- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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).
- 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?
- 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)?
- 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?
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Emily Dickinson: “It was not death, for I stood up,”
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.
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Emily Dickinson is one of America’s greatest and most original poets of all time. She took definition as her province and challenged the existing definitions of poetry and the poet’s work. Like writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman, she experimented with expression in order to free it from conventional restraints. Like writers such as Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, she crafted a new type of persona for the first person. The speakers in Dickinson’s poetry, like those in Brontë’s and Browning’s works, are sharp-sighted observers who see the inescapable limitations of their societies as well as their imagined and imaginable escapes. To make the abstract tangible, to define meaning without confining it, to inhabit a house that never became a prison, Dickinson created in her writing a distinctively elliptical language for expressing what was possible but not yet realized. Like the Concord Transcendentalists whose...
Poems By Emily Dickinson
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