‘It was not Death, for I stood up’ by Emily Dickinson is a six stanza poem that is divided into sets of four lines, or quatrains. The poem does not maintain any kind of rhyme scheme. Instead the lines are unified through their similar lengths, the use of anaphora, as well as other kinds of repetition and half, or slant, rhymes.
In regards to the length of the lines and the meter, the lines alternate between eight and six syllables. The first and third lines of each stanza contain eight syllables and the second and fourth: six. This keeps the lines around the same length and forces a rhythm of sorts, although there is no precise metrical pattern.
Anaphora is another technique Dickinson makes use of in ‘It was not Death, for I stood up.’ This term is used to refer to moments in a poem in which a word or phrase is repeated at the beginning of multiple lines. This occurs very obviously within stanza four in which lines two, three and four all begin with “And.”
In total, six lines out of the entire poem begin with “And.” The repetition of the word in the fourth stanza helps create an interesting tension within the speaker’s words. She is building to a climax, stressing the contradictory emotions she’s experiencing around her own mental state. You can read the full poem here.
Summary of It was not Death, for I stood up
‘It was not Death, for I stood up’ by Emily Dickinson tells of the ways a speaker attempts to understand herself when she is deeply depressed.
The poem begins with the speaker telling the reader that she doesn’t know why she is the way she is. She also doesn’t know exactly what or how she feels. Dickinson’s speaker, who is perhaps the poet herself, is existing somewhere between life and death, hot and cold and night and day. Each of these things does not seem to be precisely true about her situation.
She goes on to describe how she feels as if she is a combination of all of these states of being. Then she adds that she is also like a living version of a corpse. Her life has collapsed down and inward. Space and a lack of time surround her. Nothing real exists for her. The speaker is stuck in a world confined to a metaphorical ship at sea. There is no hope to be had—only despair.
Analysis of It was not Death, for I stood up
In the first quatrain the speaker begins by stating that she is existing in a form that is not “Death.” She knows she isn’t dead because she is standing. Those who die are only able to “lie down.” This simple logic is representative of the difficult time the speaker has of determining who and what she is. She has to start at something basic, is she alive or is she dead. She’s sure she’s alive and that it “was not Night.” This is due to the fact that,
[…] all the Bells
Put out their Tongues, for Noon.
The bells are ringing somewhere around her. These are more than likely church bells, ringing to mark the passage of time. She knows they would not ring at night, therefore it must be day. And specifically “Noon.” This confusion around time comes back into the poem in the final two stanzas.
The speaker continues to wonder over her situation. She thinks for a moment that maybe it is “Frost.” Something might’ve happened to her body that has to do with the weather or a coldness of emotion. She immediately discounts this diagnosis as she can feel “Siroccos” on her skin. This is a reference to a warm, dry wind that blows from the northern parts of Africa and into Southern Europe.
At the same time, she knows her problems do not stem from “Fire.” This is made clear through the coolness she feels in her “marble feet.” They could, she states, “keep a Chancel,” or seating arrangement meant to hold a certain delegation of the church, cool.
In the third stanza the speaker catalogues everything she knows about herself, but is no closer to understanding what’s happening to her. Her life contains elements of the hot, cold, night and day. As well as life and death, of course.
The best comparison she can make in her life is between her own body and a corpse. She has seen bodies set out and prepared for burial. When she did so, she realized that they reminded her of her own body and the aura she is living in.
The fourth stanza is filled with phrases that connect the speaker to the suffocating fate of a corpse. She tries to describe for the reader what it feels like to be in her position within her life. Dickinson’s speaker states that her life feels “shaven”. It is cut down, or some crucial aspect of it has been cut out.
The position she is in is a terrible one. She can’t breathe,
Without a key,
And ’twas Midnight…
She is in a very bad situation. To her it feels as though she is unable to free herself of it. She has to suffer until someone comes along and helps her out of the purgatory she’s existing in. These lines connect to those at the beginning of the fifth stanza. The speaker states that to her it is like the clocks have stopped.
In the fourth stanza of ‘It was not Death, for I stood up’ the speaker describes how everything “that ticked-has stopped.” This is a clear reference to time and the dash at the end of “stopped—“ forces one to do the same. Rather than just time coming to an end, it has ceased to exist all together. Around the speaker there is “space.” It “stares” out into nothingness.
She compares this state of being to the way that winter comes on and the “frost” mourns the passing Autumn. It covers the fallen, dead leaves as if shrouding them.
In the sixth stanza the speaker compares the state she is living in to a shipwreck. She is separate from everyone else, and at the mercy of “Chaos” and “Chance.” These forces are capitalized in order to emphasize their importance in this section. This is a technique known as apostrophe. It gives forces such as love, hate and death greater agency in the world.
The speaker does not have a “spar,” or the top mast of the ship, to guide her. All around, there is not a single “Report of Land.” There are no signs that might point to her finding her way back to shore. The last line of the poem transforms the thought. She knows that if she could find her way to a hopeful feeling about her current situation or even the distant future, the despair would be altered.