A reading of a Dickinson poem by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘A Clock stopped’ is not one of Emily Dickinson’s best-known poems, but it uses its central metaphor to explore one of the central themes of her poetry: death. Dickinson uses the image of the stopped clock to reflect on the ending of a life and what this means.
A Clock stopped –
Not the Mantel’s –
Geneva’s farthest skill
Can’t put the puppet bowing –
That just now dangled still –
An awe came on the Trinket!
The Figures hunched, with pain –
Then quivered out of Decimals –
Into Degreeless Noon –
It will not stir for Doctors –
This Pendulum of snow –
This Shopman importunes it –
While cool – concernless No –
Nods from the Gilded pointers –
Nods from the Seconds slim –
Decades of Arrogance between
The Dial life –
And Him –
In summary, Emily Dickinson begins ‘A Clock stopped’ with that very simple line: ‘A Clock stopped’. The metre reflects the stopping of the clock: ‘Clock stopped’ is either a spondee (that is, two stressed syllables side-by-side) or, at the very least, a heavy trochee (with ‘Clock’ being emphasised slightly more than ‘stopped’). Either way, there is no neat to-and-fro that one gets with a line of, say, iambic pentameter, to mirror the ticking and tocking of a clock – and then, with that dash, the line is over, just as the clock’s motion came to an end.
We are then told that all of the best clockmakers in Geneva couldn’t mend it. That ‘still’ which concludes the first stanza is ironic: until ‘just now’ the cuckoo ‘puppet’ continued to dangle, but now he is ‘still’ in the other sense of being ‘motionless’ (or, if you will, lifeless). The notion that the figures of the clock ‘hunched’ literally ‘with pain’ is pathetic fallacy, and introduces the secondary meaning of the poem, which is that the clock stopping is meant to remind us of our own deaths, which so often are accompanied by pain. The idea of the clock running out of decimals – just as the minutes and seconds of our own lives must one day run out – consolidates the idea that the clock is being personified, as if it is human just like us.
The pendulum of the clock – which we can now understand as a stand-in for the human heart, which beats with its rhythm just as the pendulum swung from side to side – will not start going again, not even for Doctors: now the clock is well and truly humanised or personified. It’s also gone cold, like a dead body: it’s a ‘pendulum of snow’. The owner of the shop where the clock is found urges the clock to start, but nothing will work. The notion of the various parts of the clock nodding a ‘No’ (which is oxymoronic: people nod for yes, not no) suggests the temporary movement of the pendulum and other parts as people try to will the clock to start ticking again.
The poem’s final stanza refers to the ‘Decades of Arrogance’ of the Shopman, implying that the shop-owner took the clock’s continued ‘life’ for granted, and now it has stopped working berates it for having stopped. Is this, then, a veiled reference to the way we take each other for granted, and it’s only when people die that we stop to appreciate the difference they make? Of course, Emily Dickinson’s poem, as this summary and analysis demonstrates, is far less sentimental than that implies. Nevertheless, it’s clear that the clock that stopped is the human heart that, too, must stop one day.
If you want to own all of Dickinson’s wonderful poetry in a single volume, you can: we recommend the Faber edition of her Complete Poems. Discover more about Dickinson’s classic poems with ‘I died for Beauty, but was scarce‘, ‘One need not be a Chamber to be Haunted‘, and ‘I cannot live with You‘.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: Cardinal Cuckoo Clock (credit: PunkToad, 2013), via Wikimedia Commons.