Poem Guide

Emily Dickinson: “It was not death, for I stood up,”

Music and adolescent angst in the (18)80s.
Black and white image of Emily Dickinson.

Like hair, power ballads were big in my day (the ‘80s), and Emily Dickinson’s were a lot more memorable than Mötley Crüe’s. We thumbed our noses at our English teachers by singing “I heard a fly buzz when I died” to the tune of “Gilligan’s Island,” repeating “between the heaves of storm” in place of “a three-hour tour.” This trick works because Dickinson adopted her meter largely from hymns and ballads—the pop songs of her time—with their simple stressed lines and repeating rhymes.

As a child, Dickinson may have sung hymns at the church she regularly attended, but her relationship to organized religion soon became conflicted. She dropped out of Mount Holyoke Female Seminary before the end of her first year. “Instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,” Dickinson wrote, “Our little Sexton – sings.” Her nonconformist poetic stance appealed to the fledgling goth-girl in me: somewhat shy, slyly irreverent, introspective, and imaginatively dark. Like many teenagers testing their new-wave wings, I had Cyndi Lauper in one ear, singing “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” and Dickinson in the other, insisting that Girls Just Wanna Think about Their Mortality . . . and Immortality.

With its brooding, melancholic language and surreal images, the Dickinson poem that spoke most directly to my adolescent angst was “It was not Death, for I stood up”:

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 –

Those bells, “put[ting] out their Tongues,” give the afternoon the Bronx cheer. Dickinson defines her despair by telling us not what it is, but what it’s not (“It was not Death”). The more forcefully she negates her metaphors (“It was not Night,” “It was not Frost”), the more dire her feelings become. It wasn’t death, she insists, but it sure feels like it. Punished by “Siroccos” (those unrelenting hot Saharan winds), she’s as cool and aloof as marble statuary. When these comparisons fail to convey just how bad the situation is, she resorts to similes that are even more drastic:

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 –

Stripped to the bone (“as if my life were shaven / And fitted to a frame”), she suffers the rigor mortis of a body awaiting burial. Words fail, becoming unmoored from their sentence:

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 –
To Justify – Despair.

The “Figures” (such as chaos itself) remain frozen (“Stopless – cool –”), just as the world and space stop around them. Like an explorer lost for months at sea, Dickinson is awash in abstraction, without the grounding that “even a Report of Land” must bring. Her ideas are fractured, incomplete, interrupted by those dashes. Each one is a semaphore, its signal flag raised mid-thought, as if to say I am abandoning my vessel.

Punctuation, usually so helpful in making the meaning clear, isn’t here. Instead, the silence that takes its place is meant to warn and make us wary, to pause and parry, so that we lurch and linger—and turn back to the emphatic import of every capitalized noun. When we listen, it’s hard not to hear the multiple meanings in a phrase like “first Autumn morns,” whose implication of mourning isn’t lost on the ear. And it’s impossible not to hear the insistent rhythm and rhyme of the ballad, as if Dickinson were tapping her toes under every deliberate line.

If hymn meter (lines of eight syllables alternating with lines of six) was Dickinson’s metronome, ballad meter (4/3/4/3)—what she’s using here—was her “double time.” We can hear in that quickened and hypnotic pace—and in those short, sharp, shocked syllables (“Flesh,” “crawl,” “feet,” “cool”) the urgency of her message. As logic and syntax break down, the relentless, marching rhythm of the ballad’s sound-sense steps in to drive us onward.

It’s here that Dickinson’s poem stages a “battle of the bands,” as secular and spiritual music duel it out. If despair was a song, wouldn’t it sound like this: clipped, repetitive, taut—as imperative as church music, as regular as a ballad’s refrain? In the face of internal—and eternal—questions about loneliness and self-loathing, Dickinson’s poem is a rebellious music that laments those particular states of adolescence we never quite outgrow.

Originally Published: September 7th, 2007

Robin Ekiss is the author of the poetry collection The Mansion of Happiness (2009), which won the Shenandoah/Glasgow Prize and was a finalist for the Balcones Poetry Prize, the Northern California Book Award, and the Commonwealth Club’s California Book Award. A resident of San Francisco, she received a 2007 Rona...

  1. September 10, 2007
     ~ Aliter ~ / ~ Blase ~


    I love Emily Dickinson and, by extension, those who love her. To me, her poetry is her.


    Robin, thanks for genuineness in your article.



    ~ Aliter ~ / ~ Blase ~

  2. September 16, 2007
     cJoyce Lyons

    Your comments are powerful on these first Autumn morns in my Oklahoma valley. It is my morning newspaper to read MPR's Writer's Alamanac. From there I journeyed to your comments, and I thank you for listing your poem. It is such a treat. I would challenge to continue to read Emily at different ages in your life as I have done. You are a very brilliant poet, and I will watch for more of your work. Happy Mind Journeys and may inspiration continue to stir passion in your words.

  3. November 11, 2007
     Aran J. Nickerson

    As a young child growing into my understandings, I never much understood poetry. Many decades later and only recently returning to wander some even in my own writings - I still don't get it. Yet, Robin, the manner in which you explain Emily's poem helps stir my thinking. Just tonight the first time logging on to Poetryfoundation and landing somehow on your article I find answers to questions that I didn't realize. So. Thank you. Also to the Foundation, I will return. This time spent venturing serves as a lift to my sole. Without doubt the world (but a speck in the universe) carries tremendous weight in gifting those along on the ride. Guess I'm going to have to open my eyes. In Joy, Aran.

  4. November 20, 2007
     John Simpson

    I want to quibble with the point about the dashes in a perceptive essay. A Dickinson scholar whose name escapes me explained that the dashes in Dickinson's work as a whole are used as in hymnals of her time, for rhythmical musical punctuation. To me this means that we don't pause as we would were the dashes found in any other writer's work. They are, then, mostly setting up the hymn milieu. I've never been sure of their effectiveness, but I do think this principle best explains them in general. Your reading of the dashes could still hold, but this is a cautionary note, as E.D. uses far more dashes than can work in her poems in general. John Simpson: Ph.D.


  5. April 4, 2008
     Michael Benton

    As a teenage boy in South Georgia, it was not easy to show an outward appreciation for Emily. Still, I did and took the ribbing for it. Now, whenever I am stuck for words, I read her again - she never fails to inspire me. Here is something I wrote one early morning when my collection of her work was nowhere to be found:


    Emily


    Where have you gone, oh muse of mine?

    Alone and cloistered away by time.

    A recluse they claim with words of scorn,

    t’was after you left, your star was born,

    The Belle of Amherst you will always be,

    giving purpose and view to poets like me.

    Through books of prose I learned your style,

    each turning page the more worthwhile.

    Your words betrayed a gentle heart,

    that opened the door to a new-formed art.

    Where have you gone, oh muse of mine?


    (MH Benton 2008)

  6. March 3, 2009
     Matt La Regina

    I agree with you that by instead of telling us what something is, she tells us what is not. "It is not death, for I stood up.." basically saying that the only reason she knows shes not dead is because she can stand up. Also she is saying its not Frost because she feels heat nor fire because her feet are as cold as marble. Another interesting thing is how you were explaining about her singing hyms at church, being in a choir a Chancel was the part of the church around the alter which used to beblocked off and only the cleregy and choir were allowed to be in that area, so obviously she is purposely using this word possibly to show her conflict with the church. i don't fully understand how that part of the church is "hot" or "warm". In stanza 4 the repitition of the word "And" signifies that things are already bad and everytime she adds an "and" its gets worse. There are alot more dashes ,or caesura's, in the last two stanzas. I agree in a way with you about this, it does make you linger and lurch and makes you focus on the emphasized words. But I also think it's the way her thoughts are flowing, very sparatically. As the peom reachs the end her situation and feels are getting worse and worse. I think this is her way of showing that her thoughts constantly changing and shes starting to be able to not speack as well and is pausing and stuttering because of her emotional state. Overal it's a good poem and good analysis.

  7. March 7, 2009
     Ronni Aragona

    I thought this poem was very deep and morbid. I thought it was very clever of the speaker to compare death to the speakers own despair. The speaker constantly repeats “it was not death”, meaning that this despair felt like death but it was not.. The speaker adds to depressing feeling by describing the changes of the seasons from fall to winter. I also noticed the speaker using words like “flesh” and “burial” associating with death. In the last two stanzas, the speaker tells how they are alone. That at that moment the world feels like it has stopped and they are just trapped in this feeling of despair. I have also noticed the use of commas. The speaker pauses almost after every line. I think this helps the feeling of despair because the commas are like silences in the poem.

  8. March 8, 2009
     Crystal Sutliff

    I really enjoyed this poem, I agree with you that she forcefully uses metaphors and drastic similes. Especially in lines 7 and 8 how the metaphor is so odd, I found that very interesting. Also I thought how she used - made the poem flow better and you could see how was supposed to be read.

  9. April 17, 2009
     Donald

    Great poem! and that very interesting. Also I thought how she used - made the poem flow better and you