One of the harder things to do when performing a song or a poem—or in talking about what either means—is to tackle a well-known piece. As far as American poetry goes, Emily Dickinson’s “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” qualifies as such a case. It’s one of those “most anthologized” poems. I’m certain I ran into it in high school, and it is like a lot of great and popular poems: it can be about three-quarters understood by a schoolchild being introduced to poetry scholastically.
Is there anything new and fresh that can be brought to it? And what may still be there in that other quarter of the poem beyond what one first understood as a teenager?
When I write and play the music or perform the words here I need to make choices. One of the most important of those choices is what is the mood? What is the overall outlook of the poem’s speaker? You can use educated guesses to what the author intended, or you can just make a wild guess, even a perverse one. For example, you take most any song that was written as a party anthem, and then slow it down and sing it with some doubt in one’s voice, you will completely undercut the swagger and good times vibe (as Aztec Camera’s cover of Van Halen’s “Jump” proved years ago).
With “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” I decided the mode I would use is sardonic. This is a good ground choice for any Dickinson poem in my mind. This is a poem about death, sure, but it’s a poem mocking death, or rather our appreciation of that subject.
That starts from the start: like death is a social appointment we don’t have time to schedule, but then also, a slow passage of the entire trip of life at a fine and boring pace is appropriate too, as it’s a trip to the graveyard in the metaphor of the 3rd verse.
In the sublime 4th stanza, when the speaker has passed the days of her life (the slow carriage ride of life so stately that the sun transit of a day outraces it) she finds herself unprepared for the cold weather of death, dressed only in useless, ladylike garments that may reference a bridal dress, a burial shroud or a nightgown.
The afterlife presented in the last two stanzas is not any heaven, but an eternity of nothingness. As a final irony, the speaker says the centuries of eternity seem like less of an experience than even a day of a slow life.
Emily’s family held more conventional views of heaven reflected on her gravestone
So, on one hand this is a mock solemn poem about death, spoken in a mode not that far from what Maila Nurmi/Vampira might have vamped on TV a century later. But it’s also a carpe diem poem, written this time by a woman, one whose artistic life is not giving her time to stop for death, nor the daily deaths of an unexamined, uncreative life. When Thomas Higginson was editing the first collection of Dickinson poems, he may have appreciated that aspect when he added the title “The Chariot” to it. “The Chariot” as in “Time’s wingèd chariot” in Marvell’s poem.
At least that’s what I think is there. I could be wrong. You have to make choices.
Dickinson poems, which are largely written with her internalized Protestant hymn tune rhythms, can be set to music easily. And the basic track in my performance would have demonstrated that, as played on just a 12-string guitar, even though I undercut its simple three chord progression with some chord alterations. The piano part brings the strangeness in by playing simple arpeggiated chords, but in an insistent cross-rhythm.
So hop in the carriage, we’ve got the clip-clop of the hooves and the jangle of the harness to accompany us when you use the player below to listen to my performance of Emily Dickinson’s “Because I Could Not Stop for Death.”