literal context) and a mere descriptive verb in the context of the implied larger

world (that is, in its figural context). The "Fields of Gazing Grain—" also

suggest a literal picture, but one that leans in the direction of emblem; thus the epithet

"Gazing" has perhaps been anthropomorphized from the one-directional leaning of

grain in the wind, the object of its gazing the speaker herself. The "Children"

mark the presence of the world along one stage of the speaker’s journey, the "Gazing

Grain—" marks the passing of the world (its harkening after the speaker as she

rides away from it), and the "Setting Sun—" marks its past. For at least as

the third stanza conceives of it, the journey toward eternity is a series of successive

and, in the case of the grain, displaced visions giving way finally to blankness.

But just as after the first two stanzas, we are again rescued in the fourth from any

settled conception of this journey. As we were initially not to think of the journey

taking place out of the world (and hence with the children we are brought back to it), the

end of the third stanza having again moved us to the world’s edge, we are redeemed from

falling over it by the speaker’s correction: "Or rather—He passed

Us—." It is the defining movement of the poem to deliver us just over the

boundary line between life and death and then to recall us. Thus while the poem gives the

illusion of a one-directional movement, albeit a halting one, we discover upon closer

scrutiny that the movements are multiple and, as in "I heard a Fly buzz when I

died," constitutive of flux, back and forth over the boundary from life to death.

Despite the correction, "Or rather—He passed Us—," the next lines

register a response that would be entirely appropriate to the speaker’s passing of the

sun. "The Dews drew" round the speaker, her earthly clothes not only inadequate,

but actually falling away in deference to the sensation of "chill—" that

displaces them as she passes the boundary of the earth. Thus, on the one hand,

"chill—" is a mere physiological response to the setting of the sun at

night, on the other, it is a metaphor for the earlier assertion that the earth and earthly

goods are being exchanged for something else. Implications in the poem, like the more

explicit assertions, are contradictory and reflexive, circling back to underline the very

premises they seem a moment ago to have denied. Given such ambiguity, we are constantly in

a quandary about how to place the journey that, at anyone point, undermines the very

certainty of conception it has previously established.

[Cameron here inserts an analysis of George Herbert's "Redemption"]

While Dickinson’s representation of the ride with death is less histrionic, it is as

insistent in our coming to terms with the personalization of the even and of its perpetual

reenactment in the present. For the grave that is "paused before" in the fifth

stanza, with the tombstone lying flat against the ground ("scarcely

visible—"), is seen from the outside and then (by the transformation of spatial

considerations into temporal ones) is passed by or through: "Since then—’tis

Centuries—." The poem’s concluding stanza both fulfills the traditional

Christian notion that while the endurance of death is essential for the reaching of

eternity, the two are not identical, and by splitting death and eternity with the space of

"Centuries—," chal1enges that traditional notion. The poem that has thus

far played havoc with our efforts to fix its journey in any conventional time or space, on

this side of death or the other, concludes with an announcement about the origins of its

speech, now explicitly equivocal: "’tis Cen- turies—and yet / Feels shorter than

the Day." What in "There’s a certain Slant of light" had been a clear

relationship between figure and its fulfillment (a sense of perceptive enlightenment

accruing from the movement of one to the other) is in this poem manifestly baffling. For

one might observe that for all the apparent movement here, there are no real progressions

in the poem at all. If the correction "We passed the Setting Sun— / Or

rather—He passed Us—" may be construed as a confirmation of the slowness of

the drive alluded to earlier in the poem, the last stanza seems to insist that the

carriage is standing still, moving if at all, as we say, in place. For the predominant

sense of this journey is not simply its endlessness; it is also the curious back and forth

sweep of its images conveying, as they do, the perpetual return to what has been

perpetually taken leave of.

Angus Fletcher, speaking in terms applicable to "Because I could not stop for

Death," documents the characteristics of allegorical journeys as surrealistic in

imagery (as for example, the "Gazing Grain—"), paratactic in rhythm or

structure (as indeed we can hear in the acknowledged form of movement: "We passed . .

. We passed . . . We passed . . . Or rather—He passed Us . . . We Paused . . .

"), and almost always incomplete: "It is logically quite natural for the

extension to be infinite, since by definition there is no such thing as the whole of any

analogy; all analogies are incomplete, and incompletable, and allegory simply records this

analogical relation in a dramatic or narrative form."

But while the poem has some of the characteristics of allegory, it nonetheless seems to

defy such easy classification. Thus the utterance is not quite allegory because it is not

strongly iconographic (its figures do not have a one-to-one correspondence with a

representational base), and at the same time, these figures are sufficiently rigid to

preclude the freeing up of associations that is characteristic of the symbol. We recall

Coleridge’s distinction between a symbolic and an allegorical structure. A symbol

presupposes a unity with its object. It denies the separateness between subject and object

by creating a synecdochic relationship between itself and the totality of what it

represents; like the relationship between figure and thing figured discussed in the first

part of this chapter, it is always part of that totality. Allegory, on the other hand, is

a sign that refers to a specific meaning from which it continually remains detached.

Through its abstract embodiment, the allegorical form makes the distance between itself

and its original meaning clearly manifest. It accentuates the absolute cleavage between

subject and object. Since the speaker in "Because I could not stop for Death"

balances between the boast of knowledge and the confession of ignorance, between a oneness

with death and an inescapable difference from it, we may regard the poem as a partial

allegory. The inability to know eternity, the failure to be at one with it, is, we might

say, what the allegory of "Because I could not stop for Death" makes manifest.

The ride with death, though it espouses to reveal a future that is past, in fact casts

both past and future in the indeterminate present of the last stanza. Unable to arrive at

a fixed conception, it must rest on the bravado (and it implicitly knows this) of its

initial claim. Thus death is not really civilized; the boundary between otherness and

self, life and death, is crossed, but only in presumption, and we might regard this fact

as the real confession of disappointment in the poem’s last stanza.

from Lyric Time: Dickinson and the Limits of Genre. Copyright ? 1979 by The

Johns Hopkins UP.

Jane Donahue Eberwein

Dickinson’s most famous poem spoken from beyond the grave confronts precisely this

problem: the assertiveness of the circuit world ["the world of matter and time and

intellectual awareness . . . busyness is the circuit world’s dominant characteristic,

industry its major value"] against the claims of complementary vision . . . The

representative of the verse here is a decidedly imaginary person—not Emily

Dickinson’s self-projection (which would be of one straining for escape beyond

circumference and intensely alert to all details of transition) but a woman contented

within the routine of circuit busyness. Her opening words echo some of Dickinson’s own

habitual usages but present a contradictory value system adapted to worldly achievements.

This lady has been industrious—too busy to stop her work, whatever it may have been.

Dickinson, too, proclaimed herself too busy in her self-descriptive July 1862 letter to

Higginson and in a letter to Mrs. Holland that Johnson and Ward place conjecturally at the

same time on the basis of obvious verbal echoes (L 268; 269). To Higginson she wrote:

"Perhaps you smile at me. I could not stop for that—My Business is


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