Study Guide

Because I could not stop for Death

By Emily Dickinson

Because I could not stop for Death Introduction

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.

What is Because I could not stop for Death About and Why Should I Care?

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.

Because I could not stop for Death Resources

Websites

Modern American Poetry
A page devoted to the poem that includes a copy of the original manuscript and excerpts of criticism by scholars.

Neurotic Poets
Is Dickinson a "neurotic poet"? We don't like when people explain away genius as some kind of mental eccentricity, but it's an interesting site nonetheless.

Dickinson Biography
Two brief but very useful biographies of the poet.

Dickinson Electronic Archive
This site has promise but is a little hard to navigate. But once you look around, you'll great find links to Dickinson's letters, writings by her family members, and articles by professor-types.

Facebook
Join the Emily Dickinson group on Facebook.

Audio

A Sense of Humor
The New Yorker has a little fun with Ms. Dickinson and sound effects.

Out Loud
Listen to an actresses perform Dickinson poems and letters.

Images

Dickinson Pic
New(ly-discovered), old picture of Dickinson. Scroll down to see the image.

Books

The Emily Dickinson Journal
For all you Dickinson nerds, this is the latest in Dickinson scholarship, and you can access each issue online. (You will need a library or university account to log in.)

Emily Dickinson: Selected Letters
Dickinson's letters are amazing, and some of them are harder to figure out than a Sunday Sudoku puzzle. Check out the letters addressed to some unknown person whom she calls her "Master."