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It was not Death for I stood up

'It was not Death, for I stood up' (1891) is one of Emily Dickinson's most famous poems and was published after her death. The poem's meaning is unclear but many critics have thought that it follows the emotional state of the speaker after she has an irrational and harrowing experience. 

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It was not Death for I stood up

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'It was not Death, for I stood up' (1891) is one of Emily Dickinson's most famous poems and was published after her death. The poem's meaning is unclear but many critics have thought that it follows the emotional state of the speaker after she has an irrational and harrowing experience.

'It was not Death, for I stood up' Summary and Analysis
Date published1891
AuthorEmily Dickinson
FormBallad
StructureSix Quatrains
MeterCommon Meter
Rhyme SchemeSlant rhyme as ABCB
Poetic Devices

Anaphora, Metaphor, Juxtaposition

Frequently noted imagerySeasons and Elements
ToneSorrowful, Hopeless, Distressed, Confused
Key ThemesHopelessness, Despair, Irrationality
AnalysisThe poem explores the idea of spiritual resurrection after death and the immortality of the soul. The speaker of the poem has had an (unnamed) irrational experience that has left them in despair and feeling hopeless.

'It was not Death, for I stood up': meaning

Let's examine the meaning behind the background and context of Dickinson's poem.

Biographical context

Emily Dickinson was born in 1830 in the town of Amhurst, Massachusetts in the U.S.A. 'It was not Death, for I stood up,' was written in 1862, following a decade in which many of Dickinson's family and contemporaries died. The deaths of friends such as Sophia Holland and Benjamin Franklin Newton deeply affected Dickinson.

Sometimes this context is used to diagnose the speaker of these poems (or sometimes Dickinson herself) with modern terms such as depression or PTSD. However, as these terms did not exist while 'It was not Death, for I stood up' was written, it is important to refrain from this.

Historical context

During Emily Dickinson's youth, the Second Great Awakening (a Protestant revival movement) was gaining popularity in America. Dickinson's family were Calvinists, and although she would leave the movement as a teenager, the effects of religion can still be seen in her poetry. In 'It was not Death, for I stood up', it is apparent when she references Christian heaven.

Some historians also argue that this poem is linked to the American Civil War. Dickinson wrote 'It was not Death, for I stood up,' in 1862, during a heightened period of violence in the war. It is for that reason that some critics argue that experiences in this war may have deeply affected the speaker of the poem.

Literary context

During the 1960s, Emily Dickinson's works were heavily influenced by the American Romantic literary movement. This movement emphasised the power of nature and the universe, as well as stressed the importance of individuality and the mind. Major writers during this period included Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson, both of whom influenced Dickinson's work. During this movement, Dickinson focused on exploring the power of the mind and took an interest in writing about individuality through this lens.

Dickinson was also raised in a religious (Calvinist) household, and she frequently read the Common Book of Prayer. Its influence can be seen in how she replicates some of its forms in her poetry.

Emily Dickinson's 'It was not Death, for I stood up': poem

Below is the poem in full.

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.

'It was not Death, for I stood up': summary

Dickinson's poem is comprised of six quatrains.

Poem stanza summaryExplanation
Stanza 1This stanza focuses on the speaker who has had an unnamed experience. She states that the experience was not death, or night and gives reasons to justify this.
Stanza 2The second stanza continues this idea as the speaker lists that she also knew it was not cold weather or fire. Again, she gives reasons to justify why this is so.
Stanza 3In the third stanza, she states that although the experience was not death, night, the cold or fire, it was still all of these things at once. She then states that the bodies she has seen being prepared to be buried, remind her of herself.
Stanza 4In the fourth stanza of the poem, the speaker talks about how this experience made her feel claustrophobic and as if her own life was suffocating her. She also states that it was like midnight.
Stanza 5The fifth stanza continues the image of midnight from the previous section. Here, she compares her experience with the stifling darkness of midnight, she then also likens it to the first frost in Autumn.
Stanza 6In the final stanza of the poem, the speaker makes her final analogies. She compares her experience to never-ending chaos and being lost at sea forever.

'It was not Death, for I stood up': structure

Each of the six stanzas contains four lines (quatrain) and is written in an ABCB rhyme scheme.

Rhyme and meter

The poem is written in an ABCB rhyme scheme however, some of these are slant rhymes. For example, in the third stanza, there is a slant rhyme of 'burial' and 'all'. Dickinson mixes slant and perfect rhymes together to make the poem more irregular, reflecting the experience of the speaker.

Slant rhymes - Words that are similar, but do not rhyme identically.

The poet also uses the common meter (also known as ballad meter) in the poem. Common meter is used in both Romantic poetry and Christian hymns, which both have influenced this poem.

Common Meter - Lines alternate between eight and six syllables and are always written in an iambic pattern.

Form

Dickinson uses a ballad form in this poem to tell a story about the death of the speaker’s sanity. Ballads were first popular in England in the fifteenth century, and during the Romanticism movement (1800-1850), as they were able to tell longer narratives. Dickinson uses the form here in a similar way to these movements, as the ballad tells a story.

'It was not Death, for I stood up': poetic devices

Dickinson uses several poetic devices throughout the poem 'It was not Death, for I stood up', such as anaphora, metaphor, and juxtaposition.

Anaphora

Anaphora - The repetition of a word or phrase at the start of successive lines of poetry.

The speaker in 'It was not Death, for I stood up,' is trying to understand a harrowing experience and in doing this she uses anaphora to list all the things the experience was not.

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"

At the start of the poem, lines 1, 3 and 5 repeat the phrase 'It was not', as the speaker tries to compare different things to her experience. Here, anaphora helps not only create a list, but it is also building a tone of confusion and panic as the speaker tries to understand what has occurred to her.

Metaphor

Metaphor - When a word/phrase is applied to something despite it is not literally applicable.

Throughout the poem the speaker is trying to make sense of what she has experienced and one way in which she tries to do this is through the use of metaphor. The speaker uses figurative language to try and describe what the experience was like. In the final stanza, she compares the experience to being lost at sea.

Without a Chance, or spar -
Or even a Report of Land -
To justify - Despair."

The metaphor used here (that the experience was like being lost at sea without any sign of land) highlights the confusion that the speaker feels after her experience. While she is not literally lost at sea, this is how the incident has made her feel.

Juxtaposition

Juxtaposition - When two contrasting ideas/images are placed opposite each other.

Juxtaposition is frequently used in this poem to highlight the confusion that she feels following her experience. This is highlighted in the first half of the poem, wherein stanzas 1 and 2 she lists things the incident was not, before saying in stanza 3 that "And yet, it tasted, like them all". This contrast shows how the speaker is trying to make sense of an irrational event.

Imagery

Imagery - Visually symbolic images

The Seasons

Dickinson uses the season of Autumn in her poem to highlight the speaker's emotions following an incident. Autumn is sometimes viewed as a transitional season between summer and winter and so it represents life (summer) transitioning to death (winter).

Or Grisly frosts - first Autumn morns,
Repeal the Beating Ground -"

Dickinson develops the imagery of Autumn by describing it as 'Grisly', and in doing so she shows that the experience the speaker has had is similar to the symbolic death of Autumn.

The Elements

Dickinson juxtaposes imagery of fire and frost in the poem to help describe the speaker's experience. Both frost and fire are elements that are commonly associated with death and are often used as ways to describe hell.

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,"

By stating that it was not frost or fire, yet it still was both the elements, Dickinson is showing that the experience the speaker has had can be associated with death or hell, while not being either literally.

Tone

The speaker's tone in 'It was not Death, for I stood up,' is confused as she tries to understand the seemingly harrowing experience she has had. Dickinson shows this through her use of juxtaposition and dashes, as the speaker contradicts herself and pauses while she tries to understand and describe her emotional state. By the end of the poem, this tone has developed into one of hopelessness and despair as the speaker describes feeling like she is lost at sea.

Dashes and caesuras

One of the most notable features of Emily Dickinson's poetry is how she used dashes. In her poems, Dickinson used dashes to create caesuras in certain lines of poetry. Here, these dashes represent pauses as the speaker gathers her thoughts to better explain what she has experienced.

Caesura - Pauses in lines of poetry, they can be created using punctuation such as a comma (,), full stop (.) or a dash (-).

Enjambement

Dickinson contrasts her use of dashes and caesuras by also using enjambment. By mixing these three devices together, Dickinson creates a disjointed structure to the poem, reflecting the disconnected and confused emotions the speaker feels following an experience.

'It was not Death, for I stood up': themes

What themes are present in Dickinson's poem?

Hopelessness and despair

Hopelessness and despair are key themes throughout the poem, as the speaker struggles to grasp what has happened to her. Dickinson uses juxtaposition and anaphora to show how conflicted the speaker feels when she tries to understand her experiences. By the end of the poem, the speaker despairs this feeling and uses a metaphor of being lost at sea to describe this.

Without a Chance, or spar -
Or even a Report of Land -
To justify - Despair."

The last word of the poem, 'Despair' highlights the emotional state of the speaker at the end of the poem.

Irrationality

The speaker is trying to grapple with the emotional fallout caused by an irrational event. The experience (the 'it') is never named during the poem but its effects are still apparent as the speaker uses juxtaposition and metaphors to try and describe what has happened to her. Trying to understand the irrational is a central theme of the poem and it is this that allows the themes of despair and hopelessness to manifest.

It was not Death, for I stood up - Key takeaways

  • 'It was not Death, for I stood up,' was written by Emily Dickinson and was published after her death.
  • The poem is comprised of six quatrains, with an ABCB rhyme scheme. The poeis a ballad and is written in the common meter.
  • The poem features juxtaposition and anaphora.
  • The poem draws on the imagery of the seasons (Autumn) and the elements (frost and fire).
  • 'It was not Death, for I stood up,' centres around themes of irrationality, hopelessness and despair.

Frequently Asked Questions about It was not Death for I stood up

While there is no defined message to 'It was not Death, for I stood up,' it is widely viewed that the poem follows the emotional state of the speaker, after she has an irrational and harrowing experience.  

'It was not Death, for I stood up,' is a ballad poem that is comprised of six quatrains and is written in the common meter with an ABCB rhyme scheme.

The main theme in 'It was not Death, for I stood up,' is hopelessness (or despair). The speaker is struggling to grasp what has happened to her and is despairing at this feeling. 

Emily Dickinson wrote multiple poems about death, including, 'It was not Death, for I stood up,' (1891), 'Because I could not stop for Death' (1891), and 'I Felt a Funeral, In My Brain' (1891). 

Emily Dickinson's most famous poem about death is 'It was not Death, for I stood up,'.

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

What type of poem is 'It was not Death, for I stood up,'?

How many stanzas are in 'It was not Death, for I stood up,'?

True or False - Each stanza in  'It was not Death, for I stood up,' is written as a quatrain.

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