Newly discovered astrology in Emily Dickinson’s famous poem, “The Chariot or Because I Could Not Stop for Death/He Kindly Stopped for Me.”
by Matthew Swann for Astrostyle
The Sagittarius poet Emily Dickinson, born December 10, 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts, enjoys wide acceptance among scholars as the preeminent poet in the history of American poetry. Celebrated as “the belle of Amherst,” Dickinson is best known for her uniquely enigmatic poems composed in the seclusion of her cloistered bedroom during the Transcendentalism and Spiritualist movements of mid-nineteenth century New England.
Harold Bloom, the late Yale literary critic, was so enamored of Dickinson’s lyrical gifts, he believed her to be the equal of English playwright William Shakespeare. With television shows dedicated to her mythical life available from Amazon and Apple TV, Emily Dickinson’s popularity has now reached cult-like status with academics and the general public.
Of the 1,775 poems discovered upon her death in 1886, only a single poem makes explicit mention of astrology, Nature Assigns the Sun, which some critics cite as evidence of Dickinson’s disenchantment with astrology in favor of secular astronomy and a less mystical, scientific worldview.
Nature Assigns the Sun –
That — is Astronomy –
Nature cannot enact a Friend –
That — is Astrology
However, another poem — Emily Dickinson’s most famous — The Chariot or Because I Could Not Stop for Death/He Kindly Stopped for Me, written between 1855 and 1863, displays an intimate understanding and use of astrology that has been hidden in plain sight for 160 years. Dickinson’s elegant employment of zodiac symbolism in the pivotal third stanza reflecting the three stages of life — radiant youth, adult middle age and declining old age — is easily recognized once highlighted:
We passed the School, where Children strove (Leo)
At Recess — in the Ring — (Leo)
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain — (Virgo)
We passed the Setting Sun — (Libra, Autumn Equinox, Scorpio)
As astrology teaches, the Northern Hemisphere summertime zodiac sign of Leo rules the fifth house of an astrology horoscope, enjoying dominion over the Sun, the human heart and its love, and also schoolchildren and playtime. The sign of Leo is represented in the first two lines of the poem’s third stanza, which includes the oft-misunderstood line “ — in the Ring — ”. The former Rutgers University English professor David Leverenz shed light on this crucial line of the poem 40 years ago, writing in 1982 that the term “ — in the Ring — ” is to be understood as “the inorganic ring of the Sun.”
Following Leo in the poem and the sky is the maiden Virgo, who rules the sixth house of a horoscope and fields of harvest grain that her agrarian constellation has depicted in some form for at least three millennia. Poised between youth and old age, Dickinson represents mature adulthood in the third line with Virgo’s fully grown, familiar crop: “…Fields of Gazing Grain – ”.
Finally, the scale of Libra, the seventh house sign of judgement in Western astrology is associated with progressively shorter days and longer nights of the autumn season in the Northern Hemisphere when the transiting Sun departs the sign of Virgo, arriving at the Libra point (0º Libra), or autumn equinox, before crossing the celestial equator on its journey along the ecliptic toward the sign of death and eternity, the eighth house of Scorpio. Dickinson uses the fading, setting light of the autumn equinox Sun to symbolize old age and death in the fourth line of the poem — “We passed the Setting Sun.”
And what of the horse-drawn carriage, the gothic chariot of the poem? A deeper esoteric symbolism is embedded in the very vehicle and title of the poem since the Chariot card is the seventh major arcana card of the tarot deck associated with the Moon and the maternal zodiac sign of the summer solstice—Cancer—from which our origins and the poem emerge.
The lunar Chariot card of tarot is drawn by two sphinxes, one black, the other white, a philosophic acknowledgment to the all-pervading dualism of earthly existence. The divine sphinxes of the Chariot card have been repurposed by Dickinson into the two horses of the poem’s carriage as they descend into gossamer-laced eternity. Dickinson’s esoteric genius is on full display when we observe that her occult poem spans the five zodiac signs of Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra and Scorpio – birth to death – while transporting us to the threshold of eternity, inviting us to view the poem’s chariot and its two horses as the mysterious solar-lunar sphinx within each of us.
In an 1862 letter addressed to her future mentor, the Unitarian minister Thomas Wentworth Higginson, describing herself and the spirit of her poetry, Emily Dickinson did so with the same cryptic verve deployed throughout her enduring poetry: “My business is circumference.” The zodiac that encircles the Earth and her immortal poem agrees.
Here is Emily Dickinson’s poem in its entirety
The Chariot or Because I Could Not Stop For Death/He Kindly Stopped For Me
Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
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 –
Photo by Matthew Swann