Chris Semansky is a freelance writer and has written extensively on modern and postmodern literature. In the following essay, Semansky argues that “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” is a statement about the negative aspects of marriage for the independent, nineteenth-century woman.
Arguably her most well-known poem, “Because I could not stop for Death” underscores not only the value Emily Dickinson placed on her independence from worldly conventions, but also the fear she had of being ensnared by them. Long considered either a statement of Dickinson’s macabre attitudes toward death or a romantic rendering of her own imagined death, in fact this poem is nothing less than an argument against marriage and the smothering effect it can have on a woman’s independence. After all, “Death” here is personified as a suitor who takes his potential bride away from her busy life. An independent woman — especially in mid-nineteenth century New England — posed a threat to the social order, in which a woman’s proper place was beside her husband. A husbandless woman, then, was suspect — someone who stood outside the mores and expectations of her community. Speaking literally from the grave, the narrator of this famous poem recounts her seduction as a young woman and describes her inevitable journey toward death. It is only after she recognizes that the carriage’s final destination is her own grave that we no longer hear about her suitor. The speaker has been seduced, driven to her death, and abandoned.
The opening stanza presents us with a narrator caught up in her busy life who is visited by a gentleman in the personification of death. Personification is a device writers use to assign human qualities to abstract ideas; it literally makes a person or character out of an idea in order to dramatize the idea. (For instance, Snow White’s seven dwarves were personifications of the names they were assigned, and they behaved accordingly.) Writers use personification to provide readers with a more intimate and familiar understanding of a difficult or alien concept. Reading ideas as characters allows us to empathize with — or hate or be annoyed by — ideas that otherwise might remain distant and abstract. Dickinson’s personification of death prompted biographer Thomas Johnson to claim that “in 1863 [the year the poem was written] Death came into full stature as a person. ‘Because I could not stop for Death’ is a superlative achievement wherein Death becomes one of the great characters of literature.”
We know from the image of the carriage and the reference to the politeness of the “gentleman” that this poem uses the language and rituals of courtship to talk about something else. That “something else” is hinted at when we learn that the third party in the carriage is “immortality,” a chaperone of sorts and also the consequence or reason for the two coming together. The slow ride emphasizes the serious and solemn nature of the speaker’s “engagement date.” But it is a date that the speaker does not resist. Indeed, she says nothing, telling us only that she has put away her “labors” and “leisures” and is deferring to Death’s “civility.” Recounting the experience in this manner underscores the very male-driven nature of courtship — a ritual dependent on male initiative. It also demonstrates the implicit trust the speaker had for her caller. This trust, however, was not rewarded.
The next stanza provides us with a catalogue of their journey’s sites: they pass a schoolyard, farmland, and the “setting sun.” All three of these images suggest phases of the life cycle that the speaker has passed and is passing through and clue us in on her experience. She is now unable to distinguish between the inside and the outside worlds. Time has stopped for her, and the fields of grain do the gazing, not her. The speaker’s will has thoroughly dissolved. Indeed, in her article “Emily Dickinson’s Poetry: A Revaluation,” Eunice Glen has noted that these images “are all perceived as elements in an experience from which the onlooker has withdrawn.” The correction that comes at the beginning of the fourth stanza — the carriage does not pass the sun; the sun passes it — is not merely a correction in the location of the sun, but one meant to underline the fact that had they passed the sun, they literally would have transcended time, and the journey and the poem would have ended there. By remaining in the world, Dickinson’s narrator forces her reader to recognize the cost of losing life. Her emotional suffering heightens in the fourth stanza when the speaker experiences foreboding in the form of a “quivering” and “chill” because she is not dressed appropriately nor adequately protected from the elements. This response suggests not only the literal coldness that comes from not dressing appropriately for the occasion, but also the emotional coldness that occurs when approaching one’s own death. We can also read it as the speaker’s unpreparedness for her journey — a journey that equates the process of dying with the death that is marriage. Ironically the journey fulfills the nuptial vow, “Till death do us part.”
The house in the fifth stanza, then, can be seen as both bridal house and the speaker’s own grave. Metaphorically, “The Cornice-in the Ground” is the speaker’s coffin, or more precisely, the molding around the coffin’s lid. A cornice is a decorative strip above a window or along the top of a wall. Here it is the only visible part of the house, itself “A Swelling of the Ground.” The domestic nature of the grave’s description and the fact that there is no door, only a roof (the coffin’s lid), suggests that just as there is no escape from death, there is no escape from the domestic deadening that marriage brings. Critic Joanne Dobson points to this stanza to question the true “civility” of the suitor: “The hopeful, pregnant swell of the grave, [and the suitor’s] destination proves a barren and eternal disappointment.... For this eternal nothingness the speaker has put away her ‘labor’ and her ‘leisure,’ in a futile and irreversible renunciation of the self.”
This disappointment and the fact that she has been tricked into believing her carriage ride was going to be something other than a funeral procession is evident in the phrase “first surmised” in the final stanza, when the persona reflects back on the moment she realized the true nature of her suitor’s intent. In his Emily Dickinson, Paul Ferlazzo goes as far as to claim that “the characteristic peacefulness of the drive ... is really rigor mortis.” The ironic last image of the poem further underscores the speaker’s bitterness at being tricked: horses’ heads most often point down, not up. What here is referred to as “eternity” is in fact annihilation. The Lover Death image has a long history in literature and Dickinson uses it in other poems as well, most notably in “Death is the supple Suitor.” By conflating love and death into a single character, she manages to make a statement about the interdependence of the two and to suggest that by choosing the former, one inevitably invites the latter.
Invariably critics have praised “Because I could not stop for Death” as being one of Dickinson’s most successful poems. In Reactionary Essays on Poetry and Ideas, Allen Tate remarked that “if the word ‘great’ means anything in poetry, this poem is one of the greatest in the English language.” Like many critics writing in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, Tate believed that the test of a poem’s greatness was whether or not it was formally successful, that is, if the images were precise, the rhythms and rhymes pleasurable, and the metaphors provocative. Other critics attempt to find evidence in the writer’s life that would provide them with insight into the poem. For example, Elizabeth Phillips claimed in Emily Dickinson: Personae and Performance that Dickinson’s poem “must have originated in an event about which the author knew.” She cites the death of Dickinson’s distant cousin, Olivia Coleman, at the age of twenty in 1847 as the “inspiration” for the poem. Coleman, though suffering from a form of tuberculosis then called “galloping consumption,” died without warning when she went for a carriage ride with a male caller. More recently, critics have paid attention to the ways in which gender is represented in poetry and to what poems might have to say not only about the society in which they were written but also about the society in which they are read. Citing Adrienne Rich’s 1979 landmark essay on Dickinson, “Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson,” Paula Bennett argues that for Dickinson “freedom was everything, and the self-imposed restrictions of her life worked paradoxically to ensure that freedom.” By reading “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” in this light, it is easy to see how marriage would be a hinderance to that freedom.
Source: Chris Semansky, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1997.
Hart, a former college professor, is currently a freelance writer and copyeditor. In this essay, she analyzes Boland’s poem “Anorexic” in terms of politics, language, and feminist literary theory, with an emphasis on the thoughts of French theorist Helene Cixous. One of Eavan Boland’s most challenging themes, not only in her poetry, but also in her professional life, is that of formulating an authentic identity. By first looking at this challenge in all its aspects, it will be easier to understand the underlying theme in her poem “Anorexic.”
In her professional life, Boland has fought for over thirty years the “intensely chauvinistic Irish literary community,” as Michael Glover comments in Independent on Sunday. In an interview with Eileen Battersby in The Irish Times, Boland states that in Ireland “There seems to be no difficulty in being perceived as a woman poet. The trouble appears to lie in being fully accepted as an Irish poet.” The traditional Irish poet is male, and it is the male poets who criticize Boland “for her concentration on the domestic” in her poetry, says Battersby. Boland adds that she thinks “there was a hidden struggle over subject matter going on in Irish poetry which I blundered into. I was aware that it was easier to have a political murder as the subject of an Irish poem than a baby or a washing machine.”
“‘Challenge,’” says Battersby, “is a word which appears frequently in [Boland’s] conversation. . . . Few major contemporary Irish writers have been as dismissively treated.” Boland adds that “we have a powerful tradition here [in Ireland] of the male poet. Irish poetry was male and bardic in ethos. Historically the woman is the passive object of poetry. We aren’t supposed to write poems, we are supposed to be in them.” Battersby continues, “‘Who is the poet?’ and how is that identity constructed are the questions [Boland] seems to be addressing, and what are the issues poetry should explore. . . .she has been marginalised by poets and readers far more prepared to see the heroism in a stolen kiss than to acknowledge the pain which accompanies a mother’s realisation that her child no longer needs her.” Boland adds to this comment by saying that “so many men. . . sneer at the suburban life and yet it is the very life their wives and their daughters have led and are leading. And not to see through its circumstances to its vision and power and importance seems to be both wrong and illogical.”
Irish poetry, with its lack of female voices and female subject matter, shows wide gaps or silences in the woman’s exploration of identity. For Boland, says Brian Henry in his article “The Woman as Icon, the Woman as Poet,” poetry “becomes a way to usurp those silences, to bring back from an immersion in the collective unconscious, like Dante from his journey, the language that can liberate an oppressed community.” That oppressed community is the subject of Boland’s poem “Anorexic.” It is the community of women, in particular, Irish women, that Boland feels has no voice. Like women who suffer from anorexia, the Irish woman has a distorted image of herself, an image fed to her by male poets who depend on women “as motifs in their poetry,” as Boland claims. “The women in their poems were often passive, decorative, raised to emblematic status.” Women in traditional Irish poetry are seen only as ornaments. This image matches the psychological image that has been identified in women who suffer from anorexia — women who strive for perfection and are anxious to please. In Irish literature, Boland states, in an Irish Literary Supplement interview with Nancy Means Wright and Dennis J. Hannan, “transaction between the male and the female . . . is an active-passive one . . . this community nominates women as the receptors of other people’s creativity and not as the initiators of their own.” Women are told that their creative “gift is dangerous to [their] tradition of womanhood.” If Boland’s “creative gift” is substituted for food (for anorexics), Boland’s poem takes on a broader meaning.
As stated above by Brian Henry, Boland is searching for a new language, one that will rise from the collective unconscious (a term coined by Carl Jung, referring to a subconscious, mythical awareness by which all human thought processes are connected). This language will hopefully free women. But what is this language? How does one learn to use it? And how does it differ from the language that now exists?
To find a language in which women might liberate themselves, one must first define the language
“To find a language in which women might liberate themselves, one must first define the language that confines them.”
that confines them. Both of these tasks have been undertaken by French feminist Hélène Cixous. Coincidently, Cixous is also associated with having stressed the relationship between feminine writing and the female body, a relationship that fits very well into an analysis of Boland’s “Anorexic.”
“What theorists like Cixous . . . are trying to do,” says Julie Jasken in her “Introduction to Hélène Cixous,” is to “answer the questions that many of us may have personally struggled with.” This questioning, Jasken proposes, might find the reasons that women’s voices are conspicuously absent in the two thousand-year-long European literary tradition. Cixous, as Jasken presents her, is looking at women’s rhetoric to find out if there is a distinct way that women think, speak, and write that is inhibited by the accepted and currently practiced mode of communication.
Cixous has also coined the phrase l’écriture féminine which pertains to writing that is located in and authorized by female experience. In other words, Cixous believes that some kinds of writing are specifically gender or biologically determined. Male writing is basically rational and linear, whereas female writing comes more naturally from the subconscious level and flows in a more circular or sensual pattern. (She does not propose, however, that l’écriture féminine can be written only by women.) But to understand Cixous (and to analyze Boland’s poetry) first it is necessary to understand Cixous’s background. And to understand that, it will be necessary to say a little about Jacques Lacan.
Lacan was a French psychoanalyst who based a part of his psychoanalytical thoughts on the ideas articulated in linguistics. Briefly, Lacan believed that from birth to adulthood, humans go through three stages, including the Symbolic stage, in which language is formed. It is also in the Symbolic stage that humans develop a concept of “I” or “self.” Another important Lacanian concept is that becoming a speaker in the Symbolic stage requires humans to obey the laws and rules of language. According to Lacan, these rules are paternal. Lacan refers to them as the “Law-of-the-Father” or the “Phallus.” The Phallus is the idea of the Father, the patriarchal order, and the position that rules language.
Accepting Lacan’s concept that Phallus rules language, Cixous argues that, if this is true, it explains why women find it difficult (if not impossible) to express their feelings and their female sexuality and pleasure in this patriarchal language. In order for women to express themselves according to the rules of the Phallus language, women must do so as the other, that is, in the role of women as defined by men: passive and lacking (as in lacking a penis). The only other option open to women in a phallocentric language is to write as a man. The positive side of this Lacanian concept, states Cixous, is that because women are “lacking,” they are also less anchored to the phallocentric language and its laws of order and are thus more easily able to communicate in a more fluid or flowing language. This flowing language is found in poetry. Women are more in touch with the imagination and the unconscious, and poetry is the best vehicle to express their imagination. The phallocentric structure of language protects those who occupy the privileged position (the masculine position), and this is why Cixous encourages women to forego logical structure and write from their bodies. The body, for Cixous, is inscribed by everything, every experience of life. “Life becomes text starting out from my body. I am already text,” writes Cixous in her article “Coming to Writing.” If women write from their bodies, they will expose the logical structure of the phallocentric language. And when it is exposed, it will be seen for what it is — a structure, not the truth. States Cixous in “The Laugh of the Medus,” “Woman must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies.”
In her article in Colby Quarterly, Jody Allen-Randolph writes that Boland’s “Anorexic” is a study of the relationship between “female identity and victimization.” The alienation from the female body that Boland presents in this poem is “a symptom of the violence directed toward female identity.” Allen-Randolph also states that “Anorexic” shows how a male-dominated culture and the definitions that culture imposes can “impinge tragically upon women, shaping their ideas of themselves and their relation to their bodies.” For instance, Boland begins the second line of her poem with, “My body is a witch. / I am burning it.” With these words, the speaker has already begun to remove herself from her body. She has objectified her body as if it is an entity that is separate from her definition of her self. She does not identify herself with “her curves and paps and wiles.” These are the outward signs of woman, the sexual definitions that have been imposed on her — her so-called hourglass figure, the sexuality of her breasts (paps refer to nipples), and her alluring ways of trapping men (this is what is implied by the word “wiles”).
In the third stanza, the speaker is totally alienated from her body. She not only has objectified her body, she now refers to herself as “she.” It is in this stanza that Boland writes about how women sacrifice their pleasures, using the words “fevers,” “milk and honey,” and “the taste of lunch.” Boland continues with this theme in the next stanza, as she writes, “I vomited / her hungers.” As someone who is anorexic, the woman in this poem is now empty. She is devoid not only of food and pleasure, she is also devoid of all passion. In all but vague terms, she no longer exists. “Now the bitch is burning.” In this stage of the decomposition of self, the speaker has not only removed herself from her body and identity, but she now finds that which she has removed herself from is repulsive. In the last line of the fifth stanza, the speaker takes on a somewhat phallocentric role as lawmaker and judge as she states: “She has learned her lesson.”
This masculine role is defined even more specifically when Boland begins the sixth stanza with the description of the woman who is “thin as a rib.” This is a definite phallic symbol that by the end of the stanza is “probing,” an action associated with a penis, as the speaker enters “a claustrophobia / a sensuous enclosure / how warm it was and wide.” The speaker has now almost completely transformed into the masculine. It is a claustrophobic transformation, but, at the same time, the transformation entices the female with its warmth, the music of the heartbeat, and the song of the masculine breath. She has slipped inside, but she is not quite a part of the masculine. She must still rid herself of the final essence of female by returning to the biblical story of Adam and Eve, returning to the mythical origin of the creation of human beings, returning back so far that she no longer exists except “caged so,” as Adam’s rib where she will grow “holy / past pain.” Only as man will she regain the grace that she lost when she was a woman, the first woman, who enticed man to eat the forbidden fruit.
In the last two stanzas, the speaker has completely denied herself an identity as a woman. Rather, she has diminished herself to the all-consuming role of keeping the man’s heart company so that she can “forget / in a small space / the fall.” Then, in the very last stanza, Boland introduces the words “python needs,” which could refer either to the snake in the Garden of Eden (the tempter), or to the phallic symbol of snake in general (man’s sexual needs). It could also be a reference to the mythical Greek god Apollo who slew Python, a large snakelike dragon. It is interesting to note that Apollo was the god of poetry as well as the god who made men aware of their guilt. It also could be that Boland refers to all three symbols and, by using Apollo, gives the last lines a deeper meaning, as man is made aware of his guilt in consuming woman, or worse pushing her into “the forked dark” where he heaves first to her “hips and breasts / and lips and heat” and then slowly descends, as if from heaven to hell, as the concepts move further away from a sexual act to sin, as he heaves to the “sweat and fat and greed.”
It is not that Boland commends this female act of self-debasement or annihilation. Rather, she is stating a fact and warning women to find their voice, their language, and their identity. She warns women to not give in to the temptation to withdraw into the phallocentric world where they will lose themselves.
Source: Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on “Anorexic,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.
Writing a Literary Analysis Paper
A thesis statement is a sentence (or sentences) that expresses the main ideas of your paper and answers the question or questions posed by your paper. It is the place where you are the most specific about what you will discuss in the paper, how you will organize the paper, and what significance your topic has (your argument). You must have a specific, detailed thesis statementthat reveals your perspective, and, like any good argument, your perspective must be one which is debatable.
Generally, a thesis statement appears at the end of the first paragraph of an essay, so that readers will have a clear idea of what to expect as they read. As you write and revise your paper, it's okay to change your thesis statement -- sometimes you don't discover what you really want to say about a topic until you've started (or finished) writing! Just make sure that your "final" thesis statement accurately shows what will happen in your paper.
Some questions to help you formulate your thesis in a literary analysis paper:
* What is my claim or assertion?
* What are the reasons I have to support my claim or assertion?
* In what order should I present my reasons?
The introduction is where your reader will formulate their first impression of your paper. The introduction should be interesting, provide enough information to tantalize your reader, luring them into reading further. It is not always best to write the introduction first. After you have composed your paper, you will be more apt to write an introduction that is interesting and focused.
A few ways to begin your paper:
* Begin with a quotation. Just make sure you explain its relevance
* Begin with a question
* Begin with an acknowledgment of an opinion opposite to the one you plan to take
* Begin with a very short narrative or anecdote that has a direct bearing on your paper
* Begin with an interesting fact
* Begin with a definition or explanation of a term relevant to your paper
* Begin with irony or paradox
* Begin with an analogy. Make sure it's original but not too far-fetched
* Begin with a scene or lines from the text you are analyzing.
The body of your essay will be where you present most of your analysis. Traditionally, this section consists of a form of analysis of the text called close reading. We close read a text in order to prove that it means what we say it does. An analysis might also use secondary research to situate the text within a historical or cultural context location.
Close reading carefully considers the elements of a text that make the text literary. In a close reading, you are primarily concerned with how the author uses literary devices (word choice, structure, irony, rhyme, etc.) to convey meaning.
Consider the Langston Hughes poem Harlem:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
A close reading would ask several questions of this poem. What dream is the poem talking about? Why does Hughes choose words that are repulsive to the sense of taste and smell? Why is the first line set off from the rest of the lines? Why is the last line italicized? Why does Hughes choose to rhyme the particular words that he does? Who do we imagine Hughes speaking to?
In answering these questions, you always want to consider how a particular answer may relate to the overall themes of the text and what evidence is available to support your assumption. So for example, a close reading of this passage might claim that Hughes chooses a raisin (and not a plum or an apple) in line three because he wants to compare the dream deferred to a fruit that has already been dried and is now on the verge of losing all moisture. For evidence of this claim, you would note how a raisin is a grape that has already been partially dried. The dream deferred is like the raisin because it has been put off for a long time now. If things do not change soon and if the dream does not come true, it may dry up completely like the “raisin in the sun”.
Close readings fail when students read selectively and neglect elements of the text that do not support their view. A failed close reading of Harlem might assert that Hughes is saying that dreams are pleasant because he compares it in line 8 to “a syrupy sweet.” Such a statement contradicts many of the themes in the rest of the poem and fails to consider the context in which that statement occurs.
Readings that consider historical or cultural context of a work
In addition to your close reading, you may also choose to bring into your argument the cultural or historical context in which a work was written. Langston Hughes poem Harlem was written in 1951. At this time, America was segregated into black and white communities. In the 1920’s, Harlem was in the center of a literary movement Harlem Renaissance. African-American artists, writers, and musicians were beginning to gain recognition across the nation, and Harlem was a lively cultural center. But by 1951, the gains that African-Americans had made in the first half of the century were stunted, and Harlem, which only thirty years before was a viable part of New York City, was suffering from urban decline.
If we place the poem Harlem into the context of the historical and cultural knowledge above, we see that it is highly likely that the dream which Hughes refers to in line one is related to the feelings of frustration that African-Americans felt in the period just after the promise of the Harlem Renaissance failed to produce any major gains. The following lines speculate on how those who have had their dream deferred may react. The uncertainty in the poem mirrors the uncertain future for African-Americans in the United States during the 1950’s
The conclusion is a good place to not only sum up the points made in the paper but to suggest the further implications of your argument. You do not want to simply reiterate the points you have made in your introduction, thesis, or body paragraphs. Instead, use the analyses that you have already presented to ask questions, or suggest the possible next logical step in the argument. You can use the conclusion to draw connections between your chosen text and its genre and historical or cultural contexts. You want to make sure that the claims you make in the conclusion are not too far-fetched or wildly out of step with the rest of your paper. The conclusion should be the final step in the progression of your argument.