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