One of Dickinson’s most famous and widely discussed poems, Fr 479 appeared in the first 1890 edition of her poems, edited by Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Higginson had given it the inappropriate title “The Chariot,” thinking, perhaps, of an image from classical times that survived in Victorian paintings of Apollo, patron of the arts, carrying the artist to heaven in his chariot. (Farr, Passion, 329). The editors seriously disfigured the poem by omitting the fourth stanza; and Mrs. Todd “improved on” the poet’s exact rhyme in stanza 3, rhyming “Mound” with “Ground” instead. Not until the publication of Johnson’s 1955 Poems were readers able to see the restored poem. Despite this, it had already been singled out as one of her greatest and continues to be hailed as a summary statement of her most important theme: death and immortality. As in all of Dickinson’s complex works, however, the language and structure of the poem have left readers plenty of room to find varying and sometimes sharply opposed interpretations. At one end of the spectrum are those who view the poem as Dickinson’s ultimate statement of the soul’s continuance; at the other end are those who see the poem as intrinsically ironic and riddled with doubt about the existence of an afterlife; in the middle are those who find the poem indisputably ambiguous.
Scholars have suggested that Dickinson’s carriage ride with Death was inspired by a biographical incident—the 1847 death of Olivia Coleman, the beautiful older sister of Emily’s close friend Eliza M. Coleman, who died of a tubercular hemorrhage while out riding in a carriage. But there are also abundant cultural sources for the image. The poem’s guiding metaphor of a young woman abducted by Death goes back to the classical myth of Persephone, daughter of Ceres, who is carried off to the underworld by Hades. In medieval times, “Death and the Maiden” was a popular iconographic theme, sometimes taking the form of a virgin sexually ravished by Death.
Doubtless aware of these traditions, Dickinson made of them something distinctly her own. Not only did she transplant the abduction to the country roads of her native New England, she transformed the female “victim,” not into a willing or even passionate lover of Death, but into an avid witness/participant in the mysterious transition from life to death, and from human time to eternity. The speaker never expresses any direct emotion about her abduction; indeed, she never calls it that. She seems to experience neither fear nor pain. On the other hand, there is no indication that she is enamored of Death: She is too busy to stop for him and it is he, the courtly suitor, who takes the initiative. But she does not resist. Death’s carrying her away is presented as a “civility,” an act of politeness. And she responds with equal good manners, putting away her labor and her leisure, too, that is, the whole of her life. What does draw her powerfully is the journey, which she observes and reports in scrupulous detail. The poem is her vehicle for exploring the question that obsessed her imagination: “What does it feel like to die?” Note that there is a third “passenger” in the carriage—“Immortality”—the chaperone who guarantees that the ride will have an “honorable” outcome. Immortality is a promise already present, as opposed to the “Eternity” of the final stanza, toward which the “Horses’ Heads” advance. Eternity is the ultimate transformation of time toward which the poem moves. In stanza 1, the speaker, caught up in this-worldly affairs, has no time for Death, but he slows her down. By stanza 2, she has adjusted her pace to his. Stanza 3, with its triple repetition of “We passed,” shows them moving in unison past the great temporal divisions of a human life: childhood (the children competing at school, in a ring game), maturity (the ripeness of the “Gazing Grain”) and old age (the “Setting Sun”). As the stages of life flash before the eyes of the dying, the movement of the carriage is steady and stately.
But with the pivotal first line of stanza 4, any clear spatial or temporal orientation vanishes; poem and carriage swerve off in an unexpected manner. Had the carriage passed the sunset, its direction—beyond earthly life—would have been clear. But the line “Or rather—He passed Us” gives no clear sense of the carriage’s movement and direction.
It is as if the carriage and is passengers are frozen in time. The sun appears to have abandoned the carriage—as reflected in the increasing coldness that envelops the speaker. She is inadequately dressed for the occasion, in “Gossamer,” which can mean either a fine filmy piece of cobweb or a flimsy, delicate material, and a “Tippet,” that is, a small cape or collar. While tippets were commonly made of fur or other substantial materials, this one is of “tulle”—the fine silk netting used in veils or gowns. All at once, the serenely observing speaker is a vulnerable physical presence, dressed for a wedding or ball, but “quivering” with a coldness that suggests the chill of the grave. A note of uneasiness and disorientation, that will only grow stronger from this point on, has been injected into what began as a self-assured journey. This is a stunning example of how “Dickinson, suddenly, midpoem, has her thought change, pulls in the reins on her faith, and introduces a realistic doubt” (Weisbuch, “Prisming”, 214).
In stanza 5, the carriage “pauses” at “a House that seemed/ A Swelling in the Ground—,” presumably the speaker’s newly dug grave. The word “Swelling” is ominous, suggesting an organic, tumorlike growth. But there is no unified physical picture of what the speaker sees. In line 2, the ground is swelling upward. In lines 3 and 4, the House has sunk; its cornice, the ornamental molding just below the ceiling, is “in the Ground.” The repetition of the word “Ground” stresses its prominence in the speaker’s consciousness. It is as if all her attempts to hold on to the things of this world—the children at school, the grain, the setting sun, the cobweb clothing, the shapeless swelling of a House—have culminated in this single relentless image.
Then, in a leap that takes us to the poem’s final stanza, the speaker is in a different order of time, where centuries feel shorter than the single day of her dying. This is the poem’s only “description” of Eternity and what it implies is that life is immeasurably denser, fuller, weightier. Eternity has no end, but it is empty. Significantly, in the speaker’s recollection of the final, weighty day, “Death” is not present. Instead, she invokes the apocalyptic vision of “the Horses’ Heads” (a synecdoche for the horses) racing toward Eternity. But, for the speaker, seated in Death’s carriage, the horses’ heads are also an obstruction, “they are all she can see, or what she cannot see beyond” (Cameron, “Dickinson’s Fascicles,” 156). They point to the fact that the poem is an artifice, an attempt to imagine what cannot be imagined. “Toward Eternity—” remains only a “surmised” direction.
Sharon Cameron, “Dickinson’s Fascicles,” in Handbook, Grabher et al., eds., 149–150, 156, and Lyric Time, 121–133; Judith Farr, Passion, 92–93, 329– 33; Kenneth L. Privratsky, “Irony in Emily Dickinson’s ‘Because I could not . . .,’ ” 25–30; Robert B. Sewall, Life, II, 572, 717–718; and Cynthia Griffin Wolff, Emily Dickinson, 274–276; Robert Weisbuch, “Prisming,” Handbook, 216–217.