A Mind Unbounded
For most of her adult life, Emily Dickinson stayed within the bounds of her family home and garden, but her poetry declares that her mind knew no boundaries. Her compact poems may begin with humble domestic details, but suddenly expand into questioning life, the universe, and our human position on a cosmic scale. We could look at many of her nearly 1800 verses to find examples, but I’m going to pick two of my favorites, both well-known but both widely misunderstood: “Because I could not stop for Death,” and “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain.” Feeling brave enough to visit the edge of a cosmic existential void? Then click and read the poems, and we’ll take a closer look.
Dickinson’s Poetic Method
Before we plunge in, let’s talk a bit about Dickinson’s poetic methods. Few were the existential assumptions she did not dare to interrogate, but her poetry doesn’t usually make a head-on assault against the Calvinist and other cultural pieties that her family and neighbors accepted. Instead, she is wry and sly. Poems begin with domestic pictures that don’t seem at all alarming, but after a few odd but deft and startling word choices, underlined by ironic understatement, readers come to realize that Dickinson has just yanked the rug out from another comforting belief or cultural assumption.
She wrote all of her poems in the form and meter commonly used for hymns in her time. Using the well-known form of Christian songs to question religious and other certainties is, in itself, a big irony. Also known as common or ballad meter, this type of poem has four lines in each stanza, with alternating lines of four and three iambic beats. That’s why (as you probably know) you can sing all of her poems to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” the “Theme of Gilligan’s Island,” or any other song written in ballad meter. If you want to stop reading for a minute and try it out, have at it!
The Last Carriage Ride: Calm Acceptance, or Not So Calm?
So now we’re back, and ready to talk about “Because I could not stop for Death.” Over the years, a lot of my students have interpreted this poem as Dickinson’s acceptance of death. The speaker of the poem gets into the carriage quietly, Death is not a monster but a polite gentleman, they drive slowly and calmly to the “House” in the “Ground,” and “the Horse’s Heads” are pointed “toward Eternity.” No one is kicking, weeping, or screaming (yet). Also, as quite a few students have noted, Immortality is in the carriage, so doesn’t that suggest Dickinson believes in an afterlife?
Readers who see this poem as a calm acceptance of Death, in my view, have fallen for Emily Dickinson’s poker face. Recall that Dickinson’s method is to begin by painting the picture according to accepted cultural views, but then proceed to undercut it. In this poem, pulling against the surface calm, we can find enough horrifying scary details to remake the graveyard scene in Carrie.
In the first place, the poem’s speaker does not really want to get in the carriage. I was too busy to die, she says, but Death pulled right up to me, so politely. How kind! I couldn’t say no—so I “put away” everything I really wanted to do, both labor and leisure. Immortality is there in the carriage, so it must be OK—right? Death doesn’t say where he is driving her. Only at the end of the poem, she reveals that she did not really know their destination, trying to “surmise” where they were headed as they drove.
In any case, Death keeps driving, and driving, right past all the major stages of life: wrestling children, the “Gazing Grain,” produce of mature years, and right past the end-of-life setting sun. But oops, they don’t pass the sun; the speaker realizes they have stopped, while the sun, signaling the forward passage of time, goes on without them. That’s when the speaker realizes she is dressed in light fabrics that may be appropriate for a living lady who is making a polite afternoon call, not for a dying one who is headed for a cold, damp place. This is one of the most chilling details of the poem, both literally and figuratively.
The House in the Ground
When they get there, she sees they have come to a house of which “the Roof was scarcely visible,” with everything else below the ground. This is where she has been since “’tis Centuries.” Yet these Centuries seem shorter than the one momentous day she has just described in this poem. Why? Because that is the day she realized what Death who had caught up with her was really like. Her progress through time would simply stop. The sun would go on without her.
But what about Immortality? Wasn’t he there? As I see it, this poem offers no picture of a happy afterlife where the speaker rejoins lost loved ones or translates into a higher existence. Eternity passes right there at this “house in the ground,” which is an apt description, according to critic Collamer M. Abbott 1, of nineteenth century New England burial vaults.
I don’t think Immortality even got out of the carriage, or if he did, he wasn’t anything like the speaker had been led to believe.
Are you screaming yet?
“Because I could not stop for Death” shows the speaker beginning her journey toward death having accepted the teachings of her faith and culture: death is kind, Immortality is right next to Death during the process, and the Final Destination is a mysterious but a happy one. While this poem does not directly contradict those ideas, it shows plainly that Dickinson at least finds them highly questionable.
Even Bigger Losses: Death of Reason?
“Because I could not stop” questions widely-held beliefs about the nature of life and death, a big enough topic for anyone’s mind, but the topic of “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” is even more cosmic, questioning the very basis of human knowledge and agency.
The poem begins with a funeral going on in the speaker’s mind. A funeral means someone or something has been lost. What loss is this speaker mourning? Many people answer, “her sanity.” This idea makes some sense—she seems to be describing how “Sense” tries to break through to her mind during this internal funeral, and in the last stanza, “a Plank in Reason, broke.” That sounds like the speaker has passed from a state of Reason and Sanity into some opposite state. Other stanzas of the poem could describe the desolation she feels after the loss of her reason.
I, however, don’t think this poem is about the speaker’s loss of reason, or anything nearly so personal. I think the poem is about Dickinson’s loss of Belief in Reason itself. What if Human Reason is useless, powerless, weak, or mistaken? What, in that case, can we really know? On what beliefs can we plant a foot with certainty? If we have no reason, what do we have left? These are frightening thoughts, especially to an intellectual mind like Dickinson’s.
Once when I explained this interpretation of the poem to a class, one of my students looked up from the book, shook her head, and said, “I just don’t want to go there.” Can’t say I blame her, but I think Dickinson did go there. Do you want to? Let’s go at least far enough to glean a few more ideas from this poem, looked at from this perspective.
The Funeral for Reason
In the first stanza, mourners are treading through her Brain with a maddening, plodding cadence, “till it seemed / That Sense was breaking through—.” What might Dickinson mean by “Sense”? In the nineteenth century, (according to the historical Oxford English Dictionary) the word “Sense” had a double meaning, as it still does today. It could mean some kind of mental intuition, such as “moral sense” or “common sense,” but it also could be interpreted as referring strictly to physical sensations like sight and sound, which would make it an opposite term to Thought or Reason (which can go on in the brain in absence of sensations).
I think Dickinson is using the second meaning. No one in this room in her brain is reciting any words to make this death meaningful or interpretable. Instead they are merely moving and making noise. “Sense,” in this case mere sensation, is breaking through Dickinson’s mental concentration. Soon her experience of the drumbeat sound, pure sensation without thought, makes her Mind feel numb. She cannot think, only experience.
When ability or belief in human reason is gone, then Space itself becomes nothing more than a giant noisemaker. The Universe is just one great source of Sensation, with no Reason or Idea anywhere within it. She, as human who prizes her Reason above all else, becomes an alien in the universe, “wrecked solitary,” because nothing within her mind can effectively connect to anything in the world of sensation “out there.”
How Many Worlds Lost?
When the “Plank in Reason, broke,” the speaker begins hitting “a World, at every plunge.” The scale of this short little poem has gone from a single person’s mental experience, to picturing all the Space in the universe as a meaningless collection of sensations, to a fall, down and down, through a huge Cosmos of multiple worlds, universes that each have become meaningless because Reason cannot interpret them.
And indeed, once belief in Reason is dead, how many worlds that rely on thought and idea must be lost? There goes Science, Religion, History, Government, Psychology, and more, and more. There also goes Dickinson’s sense of herself; a person whose main quality is Mind loses everything if she cannot use it to interpret the physical world meaningfully. I think that is what the speaker finishes “knowing”: that if Reason is invalid, any means humans have to interpret the world is lost .
Tired? Not Surprising. Final Thoughts on Dickinson
Whew, I am getting a little tired of bouncing around the Cosmos and wondering if my Reason is useless. I’m feeling more like getting a glass of iced tea, and maybe a sandwich—something based on sensation that I don’t have to think too much about. Maybe you feel the same way, so I’ll end this post with two observations:
- One, I don’t think Dickinson felt this way all the time. She used this poem to explore this idea while she was entertaining it, but other poems go on to try to reframe the world in ever fresh, probing, and iconoclastic ways.
- And Two: When you read Dickinson, don’t be fooled by the surface calm or the sweet little domestic details woven through her works. This woman’s mind was huge; it ranged through the Cosmos. She might be one of the most intellectually daring writers America has produced.
Have a thought? Please leave a reply!
1Collamer M. Abbott from The Explicator 58.3 (Spring 2000) quoted on the Modern American Poetry website published by Univ. of Illinois.