It was not Death, for I stood up, (355)

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 -
To justify - Despair.

Notes:

Note to POL students: The inclusion or omission of the numeral in the title of the poem should not affect the accuracy score. It is optional during recitation. 

Dickinson poems are electronically reproduced courtesy of the publishers and the Trustees of Amherst College from THE POEMS OF EMILY DICKINSON: VARIORUM EDITION, Ralph W. Franklin, ed., Cambridge, Mass: The Belknap Press of Harvard University of Press, Copyright © 1988 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.  Copyright © 1951, 1955, 1979, 1983 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.
Source: The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Variorum Edition (Harvard University Press, 1998)

Writing Ideas

  1. Dickinson’s poem is an example of apophasis, or paralepsis, which is the rhetorical strategy of mentioning something to deny its relevance or importance (It was not Death; It was not Night; etc). Write a poem that also defines an emotional state by defining what it’s not.
  2. As Robin Ekiss notes in her poem guide, Dickinson’s poem is written in ballad meter (also known as common measure). Browse some more common measure poems and attempt to write your own. What kinds of phrasing, images, and sentiments does such a tight, small line force you into?
  3. Dickinson wrote poetry on a variety of surfaces: she included them in letters; bound them into fascicles; and, in her later life, wrote them on envelopes. These last have gained recent attention through the work of Jen Bervin and Marta Werner. Look at the portfolio from their Gorgeous Nothings. What strikes you about the relationship between poem and paper? Try writing poems on different kinds, sizes, and shapes of surfaces.

Discussion Questions

  1. How does Dickinson’s poem attempt to “justify ... despair”? If, as Robin Ekiss notes, the poem attempts to find figures for a certain kind of adolescent angst, does it succeed in justifying its own moroseness? Or does it acknowledge the limits of explanation? Think here not just about semantic meaning but poetic form (dashes, line breaks, sonic patterning).
  2. What kinds of sensory experience are gestured toward or conjured in Dickinson’s poem? How does the poem enact synesthesia, and to what ends? Is there a relationship between the kinds of extremity Dickinson so often writes about and sensory breakdown or cross over? 

Teaching Tips

  1. Use Dickinson’s poem to generate a discussion about writing surfaces, materials, and handwriting. You might ask students to read the interview with Marta Werner, “Unsettling Emily Dickinson.” Or you might look, as a class, at the portfolio from Gorgeous Nothings. Ask students to think about Werner’s claim that Dickinson’s manuscripts help us see the “’third dimension’ of the text, the passage of writing traced through time, the multiple, contradictory decisions made during the process of composition and registered in part in the spatial play of the hand across the paper.” Ask students to think about their own writing practice: you might have them try the third writing idea from above, or in small groups look through hand-written drafts of poems. What signs of speed, decision-making, and other possibilities do they see in the handwriting of their peers? How do they adjust their writing or process to different material(s)?
  2. In her poem guide, Robin Ekiss describes the powerful way Dickinson’s poem spoke “directly to my adolescent angst.” Have your students read Ekiss’s guide together and discuss its premise: that Dickinson’s poem is “rebellious music that laments those particular states of adolescence we never quite outgrow.” Then, have them consider the role of angst (adolescent or otherwise) in poetry. First, arrive at a working definition of angst: what language does the word come from? What is its etymology and—most important—what do your students understand it to mean? What relationship does poetry (especially lyric poetry) have with angst? Why might this be so? Who are the angstiest poets? Students might assemble a short anthology of angsty poems, starting (perhaps) with Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” Keats’s “When I have Fears That I May Cease to Be,” and other Dickinson poems. Ask students to also find contemporary examples such as (perhaps) Dorothea Lasky’s “The End.” How does angsty poetry change through the centuries? Does it?