Glen Thurow spoke about one of the first exercises he had at Williams College, an analysis of “Because I could not stop for Death.” I know I regarded this poem as overdone, its assignment as cliché, and I proceeded to recite a shorter poem by Dickinson and explain exactly what I got out of that.
Teachers like to hear their students are learning, even if the student in question can’t quite appreciate the teacher’s own experience. Glen was gracious in listening to me interpret a poem he had never encountered before. I don’t recall what he got out of “Because I could not stop for Death.” I’m reasonably sure now that the point of his recollection had less to do with students being articulate or assignments with a specific point. I do wonder if Glen was wondering about his own teacher’s classroom, a place fixed in memory, one that could not stop for death.
Because I could not stop for Death—
He kindly stopped for me—
The Carriage held but just Ourselves—
A solid summary of the drama of this poem is in Vendler 2010, but the first stanza could also suffice. Unfocused on Death, the narrator—a young woman?—finds herself sitting with both him and Immortality. Death initially seems chivalrous, perhaps trying too hard on a first date. He “kindly stopped” with his “Carriage.”
What of “Immortality?” Vendler (229) notes that Dickinson’s early editors were scared of this poem’s cynicism regarding immortality and, by extension, Christianity. She steps proudly into a carriage containing both Death and Immortality—something must give, except for the most zealous believer. I think this is as good an invitation as any to the question of how naive we can be about death. Independent of Christianity, we do assume we will be remembered in some detail, having some legacy. I am continually reminded, when seeking further insight into those I’ve lost, how delicate the details are. That everything is perishable is extraordinarily difficult to accept.
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—
A journey with Death and Immortality proceeds slowly. Dickinson is the one in the carriage lingering over… something. “I had put away / My labor and my leisure too, / For His Civility.” Not just youth, not just naiveté—it’s our erotic longings which blind us to what Death really is. At a fundamental level, beyond labor and leisure, we truly believe love will save us.
She first lingers on the strange combination of learning, play, and competition which defines childhood. One sees it at work in institutions like today’s “esports” (competitive video gaming) or, on a more serious note, Sparta. There’s a lot to love—and a lot of other reactions to be had—regarding a primal urge to be better. At some point, we become open to the idea that growth entails reflection more than aimless striving; “Gazing Grain” slowly soak in the world (227). All of this constitutes an entirely aesthetic justification for love. The “setting sun” has been cliché for at least hundreds of years now. Eros, reinforced by a notion of beauty, shapes a view of the whole of life.
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—
An instant realization: Death was never in the carriage. It was just her and Immortality the whole time. Things turn from erotic to creepy, as it becomes cold and she only has summer garments (229). Immortality proves himself a liar, and I know full well how chilling a sudden loss of trust is. The cruelty of this occasions a pause in which the ordinary is peeled back layer by horrible layer. I admire Vendler’s handling of the 5th stanza especially (228). Dickinson looks at a grave, a tomb, and calls it a House. She’s coming to terms with what she sees in the tiniest increments. “A Swelling of the Ground,” unprotected from the elements (a “scarcely visible” roof), no real order—Dickinson describes her own condition, what dwelling on death will do to any belief she has about what her life is and means.
Since then—’tis centuries— and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity—
What of love? What of trust?
Dickinson recognizes life’s tragic character to be mentally overwhelming. On a smaller scale, one cannot surround oneself with people who constantly complain or indulge thoughts about failure because those people are only “right” in the trivial sense that bad things do happen. In a larger sense, a poet not only investigates belief, but creates objects of belief, however tiny or personal. Thus, even though a poet posits a whole, it is not the whole of an imaginative space that matters. The details are what matter. One detail: to realize the horses not only churn, but gaze toward a cold, impersonal Eternity. The poem ends with this, a dark mystery. In the classroom, we conceive ourselves united in the quest for knowledge, confident we can learn together and better ourselves. This poem is the ultimate memento mori, reminding us that perhaps nothing actually works that way.
Vendler, Helen. Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries. Cambridge: Harvard, 2010.