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.