Themes in Because I Could Not Stop for Death

Themes Examples in Because I Could Not Stop for Death:

Text of the Poem 7

"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.”

"My labor,..."   (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.

"[...]..."   (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.

"gazing..."   (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..."   (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..."   (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..."   (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.