The last lines of “Because I could not stop for Death” stand out, remarkable. How can one be haunted, terrified at any given moment, and still find the peace to think?
Since then—’tis centuries— and yet Feels shorter than the Day I first surmised the Horses’ Heads Were toward Eternity—
I don’t feel I can answer my own question. I feel like I can only keep asking how these lines work, trying different answers until some sense is reached. I should say that upon a first read, I thought Dickinson was describing statues of horses. Given the full context of the poem, it does seem she has been abandoned in a graveyard at the end. She certainly stares at a grave, trying to figure out what sort of House it is, before this stanza. It is not implausible that her gaze turns to a more elaborate tomb.
But “the Horses’ Heads / Were toward Eternity,” the words themselves, are the finished product. I am not trying to be too clever about the craft of poetry in asserting this. In “Because I could not stop for Death,” we begin with a carriage pulled by moving, presumably flesh and blood horses. Dickinson believes she is moving in the carriage driven by Death until she remarks “He passed us.” One could take this in context as the “Setting Sun,” but it’s just as plausible that there was no carriage and no movement, just a postponed confrontation with a grave. There, she pauses; the horses might as well be nonexistent. Finally, as remarked above, the horses sound like statues, always “toward Eternity.” Her symbolism has little subtlety: becoming (movement, change) is followed by perishing (non-being), concluding with an image of being. The irony, of course, is that stone lasts longer than flesh.
Does this observation, if I have made one, have any meaning? I’m partial to thinking the order of becoming, non-being, and being is her point. Something might be said along this line of thought: we can live or we can create, but one or the other will have to give. I say this simply to get a provisional reading we could apply.
One could ask how an obscure reading of a poem could apply to anything. Fortunately, there are other poems demanding obscure readings to which other readings of poems apply. In “Chanson d’Aventure,” Seamus Heaney details dealing with a stroke. The third part of his poem, to which we now turn, places his recovery directly in the light of an ancient statue:
The charioteer at Delphi holds his own, His six horses and chariot gone, His left hand lopped From a wrist protruding like an open spout, Bronze reins astream in his right, his gaze ahead Empty as the space where the team should be, His eyes-front, straight-backed posture like my own Doing physio in the corridor, holding up As if once more I'd found myself in step Between two shafts, another's hand on mine, Each slither of the share, each stone it hit Registered like a pulse in the timbered grips.
We assume the statue originally a monument to greatness, to Greek nobility and manliness fully realized. Once, when the statue was whole, he saw ahead courageously, managed the violence and power of the horses with grace and skill. His own resolve lent itself to foreknowledge, quickness, achievement.
Now, however, the statue has aged. And so the charioteer’s virtue means something different, even as it has not changed. With a hand, six horses, and a chariot missing, he literally holds his own, gathers what’s left.
You could see his gaze as haunted, shell-shocked, amazed at destruction itself, amazed he’s still here. Is this a necessary prelude to recovery? The same haunting gaze is also a look of resolution; in his attempt to deal with what’s missing, we imagine his prior wholeness.
The parallel with Heaney in recovery is difficult to understand. Heaney emphasizes that he is not a broken statue—”another’s hand on mine” keeps him steady. His fight to move properly again is like plowing the earth, each stone hit a heartbeat. Perhaps I can engage both Dickinson’s and Heaney’s work in this way: we liken ourselves to statues to not become them.
Heaney, Seamus. “Chanson d’Aventure” from Human Chain. New York: FSG, 2010. 14-15.