Death Is Just the Limo Driver: Re-Envisioning “Because I could not stop for Death” after Gazing at Emily Dickinson and Kate Scott Turner Gazing at Us by Suzette Bishop

They make brief eye contact as the speaker climbs into the carriage. Death, in Emily Dickinson’s poem, “Because I could not stop for Death,” drops by unexpectedly for a nineteenth-century style date. Immortality, possibly a spinster, possibly not, is also in the carriage, “The Carriage held but just Ourselves-- / And Immortality” (lines 3-4). Immortality’s presence is mentioned almost as an afterthought with the dash, Oh -- and, by the way, Immortality was in the backseat.
Does the casualness of “by the way” deflect our attention away from what’s flourishing between the two women in the carriage, a poetics of indirection? The gaps in Dickinson’s poems, the offhand tone in this poem, beg for more digging, while the newly discovered daguerreotype of Emily Dickinson with her arm around Kate Scott Turner suggests a possible answer (Dickinson Editing Collective). And suggests something else. If it’s Immortality, another woman, the speaker truly loves, perhaps the afterlife is the only place the speaker can imagine a life with another woman.
Death directs the horses forward. All three, Death, the speaker, and Immortality, play their roles perfectly. After all, they are taking a spin around a small New England town in the nineteenth century. The grain of the wooden houses, like the grain in the fields, have eyes that are “Gazing” (11) and judging what everyone does. The speaker plays the courted gentlewoman, sitting in the passenger seat. Death plays the kind, civil, perfect gentleman, the chaperone plays her role, quietly sitting behind them. So to anyone gazing at them, they all look like they are behaving perfectly respectably--a proper calling upon a lady by Death, a promenade ride around the town, a date appropriately chaperoned.
Equating the passage from life to death with a courtship wasn’t unusual in the sentimental fiction and poetry of Dickinson’s time, either, according to Maria Magdalena Farland. On the surface, the poem follows this convention from the sentimental genre, but Farland argues Dickinson subverts a contemporary painting of the hereafter as a place of domestic bliss with the beloved:
In the popular fictions of Dickinson's era, friends and family would be reunited in snug, heavenly homes complete with elaborate interior decorations and detailed housekeeping regimes. Dickinson's familiarity with sentimental fictions of the ‘angel in the house’ is evident in poems like ‘The grave my little cottage is’ (Poem 1743), whose speaker addresses her lover from the grave, assuring him that she is 'Keeping house,’ her ‘parlor orderly’ until ‘everlasting life unite’ them (Poems, III, 1, 172).” (371)
Additionally, Farland points out “Because I could not stop for Death” follows sentimental literature’s plotline of going to heaven as a “courtly love affair, alluringly offered by a gentle angel or messenger” (371-372). Farland asserts Dickinson upends this plotline, however, by making the grave’s home uninviting and alien instead of familiar and comforting and by leaving out the detailed setting of eternity, with family and friends ready to welcome the speaker into her new warm home. Conversely, “the poem uproots--sentimental fiction's conventional destination--the home, ostensibly fixed in eternity--to the anterior locale of the grave . . . This interment intensifies the alienation from the home inaugurated by the dimming of the sun” (374).
Maria Magdalena Farland further notes Dickinson’s use of sentimental characters’ anticipation meeting lovers in heaven and the heightened ardor, “even sexual, fervor,” of this meeting evident in some of Dickinson’s poems, particularly a draft of a poem she wrote on her deathbed, “I cannot live with You” (376). But, Farland posits, Dickinson grapples with moral and philosophical questions as she may be leading herself and her readers astray from Christian and Victorian values (381). Farland feels Dickinson rejects, or at least questions, sentimental fiction and poetry’s depiction of life after death as resembling what it’s like on earth and of meeting up with a lover (and loved ones). But maybe it’s more that the life on earth Dickinson knew wasn’t heaven-like for her? Nor the male lover heroines joined there and the likely chilly reception (at best) from friends and family once she was outed?
It may be that heteronormative domestic scenes, whether on earth or in heaven, were not comforting for Dickinson and her speaker, and this is part of what she upends with her poetics of indirection. In fact, the speaker has already said good-bye to her past, her childhood playing by the schoolyard, and perhaps to the cyclic path from there to a future marriage to a man and having children, to following the expected path for a woman in the nineteenth century. As Patricia Engle concludes, “Playful or plaintive, her awareness of being on a spiritual search is as apparent as her awareness that she is not what her people and her times expect her to be.” That expected home life for the speaker is more like being buried in a sarcophagus mausoleum, the roof “scarcely visible -- / The Cornice--in the Ground” (19-20). The graveyard is more rest-stop than resting place with its gothic details Dickinson would know so intimately from her bedroom window view. They “paused” and moved on (17); the speaker looks but doesn’t enter.
And the speaker’s dress is odd, made of gossamer and her tippet a pretty but not protective tulle, part burial dress and part bridal dress, neither suitable for a regular calling or for the cold weather. David Baker notes this as well:
If Dickinson’s poem is an elegy, the story of a funeral procession, it is also just as clearly a love poem, the story of a mild nineteenth-century date. She has a suitor, they have a chaperone, and off they go flirting, secretly aroused. Her arousal becomes obvious in the sensations of stanza four. Those garments are just as easily the apparel of a wedding party as a burial one, aren’t they? Today our bride is wearing a lovely, sheer white gown, a delicate shoulder-length veil--she feels the innocent but clearly sensual excitement of her station. In fact, can’t this whole poem be read as a wedding poem, the new couple on the way to, and past, their house? The very earth is pregnant, ‘swelling’ with fertile possibility--a condition and a type of residence where, elsewhere, she says she likes to ‘dwell.’
But not before the driver, Death, gets out. Death and the “Setting Sun” (12 ) are one and the same passing “us” (13), the speaker and Immortality. The graveyard is Death’s stop. Under the cover of darkness, the two women continue their ride. And that ride is not a leisurely tour of the town’s boundaries anymore but headed more insistently elsewhere. Joel Martyr similarly notes how Death leaves the speaker and Immortality alone and the speaker’s symbolic dress:
In Death’s ‘kind(ness)’ and ‘civility’ (‘Stop for Death’ 2, 8), and the speaker’s ‘gossamer’ ‘gown’ and ‘tulle’ ‘tippet’ (15–16), it is not difficult to perceive their carriage ride as pseudo matrimonial. The presence of a third figure, ‘Immortality’ (4), implies a rival suitor who disembarks alongside the speaker. From the line ‘he passed us’ (13), it can be deduced that ‘he’ refers, as it has throughout, to Death, while the plural ‘us’ refers to the speaker plus one other. (100)
Engle also suggests this “He” may be Death while the speaker is the one getting out of the carriage, “shivering in the dewy chill.”
However, I would argue both the speaker and Immortality remain in the carriage, able to see the horses’ ears from behind, while Death evaporates like the sun. Death has driven the speaker and Immortality to the graveyard where spirit continues on. The two sit next to each other now, looking forward a lot like Emily Dickinson and Kate Scott Turner, a possible lover, (Dickinson Editing Collective) in the daguerreotype, or Susan Gilbert Dickinson (Hart and Smith), another possible model for Immortality. The speaker’s dress echoes the local lore of Dickinson wearing a white dress later in her life, possibly a visual expression of her wish for a marriage with a female beloved, not something that would have been sanctioned on earth or in heaven in nineteenth century consciousness.
So where might two women marry, then, and how does this happen if one of them is already married, like Susan, or remarried after being widowed, like Kate (Dickinson Editing Collective)? The horses know. Their ears point toward eternity. The horses hear the hereafter before anyone else can see it, and the speaker notices how their ears strain toward the sound and follow it. And we hear and see the speaker’s words centuries after dying, a kind of postcard back to us from her honeymoon in and with Immortality. What she sees during the ride with Death and Immortality is a memory, she tells us, by the end of the poem, her poem a dispatch from beyond. And her tone, as the other critics stress, doesn’t sound mournful. Neither do the chiming rhymes and alliteration throughout the poem nor the conversational phrases the speaker uses, such as, “Or rather” (13), “and yet” (21), as if she is correcting spoken or hastily, excitedly written words.
No one, reader, speaker, Immortality, the poem itself, end, either. All are in continual motion forward; there’s teasing in ending the poem here and in what Dickinson leaves out of her postcard. What’s eternity like? What’s she doing? All she leaves us with is that centuries have passed since the day the carriage showed up at her front door. And the problem of how to envision eternity that Dickinson faces, for “Dickinson’s self-elegies betray a conflict between her faith in her own secular grab at immortality and her fear of their obstructing her, and her readers, from something a little more heavenly” (Martyr 101). The horses take over from there knowing the way, intuiting what the afterlife is better than we do, their breath visible in the cold air.
Despite Dickinson’s religious wrestings and, I’d argue, her likely ambivalence about seeing heaven as just like back home plus setting up house with a male spouse, in “Because I could not stop for Death,” she takes us on an eternal wedding or elopement journey. The non-ending is like the eternal as many critics note, but it, too, hints at what she can’t tell us about a honeymoon and setting up house with another woman in the beyond and the ahead, the future she can only guess at. The daguerreotype of Emily Dickinson with her arm around Kate Scott Turner is the front of the postcard she mailed us.

Works Cited
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