Historical Context in Because I Could Not Stop for Death

Controversial Publication History: Emily Dickinson was an intensely private person. As a poet she had no interest in publishing her work and instructed her sister Lavinia to destroy her manuscripts after her death. When Dickinson died in 1886, Lavinia went against Dickinson’s wishes and gave the poems to family friends Mary Todd Loomis and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who began preparing the poems for publication. The duo made a number of editorial choices to the poems before beginning to publish them in 1890 as The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Volume 1. These include alterations to the diction, capitalization, and punctuation, as well as the occasional removal of lines and even stanzas. In the case of “Because I could not stop for death,” they added a title (“The Chariot”) and they removed an entire stanza. As a result, it can be difficult in many of Dickinson’s poems to discern which stylistic choices were true to the poet’s original vision.

Historical Context Examples in Because I Could Not Stop for Death:

Text of the Poem 4

"carriage..."   (Text of the Poem)

Notice that the speaker calls Death’s method of transportation a “carriage,” not a “chariot.” Chariot’s are often used in mythology and theology as vehicles of the gods and divinely supported characters. Generally, chariots are used for war, and they connote epic heroes and violence. Since the tone of this poem is reserved and the theme advocates for peacefully accepting death, the title Loomis and Higginson assigned to the poem demonstrates a disconnect between the editors and the author’s intentions.

"[...]..."   (Text of the Poem)

In the Loomis Todd and Higginson version of this poem, they omit an entire stanza that describes the speaker’s feeling cold after the carriage passes the sun. The omitted stanza begins “Or rather, he passed us,” inverting the previous line which describes the carriage passing by the setting sun. This image is important as it describes how the speaker and the carriage are now separate from the natural cycle of life. The line implies that the carriage now stands still while the living world passes them by. This inversion foreshadows the pausing of the next line, where the speaker find herself motionless at her final resting place.

"THE CHARIOT..."   (Text of the Poem)

Dickinson left instructions for her sister Lavinia to burn all of her manuscripts after she died. Unable to destroy Dickinson’s life’s work, Lavinia gave them to Mabel Todd Loomis, a family friend and mistress of their brother Austin. Loomis decided to publish the poems with the help of Dickinson’s poetic mentor Thomas Wentworth Higginson, work that resulted in three volumes of poetry. Higginson and Loomis made serious changes to the punctuation, imagery, and flow of the original poems, as well as adding titles and numbering them. “The Chariot,” Loomis and Higginson’s version of “Because I could not stop for Death,” was published in their 1890 The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Series 1.

"Immortality...."   (Text of the Poem)

This poem was written in 1865, a time when a lady and and her gentleman caller would not have been permitted to travel alone. This role of silent chaperone is personified by Immortality, who accompanies Death and the speaker on their journey.