Because I could not / stop for Death – (F479, J712)

Because I could not
stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but
just Ourselves –
And Immortality

We slowly drove – He
knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure
For His Civility –

We passed the School,
where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields
of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –

Or rather – He passed
Us –
The Dews drew quivering
and Chill –
For only Gossamer, my
Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –

We paused before a
House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely
visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground –

Since then – ’tis Centuries –
and yet
Feel shorter than the Day
I first surmised the
Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity –

Link to EDA original manuscripts: Page 1, Page 2Originally in: Packet 31, Fascicle 23 (1862). First published in Poems by Emily Dickinson (First Series) by Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Wentworth Higginson in 1890. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

Cody contextualizes “Because I could not stop for Death,” one of Dickinson’s most well-known poems, with Spofford’s story, “The Amber Gods,” which appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in 1860. He calls this tale an “incandescent burst of psychic energy—perhaps the quintessential Azarian work.” It features an accomplished female narrator, Yone Willoughby, who “is the most powerful incarnation of the dangerous Spofford female” because of her trespassing on the male turf of learning. She thus represents “an ultimately intolerable threat to the power of the New England patriarchy.” Cody speculates that Dickinson may have read this story and “Circumstance” (discussed previously) as “Spoffordian allegories of the plight of the female artist.”

Like some of Edgar Allan Poe’s definitely Gothic heroines, not even death can stop Yone’s voice. Cody identifies this technique as an experiment with “the posthumous narrative,” characters who speak from beyond the grave, often about their own deaths. After a long struggle, Yone describes her own demise in chilling terms. She gets up and roves around the house waiting for the clock to strike, when realization strikes her:

And ah! what was this thing I had become? I had done with time. Not for me the hands moved on their recurrent circle anymore … I must have died at ten minutes past one.

We see this posthumous narrative in several of Dickinson’s notable poems of this period, which capture different emotional registers to the experience, from interest, to anxiety, to ecstasy.

This poem has a fascinating history that is important for our understanding of it. As Cristanne Miller recounts, it appeared in the first edition of Dickinson’s published works, Poems, 1890, where the editors, Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, titled it “The Chariot,” omitted the poem’s fourth stanza and changed several words. These changes were not restored until Thomas Johnson’s edition of The Poems of Emily Dickinson in 1955. Apparently, Dickinson’s early editors felt they had to soften her Gothic vision that transformed the comforting Victorian notion of personal “Immortality” into the grim meaninglessness of “Eternity.” For many modern readers, the omitted fourth stanza is the emotional heart of the poem and its turning point. Miller argues that this stanza compels us to “read the poem’s beginning as ironic. The poem becomes a satiric portrait of Victorian gentility and repression …”

For a less somber revision of the poem, check this out: “The Carriage.”

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Sources for this poem