An Analysis of the Near-Death Experiences of Atheists

The only pressing technical objection to this poem is the remark that "Immortality" in the first stanza is a meretricious and unnecessary personification and that the common sense of the situation demands that Immortality ought to be the destination of the coach and not one of the passengers. The personification of death, however, is unassailable. In the literal meaning of the poem, he is apparently a successful citizen who has amorous but genteel intentions. He is also God. . . .

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A comment by Richard Chase on Emily Dickinson's "Because I Could not stop forDeath," reads in part as follows:

The only pressing technical objection to this poem is the remark that "Immortality" in the first stanza is a meretricious and unnecessary personification and that the common sense of the situation demands that Immortality ought to be the destination of the coach and not one of the passengers. The personification of death, however, is unassailable. In the literal meaning of the poem, he is apparently a successful citizen who has amorous but genteel intentions. He is also God. . . .
The trouble with this remark is that it does not present the common sense of thesituation. Emily Dickinson was taught Christian doctrine—not simply Christianmorality but Christian theology—and she knew that the coach cannot head towardimmortality, nor can one of the passengers. Dickinson here compresses two related butdiffering concepts: (1) at death the soul journeys to heaven (eternity), and thus theimage of the carriage and driver is appropriate; and (2) the soul is immortal, and ourimmortality, therefore, "rides" always with us as a copassenger; it is with usbecause the soul is our immortal part and so may be thought of as journeying with us. Thepoet's language is compact and oblique, but there is no false personification in it. Sincethe soul is one's true person (essence, not mask). no personification is needed, exceptpossibly what may be involved in the separable concept of the soul itself. Bothimmortality and death, however, need personification and are given it. The horses' headsare toward eternity, but not toward immortality. Incidentally, why "amorous but genteel"? To those who believe in an,afterlife, death may be kind in taking us from a world of proverbial woe into one ofequally proverbial eternal bliss; the irony is in the contrast between our fear of deathand the kindness of his mission, and it seems unnecessary to call upon an amorousimplication. The idea of the "Bride of Christ" may be permissible but it seemsfar-fetched in the context of the poem as we have it. /96/
from "'Becasue I Could Not Stop for Death,'" American Literature, XXIX (March, 1957), 96.


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which becomes small and childlike from the distant perspective of the passage into death.

"Horses' heads" is a concrete extension of the figure of the carriage, whichis maintained throughout the poem. The carriage is headed toward eternity, where Death istaking the passenger. The attitude of withdrawal, or seeing with perspective, could nothave been more effectively accomplished than it has been by the use of the slowly-movingcarriage. Remoteness is fused with nearness, for the objects that are observed during thejourney are made to appear close by. At the same time, a constant moving forward, withonly one pause, carries weighty implications concerning time, death, eternity. The personin the carriage is viewing things that are near with the perspective of distance, given bythe presence of Immortality.


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The imaginative reach in this stanza is for me most evident in the phrase "GazingGrain," with all its implications about what it is like to be alive and dead at thesame time--the condition of the speaker throughout the poem. The phrase emphasizes thespeaker's passivity, assigning the human task to nature, animating the grain. By itsplacid and constant presence, it seems to stare. But it is the speaker, who has gone withdeath, who takes note of this. She watches from the carriage as mortality slips by--thoughwith death, and passive, she still registers sensory details. She sees, and as long as shedoes, she still is. This sense of an unwillingness to relinquish the world and theself--of being--carries throughout Dickinson's work; and if death offers, as here,immortality, immortality had better provide an experience like the one life offers: it hadbetter let her see. In a somber mood Dickinson writes this in a letter to Abiah Root:"I cannot realize that friends I have seen pass from my sight ... will not walk thestreets and act their parts in the great drama of life, nor can I realize that when Iagain meet them it will be in another & far different world from this." It isinteresting to me that in her depictions of this "different world," the speakeris by herself, as in the poem under consideration. She is alone to experience death andthe nature of posthumous grace. Is this not what frightens one likely to die?

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In the second stanza Death and the speaker ride along without concern for time. Her"labor" and her "leisure," are done, and she is content to be in thecarriage, as if now there were no other concern but death's luxury. The word inline 7 recalls the good works to be done for God's world by true Christians--works now nolonger necessary. Dickinson means for us to regard the word ironically. In lines 9 and 10the poem reads, "We passed the School, where Children strove / At Recess in theRing." In the use of strove to indicate labor, we are meant to understand somethingmore than, and including, "play," for isn't that what children do at recess,after their lessons and schoolwork? emphasizes the children's energy, whilethe speaker, her life over, sits passively in the carriage; but it is also a reminder thatas Christians children are meant to start early to labor for their salvation. Should theybe allowed simply to play? In the 1860 version of the poem the lines read, "We passedthe school where children played, / Their lessons scarcely done." Why did Dickinsonwrite "strove"? Was it because she knew from experience that time pressed, evenupon children, and death often came early? "How swiftly summer has fled and whatreport has it home to heaven of misspent time & wasted hours. Eternity only willanswer. The ceaseless flight of the seasons is to me a very solemn thought, & yet Whydo we not strive to make better improvement of them?" Dickinson wrote to her friendAbiah Root when she was fifteen and a student at Amherst Academy in September 1846. Asmuch in danger from death as adults and thus in need for early belief in the trinity,children