The Ride of Her Life
Emily Dickinson grew up in New England in the late 1800s. The nineteenth century was a difficult time period for the people of America. There was an abundance of war, epidemic, and death. Because her house was located beside a graveyard, Dickinson saw many of the elaborate funeral processions as they passed (Murray). Because of these experiences, death became very real to her, and it made a large impression on her life. Conrad Aikin, one of the many critics of Dickinsonís work, believes that: "Death and the problem of life after death obsessed her" (15). She had a very peculiar idea about eternity that was unlike any of the traditional Christian ideas of that time period. Dickinsonís strong feelings about death are expressed through hundreds of poems where she maximizes and characterizes many qualities of death. However, "Because I could not stop for Death" is one that receives a great deal of critical attention and causes a great deal of interest. In this poem, Dickinson uses personification and metaphors to develop the idea of death, which is a suitor arriving, and to reveal how doubtful the speaker is about the indefinite event of eternity. Through this poem, Dickinson allows the reader to see her feelings about death. She feels that no one can know for sure what will take place after death, and she believes the idea of eternity is unknown.
In "Because I could not stop for Death," the poet personifies death, making him a real person with human characteristics. For this reason, many consider this poem one of her greatest works. Chris Semansky has written a great deal about modern and postmodern literature. In the article "An Overview of ĎBecause I could not stop for Death,í" he speaks about Thomas Johnson's feelings relating to the poem: "ĎBecause I could not stop for Deathí is a superlative achievement where death becomes the greatest character in literature" (Semansky). Personification is a type of figurative language one uses to give abstract ideas human-like characteristics. Dickinson uses personification in this poem because it allows the reader to understand death in a more intimate way. Death became so real to her and to her contemporaries because of the time in which she lived. Through her life experiences, the poet became intimate with death. Because of all the disease and epidemics in her lifetime, many of her loved ones passed away. These deaths were very "intense breaks in her life" (Murray). Some critics suggest that the death of her cousin was the inspiration for this poem (Semansky). In any event, death had a large impact on Dickinson's life. This impact explains why she writes so descriptively about it. In this poem, death is personified as a gentleman caller taking the lady out for a carriage ride. This personification gives the reader a better image of the writerís idea of the coming of death.
Dickinson gives Death many characteristics that help to shape our image of him. The line "He kindly stopped for me" in the first stanza, immediately gives a male gender (2). This male image gives the reader the traditional idea of the gentleman caller. This line also reveals a kind quality of death. The kind quality is important throughout this poem because it allows the speaker to feel more comfortable on this indefinite ride. The speaker also tells of Deathís civility. One can draw from these characteristics an image of a polite and courteous man driving the carriage. These warm-hearted qualities give the reader a calm, inquisitive look at death. The poet looks at death this way because of her traditional religious background. This background gives the speaker a peaceful idea of eternity that relates to the biblical idea of Heaven. However, this genteel driver elicits the terror of death. This driver "is made ironically to serve the end of immortality" (Tate 84). Even though the driver appears to have many appealing characteristics, his purpose is still to reveal the unknown destination of eternity for the lady. Though Deathís face value reveals only a gentleman, "we can accept little at face value in Dickinson" (Abbott). Deathís qualities become more majestic and quite mysterious as the journey continues. The poet personifies death and brings to view a collection of many different qualities of death in this poem. Dickinson wants the reader to become aware of the undetermined feelings of death that she is contemplating.
The kind and caring qualities that we see in Death lead one to believe that Death, the suitor, also represents a lover. As he arrives in the carriage, he is courting her and wanting her to come along. In the line "And I put away my labor and leisure too," it is clear to see that the speaker stops what she is doing to join Death (7). The gentleman caller taking the young lady of the house for a ride was common courtship in the nineteenth century. Courtship was something of importance in Dickinsonís day. Here she is guiding the reader to an idea that she has never experienced herself but knew a great deal about because of her brotherís courtship experiences. The poet feels that the only courtship she will experience will be that of Deathís. In this way, she again reveals her relationship with death to us. We see that Dickinson gives death these personality traits to allow the reader to see her uneasiness about this subject. Because this poem is the beginning of the speakerís courtship, the idea of a first date could also cause some of the speakerís uneasy feelings. Some critics say that this idea of a lover is merely a common idea for many romantic poets (Tate 22). However, this personification of death is not merely because Dickinson is a romantic poet. It is common in her poetry because of her very adamant attitude about the eternal situation.
Dickinson is also known for her use of metaphorical language throughout her poetry. When speaking of death, she uses metaphors frequently to describe the unimaginable event. A metaphor is a comparison of two things, but there is no exactness in meaning. Moreover, the poetís thoughts and feelings about death are not very exact and quite unsure. "Death is not merely metaphorical for Dickinson; it is the greatest subject of her work" (Faulkner 923). Dickinsonís strange and unsure feelings help to explain her use of metaphors in this poem. Many critics have their own interpretations of Dickinsonís poems. Richard Sewall speaks about her by saying: "Dickinson lived her life metaphorically in ways that call for interpretation" (qtd. in Eberwien 29). She uses metaphors in "Because I could not stop for Death" because she is attempting to compare something that is unfamiliar to something familiar. She is comparing for the reader something she has actually had to something she has not (Murray). Through the children playing, the grain fields, the house, and the horsesí heads, the poet gives us an exceptional description of an uncertain experience in this poem.
Through this metaphorical journey, Death is revealing to the speaker her options about eternity. The first option is quite peaceful. In the line "As we pass the school, where children strove," the writer is using the childrenís activities in the schoolyard to characterize a certain type of eternity (9). This eternity would be a haven of happiness that is full of laughter and smiles. It is easy to see how the speaker receives this image from young children because they are so full of these happy qualities. Likewise, the "gazing grain" in the same stanza also reiterates a sense of tranquility about eternity. The grain does this because the sight of open fields of grain blowing in the wind is very peaceful. The metaphor is that eternity is being compared to the delight of small children and to the peacefulness of grain fields. These same scenes today would again give the feeling of peace, happiness, and tranquility. Moreover, the third stanza is allowing the speaker to see the stages of her life. This part in the poem has a dual meaning. Howard Faulkner criticizes Dickinsonís work when he states: "The third stanza brings the customary metaphor of life as a journey and the convention of oneís life passing before her as she dies" (924). Not only are these scenes options for eternity, but they are also scenes of the speakerís life. Through these images, the speaker is starting to realize what she is leaving behind. The first image the speaker sees helps to calm her uncertainty about this journey with death because of the peaceful characteristics that are revealed.
The next metaphor begins in the fourth stanza of the speakerís journey. In the line "The dews grew quivering and chill," the poet allows the reader to begin to feel the cold chill of an empty eternity (14). The carriage or chariot, as some may call it, takes a very dreary turn. The air and the idea of eternity are becoming very cold and even lonely. This coldness is another eternal option for the speaker. "Her clothing, frilly and light" allows the cold chill to cut right through the speaker (Faulkner 924). The words "quivering and chill" are comparing an unexpected coldness to a certain eternity without any comfort or contentment. The speaker is becoming fearful. Robert Wiesbuch, a writer about Dickinsonís work, says that now we see the poem along with the speaker become more doubtful in its trust of immortality (214). In the third stanza, the speaker feels quite content with a type of peaceful eternity. However, now that the speaker takes another look, she is confronted with a type of very unpleasant eternity. Her skepticism is now turning into fear. "This response suggests not only the literal coldness that comes from not dressing appropriately for the occasion, but also the emotional coldness that occurs when approaching oneís own death" (Semansky). This turn in the road causes the speaker and even the reader to become more unsure and doubtful about the events of eternity.
The next stop for the speaker is a house. The house here has multiple meanings. The house represents the speakerís life. As the house appears to be sinking, the speakerís life is also sinking and becoming closer to the ground in a very literal way. Dickinson compared many of her ideas to biblical ideas. The Bible makes reference to the body returning to the ground dust unto dust. This metaphor is comparing the house, which is almost completely in the ground, to the speakerís life, which is almost at an end. There is a passage in the Bible that discusses "many mansions" that are "in my Fatherís house." This suggestion gives us an idea that the house represents another aspect of deathís finality (Murray). Along with the image of death, this metaphor of the house gives us an image of the grave. The grave is also a representation of the finality of death. During Dickinsonís lifetime, many people were buried in burial vaults. These vaults were built with a roof and stone walls. Because of their structural design, these vaults resembled houses. There would be earth and sod all around these structures. The earth and sod all around gave the appearance of the "swelling of the ground" (18). Metaphorically, through the house, Dickinson reveals an image of the end of life.
One other metaphor that contributes to the many doubts and feelings of the speaker is that of the horsesí heads. The horsesí heads are being compared to the direction of eternity. The lines "I first surmised the horsesí heads were toward eternity," allow one to question if their direction will be immortality or merely mortality (23-24). The horsesí heads are a synecdoche to the whole. The heads are referring to the whole group of horses that are pulling the carriage. However, they are not just a synecdoche. They are also representing the fact that the speaker cannot see past them to see the vision of death (Cameron 156). The speaker is quite intrigued about their next destination. She is watching the horsesí heads to see which direction they will choose. The speaker is very uncertain about the way the horses will lead her ride toward eternity. After she has seen her options of eternity, she is very sure she does not get to choose. The poet is very unsure about who will make this final decision or if there is anyone to make it. We see she feels that death is an experience that no one can foretell. Through her poem, Dickinson reveals much doubt. Robert Weisbuch states it best when he speaks of Dickinson: "My emphasis here is that Dickinson suddenly, midpoem, has her thought change, pulls in the reins on her faith, and introduces a realistic doubt: and we are right there as this occurs" (214). The poetís metaphors allow the reader to be as skeptical as the speaker. The audience is also wondering what direction in eternity the horses will take.
In conclusion, it is obvious to see Dickinsonís closeness and intimacy with death through this poem. We see from the literary elements of personification and metaphorical language a wonderful contemporary, yet somehow traditional, image of death. Allen Tate describes the poem as "a typical theme of Christianity and in its final resolution, without making any final statements about it" (Tate 22). Moreover, the story is quite beautiful in a mysterious way. We see death as kind yet very frightening. Through the metaphors in the poem, one begins to wonder about her own immortality. "We might take immortality at face value, but immortality is not a person; it is each individualís concept of the Ďunending existenceí" (Abbott 143). Dickinson leaves the poemís story line untied so that we might arrange it to our own image of eternal existence. Because of the life of Emily Dickinson, we are allowed to see a masterpiece of an eternal idea as Death arrives for the lady. Her feelings and experiences expressed in this poem allow one to see a very brilliant yet always questioning mind. The personification and metaphors lead the reader to experience an uneasy feeling about mortality and immortality. Tate says it best when he states: "If the word Ďgreatí means any thing in poetry, this poem is one of the greatest in the English language" (Tate 84).
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This essay was written for Dr. Barbara Murrayís Spring 2001semester ENGL 1102 class by Julie Simmons, then a shopomore in Early Childhood Education. Simmons has been honored on the Dalton State College Deanís List.