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Because I Could Not Stop For Death Personification

“Because I could not stop for Death” by Emily Dickinson is considered a masterpiece of American poetry. The short tale of a leisurely ride in a carriage with a man called Death offers insight and perspective into what life really is. Ultimately, Dickinson wishes to remind the reader that life is a cycle; and death can be seen as an end, or as a beginning. The cycle of life is exemplified in Dickinson’s use of the personification of Death, the imagery of things seen in the carriage ride, and use of time in the poem.

When one thinks about a life cycle, certain things come to their mind. Whether these things are time periods or specific achievements, each thing designates a new step in the cycle. Just as graduation from high school marks the beginning of the next step of life. Dickinson uses imagery to get this point across in the poem. As the speaker is travelling with Death, there are several things mentioned that she pays special attention to. The first thing she notices is a schoolyard, “where Children strove At Recess,” (Dickinson line 9).

This schoolyard symbolizes the childhood that everyone remembers as such a simple time, where the only thing that mattered was playing on the playground with friends. This is what many people consider their earliest and fondest memories, when life was simple. So, on the circle of life, childhood is one of the opening steps, but as seen in the poem, it is revisited soon after death, when everything is uncomplicated once again. Dickinson may be alluding to this with the phrase: “in the Ring,” (Dickinson line 10). After one finishes school, the next step is almost always joining the workforce.

Perhaps that is what is implied by “the Fields of Gazing Grain,” (Dickinson line 11). Agriculture is one of the largest industries in the world, and what better way to signify working than farmland? A career usually lasts a lifetime, and is the next step in the cycle that is life. Much like the children in the ring, crops are a cycle themselves: planting, growing, and being cut year after year, time and time again. Finally, they pass the setting sun, or rather, it passes them. This passing of the sun can symbolize many things, but going along with the theme of cycles, it is the ending of a day.

The sun comes up, then it does down; it is all a cycle. The setting sun also represents the realization of death. The woman realizes now that she is cold: “The Dews drew quivering and Chill –” (Dickinson line 14). When one thinks of death, cold and dark certainly come to mind, as is such after the setting sun. Death is personified differently in this poem than in most other works of literature. “Whether Death takes the form of a decrepit old man, a grim reaper, or a ferryman, his visit is almost never welcome by the poor mortal who finds him at the door” (“Because I could not Stop for Death”).

However, this time the woman is almost excited to see Death, he is a suitor who “kindly stopped” (Dickinson line 2) for her. One can imagine Death as a handsome young gentleman, coming to pick up the young lady for a leisurely Sunday stroll. Semansky puts it this way in “An overview of ‘Because I Could Not Stop for Death”: “We know from the image of the carriage and the reference to the politeness of the “gentleman” that this poem uses the language and rituals of courtship to talk about something else” (Semansky: “An overview of “Because I Could Not Stop for Death”).

This “something else” Semansky is talking about could indeed be a cycle. Death seems to be courting this girl, and courting is most certainly a distinct time in anyone’s life. Dickinson uses Death itself as two parts of the circle in this way. Not only is he the obvious end of life, but he is also representing a specific time in life: the time of courtship or dating. Later, it is stated that the woman is in bridal clothing: “For only Gossamer, my Gown – My Tippet – only Tulle –,” (Dickinson line 15), implying that the woman has married Death, and further solidifying the cycle of life.

If courtship is not significant enough to be a step, marriage certainly is, (Joyner: “Because I Could Not Stop for Death: Overview”). Finally, Dickinson uses time to represent life as a cycle. The speaker describes the trip as slow: “We slowly drove – He knew no haste,” (Dickinson line 5); yet at the end of the poem, she describes the trip being very fast in hindsight: “Since then – ’tis Centuries – and yet Feels shorter than the Day,” (Dickinson lines 21-22). Life is this way as well; days by themselves often feel slow, but looking back over, say, a year, it often seems like the time passed unbelievably quickly.

The speaker’s trip is this but on a much larger scale. The poem states that centuries seem shorter than a day, which is this strange phenomenon of hindsight on a massive scale. Perhaps her trip is so slow that each memory stays with her, making the whole thing seem much shorter than it is. Dickinson brilliantly uses even the time passing in the story to symbolize a lifetime. The most puzzling thing in this poem is the mention of the house. As Bernhard Frank of Modern American Poetry says, the house “poses more questions than it answers. This house has little description, other than “A Swelling of the Ground – The Roof was scarcely visible – The Cornice – in the Ground” (Dickinson lines 21-24).

There are several things this house could be. It could be Death’s house, or some sort of burial ground. All that is known is that the speaker stopped there on her journey. When looking at this poem from the point of view of cycles, a burial ground certainly makes the most sense. The house is described as “A Swelling of the Ground” (Dickinson line 21), and when a casket is buried, there is often a swell in the dirt for a while shortly after the burial.

The house farther cements the fact that the speaker has died, and this house is where she is buried. Perhaps the house is the place she lived while alive, and her physical body is buried there, or perhaps the house is a personification of a grave. Either way, it represents the end of the speaker’s life, the end of her cycle. It is uncertain whether or not the speaker is left at this house. It is entirely possible that she was dropped off, and the horses left without her, leaving her to think of the things mentioned in the last stanza. This theory offers a bit of hindsight to her thoughts.

It is almost as though she thinks she is stupid for not realizing the horses’ true destination is not a destination at all. Dickinson masterfully describes a lifetime using none other than death. Perhaps this is not the intended theme of the poem, but the brilliance of poetry is that the same words can be interpreted in countless different ways. The poem can have as many different interpretations as readers, and that is why it is considered one of the greatest American poems. Even the poem itself brings the speaker from life to death, and seeming back to an almost immortal level of life in the carriage; it is all just one big cycle.

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