Emily Dickinson — I could not stop for death

A post in the ongoing series Poetry in the Arts.

200px-Black-white_photograph_of_Emily_Dickinson

Because I could not stop for Death
by Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

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 —

In the last few entries in this series, I’ve been trying to say more explicitly how my criteria for being poetic can work in practice — and I’m trying to steer the discussion eventually back closer to writing, screen writing, and movies.

The criteria say that a poem is something that you live through — that you experience, not just contemplate — and that it’s a made object — something that you’re conscious of for itself as well as for the story it tells.

Further, I’ve been saying in the Manet entry and the Wyman Park entry that the way this often happens is that poems (poetic paintings or poetic movies or poetic poems) bring together incompatible images in combustible ways.

I’d like to pursue this further.

A book that has been helping me understand — in a practical way — how poetic imagery works is More Than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor by George Lakoff and Mark Turner (University of Chicago Press, 1989).

Lakoff and Turner introduce their ideas in an extended analysis of Emily Dickinson’s Because I could not stop for Death. Instead of quoting them, though, I’d like to discuss the poem in my own words, so I can extend and emphasize certain ideas. I hasten to point out that my analysis will cover only a small part of what’s beautiful about the poem: I’m just trying to make certain particular points.

Lakoff and Turner point to the fact that we have many standard metaphors that are part of our everyday thinking, in no way reserved especially or solely for poets.

One such metaphor is DEATH IS A JOURNEY. It uses our basic idea of “journey” — this idea being an example of what Lakoff and Turner call a “schema.” The journey schema has “slots” — blanks that we fill in when we use it. For example, some mandatory slots for the journey schema are for departure point, for destination, and for traveler. There are other, optional slots: for means of transportation, for roadmap, for roadblock, for driver or conductor or guide.

DEATH IS A JOURNEY is a convenient, if commonplace, metaphor that we construct by filling in the blanks in the journey schema: the dead person is the traveler, the departure point is the here and now. We say things based on it all the time and they make sense. It does seem like the person is on a journey: they’re gone. Just like a person on a physical journey, we can’t communicate with them while they’re on it: we’re in the dark about what’s happening to them. The journey schema even leaves tantalizing blanks we don’t know how to fill: What is the destination? It suggests questions: Will the person come back? Will we meet them again when we make the same journey?

The use of such metaphors doesn’t necessarily constitute poetry: we use them everywhere. What makes poetry is using them so that they collide, explode, and have new meanings.

The basic structure of Dickinson’s poem is the way she brings together several metaphors that are only slightly compatible. All these metaphors are based on mapping different things to the journey schema. In the first line, LIFE IS A JOURNEY but, starting in the second line, DEATH IS A JOURNEY. I’m tempted to ask, “Well, Emily, which is it?”

She couples these two metaphors, though — by plugging the moment of death both into the “destination” slot of LIFE IS A JOURNEY and also into the “departure point” slot of DEATH IS A JOURNEY.

At some mechanical level, this works: it’s one journey following another. But, if I step back to think about my ordinary ideas about life and about death, it doesn’t make sense: for one thing, life is short and death is forever.

It doesn’t seem immediately helpful for her to say what she seems to imply: life and death are alike because they’re both like a journey.

There is one simple, conventional way to read it: “Life is a journey — and you know what? Death is a journey too, and when we get there we’re going to have just as much fun as we do now.” Somehow, I don’t believe that reading captures much of what Dickinson is saying.

This leaves me no choice but to directly face the paradox that comes from looking at it the other way around: “Death is a journey — and you know what? Life is a journey, too, and in much the same way.”

Uh, er, . . . this is something it’s going to take me some time to grow into, if at all.

Starting with the second line, the poem seems structured by the controlling metaphor DEATH IS A JOURNEY: the carriage departs, goes along a route, and arrives at a destination.

But it’s more complex than that. In the third stanza the basic DEATH IS A JOURNEY is complicated by further, different, incompatible metaphors:

  • The mention of the children playing recalls again the LIFE IS A JOURNEY metaphor. We travel from childhood to adulthood to old age.
  • The mention of the grain suggests the metaphor LIFE IS LIKE THE SEASONS. We start in spring. We grow, then we ripen, then we’re harvested and winter comes.
  • The mention of the setting sun suggests the metaphor LIFE IS LIKE A DAY. We start in the morning, then we go through the day, and then evening comes, and finally night falls.

What makes these three metaphors for life incompatible is that they make the same action — life — take place in three different time frames: a day, a year, a lifetime. Further, Dickinson tucks all three of these time scales into the journey of death that’s supposed to be eternal.

Simultaneously reading the poem in these four different timescales is like being in a time-warp science fiction movie — maybe in the final scenes of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

In the last stanza, Dickinson again shifts metaphors. It’s no longer DEATH IS A JOURNEY but now DEATH IS A FINAL DESTINATION. These metaphors are again incompatible: just ask yourself whether we spend eternity on the journey, or at the destination.

There are many other examples of literary figuration in Because I could not stop for death, but I think these are some main images that structure it.

Dickinson might have put these images together in something conventionally reassuring, something like: no matter how you look at it, death is the natural conclusion and stopping point of life — nothing different or greatly to be feared. Indeed, this may be part of her meaning.

But I think that the difficult way she has brought her apparently incompatible, images paradoxically together leads us into something more profound, something less easy to say, that I can only stammer at in comparison to the depth and elegance of her poem.

I wonder if she means to say in the last stanza that eternity is not a never-ending, static resting place — it’s a place of vibrant action. As the comparison in the third stanza of the different time frames indicates, and as the comparison of life and death indicates, perhaps eternity is also now, in the present — not something in the far-off future but something that we can live through, that challenges us now.

I wouldn’t swear that I’ve got the relationship of the images right — and that’s what makes the poem exciting. Such a poem is deep and important because it’s hard for us to get it straight right away — or ever. It’s a signpost that we have to grow in order to understand — that we grow because of our efforts to understand.

What I do think I’ve got right about it is the general idea that it’s not the images themselves that make the poem great — or even that make it a poem at all. Images and metaphors are basic to our everyday thought and expression. What makes this poem poetic is the fact that everyday images have a structure and that a poet like Dickinson can put them together in ways that defy and undermine our conventional expectations in favor of a knotty incompatibility.

Continuing the thought of the Manet entry and the Wyman Park entry, we can see how Manet was doing the same thing: using conventional images to raise certain responses in us and then denying that response.

  • The woman’s nudity makes us expect that she’ll be demure and embarrassed — but she’s not: instead, she stares at us self-confident and possessed.
  • Her nudity makes us expect that the scene takes place in some far-off mythical setting — but, it doesn’t: as the men’s clothes show, it’s in contemporary Paris.
  • We expect the men to be over-eager — but they’re not: they converse calmly, ignoring her.
  • We expect the artist to use all of his powers to paint her flesh voluptuously — instead he paints it with flat front-lighting that shows off his virtuoso coloring and drafting.
  • The physical details of the landscape lead us to expect a certain perspective — but we are denied it: instead the still life in the foreground, the group with the two men and the woman, and the background woman seem to be in three different perspectives unrelated to that of the landscape.

In writing screenplays, we don’t have much opportunity for “poetic language” — either in dialogue or description. But we do constantly use schemas and metaphors in the sense that I am describing here.

Although it’s not a deeply poetic movie, an obvious and well-known example is Fatal Attraction. Don Gallagher (Michael Douglas) is a guy who impulsively cheats on his wife with a beautiful woman. This is a perfectly ordinary situation — and as we watch it develop our minds race ahead to any of several conventional endings. In the same movie, Alex Forrest (Glenn Close) faces emotional destruction when the man who’s the great love of her life coldly, cruelly deserts her. Again, a perfectly conventional situation that we understand.

What makes Fatal Attraction work is that these two conventional situations are joined in an impossible way: the guy who Alex thinks is the great love of her life is actually Don, who she just met last week and first slept with last night. We in the audience are appalled as we watch the incompatibilities in the situation evolve and explode.

A similar, and much more poetic, situation is the incompatibility between the situations and expectations of the characters played by Nicolas Cage and Elisabeth Shue in Leaving Las Vegas.

The screen writing books harp on the importance of what they call “conflict.” But what I’m pointing to is something that’s pervasive in our screenplays: not just the big conflict between the main character and the antagonist. In every page, in every paragraph of our writing we set up expectations for the viewer in an amazing variety of ways — and we can either fulfill them or defeat them. This gives us dense, rich opportunities for choices that convey story and character to the viewer.

Another goal here is to point out that there are relations — not necessarily incompatibilities — between features that make for box-office and features that make for art. If only we had the skill to control them.

On the immediate question, I want to say that an artist has a continuum of possibilities in regard to this question of either satisfying the viewer’s expectations or defeating them.
* If the artist always satisfies the viewer’s expectations, then the viewer will understand easily and pleasantly — but the work is a banal, unexciting cliché.
* At the opposite extreme: if the artist never satisfies the viewer’s expectations, then there is just an incomprehensible jumble that the viewer can’t understand.

In the middle, between those extremes, are various stages in which the work is to some degree entertaining and to some degree poetic and profound.

Two Chinese poems that similarly try to explain the journey of life by metaphors of other journeys with differing time scales:

A different dimension of this idea of art as multiple images is presented in Jane Austen: Free indirect discourse.


Summary

I admire an art work — a film, painting, sculpture, music, fiction, or poem — that has structure and shows its story. But I love art that has “poetry.”

This series of posts suggests three criteria for poetry:

  • A poem is not an object you passively contemplate or an idea you learn: it’s something that you live through, that you experience.
  • A poem is a made object: it may bring you into a story or admit you to a world, but it also shows you itself and the person who made it.
  • A poem conveys emotion.

Table of Contents for this series: Poetry in the Arts


poetry
“Do you know my poetry”
— Johnny Depp as William Blake, in Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man

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3 Responses to Emily Dickinson — I could not stop for death

  1. William Egmont says:

    You seem to have left out one of the strangest dichotomies in the poem–the idea of Death as a kindly gentleman who escorts you to your final place in a horse-drawn carriage, as if it were a lovely Sunday afternoon ride through the neighborhood! In reality, Death isn’t someone that you can make appointments with; if you can’t stop for death, well, then you’re out of luck. This journey from life to death isn’t normally thought of as a pleasant one, either; classically, it’s a boat ride across the river of death, dead bodies floating around, with a skeleton as your gondolier. But, obviously, Miss Dickinson had other ideas.

  2. Anita says:

    great analysis
    you’ve helped me heaps
    now im not gonna fail english =]

  3. Hari says:

    I do not know about the structure or the way you have theorized the poem. But for me when I read the poem this is what is conveyed to me.

    Death comes to us regardless of we chose it or we stop our life and wait for it. Its a journey, which takes us from life as we know. I think children playing, gazing grain and sun setting are examples but I do not know if they have any symbolic meaning.

    From life and warmth, it lead to something cold and chill and I think she meant that they paused at a grave. Its eternity after that were centuries feel shorter than a day.

    I am amazed and awestruck at this poem, how death is described, where everything stops and life as you know ends and then there is death which is eternity.

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