Study Guide

Because I could not stop for Death Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

By Emily Dickinson

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?