Personification and Figurative Language in Because I Could Not Stop for Death

A huge majority of the poets that lived during the nineteenth century often wrote on an assortment of topics and subject matters. A common topic that featured in most of these poems is death. Different authors chose different approaches when broaching or presenting enigmatic theme. In the list of poets who expertly exploited this theme to bring forth the poignancy of death is none other than Emily Elizabeth Dickinson (1830-86). Several of her poems feature death as she was to some extent, obsessed with death and the mystery that it was wrapped in. In an attempt to understand death and its complexities, she became prolific at churning out poems that had death at their epicenter, taking many forms and shapes (Bouson 2). One such work is Because I Could Not Stop for Death, a lyrical poem, where the theme of death is ubiquitous and starts from the very name of the poem. For the purpose of this, the analysis will center on personification and figurative as used by Dickinson in Because I Could Not Stop for Death and the purpose of the stylistic devices used.

The poem is littered with traces of personification from its very start. Contrary to the expectation of many, the personification of death does not take a bloodcurdling form as is common with the majority of writers who refer to death as the eerie “grim reaper” or the angel of death.  In the poem, death is elucidated as a cordial companion, almost like a suitor for the persona(Dickinson and Brownell 25). He visits her as she goes on with her daily routine. From the poem, death is said to take the woman for a pleasant carriage ride as young lovers so often do. It is clear from her description of the ride that she has no objections towards it and seems to be enjoying it. Death even goes to the extent of bringing along another passenger (Immortality) who acts as a chaperone for the couple. He makes sure that they do not visit any area that has the potential of being scary or with supernatural qualities that the persona is not used. Such actions are taken to ensure that she is comfortable throughout the whole ride and there is nothing that vexes her and ensures that they pass by regular sites such as a schoolyard. Death here takes the human form of a perfect gentleman who knows how to treat a lady in the most courteous way. From the first two lines, death is described as a well-mannered and cultured gentleman;

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 – (“Because I Could Not Stop for Death – (479) by Emily Dickinson” line 1 to 6)

Death here takes the form of a civilized individual, ready to ensure that the lady who he is with is well taken care of. In essence, death has taken a human form that now allows it to have a one on one interaction with the persona.

In terms of the use of figurative language, the poem makes use of metaphors to increase its appeal. In particular, the character of Death is used by Dickinson as an extended metaphor to evaluate its depth. The poem starts with a metaphor when the persona says she cannot stop for death, to mean that she too is not ready for death (“Because I Could Not Stop for Death – (479) by Emily Dickinson” lines 1 and 2). Death is a phenomenon that more often than not catches human beings off guard; no one is ever ready to die. Even when fully aware that she is riding with death in a carriage, she does not disclose this information to the tourists and does not divulge any information to the strangers. Additionally, during the early 19th century, it was unheard of and utterly unacceptable for a woman to be in the presence of another man who was not either her husband or a close family member. The persona in the poem sees it fit to travel with Death, who is not the husband, but someone she has just met and decides to take a trip with him. Along the way, Immortality joins the due, but the persona chooses not to focus on him, but Death (“Because I Could Not Stop for Death – (479) by Emily Dickinson” lines 3-4). The personal also explains that the carriage is getting slower and slower (“Because I Could Not Stop for Death – (479) by Emily Dickinson line 5). In this case, the metaphor of speed might have been used to indicate that the persona is already dead and the carriage transformed into a hearse. Similarly, the slow speed might be an indication that she is in a funeral procession and the vehicle carrying her body the first one. It is the civility that Death exudes that eventually makes the lady travel with him;

We slowly drove – He knew no haste

And I had put away

My labor and my leisure too,

For His captivity–   (Dickinson lines 3-6)

 

The metaphors used here seem to imply that the woman is ready to now forfeit her leisure to travel with Death, who she is not quite familiar with. Death uses his calm temperament and good demeanor to convince her to ride with him.

In the poem, imagery is also used to expertly by the author to create a description that is quite vivid. It is through imagery that we get a mental picture of where the persona travels through and what she sees while on her last detour. Occurrences that she often overlooked in the past are now described in great detail as she saw them. It is during this time that she notices the little children playing, wheat on the farm and the setting of the sun(“Because I Could Not Stop for Death – (479) by Emily Dickinson” lines 9 to 12). Furthermore, the children playing outside can symbolize eternity, the wheat the natural world while the setting of the sun represents the end of life for a human being so as to enter a new realm. The persona describes how “he passed her” to indicate that the carriage might still be moving at a slow speed as the travel the whole day until the dusk (“Because I Could Not Stop for Death – (479) by Emily Dickinson” lines 13 to 16)Symbolism is also used in the poem in reference to the end of her life. For instance, the use of a “drive” seems to indicate that the persona is leaving life on earth (Ferlazzo 15). Through her journey, a systematic change is observed. She progresses from a stage of childhood to a point of maturity when the “gazing grain” becomes ripe and the sun symbolizing her death.

In conclusion, the notion of man’s mortality and death has often posed a philosophical question that has been quite difficult to answer. In trying to decipher death and is nature, the poet Emily Elizabeth Dickinson in Because I Could Not Stop for Death makes use of a plethora of stylistic devices, personification and figurative language included, to compose a unique poem. She manages to describe death in a rather unusual manner that is simply thought provoking to say the least. It is through Dickinson’s concise style of poem writing and her effective use of the various literary elements found in poetry that allows her to create a superb poem that is one of a kind.

 

Works Cited

“Because I Could Not Stop for Death – (479) by Emily Dickinson.” Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/47652


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