Study Guide

Because I could not stop for Death Analysis

  • Sound Check

    Hats off to Dickinson for the way this poem sounds. All those technical things we talked about in "Form and Meter" (meter, rhyme, anaphora, the dashes) really make for subtly-woven sound patterns. Take a look at the repeating rhymes again. Not only does the rhyme tie the poem together, but it draws attention to some very important words in the poem, "Immortality" and "Eternity."

    None of the sounds are super loud or noticeable. This is not your neighbor at the drum set. It's almost as if Dickinson has done all of this behind our backs, so if you don't pay attention, you might not even realize it's there. The more attractive the poem sounds, the more you're going to want to read and pay attention. The meter, which is so sneakily undulating (think low-rolling hills), is lulling and attractive. You can almost imagine this poem set to the even sound of the horses' clomping hooves; the real conversation is going on between the speaker and Death in the carriage, but the hooves are always in the background. Very cool stuff.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    "Because I could not stop for Death" is actually not the title of this poem. Dickinson didn't title any of her poems, because she never meant to publish them. In collections, sometimes this poem is given a number, either 479 or (712). These numbers were assigned to the poems after Dickinson's death and indicate the order in which Thomas Johnson (1955 edition) and R.W. Franklin (1998 edition) think they were written. Nowadays, the Franklin number, which is not in parenthesis and appears first, is usually the more trusted.

  • Setting

    Well, the setting moves around a little because the speaker and Death are going for a ride in a carriage. It starts when Death picks up the speaker and they drive for a while through her town, past the schoolyard and fields of grain, and eventually to her burial site. We can assume that the trip takes a while and that they probably cover a decent amount of ground. It's light when they set out on their journey, then the sun sets and night begins. Let's not forget the burial "house" either. While we never actually see the speaker in the house, we can assume she made herself pretty comfy shortly thereafter.

    The setting shifts a bit in the final stanza because we find out the place in the poem is from long ago and that the speaker is really telling this story long into the afterlife. So, you could say the whole poem takes place in the afterlife, but the memory of the ride has a different setting altogether.

  • Speaker

    The speaker is dead. But the even cooler thing is that we don't know this for sure until the last stanza. So the speaker is a ghost or spirit thinking back to the day of her death. She's actually pretty calm about it too. Maybe because she's been dead for so long she's not so freaked out about it anymore, or maybe she was ready to die when she did; either way, she's completely at ease with it now and looks back at that day almost fondly.

    This was a memorable day for her, though. Centuries have passed and she still remembers everything so vividly – what they passed on the way, when she got chilly, what the grave looked like, and she especially remembers the feeling she got when she looked at those horse heads.

  • Tough-O-Meter

    (4) Base Camp

    You can probably leave the ice pick at home. The action in this poem is pretty straightforward. The real meat is the comparison of death to a date in a carriage ride, and the calm attitude of the speaker. Make sure you keep your hiking boots on, though, because the ending is a little bit of a shock.

  • Calling Card

    Lady of the Dark Side

    Dickinson is no stranger to the topic of death. In fact, it's pretty safe to say she's got a corner on the market. An unsettling amount of her poems are either about dying, death, or what happens after death. What's stranger than her fixation on the subject is her more-or-less cool, calm, and collected attitude toward it. Sure, the poems are creepy, but the speakers in her poems are rarely spooked by the bleak scene. They seem pretty comfy on the dark side of things.

  • Form and Meter

    Hymn-Like Iambic Meter in Quatrains

    If you're familiar with hymns, you'll know they're usually written in rhyming quatrains and have a regular metrical pattern. Dickinson's quatrains (four-line stanzas) aren't perfectly rhymed, but they sure do follow a regular metrical pattern. We'll show you what we mean.

    Iambic meter is supposed to follow the most common pattern of English speech, so if you didn't notice that this poem was written in meter, don't worry about it! That just means Dickinson pulled it off without it sounding forced. The first and third line in every stanza is made up of eight syllables, or four feet. A foot is made up of one unstressed and one stressed syllable. So the first line, if you were to exaggerate it, might sound like this:

    Be-cause | I could | not stop | for Death,

    The vertical lines mark the feet. Since there are four ("tetra") feet per line, this is called iambic tetrameter. The second and fourth lines of each stanza are in the same iambic metrical pattern, but because they have fewer syllables (and therefore only three feet) it's called iambic trimeter (tri = three).

    The important thing to know is that there is a regular pattern here, even if Dickinson, rebel that she is, breaks it a couple of times. Can you find where?

    The rhyme isn't regular (meaning it doesn't follow a particular pattern) but there is rhyme in this poem. "Me" rhymes with "Immortality" and, farther down the poem, with "Civility" and, finally, "Eternity." Scattering this same rhyme unevenly throughout the poem really ties the sound of poem together. Also, "Chill" and "Tulle" are half or slant rhymes, meaning they sound really close to a perfect rhyme but there's something a little off.

    Another thing that ties the poem together is the repeated phrase, "We passed," which is changed a bit in the fifth stanza to, "We paused." This repetition of a word or phrase throughout a poem is called anaphora and it's a technique poets use a lot in order to help the poem progress as a well as tie it together.

    You probably noticed that Dickinson likes to capitalize nouns, but what is the effect? Capitalization can make the words seem more important; it certainly stands out, and it can also slow the reader down a little, making us pause to consider the word rather than breezing through the poem. Those dashes have a similar effect sometimes. They both make us pause and usher us on to the next line. You might think of them as connecters or strings, pulling you through the poem.

  • Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

    Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.

    Death

    OK, so death is not a new concept to us but Dickinson does a good job making it fresh and strange by having death take the form of a man. You might be tempted to think of the grim reaper, with his black cloak and dangerous-looking scythe (the curved sharp thing he's always carrying around), but, no, Dickinson's Death is a real smooth operator. He's the kind of guy who would hold the door open for his date and offer her his coat on a chilly night. Dickinson uses the character of Death as an extended metaphor to examine what real death might be like.

    • Lines 1-2: Death is introduced right away as the leading character and focus of the poem, performing a human action – stopping for someone on his way. If this were a play he'd be cast as the leading male role who gets a lot of lines. Substitute Death for any guy's name: "Because I could not stop for Tom – / He kindly stopped for me." Now, the beginning of this poem seems like the first meeting of two lovers. This personification of death as a male suitor continues throughout the poem. What does that say about the speaker's thoughts and feelings about death?
    • Line 5: Now that we've established Death as a human character who represents actual death, let's start making those connections every time he reappears in the poem. In this line we know that the character Death is driving along slowly. What might this action mean when we apply it to thinking about real death? Well, it's definitely not a quick death, like from a gunshot wound or a gory decapitation. Perhaps this could be something more similar to death from a long illness, or slowly dying of old age in one's sleep. Dickinson doesn't really say, but we can look at the evidence she does give us to make educated guesses.
    • Line 8: Further character development shows us that Death is polite and courteous. So if we were going to continue to relate this to the real thing, we'd probably come to the conclusion that this end wasn't too painful, and that the speaker (the one dying) didn't put up any struggle.
    • Line 9: The "He" (referring to Death) has now changed to "We." This might be a hint that the two have joined and that the speaker is actually dying.
    • Line 17: This marks the end of their journey, where Death has brought her home. This might, in more literal terms, mean that the speaker is no longer dying but is in fact dead, and laid to rest in her grave.

    The Carriage

    The carriage in which Death and the speaker ride is a metaphor for the way in which we make our final passage to death. If you want to be literary about it you might think of Dante's Inferno where the souls are ferried by boat into hell. Or, on a more familiar level, it's pretty common for a hearse to carry a coffin to its grave. The carriage in this poem is the mode of transportation to the afterlife. We have to get where we're going somehow.

    • Lines 3-4: In line 3 we see that the carriage holds Death and the speaker. But the hint that the carriage is more significant than plain old transportation comes in the next line, where we discover the carriage also holds "Immortality," another example of personification. This should really tip us off that the carriage is a pretty special vehicle that will carry the speaker to the next world.

    The Sunset

    …and the cold to follow. This might be the most obvious symbol in the poem. Dickinson is certainly not the first to use sunset as a symbol and foreshadowing of death. So she's in cheesy territory, but luckily Dickinson's a master and avoids cliché.

    • Lines 12-13: The sun passes them, leaving the riders in spooky cold. Dickinson doesn't write it, but we can assume it's gotten dark too. Dark and cold certainly set the scene for death. What do you think it's like under the ground? So, we have to give Dickinson credit for using an age-old literary device – the sunset – and chucking the pastel-hued beach scene for something a little more original, and more chilling.

    The House

    The speaker's last stop and final resting place. The house is a metaphor for the grave. Dickinson wants to enforce the idea that the speaker accepts and is comfortable with dying. She could have described the claustrophobic coffin, but she didn't. She chose a metaphor familiar to the readers to illustrate the calmness of the speaker.

    • Lines 17-20: The speaker can barely make out the house, since it's just a small rise in the ground. Maybe because she is just starting to understand that this house is going to be her grave. We tend to comprehend things better when they have personal significance. The description of the house is pretty limited and seems normal except for the fact that it's underground. Dickinson might keep the description vague on purpose. She wants to use the house as a symbol, but still wants it to make sense on a literal level. If she were to describe the house down to the green shutters and the white picket fence, this might seem a little funny to us, and much less believable. So kudos to Dickinson on "less is more."

    The Horses

    …or, rather, their heads! The horses' heads are the 9th inning symbols, but they really hit a home run. OK, forgive the baseball comparison, but these horse heads do heavy-duty work as the closing symbol of the poem. But what exactly do they symbolize?

    • Lines 23-24: The speaker says the first hint that she was going to die was seeing the horses' heads (maybe even before she got in the carriage with Death). So what would make her feel that way? Well, first of all, there's a lot of room for "I had a feeling" in poetry. It's built on gut feelings, especially in Dickinson's poetry, but let's also think about what the image of a horse head looks like. Their heads are long and angled forward, perhaps like an arrow pushing through the barrier from life to death?
    • Sex Rating

      G

      There's nothing too steamy going on here, though some flirtation with Death is present. All the same, it's pretty tame.