"Because I could not stop for death" by Emily Dickinson

Oof, I'm thin skinned. I take the slightest discomfort or disappointment as a sign that I shouldn't be writing, have no business writing, would serve the world and God and my loved ones best by not writing. I'm only just now, at the age of thirty, learning that discomfort and disappointment are, for me, the essential preconditions of being a writer. We're told to do what we're passionate about, and we're told to do what makes us happy, but we're rarely told that those aren't necessarily going to be the same thing. Writing doesn't make me happy, or at least not very often, but I keep doing it anyway. I write until I get so unhappy that I think I'll be happier if I just stop writing, but that only makes it worse. So I can be either mildly unhappy writing, or deeply unhappy not writing. The choice makes itself.

I've started memorizing poems again. It's something I did in college. Keats and Yeats, mostly. The first poem I've memorized is Emily Dickinson's "Because I Could Not Stop for Death". Here's the text.

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.

We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –

Or rather – He passed us –
The Dews drew quivering and chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground –

Since then – ‘tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity –

There are a lot of boring things to say about this poem, I assume. Things that have been said by a hundred thousand undergraduates in a hundred thousand American literature classes. Why couldn't she stop for death? Is this creepy perversion of the courtship plot supposed to be a satire? If so, of what? In what sense does grain gaze? The sun, too, is like an eye. She's passing by childhood, warmth, light, food, life. What do "Tippet" and "Tulle" mean? Is that a good line or is it just weird? (Once you start memorizing the poem, this becomes one of your favorite lines.) Why isn't the speaker able to recognize the grave for what it is? Is she in denial? There's "Ground" rhyming with itself in the penultimate stanza. What's that about?

OK, most of those questions actually weren't that boring. I like to run my hand over a poem, feel its texture. Tap on it, strum it, beat it like a drum. You do this best by memorizing it. The poem as memorized is an essentially different thing from the poem as read. And once its there in you, then you can do anything you want with it. It's yours. It belongs to you, almost more than it ever belonged to the poet who wrote it.

The thing that interests me the most in the poem currently is the way the poem stutters in the first two lines of the last stanza.

Since then – ‘tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day

What is the subject of "Feels"? Let's start by straightening the sentence out. "The time since then, even though it's been centuries, feels shorter than the Day[....]" "Since then" is the subject. It's a stand-in for the more logical "the time since then." "'tis Centuries" is a reduction of the phrase "the time since then has been centuries." But what about the "and yet"? Where did that come from? It indicates a hesitation or sob or wandering into thoughtlessness. The speaker is struck with the sublime power of "Centuries". The speaker leaves so much unsaid — can't even admit that it's not a house she's come to but a grave — that the horror of the empty "Centuries" gives her pause. "and yet" is a jarring attempt to get the poetry moving again. It's been such a sing-song poem so far, but here the rhythm breaks or at least trips. We feel that the speaker is upset, and we know we should feel upset as well, and we do.