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“Because I Could Not Stop For Death” by Emily Dickinson is a poem about a woman who is looking back on the day she goes on a carriage ride with death and revisits her life before going forward to immortality. Dickinson’s use of personification and symbolism explores an imaginary journey through the afterlife, illustrating that the inevitability of death is a part of life that does not need to be feared because it is only the next step on the path towards perpetuity.
The personification of death as a friendly carriage driver serves to change its perception in society, proving that even though death is something people usually dread, it is really just a calming release to the next phase of eternity, because it is not actually the end. Death is personified within the first two lines of the poem when the speaker says, “Because I could not stop for Death— / He kindly stopped for me—” (1 – 2). The author starts the poem off by instantly characterizing death as kind, which goes against what the idea of death is usually associated with. The use of the word “kindly” is a surprise because it implies that death is not as cruel or horrible as people seem to think. He is now just a nice guy who has stopped to take the speaker on a carriage ride, not someone to be scared of. Notice how Dickinson capitalized the word “death” in the first line just like it was the name of a person. This little detail adds to the personification of death, making it come alive as a character in the poem. This quote shows that death is fate and it is not something that can be controlled. Death seems to be an unanticipated and uninvited visitor to the speaker, but is welcomed nonetheless. She appears to accept her fate, climbing onto the carriage willingly, realizing it was time to go. Death is humanized further when the speaker tell us this:
We slowly drove — He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility—. (5 – 8)
Another characteristic mentioned in this quote, civility, adds to Death’s personification. Death is showing courtesy and respect towards the speaker on this ride, so she does the same back. He put aside time specifically for her, so by saying she had “put away her labor and leisure,” she highlighted how charming the driver, Death is. She left everything behind, from her work to her hobbies, just so that she could go on this ride with him. He is in control on this ride, which is emphasized when the author switches from we to he in the first line of the quote. It is as though she realizes half way through that she is just along for the ride and he is the one with power. It seems to go by slow so that the speaker has time to reminisce over her life and look back before saying goodbye to it and moving forward. Death is not just an event that ends life in this poem, but a person who takes people on to the next part — eternity.
The use of symbolism throughout the poem provides a deeper meaning to it, demonstrating the significance of the journey from life to death and how they both depend on the other in order to exist. The carriage, a major symbol, is first mentioned when she says, “The Carriage held but just Ourselves / And Immortality” (3 – 4). The carriage ride is arguably the most important symbol in the poem because it depicts the speaker leaving life and going on towards death. In the carriage is her, Death, and another character, Immortality, who represents a spiritual journey in the afterlife that is never ending. The ride takes them back through her life, traveling through a landscape in which they see the different phases represented: childhood, adulthood, and death. The carriage ride’s final stop is at the speaker’s new home, or a grave, which means she has reached the end of life are ready to start the rest of eternity. Moreover, these three symbols of the harmony that exists between life and death are exemplified when she says this:
We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess — in the Ring —
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain —
We passed the Setting Sun —. (9 – 12)
As the speaker is looking back on the phases of her life during her carriage ride Dickinson’s writing to describe it includes some very significant symbolism. The speaker sees a bunch of children playing in a circle at recess which represents childhood. This could also be the speaker recalling memories from when she was a kid. The circle, or ring, that they are gathered in is a way of symbolizing the circle of life. Next they pass through fields filled with crops that illustrate adulthood and growth. Crops are grown every year and then sold when they have matured, and then it happens all over again. Once again this is a symbol for the circle of life and how life and death go hand in hand. Finally, the carriage drives by a sun that is setting which is a representation of the end of life. When the sun goes down, it becomes night, or in this poem death. After the sunset, the speaker finishes her journey as well and goes to her grave. Just like the other two symbols before, this one also depicts the circle of life because the sun sets, it rises, and then it happens all over again.
The personification and symbolism used in this poem reveals how death is inescapable and is not something to be afraid of because it is merely a continuation of our way to eternity. In this poem, death’s personification attempts to change the warped perception of death that society has influenced people to have. Additionally, the poem uses symbolism to tackle the harmony between life and death and how they depend on one another to exist. Dickinson wanted to show people that it is important to enjoy every moment of life and live it out because once death comes for us we have to leave it all behind.
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