By Daniel Singer
HAFTR Class of 2021
Emily Dickinson is considered by many to be the greatest American female poet, due to her unique writing style. Throughout her short life, Dickinson wrote thousands of poems, typically shorter than a single page. “Because I Could Not Stop For Death” is a classic example of Dickinson’s uniqueness, and is a masterpiece poem written around 1863. This poem contains several qualities that are seen throughout Dickinson’s many works, such as conciseness, irony, and clever punctuation.
Dickinson’s ability in “Because I Could Not Stop For Death” to keep it very short while still getting an important point across shows her unique, concise style of poetry. According to Jane Donahue Eberwein, a professor at Illinois University, Dickinson’s longest poem does not even take up two printed pages. This is a unique quality found in very few canon poets’ works. However, short poems can still have deep meaning, and still matter despite their brevity. In “Because I Could Not Stop For Death,” Dickinson expresses the idea that death is not something to be feared, but rather something natural that should be accepted. This deep meaning can be seen from the first stanza, where she writes, “Because I could not stop for Death –/ He kindly stopped for me –/The Carriage held but just Ourselves –/And Immortality.” By characterizing Death, an abstract concept, as a kind boyfriend on a nice date, Dickinson expresses concisely her feeling toward something deep.
Dickinson’s use of irony in “Because I Could Not Stop For Death” is a perfect example of her classic style. In literature, Death is typically depicted as tragic and sudden. However, Dickinson’s independence and tendency not to conform to societal expectations of her, both in her personal life and in her poems, are put on full display in this poem. This can be seen from stanza two: “We slowly drove – He knew no haste/ And I had put away/ My labor and my leisure too,/ For His Civility –.” Death is supposed to be scary and painful; however, Dickinson wrote of her comfortable carriage ride with “him.” This brilliant description can only be described as ironic, as Dickinson separated herself from conventional thinking through her writing.
Dickinson’s unique tendency to use punctuation as a literary weapon to get across to the reader has stunned many readers, and can be seen in “Because I Could Not Stop For Death.” In each stanza, Dickinson places multiple line breaks in order to slow down the reader, and to set a much calmer, peaceful tone. For example, the third stanza states: “We passed the School, where Children strove/ At Recess – in the Ring –/ We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –/ We passed the Setting Sun –.” These line breaks are essential for the meaning of the poem, and without them Death is not characterized in the same way. In this way, “Because I Could Not Stop For Death” is a classic example of Emily Dickinson’s unique use of punctuation.
“Because I Could Not Stop For Death” is one of Emily Dickinson’s most iconic poems, and contains several aspects of her typical works. This poem is a masterpiece that concisely provides a deeper understanding to a colloquial concept that most people view in a particular way. For this reason, “Because I Could Not Stop For Death” is the best poem to use as an example of Dickinson’s genius works. ¢
Dickinson, Emily. Because I Could Not Stop For Death. The Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Ralph W. Franklin, Harvard University Press, 1999.
Crumbley, Paul and Eberwein, Jane Donahue. Emily Dickinson’s Life. University of Illinois, Chicago, February 2000.
Emily Dickinson. Poetry Foundation.