Death is usually unwelcomed throughout literature, but in this poem, Death is personified as a patient gentlemen. Death is a polite man who surprises the speaker with his visit. The lines “Because I could not stop for Death / He kindly stopped for me; (1-2)” describes the relationship between the two characters as very intimate. Because the speaker could not stop for death, she did not have the choice to choose when she wanted to die. This line reveals the obvious; humans do not have the option to choose when they want to die. The speaker lives a busy life, as she is unable to stop for Death, so instead, Death arrives to her home to take the speaker out for a carriage ride. But, the speaker and Death are accompanied by Immortality during the carriage ride. Death is personified throughout the poem as a metaphor to convey what death is truly like. The portrayal of death in this poem is comforting and almost acts like a companion. Death is usually portrayed in a negative way, but in Dickinson’s poem, Death is introduced as a comforting and polite man. By portraying Death as a positive character, Dickinson is straying from the norms of literature. She is depicting death as a part of life, which is ironic because death is the ending of life. Death can be grim and frightening, but Dickinson is sweetening death by portraying death as a kind and gentle man.
Death drives the carriage slowly, maybe in an act of consideration. The carriage acts as a metaphor for the vessel that will lead the speaker to death. The voyage is pleasant, and Dickinson illustrates the road to eternity as a pleasant trip. Death “slowly drove” the carriage, which signifies the death described in the poem as a slow death. The speaker states “The carriage held but just ourselves / And Immortality (3-4),” and by saying “ourselves,” Dickinson magnifies the relationship between the speaker and Death. But the complicated part of the line is Dickinson’s use of the word “immortality.” The speaker is riding in the carriage with Death, so the reader would assume that Dickinson meant to write “mortality.” The use of “immortality” in the line may hint that the speaker does not think of death as the end of life, but instead the road to eternity, which is again hinted later on in the last line of the poem.
The character Death was not in a hurry, which is revealed when the speaker says, “We slowly drove, he knew no haste (5).” This may again hint that the death described in the poem is not a quick one. Dickinson shifts from “we” to “he” in line five. The use of “we” in the line may hint that the speaker believes she may have some control over the speed of the carriage, but the switch to “he” reminds the reader that Death has full control over the pace. The character Death is determining the speed of the speakers death since the pace of the carriage ride is symbolizing the pace of the speakers death. It can be inferred that the speaker is not necessarily afraid of death; the slow pace of the carriage creates a suspenseful wondering in the poem. The speaker states she “had put away her labor, and her leisure too / For his civility (7-8).” The speaker gave up her leisure and joy because of the politeness and comfort of Death. It can also be interpreted that the speaker gave up her leisure in exchange for Death’s consideration and politeness. The speaker has given up her joy for Death, and the speaker seems to have become almost infatuated with him.
Death and the speaker pass by a school where children are playing, and the youth of the children contradicts death. Death is associated with coldness, and the sunset described in the poem describes the coldness of death. As the sun sets, the warmth of the sun is gone, thus symbolizing the coldness of death. The sunset symbolizes the end of the day, and also the end of life. But the passing of the school children is also an ordinary act, and this may portray death as something ordinary and a part of life. The repetition of “we passed” in lines eleven and twelve, also known as an anaphora, imitated the slow pace of the carriage. Instead of being an observer, the speaker can be apart of the journey due to the slow paced progression of the journey.
The speaker and Death now arrive at a house. But the house is not just an ordinary house, it is the burial spot for the speaker. Death has lead the speaker to a house that is just a small rise in the ground and is barely visible. The house is underground and is a metaphor for a grave. Instead of feeling uneasy after arriving at her grave, the speaker is calm and at ease as the speaker feels comfortable with Death. The speaker and Death “paused before a house, (13)” which is the second pause in the poem, the first being when Death stopped for the speaker. This can help conclude that the second pause is the end of the journey. Instead of blatantly telling the reader that the speaker arrived to her grave, Dickinson describes the speakers grave as a home, something that is very comforting and freedom.
The last stanza of the poem reveals that this journey happened centuries ago. The point of view of the poem is given through a flashback. Thus, the speaker has been dead throughout the poem. The speaker says the memory “Feels shorter than the day (18),” which means the memory is still vivid. The horses in the last two lines symbolize the speaker’s journey to death, and also her journey into eternity. The horses’ heads act as an extension of the carriage. The heads of the horses are narrow and angled, almost like an arrow that is piercing through the boundary that is blocking life from death.
Dickinson illustrates death as something not far away from the ordinary. The speaker is not afraid of death and accepts it as a part of life. Through the use of poetic devices such as personification and metaphors, the author is able to convey the acceptance of death in the poem. Death is personified as a kind and gentle man. Every image in the poem ties back to the main idea; they are all images of death. The poem focuses on the life that is being left behind of the speaker and seeks to experience death that is to come. Dickinson uses the images of mortality, immortality, and eternity in order to illustrate death.