Poetry: Dickinson – Because I could not stop for Death

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.

Emily Dickinson

“Because I could not stop for Death” is one of my favorite poems by Emily Dickinson. It is a curious habit among some poets and artists that their work is never known or appreciated until long after they are no longer able to know it. Some authors go blind, poets die young, and artists live in pain. Then long after their suffering, the world chances a look at them and sees how great their works are. And such is true for Dickinson. She could not prevent her death, but he “kindly stopped” long enough for her to write some of the best poetry of American literature. And though she never knew the great appreciation generations of readers have had for her works, her writing was not lost and is not held among the greats.

But why do I love this poem? For starters, I love the rhythm and meter. It has an easy gait, rolling off the tongue like conversation on an autumn afternoon. Though this poem speaks of death, there is a heartbeat in the measures. Reading it makes me feel calm, perhaps even ready for death, as I hope Emily Dickinson was at the ending verse.

I also love the imagery, the personification of Death and the elements of Life. Here, Emily and Death spend time together in life, this balance of immortality. We all perform this dance. We are mortal creatures, yet here we live. So together, we travel side by side throughout life in a balance or tension of mortal bound immortality. Here, Death is somewhat more gentlemanly than we typically think of him, and I think perhaps Emily had more than Death in mind when she wrote.

Together, the two of them (and us) travel through life. Childhood, years of learning, and days of toil stretch past us until the sun sets before we have time to recognize it. And do we recognize it? Life passes by too quickly, and our nighttime clothing becomes our final attire. Finally, she arrives at one more home, merely a stop along her journey, and notes its quiet demeanor. But while she looks back at her life, though she has long since left it, she considers that last earthly day when that carriage came and Death welcomed her. Those horses that drew her were not headed for life’s toils, nor to that earthly hollow, but, in that blinking moment between death and Life, she realizes that they were bringing her to her Eternal Home.

What a lovely poem this is. Our culture is a funny one. We fear Death, truly. We avoid it however we can, with drugs, and tech, and distractions. Yet at this time of year, we embrace it as if our tokens might ward it off for one more year. As if Death could patiently wait for us. And yet, though death is unnatural, death is not the end for those of us in Christ. And it is not Death who stands aside but Christ who defeated it. Our life’s journey is not about what we have spent our days on, though we should number our days and strive to live them for Christ who gave us Life. But instead, our days lead us one day closer to seeing Jesus face to face. They lead us past the silliness of youth, the frustrations of our age, and the sadness of our end on this earth and towards our Eternal Home.

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground –

Since then – ’tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity –

Emily Dickinson

Though Emily looks once more to where her earthly body waits for a moment that “’tis Centuries – and yet / Feels shorter than a Day,” that is not where her soul lies or where her newly created body will be forevermore. No, her home is not in death; Death is merely an escort. Her Home is with Christ for all eternity. Yes, that is where our Home is too. So though Death gives us time to live our life – with all its joys, pain, tears, and laughter – he merely brings us to that heavenly embrace. Thus we, like those horses, turn our heads and eyes onto what is unseen and eternal.

Blessings to you and yours,

~Madelyn Rose Craig

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