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Because I Could Not Stop for Death
Date: Edition 2 1998
From: Poetry for Students(Vol. 2. )
Document Type: Biography; Critical essay; Plot summary; Poem explanation; Work overview
Length: 8,641 words
Because I Could Not Stop for Death
Emily Dickinson c. 1863
Perhaps Dickinson’s most famous work, “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” is generally considered to be one of the great
masterpieces of American poetry. Written around 1863, the poem was published in Dickinson’s first posthumous collection, Poems by
Emily Dickinson, in 1890. It has also been printed under the title “The Chariot.”
In the poem, a woman tells the story of how she is busily going about her day when a polite gentleman by the name of Death arrives
in his carriage to take her out for a ride. Incidentally mentioned, the third passenger in the coach is a silent, mysterious stranger
named Immortality. Thus begins one of the most famous examples of personification and figurative language in American literature.
Death takes the woman on a leisurely, late-afternoon ride to the grave and beyond, passing playing children, wheat fields, and the
setting sun–all reminders of the cyclical nature of human life–along the way. Eerily, the woman describes their journey with the
casual ease one might use to recount a typical Sunday drive. They pause a moment at her grave, perhaps Death’s house, which
“seemed / A Swelling of the Ground,” and then continue their never-ending ride “toward Eternity.” In the end, through a brilliant use of
hyperbole, or intentional exaggeration, the woman insists that all the centuries that have since passed have felt “shorter than the
Day” that she took that fateful carriage ride which revealed to her for the first time the true meaning of Immortality.
Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, in 1830 and lived there all her life. Her grandfather was the founder of Amherst
College, and her father Edward Dickinson was a lawyer who served as the treasurer of the college. He also held various political
offices. Her mother Emily Norcross Dickinson was a quiet and frail woman. Dickinson went to primary school for four years and then
attended Amherst Academy from 1840 to 1847 before spending a year at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. Her education was
strongly influenced by Puritan religious beliefs, but Dickinson did not accept the teachings of the Unitarian church attended by her
family and remained agnostic throughout her life. Following the completion of her education, Dickinson lived in the family home with
her parents and younger sister Lavinia, while her elder brother Austin and his wife Susan lived next door. She began writing verse at
an early age, practicing her craft by rewriting poems she found in books, magazines, and newspapers. During a trip to Philadelphia in
the early 1850s, Dickinson fell in love with a married minister, the Reverend Charles Wadsworth; her disappointment in love may
have brought about her subsequent withdrawal from society. Dickinson experienced an emotional crisis of an undetermined nature in
the early 1860s. Her traumatized state of mind is believed to have inspired her to write prolifically: in 1862 alone she is thought to
have composed over three hundred poems. In that same year, Dickinson initiated a correspondence with Thomas Wentworth
Higginson, the literary editor of the Atlantic Monthly magazine. Over the years Dickinson sent nearly one hundred of her poems for
his criticism, and he became a sympathetic adviser and confidant, but he never published any of her poems. Dickinson’s isolation
further increased when her father died unexpectedly in 1874 and her mother suffered a stroke that left her an invalid. Dickinson and
her sister provided her constant care until her death in 1882. Dickinson was diagnosed in 1886 as having Bright’s disease, a kidney
dysfunction that resulted in her death in May of that year.
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