A reading of a classic Dickinson poem by Dr Oliver Tearle
Emily Dickinson (1830-86) wrote many poems about death. She also wrote often, and insightfully, about depression, and ‘It was not Death, for I stood up’ is a powerful evocation of what it feels like to be gripped and paralysed by this debilitating emotion. Below is the poem, along with some notes towards an analysis of it. If it was not Death, what was it? A kind of death, at any rate.
It was not Death, for I stood up,
And all the Dead, lie down—
It was not Night, for all the Bells
Put out their Tongues, for Noon.
It was not Frost, for on my Flesh
I felt Siroccos—crawl—
Nor Fire—for just my Marble feet
Could keep a Chancel, cool—
And yet, it tasted, like them all,
The Figures I have seen
Set orderly, for Burial,
Reminded me, of mine—
As if my life were shaven,
And fitted to a frame,
And could not breathe without a key,
And ’twas like Midnight, some –
When everything that ticked—has stopped—
And Space stares—all around—
Or Grisly frosts—first Autumn morns,
Repeal the Beating Ground—
But, most, like Chaos—Stopless—cool—
Without a Chance, or Spar—
Or even a Report of Land—
In summary, this poem is describing the feeling of despair and depression that grips the poet. She begins by describing what it is not: not death, she said, for she was still standing while the dead lie down; it was not night, because all of the bells put out their tongues to announce noon, the middle of the day (‘tongues’ is a pun: bells do have tongues, but the image of the bells sticking out their tongues in mockery takes this wordplay and presents us with a fresh and absurd image).
Nor was it either frost or fire that she felt: in other words, neither hot nor cold, neither one extreme nor the other. In other words, it’s an absence of feeling: neither the recognisable chill of loneliness or exposure, nor the heat of anger. Either of these extremes would be preferable, we feel, because at least one is feeling something intensely then, even if it is an unwanted emotion. But this is worse: this is the absence of any real emotion. Life has become washed-out, numb.
Despite not being any of these things, the state of mind the poet feels ‘tasted like them all’, meaning that her mood or emotional state affects everything in her life. Other people’s deaths remind her of her own, even though she is living; it’s as if her life had been shaven, like a furry animal that has had its protective coat sheared away, or like someone deprived of oxygen. The reference to ‘Midnight’ harks back to the ‘Noon’ mentioned in the first stanza, just as the reference to the clocks stopping (‘everything that ticked – stopped’ – note how the carefully placed Dickinsonian dash enacts the sudden stopping of the clocks) reminds us of the bells putting out their tongues, also in that opening stanza, since bells remind us of clock towers, and clocks now send us back to the bells. In short, all times have become the same, since time has ceased to possess any meaning: it’s as if the clocks have literally stopped.
The poem’s final stanza imagines this state of depression as a sort of shipwreck: the poet is all at sea, marooned from her fellow man, just as depression can isolate us from the world around us. There is no ‘Report of Land’, no land ahoy, no sign of rescue. No hope, in short: and despair might be endurable if there were hope that it would give way to happier times on the horizon. But it doesn’t and cannot – for if she could acknowledge the possibility of hope then what she is feeling would cease to be despair, for despair is the absence of hope.
A fine poem this, distinctive and unusual as with all of Emily Dickinson’s poems. The way the poem opens by listing a host of negatives – ‘It was not Death, for I stood up’ – brilliantly suggests a world that has been emptied of meaning or feeling. There is probably more to say about this poem, so do let us know what you think. What would you add to our analysis – and is there anything you’d interpret differently?
Discover more of Dickinson’s wonderful poetry with the glorious Complete Poems. You might also enjoy our analysis of her classic poem ‘My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun’ and her poem about madness, ‘I felt a Funeral, in my Brain’. You might also find these classic poems about depression of interest.
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.