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 I was 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.

Dickinson is recreating a state of hopelessness, a depression so profound that a psychologist might diagnose it as clinical depression. The speaker is attempting to define or understand her own condition, to know the cause of her torment. Thus the poem starts with an unidentified "it"; the reader doesn't know what the pronoun refers to because the speaker doesn't know the cause of her anguish. The poem traces the speaker's attempt to find a name for "it."

Stanzas One and Two

Stanzas one and two tell us what her condition is not. The details are so specific, so sharp, that her feelings are clear to the reader. Dickinson uses concrete details about the body to describe a psychological state. Though the speaker describes her confusion about a chaotic emotional state, the poem is neither chaotic nor confused. One technique that gives order to her description is the parallelism or repetition of "it was not" followed by the reason for her eliminating a possibility; a pattern, like repetition, is one way of providing order. The speaker knows she can't be dead, because she is standing up; the blackness engulfing her isn't night, because the noon-time bells are ringing; nor is the chill she feels physical cold, because she feels hot as well as cold (the sirocco is a hot, dry wind which starts in northern Africa and blows across southern Europe). She has used the senses of sound and feeling or touch in these stanzas.

Stanza Three

Stanza three pulls together the possibilities she eliminated; "it tasted like all of them." She is using a synaesthetic image (tasting death, darkness, and cold) to show that her state affects every aspect of her life and that different states have become merged and indistinguishable; in other words, she is in a chaotic state. Her mind then moves, by association, to a funeral, which in turn makes her think of her own state, which feels like death. Though the jumps of her thinking are not logical, the connections are understandable and the reader can follow her chaotic train of thought.

Stanza Four

The experience being described in stanza four is familiar to anyone who has experienced despair or a psychological distress whose cause was unknown. Life becomes "shaved" in that the only emotions left to the sufferer are despair, terror, etc. All hope or sense of possibility is lost. Terror does affect our breathing and may make us feel as though we are suffocating. The key she needs is understanding what she is feeling, why she feels it.

Stanza Five

Stanza five gives us more information about her despair. She feels totally isolated. Time has stopped in the sense that her condition has no end that she can see.

Stanza Six

The last stanza expresses an overwhelming hopelessness. In the speaker's world, there is not the possibility of rescue or change. There is not even a spar (spar: a strong pole used for a mast, boom, etc.); in her psychological shipwreck, there is nothing that might provide even the possibility of hope of survival or rescue. She can't imagine a report of land. The possibility of change, as in a spar or a report of land, would allow for the possibility of hope; hope in turn allows for the existence of something that is not-hope or despair. In the last line the speaker asserts the paradox that she cannot even feel despair because the possibility of hope, let alone hope itself, does not exist. Ironically, if her condition were any of the possibilities she rejected at the beginning of the poem, there might be hope or possibility of change. If asleep, she might awaken; if in a stupor, she might be roused; if dead, she might be resurrected. Thus, her condition is worse than despair, causes more anguish than despair, and allows for no possibility of cure.

Final Statement

Dickinson has a profound understanding of the human psyche and a rare ability to communicate a sense of despair and depression. Have you ever tried to tell someone else about some profound feeling or psychological state? Or have you ever tried to understand someone telling you about his or her emotional condition? How much time and how much energy were expended in this effort? Was it successful? Then look at how few words Dickinson uses to give us the essence of the experience.

Dickinson, Online overview
"For each ecstatic instant," p. 2
"I taste a liquor never brewed," p. 2
"Safe in their alabaster chambers," p. 3
"I heard a fly buzz when I died," p. 21
"It was not death, for I stood up," p. 22
"A bird came down the walk," p. 13
"I like to see it lap the miles," p. 27
"Pain has an element of blank," p. 31
"A narrow fellow in the grass," p. 44
"I'm nobody! Who are you?" p. 9
"After great pain a formal feeling comes" (handout)
"The soul selects her own society" (handout)
"The heart asks pleasure first," p. 24
"I'll tell you how the sun rose," p. 11
"Presentiment is that long shadow on the lawn," p. 36
"Success is counted sweetest" (handout)
"I cannot live with you," p. 29
"He fumbles at your spirit," p. 11
"I felt a cleaving in my mind," p. 43
"My life closed twice before its close," p. 49
"Wild nights! Wild nights!" p.5
"She sweeps with many-colored brooms," p. 3
"Hope is the thing with feathers," p. 5
"I felt a funeral in my brain," p. 8
"I had been hungry all the years," p. 26
"I started Early--took my Dog--" (handout)
"My life had stood a loaded gun" (handout)
"Because I could not stop for Death," p. 35
"If you were coming in the fall," p. 23
**Supplemental Reading**
      Sample Midtern and Student Answers

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