Tag Archives: lyric

“The Soul selects her own Society”

The Soul selects her own Society —
Then — shuts the Door —
To her divine Majority —
Present no more —

Unmoved — she notes the Chariots — pausing —
At her low Gate —
Unmoved — an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her Mat —

I’ve known her — from an ample nation —
Choose One —
Then — close the Valves of her attention —
Like Stone —

Emily Dickinson’s “The Soul selects her own Society” was composed in 1862 and published posthumously in Poems by Emily Dickinson in 1890. The poem is composed in iambic trimeter with the occasional line in tetrameter, using dashes to interrupt flow and create dramatic pauses.

Dickinson’s characteristic use of seemingly out-of-place dashes and capital letters help to set the somber mood of the poem. The speaker of the poem starts out by saying that the, “Soul selects her own Society— / Then—shuts the Door” (Dickinson 143). Once the door is shut no one else is allowed through, not even “an Emperor be kneeling / Upon her Mat—.” This indicates that the speaker rejects larger society and creates her own society based on her individual self, indifferent to wealth or status. The speaker separates the individual from society, or the “divine Majority,” and “from an ample nation— / Chooses One.” In this way the speaker shuts people out her life. The “Valves of her attention,” like the valves of her heart, are “Like Stone—” to everyone except the “One”. It is open to interpretation whether the choice of whom the speaker lets in is made on whether they were deemed worthy enough, or perhaps that the speaker had no choice at all. Dickinson capitalizes “Soul” personifying it. This indicates that the speaker does not have conscious control over the “Soul.” It is as if the “Soul” makes choices of its own will. The “Soul” decides instead of the mind. Even if the speaker is missing out on great people, like an “Emperor,” it is too late to open the door.

Marijane Suttor reads “The Soul selects her own Society” in the context of Dickinson’s life. “This poem allows the reader a sense of her inner thoughts about her own reclusive nature.” It is known that during the 1860s Dickinson became reclusive. She withdrew from society and never left the family property, only interacting with her family members and close friends (UIC). Suttor writes that the poem “gives the sense that perhaps others were telling her that she needed to broaden her ‘society.’ It appears that this is Emily Dickinson responding to this type of observation from others indicating that who she accepted into her society was not her decision; instead it came from her soul.

In this reading “The Soul selects her own Society” registers Dickinson’s social anxiety.  During her lifetime she rarely published her writing. But when she did it was anonymous.  She only allowed those closest to her to read her work and experience her inner conciseness. The “One” that Dickinson chose might be interpreted as the “solitary, interior life of creativity and self-discovery” (High Beam).

—Rose O’Callaghan

Bibliography and Further Reading Emily Dickinson. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1960. Print; Gale. “Frequently-Asked Questions | Emily Dickinson Museum.” Emily Dickinson Museum: The Homestead and the Evergreens. Emily Dickinson Museum, 2009. Web; High Beam. “The Soul Selects Her Own Society.” Encyclopedia.com. HighBeam Research, 2013. Web; Marijane Suttor. “Poetry Analysis the Soul Selects Her Own Society by Emily Dickinson.” Poets and Poetry, 31 Dec. 2011. Web.; UIC. “Emily Dickinson.” Emily Dickinson. University of Illinois, n.d. Web.

“The Rose did caper on her cheek—”

The Rose did caper on her cheek—
Her Bodice rose and fell—
Her pretty speech—like drunken men—
Did stagger pitiful—

Her fingers fumbled at her work—
Her needle would not go—
What ailed so smart a little Maid—
It puzzled me to know—

Till opposite—I spied a cheek
That bore another Rose—
Just opposite—Another speech
That like the Drunkard goes—

A Vest that like her Bodice, danced—
To the immortal tune—
Till those two troubled—little Clocks
Ticked softly into one.

As with most of Emily Dickinson’s poetry this poem was introduced after her death in 1896 when it was included in the publication of The Poems of Emily Dickinson Series Two Boston by the Roberts Brothers. Dickinson introduces us into the world of youthful adulthood with their first taste of emotional and sexual feelings. She presents the poem in the traditional ballad or hymn form consisting of alternating iambic tetrameter.

She begins with the presentation of an abashed young woman speaking to a group of individuals but it is questioning as to why she blushes. Dickinson uses the term caper, to skip or dance, to represent the steady spreading of color across her cheeks. The Rose to which Dickinson refers is identifiable as the rosy color that appears in ones cheeks when embarrassed. She reinforces the female embodiment with the reference to the woman’s Bodice, which was the portion above the waist on a dress, and it’s rising and falling caused by heavy breathing. Dickinson continues to show the embarrassment of the woman by creating a comparison of her speech to that of drunken men. She writes “Her pretty speech – like drunken men – Did stagger pitiful.” She continues to represent her inability to maintain her speech by presenting the imagery of her needlework. She who is typically a smart maid, as told by Dickinson, “so smart a Little Maid,” begins to become unable to carefully guide her needle because of her quivering hands.

The overall question pertaining to this topic of embarrassment within the maid is the question of why. Dickinson creates a wonder as to what “ailed” the little maid, which in this instance pertains to one’s mind. Proceeding the asking of this question she turns her attention to the others gathered for the her speech. From the faces across the room, she encounters one, “That bore another Rose – Just opposite.” Using the connection of the Rose, she connects a young man who begins his own speech exactly opposite of the maid. This introduces the birth of young love becoming intertwined. Dickinson creates the same relationship of the young man’s speech to those of drunkards, similar with the maid.

She finalizes their relationship by speaking of the similar patterns of rising and falling of the Bodice to that of the young man’s Vest. Dickinson relates both their speeches and their connections to that of the dancing “To the immortal tune-.” Love is often depicted as immortal so it shows the shared embarrassment of their new found feelings, while showing that their dance will never end as Love is an immortal and every changing song. Dickinson then continues to bring in the component of time and love by the imagery of clocks. She labels the lovers as “two troubled – little Clocks.” and through this she shows that although their clocks may be set to different times, at some point through the progression of time their clocks will be in sync one day. She ends the poem by saying the two clocks “Ticked softly into one,” finalizing that these two were meant to be together. Their clocks will no longer be separate but as one clock counting down the remaining days of their physical relationship, and making their love eternal.

—Rose O’Callaghan

Bibliography and Further Reading Erin Mull. The Rose Did Caper (2012 Prezi. Web); Justin Thomas  and Emily Dickinson. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (London, Little Brown, 1998. Print); Susan Kornfeld. The Prowling Bee: The Rose did caper on her cheek- (March 2012 Web); Educational Technology Clearinghouse. The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Series Two (2012 Web);

“The Mountains — grow unnoticed —”

The Mountains—grow unnoticed—
Their Purple figures rise
Without attempt—Exhaustion—
Assistance—or Applause—

In Their Eternal Faces
The Sun—with just delight
Looks long—and last—and golden—
For fellowship—at night—

“The Mountains—grow unnoticed —” was discovered and numbered in the 34th fascicle1 in 1926 and was first published in The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson in 1929 by Little Brown. Dickinson lived across from the Pelham Hills in Amherst, Massachusetts, most likely the great “Purple figures” who rise and grow without recognition.

The mountains do not require the attention of acknowledgment of others and it is something that could be said in relation to Dickinson’s feelings on recognition. The use of the word “Purple” suggests a similar growth of man. Purple during the times of Monarchy could only be worn by those of royal lineage which can be perceived as though the growth of mountains exceeds the significance of that of man. Also, unlike the average person, the mountains do not require the recognition which is usually in correlation with personal achievement. Individuals tend to require recognition for their deeds, while the mountains, “Their Purple figures rise / Without attempt — Exhaustion — / Assistance — or Applause —.” The same color can also pertain to different aspects of life as well, and purple is an important color to those who are concerned with spirituality because it is the color of infinite consciousness of yourself and everything around you. The major relation to this is Dickinson’s creation of the mountains “Eternal Faces.” The term eternal, meaning to last or exist forever; without an end or beginning, is a direct relation to the color purple and the concept of the infinite consciousness.

Dickinson continues to bring attention to the mountains, which can be viewed as deceitful because the mountains do not require attention. She brings in the power of the sun and its longing relationship to the mountains whose “eternal faces” in turn become illuminated. “The Sun — with just delight / Looks long — and last — and golden — / For fellowship — at night —.” The relationship between the sun and the mountains is opposite of the conventional. Instead of bringing life to the mountains, they themselves create and sustain the friendship which the sun seeks fellowship within.

—Shane Merritt

Note Dorothy Huff Oberhaus explains the use of the term “fascicles” when referring to Dickinson’s poems. “Although the poems of Emily Dickinson remained virtually unpublished during her lifetime, she did engage in a private kind of self-publication from about 1858 to 1864. During those years, she made copies of more than eight hundred of her poems, gathered them into forty groups, and bound each of these gatherings together with string to form booklets. While she sometimes sent a friend a copy of one of the poems from the booklets, there is no evidence that she showed them in their bound form to anyone.” See Emily Dickinson’s Fascicles: Method and Meaning (Pittsburgh: The Pennsylvania State UP, 1995). A critical discussion of the organization of the poems in the fascicles appears in Sharon Cameron, Choosing Not Choosing: Dickinson’s Fascicles (Chicago: Chicago UP, 1993).

Bibliography and Further Reading Neeru Tandon. Thematic Patterns of Emily Dickinson’s Poetry (New Delhi, Atlantic & Distributors, 2008. Print); “The Publication Question” (Emily Dickinson Museum, 2013. Web).

“The Brain—is wider than the Sky—”

In Emily Dickinson’s vocabulary the word brain, mind, self, and soul are often used interchangeably. Dickinson draws distinctions between mind and heart, almost asserting that the mind without the heart is mindless weak and dead, “The Mind lives on the Heart / Life any Parasite-(1-2).” Elsewhere, she affirms, “The Heart is the Capital of the Mind” (1354). However, “brain” can be seen as an essence of glory for being alive. Dickinson’s poetry continually claims a reality for the interior world that is equal to or greater than that of the material world. In poem after poem, she asserts that life’s greatest riches—reality, free will, happiness, self-respect, and creativity, can only be found within.

“The Brain-is wider than the Sky— (623), from 1863, is both a celebration of human consciousness and the ability for the brain to “contain” the world outside within its structure of reference:

The Brain—is wider than the Sky—
For—put them side by side—
The one the other will contain
With ease—and You—beside—
The Brain is deeper than the sea—
For—hold them—Blue to Blue—
The one the other will absorb—
As Sponges—Buckets—do—

The Brain is just the weight of God—
For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—
And they will differ—if they do—
As Syllable from Sound—

The first two stanzas lightheartedly develop two ways to compare and measure first brain and sky, then brain and sea. In both instances the brain is larger, and more voluminous and absorbing. In the final stanza, the poet turns her attention from the visible, natural world, to the transcendent reality of God. Here there’s another method of measurement, “Heft them—Pound for Pound— (10),”she finds that the brain is not greater, but equal to “just the weight of God— (9).” However, if the brain and God were to differ, their only differ would be, “As Syllable from Sound— (12).”

If God is Sound, the all-encompassing, undifferentiated element of which the shaping syllable of a human mind is made, then the brain is greater to God in its density, though unable to exist without God, the source. Nonetheless, what if God is the Syllable and the Brain is Sound? In John 1:1 it says, “In the beginning was the Word.” In this reading, the brain, as the “sound” that evolved from that first syllable, would be an echo of the divine. Thus, there is this syntactic ambiguity here.

Biographer Cynthia Griffin Wolff shares that, “Syllables are concocted from sound and contain them; the brain has been created by God, but nonetheless contains Him” (462). Charles Anderson reads the poem as contemplating that nature as a well as God may prevail only in the mind. For him, “The effect of the poem is not to minimize the importance of God, or nature, but to magnify the value of the consciousness” (300). Even between the two critics is this unknowing and this ever seeing syntactic ambiguity towards the poem and its true meaning.

—Melanie Murphy

Bibliography and Further Readings Charles Roberts Anderson. Emily Dickinson’s Poetry; Stairway of Surprise (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1960.Print); Emily Dickinson. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (Boston, Mass: Little, Brown, 1960. Print); Sharon Leiter. Critical Companion to Emily Dickinson: A Literary Reference to Her Life and Work (New York, NY: Facts on File, 2007. Print); Cynthia Griffin Wolff. Emily Dickinson (Reading, Mass: Addison-Wesley, 1988.Print).

“Rests at Night”

Rests at Night
The Sun from shining,
Nature–and some Men–
Rest at Noon–some Men–
While Nature
And the Sun–go on–

Emily Dickinson originally wrote Poem #714 around 1863. It is part of Fascicle 23, which includes 20 poems written in ink. It is also included in the Houghton Library, at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Dickinson refers to nature and the sun as always continuing in a circular motion. The two never rest at the same time, but only appear to do so.  While the men of one region rest for the night and the nature and sun convince the men that the sun and nature are asleep, but in reality they are awake in another region. When the men of the first region awake, it appears that the sun and nature have slept alongside the men and are awaking together. This continuous circle allows the unconscious man to have his world at rest, while the awaken man lives on with the sun and nature until the next rotation of the sun and moon. As the world spins continuously, some men begin their day and end their night. The one thing that will always stay true is the wondrous rotation of the Earth from day to night and Emily Dickinson seems to highlight the beauty of that routinely manner.

Ashok Karra suggests that this poem is a hidden love romance story and calling the “rests” men who are in her words “lazy.” On the other hand, this is potentially be a romance poem with the “rests” merely the distances from man and woman. The poem suggests that “Some men” may live on the opposite side of the world in another hemisphere and therefore their sun and nature rest at night while in the other hemisphere their men, sun, and nature are resting at the other groups’ noon time.

–Emma Kash

Bibliography and Further Reading Ashok Karra. “Rethink.” Rethink. N.p., (23 Nov. 2010. Web.) 18 Nov. 2013; “Manuscript View for Houghton Library – (168a,b) “My Faith Is Larger than the Hills,” J766, Fr489; Rests at Night, J714, Fr490.” Emily Dickinson Archive. Manuscript View for Houghton Library – (168a,b) My Faith Is Larger than the Hills, J766, Fr489; Rests at Night, J714, Fr490. N.p.,( n.d. Web.) 18 Nov. 2013.

“Ourselves were wed one summer — dear —”

Ourselves were wed one summer — dear —
Your Vision — was in June —
And when Your little Lifetime failed,
I wearied — too — of mine —

And overtaken in the Dark —
Where You had put me down —
By Some one carrying a Light —
I — too — received the Sign.

‘Tis true — Our Futures different lay —
Your Cottage — faced the sun —
While Oceans — and the North must be —
On every side of mine

‘Tis true, Your Garden led the Bloom,
For mine — in Frosts — was sown —
And yet, one Summer, we were Queens —
But You — were crowned in June —

Emily Dickinson’s “Ourselves were wed one summer — dear —” (631)  was included in packet 84 and is believed to have been written around 1863. Readers have suggested that the poem registers Dickinson’s loss of her childhood friend Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson, to the rigidness of her heterosexual marriage to Emily’s brother, William Austin Dickinson.

Sue’s “Vision” in June represents her faith and her marriage to Austin. Dickinson expresses her loss of Sue to both religion and marriage as a kind of death. While Dickinson avoids her own experience of death by yielding herself not to man or God, but to the “light” and her poetic muse:

And overtaken in the Dark —
Where You had put me down —
By Some one carrying a Light —
I — too — received the Sign.

After receiving the poetic “Sign,” Dickinson goes on to describe how both her and Sue’s lives will be forever different:

‘Tis true — Our Futures different lay —
Your Cottage — faced the sun —
While Oceans — and the North must be —
On every side of mine

‘Tis true, Your Garden led the Bloom,
For mine — in Frosts — was sown —
And yet, one Summer, we were Queens —
But You — were crowned in June —

Sue’s life will include daily social rounds of a cottage, while Dickinson will face the openness of the oceans and the north. Sue is associated with the creativity and bloom of a garden, but it is a garden circumscribed by the round of male order signified by sun, or even son. Dickenson sows her own garden, her own poems, with the “Frost” suggesting her cold separation from Sue. Dickinson gives birth to poetry and Sue gives birth to children. Nevertheless, both women have lost the primal bonds that they posed when the two were “Queens,” but Sue greatly wreaks the loss of primal bonds when she subdued to the “crown,” the limits, the blows, and the thorns. “Crown” offers an imagery of Christ, a sort of restriction, i.e. marriage.

This poem has a representation of these comparing and contrasting roles. Sue is a sun-filled, domestic fate, while Dickinson is surrounded by the vast “Ocean.” For Vivian Pollak, the imagery evoking the speaker’s fate, “symbolized a lesser triumph over sterility, because she never effectively renounced her love for Sue, transferred her affection to anyone else, or recovered from Sue’s betrayal of her” (142). While Sue’s lifelong companionship for the poet is questionable, at least in this poem, she continues to dominate Dickinson’s consciousness. There is a lingering anguish towards the loss of Sue even at the end of the poem, once more, the summer when they were “Queens” and the June when Sue was “crowned” both women were dethroned.

—Melanie Murphy

Bibliography and Further Readings Betsy Erkkila. The wicked sisters: women poets, literary history, and discord (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. Print); Betsy Erkkila. The complete poems of Emily Dickinson (Boston, Mass.: Little, Brown, 1960. Print); Sharon Leiter. Critical companion to Emily Dickinson: a literary reference to her life and work (New York, NY: Facts on File, 2007. Print).

“If I can stop one heart from breaking”

If I can stop one heart from breaking
I shall not live in vain
If I can ease one Life the Aching
Or cool one in pain

Or help one fainting Robin
Unto his Nest again,
I shall not live in Vain.

“If I can stop one heart from breaking” (#119) was written about 1864 and published in 1929 in Further Poems of Emily Dickinson published by Little, Brown and Company of Boston. Dickinson was known to seclude herself in her bedroom while writing her poetry, most of which has themes of mortality, although this poem in particular has a more uplifting message to provide, that of selflessness. While it would be hard to prove, it is possible that this poem which addresses the desire to stop a heart from breaking is about a love interest. It is possible that it is involved with Dickinson’s ‘master letters’ between 1858 and 1861 that ‘reveal passionate yet changing feelings toward the recipient’ (Emily Dickinson Museum).

This poem consists of two stanzas and has a loosely structured rhyme scheme. It begins with ‘If I can stop one Heart from breaking / I shall not live in vain’ (433). Dickinson is expressing a desire to stop someone from having their heart broken. A broken heart can come from a relationship, a death, or any of the typical hardships that people go through in life. She is saying that if she is able to stop one person from experiencing this kind of pain, then her life will not have been lived in vain (without success or result). She then continues with ‘If I can ease one Life the Aching / Or cool one Pain.’ In these two lines she reiterates her first point, which is that she wants to help relieve the ache and pain in at least one person’s life. The use of the word ‘cool’ makes one think that the pain is hot, perhaps red such as anger. To cool the pain she would be distinguishing the fiery anger in this person’s breaking heart. Also, Dickinson capitalizes both ‘aching’ and ‘pain’ in these two lines, showing that these are important themes in the poem. The next stanza begins with ‘Or help one fainting Robin / Unto his Nest again’ which could be looked at as helping a person who has lost control of their life and needs to be set straight again.  The robin in this instance is someone who is struggling with heartbreak, perhaps bad enough to want to give up and ‘faint,’ but Dickinson desires to put this person back on the right track, into their ‘nest.’ The poem ends by coming full circle with a repeat of the line ‘I shall not live in vain.’ Dickinson seems to be trying to express that someone’s life is worth more if they are concerned with helping others. She considers her life a success if she is able to help at least one person to be happier, to be without pain or heartbreak.

—Jamie Clark

Bibliography and Further Reading “Emily Dickinson’s Love Life.” (Emily Dickinson Museum: The Homestead and the Evergreens. Web. 11 Nov. 2013);  Thomas H Johnson,. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. (New York: Back Bay Books / Little, Brown and Company, 1961. Print).

“I had no time to hate—”

I had no time to Hate—
Because The Grave would hinder Me—
And life was not so
Ample I
Could finish—Enmity

Nor had I time to Love—
But since
Some Industry must be—
The little Toil of Love—
I thought
Be large enough for Me—

Dickinson begins poem #498 with the idea that she could not hate because she did not have enough time.  This lack of time to hate occurs because life is too short; she is taking a cliché and transforming it into a revelation. Life is too precious to be filled with hatred. The grave in the distance encourages her to have love for people rather than hate. Capitalizing Hate emphasizes the importance of the idea of hatred in this poem and is connected with the capitalized word Grave.  In the second part of the first of two stanzas, Dickinson is explaining that life is not generous enough to allow, or to finish with, enmity (typically mutual hatred or ill will).  She wants the reader to be aware that life does not allow for one to pass away while harboring hatred for another person.  Perhaps this is a suggestion towards ghosts, haunted souls who cannot be put to rest until they have finished their business on Earth.  Dickinson lets readers know that one has to live a life full of love because life is short and does not allow any space for hatred or bad feelings between people.

The second stanza begins with a much sadder message: Dickinson not having enough time to love. She goes on to say that some have to be diligent in order to find love and suggests she had found her own version of love, which is enough to satisfy her.  She refers to it as the ‘little Toil of Love,’ suggestsing that she does not think of it as a large feeling with the use of the term ‘little.’  With toil (laborious effort) Dickinson is saying that love is not something that is enjoyable to those involved, but rather a long-winded effort in which neither involved are particularly enjoying themselves.  The final two lines leave the reader with a sad sense of Dickinson because the reader is left with the image of someone who has not experienced true love, but thinks what she has felt is good enough for her.  Her use of sizes shows that she thinks of love as something that is small, but that even that small amount she has experienced is large enough for her.

David Preest’s commentary on the poem is succinct. “Life is too short to do anything properly, but ‘since some Industry must be,’ as Dickinson chooses ‘the little Toil of Love’ rather than Hate or Enmity as the right-sized task for her” (161).  While this is a very condensed view of the poem, it captures the main point, which is that life does not go on long enough to do anything as it really should be done. He explains that Dickinson decided that a small amount of love is better suited to her than a large amount of hate or enmity.  She chooses the love that takes much more effort, but it seems as though it is enough for her because life is too short to do anything ‘properly’ anyways, which is what Preest is pointing out in his reading of this popular poem.

—Jamie Clark

Bibliography and Further Reading Emily Dickinson.  The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. Thomas H. Johnson. (New York: Back Bay Books / Little, Brown and Company, 1961. Print); David Preest. “Emily Dickinson: notes on all her poems.” Emily Dickinson Poems (2012. Web. 18 Nov. 2013).

“Defrauded I a Butterfly”

Defrauded I a Butterfly—
The lawful Heir—for Thee—

Emily Dickinson’s short poem (#730 in the Johnson Edition) was written in 1863 but it wasn’t until 1890 that it was edited by Mabel Loomis Todd and T.W. Higginson in the First Series Robert Brothers 1890 edition. Perhaps Dickinson would still feel defrauded today if she knew how many people edited her original works and didn’t let her poetry hide it’s secret beauty, as a butterfly does while camouflaged.

Not only can one read this poem quickly, but there are barely any critiques or opinions on this secretive gem. The only commentary on this poem is a piece of art titled “Defrauded I a Butterfly”. Ishita Bandyo, a contemporary fine arts painter, created a painting with the title being the first line of Dickinson’s poem (Bandyo).  The bright, voluminous colors of Bandyo’s painting creates a pathway for thinking regarding Dickinson’s poem, and with just two lines,  nine words, and three dashes—this poem is full of color and life.

Dickinson is  claiming that she is meant to be the butterfly, but that possibility has been taken away from her. Which when examining a butterfly, one must acknowledge its perfect symmetry, camouflage techniques, and ability to fly freely. This may be Dickinson’s cry for a balanced life, but a life that is also secretive and has no limits. Unfortunately this was all taken away from her, as the runner up for next in line, the “Heir”. This life of secret freedom, along with a balanced, even level to her life is accompanied by unjust beings or doings due to this was a “lawful” manner that she shall be “Heir.” However such is life, unjust and unfair events, actions, or reasons occur and even as free as the “Butterfly” is, the camouflage doesn’t always work, leaving one defrauded; falling short in their attempt.

—Emma Kash

Bibliography and Further Reading “Emily Dickinson Archive.” Emily Dickinson Archive. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Nov. 2013. “Ishita Bandyo Art.” Contemporary Mixed Media. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Nov. 2013.

“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.

We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –

Or rather – He passed Us –
The Dews drew quivering and Chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –

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’s “Because I could not stop for Death,” (#712 in Thomas H. Johnson’s The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson) was written in 1863 and first published posthumously in Poems in 1890 by Roberts Brothers of Boston. This edition was assembled and edited by Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Wentworth Higginson and was titled, “The Chariot.” The lyric poem personifies Death as a gentleman caller who takes Dickinson on a carriage ride to her own grave. The U.S. was still fighting the Civil War in 1863, so Dickinson was living in a time of violence and of change. During the early 1860s, Dickinson had fully developed her, “flood subjects,” on the themes of living and dying. With enigmas of incredible insight, she repeatedly gives relationship to the ideas and experiences which exist in time, but never are a part of it (Johnson viii-ix). “Because I could not stop for Death” was part of her packet poems, verses written from 1858-1865, the years of great creativeness for Dickinson. These poems are two thirds of the entire body of her poetry. The packet for the year 1863, contained 140 poems. In 1862, she initiated a life-long correspondence with Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who later went on to edit the first edition of her poetry (“A Timeline of Emily Dickinson’s Life”).

The poem is comprised of six quatrains, with a meter alternating between iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter. There is an internal rhyme throughout the poem especially in stanzas 1, 2, 4, and 6. Some of these stanzas only use eye rhyme. For example: “me” and “immortality”; “away” and “civility”; “chill” and “Tulle”; and “Day” and “Eternity.” The poem uses alliteration as well. For example: “May labor and my leisure too”; “At Recess — in the Ring —”; “We passed the Fields of Grazing Grain —”; “We passed the Setting Sun —”; “The Dews drew quivering and chill —”; “For only Gossamer, my Gown —”; “My Tippet — only Tulle —.” Anaphora is also used in the poem, as seen in lines nine, and eleven and twelve when Dickinson repeats, “We passed.” It is also seen when she repeats, “Ground” in lines eighteen and twenty. There is also the personification of Death and Immortality.

Allen Tate believes that it was one of the greatest poems in the English language (14). He writes that every image in the poem extends and intensifies the other images and that Dickinson was able to fuse sensibility and thought within the poem (15-16). Yvor Winters would later comment on Tate’s admiration of the poem by saying that the poem ends in a statement that is not offered seriously, and that to praise the poem is unsound criticism (289-290). Winters concludes that the poem is an example of a poem representing a mixed theme and falls below her finest achievement (288-89). Joanne Feit Diehl reads the poem through Freud’s “The Theme of the Three Caskets,” which she believes clarifies Dickinson’s relationship to desire and to the awareness of her own death. And commentator Martha Nell Smith reads the poem as a way for Dickinson to convey her comedic side. “That this poem begins and ends with humanity’s ultimate dream of self-importance – Immortality and Eternity – could well be the joke central to its meaning, for Dickinson carefully surrounds the fantasy of living ever after with the dirty facts of life – dusty carriage rides, schoolyards, and farmer’s fields… she pulls the sublime down to the ridiculous but unavoidable facts of existence, thus imbues life on earth with its real import” ( 95).

Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for Death” reflects on the journey and reality of death through the personification of Death and Immortality and the simple act of going on a carriage ride. Many commentators have had their own takes on the poem, from comedic, to Freudian, however, the fact still remains that the poem is a greatly important one, and helps shape our understanding of Dickinson herself.

–Danielle Field

Bibliography and Further Reading “A Timeline of Emily Dickinson’s Life.” Emily Dickinson Museum. Emily Dickinson Museum (2009. Web. 11 Nov. 2013.); Emily Dickinson.. “712.” The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. Thomas H. Johnson. (Boston: Bay Back Books, 1960. 350. Print.); Joanne Feit Diehl. Women Poets and the American Sublime. (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1990. Print.); Thomas H. Johnson. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. By Emily Dickinson. Ed. Johnson. (Boston: Back Bay Books, 1960. v-xi. Print.); Suzanne Miller, Cristanne Miller, and Martha Nell Smith. Comic Power in Emily Dickinson. (Austin: U of Texas Press, 1993. 95. Print.); Allen Tate. Reactionary Essays on Poetry and Ideas (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1936.13-16, 22-25. Print.); Yvor Winters. “Emily Dickinson and the Limits of Judgment,” In Defense of Reason. 3rd ed. (Denver: Alan Swallow, 1947. 283-99. Print.).