I’ve been looking a lot at writers’ views on death itself lately, but not as much at what happens after death. Emily Dickinson offers her take on the afterlife in “Because I could not stop for Death,” arguably her most famous poem. In it, she asserts that we are immortal after death, and personifies death as a person, and, in fact, a gentleman.
She opens by describing how polite and chivalrous Death is to her: “Because I could not stop for Death –/He kindly stopped for me –” (1-2) and later, “He knew no haste” (5) and “…I had put away/My labor and my leisure too,/For His Civility” (6-8). Rather than painting death as a malicious force that rudely tears us away from life, Dickinson portrays it as polite and benevolent. The narrator willingly stops her life’s activities to go along with Death- she is not forced to do so.
Afterwards, Dickinson discusses the eternal life that follows death, by saying such things as “The Carriage held but just Ourselves –/And Immortality” (3-4) and then, in the final stanza:
Since then – ‘tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity – (21-24)
“Immortality” gets personified here as well, becoming a sentient being like Death, and he is present once the narrator dies. The fact that “Centuries” have passed shows that the narrator of the poem has been living on for hundreds of years since her death; and yet, it feels like just a short time ago she realized that she was headed “toward Eternity,” or toward death and the afterlife. It’s also significant that the narrator had to “surmise” where she was going- she didn’t immediately know that she had died and was headed “on,” which must mean that death was quick and painless to her, and felt no different from life.
The middle of the poem is dedicated to the description of sights that pass along the journey with Death:
We passed the School, where Children strove,
At Recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun – (9-12)
This string of images could be interpreted as the narrator seeing her life pass before her eyes; perhaps the “School” was her school, where she spent her youth, and the “Fields of Gazing Grain” are where she worked in middle age. And finally, the “Setting Sun” is the end of her life, the metaphor for life’s completion.
The first line of the following stanza shows that the travelers are moving slowly, without haste, as she previously mentioned: “Or rather — / He passed us — ” (13). The sun passes the carriage, signifying how calm and paced their voyage is. Death is not a mad, frightening blur, but a calm, patient journey.
Overall, Emily Dickinson renders death as an almost desirable occurrence, a pleasant trip through time that isn’t rushed or prolonged, but tranquil and enjoyable. When death comes, it is gracious and well-mannered, rather than cruel and ruthless. The entire experience sounds pleasurable and is something that is not to be feared; Dickinson takes all of the anxiety out of it, leaving the reader with a sense of serenity about death. Even the fact that the poem ends with one of Dickinson’s famous hyphens displays the limitlessness of death. Life doesn’t end with a period, but rather, is left open-ended.