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The Roles of Death and Mortality in “Because I could not stop for Death”
Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for Death” deals with two interrelated yet distinct subjects: death and mortality. The poet presents these subjects as an interconnected phenomenon in order to provide support for the poem’s theme of death being an inevitable, natural facet of life that deserves acceptance. In the beginning of the poem, the speaker and her companion, Death personified as a gentlemanlike being, are introduced (lines 1-4). Despite the circumstances surrounding the speaker’s meeting with Death, it can be inferred, based on the diction of the speaker, that the speaker is not disarmed at the fact that she is dead (6-8). It is through this use of tone coupled with symbolism, that the poem uses the subjects of death and mortality to provide the basis for poem’s theme of death being inescapable part of life that needs to be embraced.
The poet uses the speaker’s tone to demystify the subject of death in order for it to play pivotal role in supporting the poem’s theme. This is achieved through the poet’s use of simplistic language and em dashes. The speaker has a casual vocabulary that is devoid of the complexity of words that may contain multiple meanings based on its particular context (the word “love” would be an example of a word containing multiple, contextual meanings). The simplicity of the poem’s language does not detract from the intricacy of the poem’s treatment of the subjects of death and mortality in relation to the theme; instead, this reliance on simplistic wording enhances the visibility of the theme by portraying death, in particular, as an ordinary event no different from the other stages of life. This subject is specifically affected more by the poet’s word choice than its counterpart due to it being the chief concern of mortality. While mortality is concerned with the state of dying, death is an end within itself that is free from the cycle of contemplation that is leagued with mortality. The poet’s use of language to set the poem’s tone addresses the contemplation of mortality by stripping the fear away from the act of dying, and painting death as a natural occurrence—essentially demystifying death. By denuding death of its otherness, the poet’s use of em dashes in place of more formal punctuation (such as commas, semicolons, and periods) further compels readers to view death as a natural process of life. The poem’s incorporation of em dashes allows the poem to take on the appearance of a conversation, with the only pause existing at the end of the first stanza (4). Each use of the em dash draws emphasis to the line it follows ( “At Recess—in the Ring—/ We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain—” [10-11]) suggesting that as the speaker recounts the day she met Death, she is remembering details that she previously forgot. The employment of em dashes gives the poem a more conversational and informal disposition, allowing for the poem’s tone to aid in the normalization of death. This treatment of death brings awareness to the poem’s theme by extending an explanation to the audience as to why death does not deserve to be feared but embraced.
Similarly, the poet uses symbolism to normalize the subject of mortality in order to strengthen the presence of the poem’s theme. As Death’s Carriage passes the School “where Children strove” (9), the “Fields of Gazing Grain” (11), and the “Setting Sun” (12), the poem directs attention away from Death and the speaker and towards these images. The poet uses alliteration in conjunction with proper nouns to bring emphasis to these particular images for the purpose of symbolism. Despite the speaker noticing the children playing in the schoolyard, the children do not notice the speaker or the Carriage. This aloofness to the literal presence of Death proposes that just as death is an inevitable part of life, so is the continuation of life after one has died. The symbol of the “Gazing Grain” and the “Setting Sun” conveys a similar stance. Although the speaker shares a familiar indifference with the children of the schoolyard, the fields of grain, and the setting sun, the repetition of the phrase “We passed” (9-12) seems to imply a more significant meaning for the speaker in the fourth stanza (13). Just as the Carriage passes playing schoolchildren, fields of grain, and the sun, life itself is passing the speaker. By passing these landmarks, the subject of mortality, particular the mortality of human life, is depicted as being just as ordinary as a child playing at school, the growth of crops, and the sunset. This depiction of mortality as being inconsequential to the continuation of life is how the poet uses the ephemeralness of human life to strengthen the awareness of the poem’s theme.
When combined, the subjects of death and mortality overlap to build the basis for the theme of “Because I could not stop for Death”. Through Emily Dickinson’s use of simplistic language and punctuation to influence the tone of the poem, death is demystified into an ordinary event. To normalize the subject of mortality, the poet uses the symbolism of the poem’s landmarks to convey the ordinariness of the transient nature of human life. By using tone and symbolism to depict death and mortality as ordinary aspects of life, the poet succeeds in demonstrating why death deserves to be embraced as an inescapable part of life.
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