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22 April 2015

When Bells stop ringing — Church — begins –

When Bells stop ringing — Church — begins – 
The Positive — of Bells —
When Cogs — stop — that's Circumference —
The Ultimate — of Wheels.
                                                   F601 (1863)  J633

In this wisdom poem Dickinson presents mortal life as a prelude to a better state in the hereafter.

From Hanford Mills, NY, 1840-1967
Bells prepare us for the church service – that's the "Positive". Without the service the bells are meaningless, although often lovely to hear. The second two lines provide a second metaphor. Cogs enable machinery to generate movement and work. The sawmills of Dickinson's day used a simple system of cogwheels and water wheels. As long as the cogwheel runs the water wheel turns. When the cogs stop, the mill stops, too. But what is left are the wheels, the essence of which is the circumference. This is the "Ultimate" aspect of wheels, for its bounds take in all the work potential and, in Dickinson's metaphor, the entire circle of existence. 

 I like the dashes Dickinson puts around "stop" in the third line. They enforce the stop.  The short, hard word, "Cogs" preceding it reinforces the effect. After "stop" the rest of the poem is in perfect iambs with "Circumference" rolling nicely into "Ultimate".

It's a thoughtful poem, compressed, vivid, and rewarding the bit of work to let the images expand in your mind. 


  1. I often wonder if Em actually knew she was doing all the poetic "tricks" we notice as we analyze her work, such as the effect of her dashes between "stop" in this case, since she uses so many dashes in all of her work. This poem is fairly transparent in meaning, but a great many of her others can be interpreted in as many ways as the number of readers' dissections, No doubt she was an original and a genius, but I don't think we always know what she herself intended, or if she was aware of the multiple meanings of many of her poems. Sometimes readers of my own poems notice "tricks" or other interpretations that I hadn't purposely intended (then I think I'm a genius and didn't even know it!). Also, I myself can read an old poem of my own and either not remember what I meant but now have an idea of what I might have meant, or what it means to me now, or I notice additional meanings that I had not realized when I wrote it. But subjectivity is one of the fun things about any art!

    1. I agree that subjectivity and art go hand in hand, but in Emily Dickinson's case I do think that every moment of every verse is intentional. For example, according to her Wikipedia page, when her poem "A narrow Fellow in the Grass", was published in the Republican, ED "complained that the edited punctuation (an added comma and a full stop substitution for the original dash) altered the meaning of the entire poem."

      They also added a title - "The Snake"

      How annoying for her!

    2. Cole - I imagine Dickinson used her ear as much as any good poet. The juxtaposition of sounds, the placing of dashes, where the lines break, meters regular and irregular: I wager they all factored into her writing and editing process. That isn't to say that we don't notice things she might not have consciously done...

  2. This is not an easy poem. ED uses the word circumference in other poems ("I saw no Way -- the Heavens were stiched --" uses both circumference and the bell metaphor).

    Circumference seems to refer to limits of time as as well as space. The bell image is the same as circumference. It evokes limited geographic circle (or sphere) in space that the sound of the bell penetrates, The bell also has temporal limits; the sound of the bell only exists because of the silence before it is rung and the silence after the sound fades.

    In this poem, existence -- the sound of the bell -- is a negative. The positive is silence. Space (Beyond the Dip of Bell -- to use the phrase from the earlier poem) is positive -- unlike things in existence, it is indestructible. Similarly, silence -- underlies sound -- and is indestructible. Sound cannot destroy silence in the same way that light cannot destroy shadow -- it simply make shadows more intense.

    These are just some thoughts. I don't know if any of this captures EDs meaning.

    1. Fascinating. Your remarks remind me of that other great poem "I felt a Funeral, in my Brain" where Heaven is a tolling bell and Being the ear -- and the narrator becomes stranded, alone with Silence. I'm going to have to think about the two poems ...