English Literature
It was not Death for I stood up

It was not Death for I stood up

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The Enigmatic Poem "It Was Not Death, For I Stood Up" by Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson, a renowned poet, wrote numerous captivating works, and among them is "It Was Not Death, For I Stood Up" (1891). Originally published posthumously, the poem's meaning remains ambiguous, yet many critics believe that it depicts the speaker's emotional turmoil after a distressing and inexplicable event.

Background and Context

To fully grasp the poem's meaning, it is crucial to understand the background and context behind it.

Biographical Context

Emily Dickinson, born in Amherst, Massachusetts in 1830, wrote "It Was Not Death, For I Stood Up" in 1862. During this period, she experienced several losses, including close friends like Sophia Holland and Benjamin Franklin Newton. These tragedies greatly impacted Dickinson, and many critics interpret the speaker's (or Dickinson's) mental state. However, it is important to refrain from using modern terms, such as depression or PTSD, as they did not exist during the time of writing.

Historical Context

During Dickinson's adolescence, America underwent the Second Great Awakening, a Protestant revival movement. Her family followed the Calvinist faith, which she later abandoned as a teenager. However, the influence of religion is apparent in her poetry, including "It Was Not Death, For I Stood Up," which references Christian concepts like heaven.

Some historians also speculate that the poem may be connected to the American Civil War, as it was written during a time of heightened violence. This has led to the belief that the speaker's experience may have been influenced by the war's events.

Literary Context

Dickinson's writing during the 1960s was greatly influenced by the American Romantic literary movement, which emphasized nature, individuality, and the power of the mind. Notable writers during this period, such as Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson, also inspired Dickinson's work. Her poetry explored the complexities of the mind and celebrated individuality.

Moreover, Dickinson's religious upbringing and frequent readings of the Common Book of Prayer influenced her poetic style, as evident in the structures she uses in "It Was Not Death, For I Stood Up."

The Poem: "It Was Not Death, For I Stood Up"

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.

Stanza 1:

The first stanza introduces the speaker's unnamed experience and confidently claims that it is not death or night, providing reasons to support this assertion.

Stanza 2:

In the second stanza, the speaker continues to rule out possible explanations for her experience, dismissing cold weather or fire as plausible reasons.

Stanza 3:

The third stanza acknowledges that the experience was not death, night, frost, or fire, yet it embodied all of these things. The speaker also reflects on how the preparations for burial remind her of herself.

Stanza 4:

The fourth stanza delves into the speaker's emotions, describing the experience as suffocating and imprisoning, as if her life was being constrained and drained of vitality. The comparison to midnight emphasizes this sense of being trapped.

Stanza 5:

The fifth stanza expands on the midnight imagery, using it to symbolize an unyielding chaos and the inevitable arrival of death. Mentioning the autumn frost adds to the theme of mortality.

Stanza 6:

In the final stanza, the speaker makes her final analogies, comparing her experience to being lost at sea forever and feeling overwhelmed by an endless, hopeless despair.

The Structure of "It Was Not Death, for I Stood Up" by Emily Dickinson

The poem consists of six stanzas, each containing four lines and following an ABCB rhyme scheme.

The poem "It Was Not Death, for I Stood Up" by Emily Dickinson features a unique mix of perfect and slant rhymes, adding to its irregularity and mirroring the speaker's bewildered state.

Rhyme and Meter in the Poem

The ABCB rhyme scheme of the poem includes a combination of perfect and slant rhymes. For instance, the third stanza has a slant rhyme between "burial" and "all," emphasizing the poem's overall irregularity and reflecting the speaker's state of confusion.

  • Slant rhymes – Words that are similar, but not an exact rhyme.

The poet also uses the common meter, or ballad meter, which alternates between lines of eight and six syllables. This meter, commonly used in Romantic poetry and Christian hymns, greatly influenced this work.

  • Common Meter – Lines alternate between eight and six syllables and follow an iambic pattern.

The Form of the Poem

The ballad form is employed by Dickinson to tell a story about the loss of the speaker's sanity. Ballads originated in England during the 15th century and were later revived during the Romantic movement (1800-1850) to convey longer narratives. In this poem, the ballad form is used to tell the story of the speaker's experience.

Poetic Devices in "It Was Not Death, for I Stood Up"

What poetic devices did Dickinson use in this work?


The speaker repetitively begins lines with "It was not" as she tries to comprehend a troubling experience in "It Was Not Death, for I Stood Up." This use of anaphora creates a list and portrays the speaker's confusion and panic as she struggles to make sense of the incident.

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


In addition, metaphor is utilized by the speaker to understand her experience. Figurative language is used throughout the poem to describe the encounter. In the final stanza, the speaker compares it to being lost at sea with no hope of rescue.

Metaphor – Applying a word or phrase to something that is not literally applicable.


Juxtaposition is frequently used by Dickinson to emphasize the speaker's confusion following the experience. This is evident in the first half of the poem, where the speaker lists things that the incident was not before admitting in the third stanza that "And yet, it tasted, like them all." This contrast highlights the speaker's attempts to understand an irrational event.

Juxtaposition – The placement of two contrasting ideas or images side by side.


The use of vivid imagery by Dickinson conveys the speaker's emotions after the experience in "It Was Not Death, for I Stood Up." The season of autumn, symbolizing the transition from life (summer) to death (winter), is a recurring image in the poem.

In addition, imagery of fire and frost is juxtaposed in the poem to further illustrate the speaker's experience. Both elements are often associated with death and are used symbolically to depict hell.

  • Imagery – Visually symbolic images

By stating that her experience was neither frost nor fire, but also both, Dickinson conveys the idea that it could be interpreted as death or hell without being either literally.


The tone of the speaker in "It Was Not Death, for I Stood Up" is one of confusion as she tries to make sense of a difficult experience. Through the use of juxtaposition and dashes, Emily Dickinson portrays the speaker's struggle to comprehend and express her emotional state. By the end of the poem, the tone shifts to hopelessness and despair as the speaker compares her feelings to being lost at sea.

Dashes and Caesuras

A notable aspect of Dickinson's poetry is the use of dashes to create pauses, or caesuras, within lines. These pauses represent the speaker's attempts to gather her thoughts and convey her experience more clearly.

Caesura: Pauses in lines of poetry created by punctuation such as commas (,), periods (.), or dashes (-).


In addition to dashes and caesuras, Dickinson also utilizes enjambment, or running lines, to contrast the disjointed structure created by the pauses and reflect the speaker's disconnected and confused emotions following the experience.

The Key Themes of "It was not Death, for I stood up"

Emily Dickinson's poem "It was not Death, for I stood up" explores themes of hopelessness, despair, and irrationality. Through techniques such as juxtaposition and anaphora, the speaker's internal turmoil is portrayed as she struggles to come to terms with her experience. The use of a metaphor involving being lost at sea further enhances the sense of despair felt by the speaker towards the end of the poem.

"Without a Chance, or spar - Or even a Report of Land - To justify - Despair." These final words highlight the overwhelming despair felt by the speaker.

The Struggle with Irrationality

The poem centers around the emotional aftermath of an irrational event, which is never explicitly stated. Through the use of juxtaposition and metaphors, the speaker conveys her experience. The theme of attempting to understand the irrational is a central thread in the poem, contributing to the overall feelings of despair and hopelessness.

Key Elements of "It was not Death, for I stood up"

Published posthumously, "It was not Death, for I stood up" is a ballad consisting of six quatrains with an ABCB rhyme scheme and following the common meter. Along with imagery of Autumn and elements such as frost and fire, the use of juxtaposition and anaphora are prominent features. The main themes explored are irrationality, hopelessness, and despair.

The Message of "It was not Death, for I stood up"

While there is no specific message in "It was not Death, for I stood up," it is often interpreted as a reflection of the speaker's emotional state following a traumatic and irrational event.

The Style of "It was not Death, for I stood up"

"It was not Death, for I stood up" is a ballad poem utilizing six quatrains and an ABCB rhyme scheme. It follows the common meter and incorporates techniques such as dashes, enjambment, and imagery of the seasons and elements.

The Dominant Theme of "It was not Death, for I stood up"

The primary theme of "It was not Death, for I stood up" is hopelessness, or despair. The speaker's struggle to understand her experience leads to feelings of despair, which are emphasized in the final lines of the poem.

Other Poems by Emily Dickinson about Death

Emily Dickinson wrote numerous 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).

The Most Famous Poem by Emily Dickinson about Death

When it comes to death, Emily Dickinson's most recognizable poem is "It was not Death, for I stood up."

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