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21 October 2012

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—

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.
                                                            F355 (1862)  510

In the last word of the poem, Dickinson gives a name to the condition she alludes to in “’Tis so appalling—it exhilarates” (F341) and “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” (F340): Despair. She will describe the condition most perfectly in her masterwork, “After great pain, a formal feeling comes,”  where she details the “Hour of Lead” when “The Feet, mechanical, go round,” and the “stiff Heart” questions all the truths taught in church.
Despair would have been the subject of church sermons in the New England of her day as it was fundamental to the still-influential Puritan teachings. A certain amount of despair is essential, she would have heard, for without it the sinner would never be able to see God’s grace and to appreciate it. Too much despair, however, and the soul risks denying that God is good, merciful, and keeps his promises. This is the despair that becomes unpardonable. Puritan Thomas Watson (17th Century) said that “Despair casts away the anchor of hope,” and then the “soul must sink.” 
The poem details the trappings and symptoms of despair. First, the diagnosis: although she might feel dead, the poet knows she is living, for she moves and can stand up. And although everything seems dark around her she knows by the ringing of the bells that it is the middle of the day. Neither was she stiff from cold because she could feel the hot wind. She wasn’t burning because her feet were as cold as marble.
Despair is the enemy of godliness, according
to Puritan Thomas Watson.
The worst of the experience was that the speaker seemed to be experiencing all of this at once: death, darkness, freezing, and burning. The next stanzas go from the physical sensations to the subjective state. She feels as “orderly” as a corpse prepared for its coffin. Her life seems cut down to fit the frame, so flat she couldn’t breathe and that time itself had stopped. Dickinson has a gift for the Gothic and for horror, and it is apparent in the dead silence that despairing person occupies where “everything that ticked—has stopped”—and the dash in that line gives a stopping to the meter’s clock. Worse, though, “Space stares” everywhere. The image is frightening, as if empty space, the whole empty cosmos, is an empty gaze. What is it to live and to look, if the endless nothing all around you is just mindlessly staring? Not looking or seeing--just staring. The Gothic touch comes next: "Grisly," terrible frosts “Repeal the Beating Ground” as if there is a strangling cold that clutches the heart and refuses to let it beat.
The last stanza offers an opposite and equally horrifying image to that claustrophobia. Here, the speaker feels as if she is in some disembodied “Chaos.” There is nothing to hang on to or give a directional clue. No land, no floating wreckage. The "Stopless" Chaos is so complete that even despair, with the implied potential for hope, is not justified. And that is perhaps the deepest (most unforgiveable?) form of despair.
It’s a good thing that we have the very recent poem “I’m ceded—I’ve stopped being Theirs” (F353) to look back on. In this poem, the speaker proudly claims her consciousness “of Grace— / Unto supremest name,” and has, in consequence, chosen the crown of salvation (or her title of Poet) by which her “Existence’s whole Arc” is “filled up.” It’s a much happier place.


  1. And yet for all the description of this ineffable timeless state in which feeling trumped with its amazing intimacy, it tasted, the voice transcends the state, is witness to it, which is the larger frame based in knowing and trusting the artful miraculous expression of that knowing. Reading this one is left staring into the unfatomable and how, unbelievably, Em can make of her own soul a poem.

    1. I liked that 'witness': yes, I feel sometimes as if that is her mission, to descend; look, know, and feel; and to return again to "make of her own soul a poem". Great -- thanks.

  2. To me this is one of her strongest. I am reminded of Dr. David R. Hawkins. He described being in a place beyond despair, so vast in its complete meaninglessness that it was beyond “report of land.” In his agony, he cried out “If there is a God, save me!” A powerful angel reached down and lifted him up into ecstasy. He went on to write and teach. “Power vs Force” is his masterpiece. In ED’s case, her Poetic Genius was her saving angel.

    1. I agree that this poem is among her strongest. Thank you for the Hawkins -- fascinating man. will look into the book.

      I think ED's poetic genius was both salvation and curse for her -- for us, an always inspiration and Guide to the depths.