Literature Study GuidesPoems Of Emily Dickinson SelectedBecause I Could Not Stop For Death Summary

Poems of Emily Dickinson (Selected) | Study Guide

Emily Dickinson

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Because I could not stop for Death—

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Emily Dickinson's poem "Because I could not stop for Death—."

Poems of Emily Dickinson (Selected) | Because I could not stop for Death-- | Summary



In this six-stanza poem, Dickinson uses standard ballad meter for the most part with the exception of the first two lines of the fourth stanza. In this poem the speaker takes a metaphorical journey accompanied by Death, personified as a gentleman who picks the speaker up in a carriage, occupied by him and Immortality. Because she has neither the time nor the inclination to "stop for Death" the personified Death unexpectedly stops for her. Having put aside her work and her leisure—her worldly pursuits—she rides in the carriage as it moves slowly, passing familiar, and realistic, scenes of town life: schoolchildren, grain growing, and the sun setting. When they pass the setting sun, they seem to come to a halt, for the speaker realizes "He [the sun] passed Us." At that moment she becomes aware of feeling cold and then comes upon a grave. By the end of the final stanza, she realizes what first seemed an unthreatening carriage ride has brought her to an eternal state of nonbeing.


One of Dickinson's most famous poems, "Because I could not stop for Death—," takes a clear-eyed view of death and dying. At first Death is personified as a polite gentleman, not a grim antagonist. He "kindly" stops for the speaker, and they leave together in a carriage along with "Immortality," implying the end of life will lead to the immortality of the soul. The journey begins slowly, and because Death has been so civil the speaker feels no threat or fear. Indeed the metaphorical ride seems almost welcome, for the speaker has willingly put away worldly occupations and, although caught unaware, is ready for it.

In the third stanza, the two pass sights that suggest three stages of life: schoolchildren playing, fields of grain, and the setting sun. The first image suggests childhood, the second adulthood or maturity, and the third old age and death when the sun will set and leave only darkness. In the fourth stanza, however, the speaker corrects herself, saying the sun passed the carriage instead of the other way around. This statement suggests the speaker has died, for she—and the carriage—has ceased to move. She then begins to feel cold (presumably the cold of the grave), having dressed only in light clothing because she did not know her destination.

In the fifth stanza, they pause before what seems a grave, "a House that seemed / A Swelling of the Ground" with only the roof visible. The image suggests the reality of bodily decay as opposed to the promise of immortality. In the final stanza the speaker is alone: Death is not mentioned, nor is Immortality. Centuries have passed, but the speaker no longer experiences the passage of time as do the living, so it seems to have been only a day since she first guessed the horses were headed toward "Eternity." The speaker does not specifically mention immortality, but readers may infer the existence of something akin to it if the speaker is relating events of centuries ago when she died.

Although readers may understand the poem as representing the journey of a deceased person to the grave, some critics have suggested it is more a journey of realization about death. At the beginning the speaker thinks of death as genteel, nonthreatening, and accompanied by the promise of immortality. By the end of the journey, however, having felt the cold reality of the grave, she no longer harbors illusions of immortality and recognizes death is final and eternal.

Dickinson uses standard ballad meter in the first three stanzas, but then suddenly an inversion occurs in the beginning of the fourth stanza. The first line, "Or rather—He passed Us—," contains only six syllables so that the steady rhythm of the carriage ride seems to pause abruptly at the moment the sun passes the speaker. The next line, which would normally contain six syllables, instead has eight. After this break the poem returns to the usual ballad meter.

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