Response to “It was not Death, for I stood up”

The style used in “It was not Death, for I stood up” by Emily Dickinson is as confusing as the subject matter of the poem. There is an abundance of capital letters, peculiar and esoteric references, as well unconventional syntax. Beyond this, some of the lines simply don’t make much sense in context. The use of capital letters is a good place to begin exploring. According to standard convention, many of the words that are capitalized,  should not be, such as “Death” (1) “Flesh” (5) and “Fire” (7). However, the capitalization at a closer glance does not appear random. They seems to come in couples. For example, “Death”(1) and “Dead” (2), “Night” and “Bells” (3), “Frost” and “Flesh” (5), and “Grisly and “Autumn” (19). Words may be capitalized because to her they have taken forms beyond the standard meaning. They have become entities that torment her. The capitalization adds poignancy and joins two concepts together.

The references and imagery are strange as well. For example, a “Sirocco” (6) is desert storm specific to the Sahara that carries dust and heat over to Southern Europe, and has no obvious relevance to life in America. The reference to a “Chancel” (8) in church also seems oddly specific. Furthermore, the nautical terms, such as “Spar” (22) and “Report of Land” (23) too seem out of place and vague.

The syntax, as it relates to the “I” in the poem is especially weird. The poem seems almost self referential, as if Dickinson is speaking out of her body. She speaks of it as in the past, such as “as if my life were Shaven” (13) and “it reminded me of mine” (12), however at the end she seems to imply that the depression is inescapable. The duality is perplexing. Additionally, there is at least one line that is, colloquially put, flat-out weird: “and could not breath without a key” (15). I am not sure what this line intends, but everything about, from the connection between breathing to the unlocking seems strange.  Another example of strange phrasing and chaotic imagery is in the first stanza of the poem: “It was not Night for all the Bells / Put out their tongues, for Noon” (3-4). It is unclear why she chooses to personify the bells with the strange imagery of the tongue rather than simply say the bells were ringing.  Perhaps (or obviously) all this is intentional to show how individual this affliction is, how personal it, and the “I” is. It is references that only truly make sense to the individual, and only they can truly understand how they feel using what makes sense to them.


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3 Responses to Response to “It was not Death, for I stood up”

  1. Mika Katz says:

    I found this poem very intriguing and interesting. Dickinson portrays a grave state of depression and hopelessness. The speaker is trying to understand it’s condition and cure that condition but she is struggling immensely. I found it fascinating to visualize the speaker’s confusion. In lines 1 and 2 from stanza 1 the speaker states, “It was not death, for I stood up, And all the dead lie down”. The speaker knows that to be alive you must be able to stand. Lines 3 and 4 of stanza 1 state, “ It was not night, for all the bells Put out their tongues, for noon.” In other words, even if it were dark, it could not be night because bells were ringing for noon. The chills that she was feeling could not be the physical cold because she feels hot at the same time “It was not frost, for on my flesh I felt siroccos crawl” (5-6), (sirocco referring to a hot, dry wind). It’s interesting that in this poem the “diagnosis” is referred to as an “it” (9). The “it” is unidentified and very ambiguous which further exaggerates her tormenting confusion. I thought lines 13-14 were absolutely genius, “ As if my life were shaven And fitted to a frame”. By shaving something you are leaving it bare. She is referring to the tormented, despaired and suffering emotions are that left when life is shaved and stripped of its goodness and/or happiness. She is referring to a moment where anything remotely resembling happiness is diminished. Although this concept is completely ambiguous, I would conclude that the key that she is referring to (15) is the key that she needs to understand what is happening to her and why it is happening to her. I would say its also her key to psychological freedom because she seems to be stuck in what I would consider purgatory, unable to move forward or backward. I would assume that is where this poor, unhappy soul is. Regardless it is evident that this is a soul who is undoubtedly looking for answers and a chance to progress.

  2. Deborah Shteierman says:

    The idea that Dickinson is speaking “out of her body,” is intriguing. Indeed, there are various points in the poem where it seems like Dickinson is speaking posthumously. For instance, Dickinson writes, “Set orderly, for Burial/ Reminded me, of mine” (11-12), as if she is speaking about her own burial. Also, she uses phrases like “could not breathe,” (15) and “everything that ticked- has stopped” (17) to describe her state of being. Both of these lines conjure up images of lifelessness. I would imagine that these “special effects” are intentional. However, all of this contradicts with the very first line in the poem where Dickinson claims, “It was not Death, for I stood up,” and this is even the title of the poem itself. So if this seemingly lifeless state is not death, the reader is left to wonder, what exactly is it? What is comparable to death?

  3. Max Richter says:

    Many of the points Yoni brings up, I struggled to understand as well. For example, the references from sirrocos to chancel. I didn’t know prior to this poem what these words meant and after looking them up, both terms seem to be either a way just to portray some kind of physical imagery or there’s something extremely personal and intimate about this. Perhaps the poet brought up chancel to show that religion was a big part of this persons life.

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