Text of the Poem

THE CHARIOT.

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 too,
For his civility.

We passed the school where children played,
Their lessons scarcely done;
We passed the fields of gazing grain,
We passed the setting sun.

[...]

We paused before a house that seemed
A swelling of the ground;
The roof was scarcely visible,
The cornice but a mound.

Since then 'tis centuries; but each
Feels shorter than the day
I first surmised the horses' heads
Were toward eternity.

Footnotes

  1. 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.”

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  2. 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.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  3. 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.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  4. In Dickinson’s original draft of the poem, this line reads as “The Cornice — in the Ground —,” which is an altogether different image. A cornice is a concave feature below a roof or ceiling. The image of a cornice constituting a mound makes little sense. The cornice in ground, however, conveys the notion of a house buried deep in the ground, presumably due to the passage of time. This is a case in which Loomis Todd and Higginson’s edits are notably damaging to the original intention of the poem.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  5. 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.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  6. 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.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  7. 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.

    — Emily, Owl Eyes Staff
  8. 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.

    — Emily, Owl Eyes Staff
  9. "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.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  10. After Dickinson died, she instructed her sister Lavinia to burn all of her manuscripts. 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.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  11. 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.

    — Emily, Owl Eyes Staff
  12. 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.”

    — Emily, Owl Eyes Staff
  13. 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.

    — Emily, Owl Eyes Staff
  14. 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.

    — Emily, Owl Eyes Staff
  15. The house that is “swelling of the ground” is a metaphor for a gravestone. Referring to this place as a “house” establishes a warm, domestic association with this place: this is not the cold, dark resting place of the dead, but a home that one retires to. This metaphor figures death as a positive experience.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  16. 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.

    — Emily, Owl Eyes Staff
  17. 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.

    — Emily, Owl Eyes Staff