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"Because I Could Not Stop For Death" - Critical Analysis

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Introduction

Emily Dickinson frequently explores death through her poetry, using her eponomous 'em' dashes to communicate the confusion created by an intelligent and exploratory approach to the afterlife in a mind indoctrinated in Puritan dogma. Death is initially presented in this poem as a very different character from its usual personification as a malign, scythe wielding spirit. Here, as the poem begins, he takes the form of a charming suitor who 'kindly' stops, and maintains his 'civility' throughout their journey. As we progress through the poem, however, the reader becomes increasingly suspicious that the apparently benevolent Death has not, in fact, got Dickinson's best intrests at heart. The fourth stanza marks the change in tone that reveals this; the onset of ominous 'chill' as the carriage passes into darkness highlights how unprepared Death has left her, providing no warning of what is to come. ...read more.

Middle

Life, in this poem, is extrodinarily transient, compressed into the third stanza where childhood, the ripening 'Grain' of middle age and the setting sun of old age's decline are ploughed through in four lines. The poet makes this already short liftime seem even less substantial by the anaphoric use of 'We passed', which increases the pace of the poem and gives the passage of time an inevitable feel. Where the poem's journey of death concludes is unclear, but we do know that there is a pause, perhaps a terminal pause, at a house in the ground. Dickinson's use of imagery here is ingenious, as the reader's initial confusion mimics the narrator's, until we too surmise that this abode, this 'swelling in the ground' is a grave, thought of only by the deceased as a 'house'. The repetition and ryhme of 'ground' at the end of two lines in this stanza gives it a pounding finality; suggesting perhaps that this, and not the expected 'Immortality', is to be Dickinson's final resting place. ...read more.

Conclusion

'Because I could not stop for Death ?' is perhaps, as a result, quite a cynical poem, making no promises of salvation or a Christian heaven. It, in some senses, continues a trend set by 'This world is not Conlcusion.' and 'Behind me ? dips Eternity ?'; a trend of diminishing confidence: Dickinson's once absolute faith in a world beyond our own develops into a confused fear at the nature of the afterlife; it may be a 'Maelstrom in the sky', surrounded by 'Midnight', or perhaps just a house in the ground. All this confusion is the product of Dickinson's upbringing; 'the Tooth that nibbles at the soul' is a doubt that was to Puritans damning, and once she admits to herself its existence her future is uncertain and heaven perhaps inachievable. Despite it's bleak outlook however, the poem still stands a facinating exploration of the nature of the next world. ...read more.

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