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Themes in Because I Could Not Stop for Death
Confronting Mortality: The central theme of the poem is the personal confrontation with mortality. Dickinson handles this challenging theme by presenting it through a series of images, metaphors, and events. The speaker is invited to take a ride in a horse-drawn carriage by the gentlemanly “Death.” Much of the power of the poem comes from its understated quality. Dickinson does not explain the situation, but merely offers it to us in a matter-of-fact manner. There is an attitude of calm acceptance that seems proper in the light of death, a phenomenon that has always eluded human rationalization.
Contemplating Eternity: One of the themes Dickinson presents to us is that of one’s destination after death. As the speaker’s ride in Death’s carriage progresses, two destinations are referenced. The first is the speaker’s own grave in the earth—“a swelling of the ground.” The second is the direction of the horses’ heads: “eternity.” The idea of eternity is presaged by the mention of the carriage’s third passenger: “Immortality.” As with the topic of death, Dickinson does not explain or literalize the ideas of eternity or immortality. Rather, she entertains them within the bounds of the poem, presenting them for us to ponder as well.
Themes Examples in Because I Could Not Stop for Death:
Text of the Poem
"and my leisure too,..." See in text (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.”
"My labor,..." See in text (Text of the Poem)
This line suggests that life is primarily constituted of work and play, or “labor” and “leisure.” Arriving at death, we set aside both. This duality prefigures the following stanza, whose imagery is tense with life’s balance of labor and leisure: children playing, having just finished their schoolwork; the wheatfields where the real work is done, personified with a leisurely gaze as the sun sets. The poem’s tone carries a similar duality in its combination of graveness and lightness. Dickinson blends the heaviness of death with the ordinariness of a carriage ride.
"gazing..." See in text (Text of the Poem)
In a continuation of the symbolic imagery, the fields of grain may represent the labor and maturity of adulthood. While readers may expect the word “grazing” to be associated with fields, the speaker subverts these expectations by describing the grain as “gazing.” This choice shifts focus from the active role of playing children to a more passive viewpoint, as the grain calmly gazes at the carriage as it passes by.
"played..." See in text (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.”
"civility..." See in text (Text of the Poem)
The speaker describes how she has ceased to engage in both work and pleasure in order to be polite to her courteous suitor. These first two stanzas deliberately subvert typical connotations of death and dying as negative and distressing, to instead portray the character of Death as polite and kind.
"kindly..." See in text (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.