The key structural element of this poem is the series of antitheses in the first two verses, which coalesce in the third where the dead remind the persona of herself. These opposites are thereby resolved in the mind of the Dickinson’s persona, who then proceeds to state what her state of mind is most like. The annotation also deals with analysis of langauge, tone and form.
It was not Death, for I stood up, The poet seems surprised that she is not experiencing Death, Night, Frost or Fire in the first verses. The repetition of the negative ‘not’ prepares us for an explanation of what it might be.
And all the Dead lie down — Macabre humour
It was not Night, for all the Bells
Put out their tongues for Noon. The personification is troubling: the bells insult Noon
It was not Frost, for on my Flesh
I felt Siroccos — crawl — More troubling personification: crawling flesh is indeed physically most unsettling.
Not Fire — for just my Marble feet Just her feet could cool a chancel; she is presented synecdochally to be a marble statue but her feet alone could cool the chancel.
Could keep a chancel cool –
And yet, it tasted, like them all, This state of mind has an unusual association with the sense of taste. There is none-the-less a ‘taste’, a sense, of all these.
The Figures I have seen Now the poet describes the visual experience of an unnerving picture
Set orderly, for Burial, This motif occurs elsewhere in the poems. For instance, in ‘I died for Beauty’ the body is ‘Adjusted’.
Reminded me, of mine — The poet is already inert, in life.
As if my life were shaven, The passive form of the verbs, in the first lines of this verse, convey the poet’s helplessness
And fitted to a frame,
And could not breathe without a key, she is likened to a mechanical, inanimate clock-like object which requires winding up.
And ’twas like Midnight, some — Even though it is noon, it is ‘like Midnight’.
When everything that ticked — has stopped — ‘has stopped’ being between dashes enhances the sense of stasis. Note the recurrence of the clock image.
And space stares all around — The personification makes the void (death perhaps) an intimidating place.
Or Grisly frosts — first Autumn morns, The natural cycle of the year and the personification of Autumn grieving, in the homophone ‘morn’, being combined with the notion of frosts as being terrifying, makes the normal become a deadly threat. Note that earlier, she says it was not actually ‘Frost’
Repeal the Beating Ground — the pulsation of life is obliterated by frosts.
But, most, like Chaos — Stopless –cool — Even by this point in the poem, we have not discovered what it is.
Without a Chance, or Spar — without hope or mast suggests there is no means of control or direction on the sea of life.
Or even a report of land — This describes the eternity of Dickinson’s poem ‘Exultation is the going’ in which the soul journeys (in a orderly manner) out to sea.
To justify — Despair — This can be read that even despair cannot be a reasonable response to this helplessness.
My commentary is based on close analysis, but it remains a personal view!
For further pointers on Emily Dickinson’s distinctive writing style and recurring language, please see my Dickinson main page.
MY OTHER PAGES ON EMILY DICKINSON’S WORK
Please go to the Dickinson tab for the drop-down menu on her poems A-Z or click on the following: