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10 June 2012

A Clock stopped –

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 –
                                                            F259 (1861)  287

The first line with its simple clipped syllables echoes the stopping of a clock, it’s tic toc over. We know that this particular timepiece is the cuckoo clock on the wall: it’s not the mantel clock and it has figures that once moved. We also know the clock is irreparably broken for even the best clock makers in the world, at that time in Switzerland, “Can’t put the puppet” back to work
            We know that the clock died on the hour as the figures had come out: the puppet was bowing until it suddenly stopped, dangling motionless. The other “Figures” in the clock seemed “hunched, with pain,” and overall, a sense of dread and wonder came over the “Trinket.”
            The following lines through the end of the poem make it clear that that Dickinson is using the lively cuckoo clock as a metaphor for life in that its sudden ‘death’ represents our own. In later poems (and in several earlier ones), Dickinson describes the hush and awe that come over the room as a person crosses the boundary between life and death. There is the pain, but then they go … somewhere. Here, it is into “Degreeless Noon,” the apex of the clock’s day where the two hands meet together at 12, no longer offering any degree of separation. Death, the poet implies, is a completion. We quiver out of our “Decimals” – the numbers and events of daily life – into an eternal, unmoving “Noon.”
            Just as in a deathbed scene where the doctor and loved ones do their best to recall the dying, neither mechanic nor shopkeeper can bring life back to the clock. Instead, the gold-gilded pointers, or hands, answer a “cool – concernless No.” Interestingly, this “No” “nods” from the pointers. The nod is a positive gesture but in this case it coolly signals all bystanders that their efforts are useless. The stopped clock has no more concerns.
            The final three lines add the Dickinsonian twist, the sharply drawn lines that almost cause an intake of breath as the extended metaphor is clinched. We have the “Gilded pointers” and the “Seconds slim” sketching out the clock face. We see the familiar hour hand, the more slender minute hand, and the even thinner second hand. But the hours, minutes, and seconds they denote are suddenly expanded into “Decades” to reflect a normal human life span. Our decades of bowing and prancing about to the tune of time reflects our “Arrogance” about life. But at the end, we meet “Him” – the great Clockmaker. The lines have an aura of mystery and more than a hint of dread.
            Dickinson came after the great Deists who founded the United States, men such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson who thought of the cosmos as clockworks and the creating deity as clockmaker. The metaphor, then, would have been a familiar one to her and her countrymen, but she adds her own vivid and quixotic flavour. The “quivered out of Decimals – / Into Degreeless Noon” as well as the “cool – concernless No” are pure and wonderful Dickinson.


  1. Isn't this poem about something awful that happened to Emily when she was a child? She is the clock and she is broken beyond repair and has stopped for decades; Him is probably her father or uncle, I don't know her background. She puts on a serviceable facade, but underneath she has turned to ice, perhaps beyond temperature.

    1. I hadn't ever thought of that reading before. I'm sure she is drawing on her own sense of what pain (and dying) is like, but based on her other poems I think this one is exploring the deep and final silence and stillness of death in general.

  2. /Part one/
    Strangely, the blog about the poem “A Clock...” was my first acquaintance with Susan Kornfeld’s blogs – and I was not convinced by her interpretation. After re-reading I now agree that those figures are not only Roman numerals: there seems to be a surreal kind of blending, fade-over in the great second stanza. But in other respects I still disagree. In the meantime, I read other blogs of Susan and was just delighted by her insights.

    Maybe, I assign too high a value to this poem, following the German author Hans-Ulrich Möhring who dedicated his novella “Ausgetickt” (2015) to extensive reflections about the poem and its translation. Now we have three published German translations, but in my view they all are disappointing. I confess that I have tried to make a new one, striving to preserve meaning and sound in a natural, undistorted phrasing.

    Susan, during our email correspondence you encouraged me to summarize my thoughts and questions in the Comments section. Here they are, presented in a direct tone:
    You write: #We know that [...] is the cuckoo’s clock on the wall.# Neither we know that nor we can consider it very likely, I think. And I doubt that such a cuckoo could be called a puppet. Should there be a cuckoo clock’s cuckoo which does not even play a supporting role?
    Is the puppet one among other figures? At least, no figures (in the plural) came out.
    Was there something coming out, at all? The poem does not say so.
    The opening lines much contribute to the magic and mystery of the poem. The second line sounds simple, almost superfluous. Such cannot be the case. I try to write in full: A clock stopped working at a certain time; do not think that it is the mantel clock. (With the mantel clock not obligatorily standing on a mantelpiece, perhaps, e. g. standing on a bed-room’s dresser...) Or even more probably: ... do not think that it is (only) a clock as an artefact.
    The lines 3 and 4 need not be restricted to the thought of repairing. It could also be the built-in skill which fails now. And “Geneva” opens a wide space for associations. Besides, the adjective “farthest” could express a little bit more than only a high degree.
    #the puppet was bowing until it suddenly stopped, dangling motionless.# (Perhaps, it was only about to bow, but this is marginal.) “Dangling motionless” sounds somewhat contradictional. I think that the puppet (or parts of it) dangled once, coming to a standstill.
    (6) - The crucial word? -
    #bow# At the end you speak of “bowing and prancing”. Should “bow” (and its translation) express more than a respectful downward-upward movement?
    ◊ Actually, I wanted to leave aside the seemingly eccentric reading of an acoustically bowing (snowy tree) cricket. For me, the poem contains only visual, no auditory phenomena (Well, a pendulum, when working, may be also hearable.). But the respectable writer and translator H.-U. Möhring in a personal correspondence expressly insisted that the first stanza “is pure audition”; he claims that the poem is essentially determined by the string “clock = puppet = trinket = pendulum”, expressing the image of the dying cricket; particularly, he refers to the “gentle Clock” in the poem “’Twas later when the summer went”. I am unable to share his view. Can the thermometer cricket constitute a chronometer, too?! (D.W.)

  3. /Part two/
    Susan, on the other side, does the situation depicted by you not appear rather ordinary? A clock, including its figural decoration, does not work any more – it cannot be repaired – imagine the clock as a human being – how sad – there is pain around...
    The word “awe” in the line II/1 gives us the explicit information that the issue is a person or something personified. I suppose that “trinket” is referred to the whole object and ironically dismissive (and does not mean “implement”).
    (9) - The mystery -
    #Decimals# Do the figures (Roman numerals) show time not in a duodecimal, but in a decimal system? A reading of the “Decimals” as “the numbers and events of daily life” seems somewhat precipitate.
    #Degreeless# The constellation, where the hour and minute hands are superimposed, can be observed 12 times half a day. There must be something more special.
    #Just as in a deathbed scene where the doctor and loved ones do their best to recall the dying, neither mechanic nor shopkeeper can bring life back to the clock.#
    As for the deathbed, should one not better hope for consolation and empathy? And where is the mechanic from? The Shopman (= shopkeeper?) importunes the pendulum: a full understanding may be impossible, but a translation seems to be more or less easy.
    I also prefer the paradoxical “Nods” to the redundant variant “Stares”. And I am glad that you also read “seconds slim” metonymically as “thin seconds hands”. Per email you did not exclude some ED-specific play on form equality (“thin seconds”); such is generally nice, but here time does not seem to move any more: standstill, “staringness”.
    #arrogance about life# ED put the preposition “between...”, so we have to notice a mutual relation.
    Your closing remarks are very worth considering: the context of the deists, the cosmos as clockworks. Does “Him” refer to “the great Clockmaker”? A translation into German, where God and death are masculine nouns, may leave the question open.

    #The “quivered out of Decimals – / Into Degreeless Noon” as well as the “cool – concernless No” are pure and wonderful Dickinson.# Nodding a big Yes, Dieter Wirth (Regensburg, Jan. ’16)