Emily Dickinson’s Metaphysical Poetry: Because I could not stop for Death

First some definitions.

Helen Gardner noted the dramatic quality of (Metaphysical) poetry as a personal address of argument and persuasion, whether talking to a physical lover, to God, to Christ’s mother Mary, or to a congregation of believers. Gardner, Helen (1957). Metaphysical Poets. Oxford University Press, London. p22-24)

Metaphysical poetry is characterised by what is known as the conceit. 

The metaphysical conceit, associated with the Metaphysical poets of the 17th century, is a more intricate and intellectual device. It usually sets up an analogy between one entity’s spiritual qualities and an object in the physical world and sometimes controls the whole structure of the poem.

By these definitions, Dickinson’s beautiful Because I could not stop for Death qualifies as a metaphysical poem as much as Donne’s A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning or Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress 

The central conceit or metaphor of the poem is the idea of a friend stopping to offer someone a ride in a carriage. This image is beautifully captured in the final scene of the film A Quiet Passion were the poem is read during Dickinson’s funeral procession.

Because I could not stop for Death —
He kindly stopped for me —
The Carriage held but just Ourselves —
And Immortality.

We slowly drove — He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility —

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess — in the Ring —
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain —
We passed the Setting Sun —

Or rather — He passed Us —
The Dews drew quivering and Chill —
For only Gossamer, my Gown —
My Tippet — only Tulle —

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground —
The Roof was scarcely visible —
The Cornice — in the Ground —

Since then — ’tis Centuries — and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity —

The central image of the of a friend offering a ride is expanded through the poem. The friend is Death and his offer is “kindly”.  There is a sense of acceptance and ” civility” that suffuses the poem coupled with a sense of unhurried preparedness.

And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility —

In the next stanza, the carriage passes “the School, where Children strove”, the Fields of Gazing Grain”, “the Setting Sun”, it is almost as if Dickinson watches her life passing away in a few fleeting and poignant images.

Finally, her journey ends at her grave

a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground —
The Roof was scarcely visible —
The Cornice — in the Ground

The final stanza, is a voice from Eternity which is proving

shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity

Is this an echo of Marvell’s

But at my back I always hear
Time’s winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.

Certainly, Dickinson’s image contains none of the urgency of Marvell’s and the two poems have quite different concerns.  However, the central conceit, of the horses drawing the chariot or the carriage towards eternity is the same.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More reading

Emily Dickinson and Metaphysical Poetry

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