If you know anything about Emily Dickinson, it's probably that she was a reclusive poet from small-town Massachusetts who wrote tons and tons of poetry in the 1800s that wasn't published much until after her death. Oh, and that death and dying were among her favorite subjects.
We can add "Because I could not stop for Death," first published in 1862, to the list of Dickinson poems obsessed with the idea of death. In this particular poem, the speaker encounters death, yet the tale is delivered rather calmly. As a result, the poem raises tons of questions: Is the speaker content to die? Is this poem really about death, or does the idea of death stand in for something else? Fear of marriage perhaps? Is this a poem about faith? The doors for interpretation are wide open.
There probably isn't one person among us who hasn't considered what will happen after we die. This poem explores that curiosity by creating a death scene that's familiar to the living – something we can all imagine, whether we'd like to or not.
There's something very cinematic about this poem. The ending feels especially reminiscent of the flashback trick used in movies, or the ending that turns the whole movie on its head – "and what you thought was taking place right now actually happened centuries ago and, surprise, I'm dead!" If you visualize this poem, it's hard not to imagine a Tim Burton-like scene. Corpse Bride maybe, or even Beetlejuice – movies where what feels familiar to us in this world is combined with some aspect of an afterlife.
Even if you're not as death-obsessed as Emily Dickinson, you've got to admit that you're at least a little curious about what goes on during and after death. How do you picture death and the afterlife? In "Because I could not stop for Death," Dickinson imagines that maybe a handsome gentleman comes to take us on a pleasant ride through our former town and death is just one stop along the way. It's a little creepy, we'll admit, but not so horrifying either.