Analysis of Emily Dickinson's "Because I Could Not Stop for Death"
In regard to Emily Dickinson’s poem, “Because I Could Not Stop for Death,” Critic Eunice Glenn says: “In the first two lines Death, personified as a carriage driver, stops for one who could not stop for him. The word ‘kindly’ is particularly meaningful, for it instantly characterizes Death. This comes with surprise, too, since death is more often considered grim and terrible” (Glenn). Critic Charles R. Anderson says, “Death, usually rude, sudden, and impersonal, has been transformed into a kindly and leisurely gentleman” (Anderson).
Both critics seem to agree on the significance of the word “kindly” in the first two lines of the poem. “Because I could not stop for Death— / He kindly stopped for me—” (1-2). They take the word “kindly” for its most common definitions—agreeable, pleasant, benevolent, etc. With further research, however, alternative, as well as more enlightening, definitions become available. The Oxford English Dictionary defines kindly as: “In accordance with nature; naturally; by natural disposition; characteristically” and “In the way suitable or appropriate to the nature of the thing; properly, fittingly” (“Kindly”). These definitions add new insight to the poem. In the superficial sense, Death seemingly performed a charitable act by stopping for the speaker; in application of these less common definitions, however, Death stopping for the speaker was necessary and proper. It was following after the natural course of things. Rather than merely suggesting the Death was a charming, courteous carriage driver, the speaker implies that Death was obligated to stop for her; she is unable to stop for him.
It is interesting to note that the speaker says she “couldn’t” stop for Death, rather than she “wouldn’t” stop. Most critics, like Charles Anderson, suggest that the speaker is simply “Too occupied with life herself to stop, like all busy mortals” (Anderson). Critic Patricia Engle, on the other hand, looks further and asks, “What does the speaker—or anyone—stop doing for Death?” Answering her own question, Engle says: “We stop living.” In order to illustrate her point, she goes on to say, in reference to the speaker of the poem, “She realizes that she cannot recognize Death’s power over her. Once she reckons with that eternal or divine bent within her, Death stops; that is, Death ceases to be what Death is—an end” (Engle 74). Given deeper analysis of the poem as a whole, this interpretation appears to be the most accurate. Death is not the...