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Literary Devices in Because I Could Not Stop for Death

Personification of Death: One of the central poetic devices Dickinson uses in the poem is the personification of death. Like many poets before and since, Dickinson writes of death by bringing it down from the realm of abstraction into something more concrete. In “Because I could not stop for Death,” Dickinson makes death into “Death,” a gentleman riding in a horse-drawn carriage who picks up the speaker for a ride through the country. Thus death becomes a more malleable subject for the poet.

Form, Rhyme, and Meter: Dickinson wrote “Because I could not stop for Death” in what is called “common meter,” a poetic form defined by alternating four-beat and three-beat lines. The lines are assembled into quatrains—four line stanzas—with a loose ABAB rhyme scheme. This form is typically used in nursery rhymes, giving the poem a light sing-song tone that lends levity to the otherwise heavy subject matter.

The Landscape of Life: One of the sustained metaphors—or conceits—in the poem is that of the landscape outside the carriage as life itself in its various stages of development. The sequential scenes of playing children, fields of grain, and the setting sun symbolize, childhood, adulthood, and elderhood, respectively.

Literary Devices Examples in Because I Could Not Stop for Death:

Text of the Poem

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"and my leisure too,..."   (Text of the Poem)

Dickinson wrote this poem in what is known as “common meter”: an alternating pattern of four-beat and three-beat lines. Common meter gets its name from its frequent use in hymns and nursery rhymes. The poem “Because I could not stop for Death” evokes the feeling of a nursery rhyme, a form intended for both education and fun, both labor and leisure. In the words of the Roman poet Horace, poetry’s aim is to delight and instruct. If we were to imagine Dickinson as the passenger, poetry would be her “labor and [her] leisure too.”

"'tis centuries..."   (Text of the Poem)

Here, the speaker describes her experience of time as lasting an eternity. Centuries go by and feel like mere days. In this way, she becomes the unembodied “immortality” at the beginning of the poem; in death she finds immortality.

"Were toward eternity...."   (Text of the Poem)

In this final line, the three metrical beats fall on syllables beginning with “t.” When read aloud, the line sounds like a clock, with a rhythmic ticking of t sounds. These sounds beautifully evoke the horses’ headlong trot through time. This use of alliteration on metrical beats is a poetic signature of Anglo-Saxon verse.

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

The structure of this poem comprises of a fairly straightforward ABCD rhyme scheme. A number of these rhymes are slant rhymes or half rhymes, which means that either the consonants or vowels of stressed syllables are identical. The rhyme structure creates a largely gentle, lilting tone, which further supports the treatment of death as a gentle presence. However, these slant rhymes offer moments of discord, where the last line of the stanza is slightly imperfect or out of place. This discord foreshadows the notion of death as something that, while natural, will inevitably and permanently remove the speaker from the natural progression of life itself.

"[...]..."   (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.

"surmised..."   (Text of the Poem)

"The verb “surmised” means imagined, supposed, or inferred. The entirety of the poem represents the course of the day of her death, during which she infers her journey is towards eternity. In this way, the short space of the poem and the short time one might spend reading the poem mimics the shortness of the speaker’s last day; in turn, this emphasizes the timeless feeling of eternity.

"played..."   (Text of the Poem)

This stanza may be read as a symbolic allegory for the natural progression of life. The image of playing children demonstrates the carefree activity of youth. The active role of the children deliberately contrasts with the passive role of the speaker, emphasized by the repetition of the past-tense verb “passed.”

"haste..."   (Text of the Poem)

In this context, the noun “haste” means “rush or “hurry.” By describing Death as knowing no haste, the speaker is commenting on the slow, leisurely pace of their journey. This description serves to further personify Death as a courteous gentleman, a sentiment echoed in the last line of this stanza. This furthers the notion that death is not something to be feared, but rather a natural end to the progression of life.

"kindly..."   (Text of the Poem)

Death and dying are central themes throughout a large portion of Dickinson’s poetry. In the first stanza of this poem, Death is personified as a gentleman caller, who kindly invites the speaker into his carriage. By personifying death as a physical figure, and one that is kind and courteous, the poet subverts traditional notions of death as terrifying or evil, to instead present death as a natural and inevitable part of life.

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