Dickinson's Diction

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"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,              5
And I had put away   
My labor, and my leisure too,   
For his civility.   
We passed the school where children played   
At wrestling in a ring;                                   10
We passed the fields of gazing grain,   
We passed the setting sun.   
We paused before a house that seemed   
A swelling of the ground;   
The roof was scarcely visible,                       15
The cornice but a mound.   
Since then 't is centuries; but each   
Feels shorter than the day   
I first surmised the horses' heads   
Were toward eternity."

-Emily Dickinson's "Because I could not stop for Death"

I absolutely love Emily Dickinson's poems, so when I saw the section on diction in Hamilton's Essential Literary Terms, I thought I would look at Dickinson's diction in one of her poems.  I choose "Because I could not stop for Death" because I really like the imagery in this poem and because it would be familiar to everyone in the class. 

In this poem, Dickinson uses colloquial diction, or diction that is more informal and based on the Anglo-Saxon language, as defined by Hamilton.  Most of the words are fairly simple and common; for instance, the first stanza uses words such as "kindly," "stopped," and "carriage."  She could have used far more complex and Latin-based words here, but she chose to write in a simpler style.  Hamilton also says, "A writer's diction may also differ enormously in its relative levels of abstraction---that is, the extent to which it deals with general concepts---or concreteness: with physical objects, IMAGERY, and emotive and sensual details...Most literary works contain both abstract and concrete diction" (70-71).  Dickinson does have both abstract and concrete diction; however the abstract outweighs the concrete.  For instance, in the first stanza, she deals with the broad ideas of "Death" and "Immortality."  Furthermore, the capitalization of these words shows that they are important concepts on which Dickinson is focusing in the poem.  Dickinson's poem is also very figurative.  In the poem, she is describing the carriage ride to the grave.  She uses much imagery to allow the reader to view the scenes that the carriage passes, such as in lines 13-16 when she writes, "We paused before a house that seemed/ A swelling of the ground;/The roof was scarcely visible,/ The cornice but a mound."  Here, Dickinson is referring to what the grave looks like, almost comparing it to a grand building with a "cornice."  Furthermore, she personifies Death by making him be a person inside the carriage with her during her ride to her grave.  Her simple colloquial word choice allows her to write on a more personal level allowing most readers to easily access and experience the ride to the grave, and "toward eternity," with her.  Her abstraction gives allows her to express broad ideas, such as Death and Immortality, for readers to relate to, but also provides specific images to explain her point that life is eternal.

Had Dickinson chosen a more formal style for this poem, or for any of her poems for that matter, I think that they would have been received poorly.  Much of her writing is admired for her ability to write in simple diction about common things, while imaginatively giving these objects or ideas a depth that is rarely viewed in this style of writing. Her complex and in-depth observations of her simple natural world make her a poet to be admired even today.




Great application of Hamilton's terms to a poem. Technically, "carriage" does actually come from the Latin "carrus" (meaning basically the same thing), but according to the Mirriam-Webester dictionary it came to English by French, and at any rate would have been a very common word for transportation. It suggest refinement, which goes along with Death being "kindly" and showing "civility."

Good work, Erica.

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