A Reading of ‘A Clock Stopped’ by Emily Dickinson

May 29, 2008 Updated: June 25, 2018
 (Liza Voronina/The Epoch Times)
(Liza Voronina/The Epoch Times)


A Clock Stopped


A Clock stopped—
Not the Mantel’s—
Geneva’s farthest skill
Can’t put the puppet bowing—
That just now dangled still—
An awe came on the Trinket!
The Figures hunched, with pain—
Then quivered out of Decimals—
Into Degreeless Noon—
It will not stir for Doctors—
This Pendulum of snow—
This Shopman importunes it—
While cool—concernless No—
Nods from the Gilded pointers—
Nods from the Seconds slim—
Decades of Arrogance between
The Dial life—
And Him—

When is a clock not a clock? That’s the opening riddle to this cryptic poem by Emily Dickinson. “A Clock stopped/ Not the Mantel’s …” In these two lines, we travel from the actual to the symbolic, from the stuff of common observation to the excitements and horrors of the author’s imagination. It’s as if Rod Serling had suddenly appeared and announced that we have now entered the Twilight Zone, a place where reality is not quite itself.

Whatever can this clock be? What we do know is that it is beyond repair. The reference to Geneva evokes the famous Swiss genius for timepieces (alive today in such watchmakers as Rolex and Omega), turning the city into a symbol of the limitations of human ingenuity.

Geneva has other associations too. It was, for instance, the birthplace of the major Romantic thinker Rousseau, who proclaimed, “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.” Dickinson’s following image of the puppet would seem to undercut such optimism, suggesting that man is born a slave to unseen forces that are destined to strike him down.

I imagine this puppet refers to one of those brightly painted mechanical figures that emerge from a clock’s inner recesses to mark the hour by performing a mime, before swinging back into the machine. If no skill can “put the puppet bowing,” it has been denied the dignity of a final performance, frozen mid-action. Putting together the images of the stopped clock and the puppet dangling still, we begin to realize they both refer to someone who has died.

“An awe came on the Trinket!” This sentence travels from the sublime to the ridiculous, from the exulted to the disparaging. A trinket is a plaything, a bauble, something of little value. The sense of awe, in turns, becomes silly, fatuous—like the open mouth of a fool. Perhaps here we see the gaping, silent mouth of a corpse, surprised and humiliated by the moment of death, surrounded by the black-clad figures of his mourning family, “hunched with pain.”

The time is noon. Here we are caught between times, when the hands of the clock point straight up to heaven. It is “degreeless” because the two hands are aligned with not a crack to show. “Degreeless” also carries the meaning of being deadly cold, which leads us to the image of the stationary “pendulum of snow.” Snow, in turn, conjures up a vista where all shapes and forms are slowly lapsing into a stark white void.

I take the “shopman” who “importunes,” or makes demands of the corpse, as a comic image of society’s blindness to death. We can imagine him shaking the body, shouting in its ear, “Hey, Mister, you still owe me!” He represents the mundane, money-chasing materialism that takes up most of our lives and yet means so little when our time runs out.

The corpse does not stir, blessedly free of debt and taxes. The mismatch of “no” and nodding (which, of course, we associate with saying yes) helps to evoke the moment when human gestures become detached from meaning, and life descends into twitching, babble, and nothingness. The “Dial life” can no longer be read, cannot be understood.

In this poem, Dickinson anticipates the surrealist movement by several decades. One way into its strange universe would be to look at the melting clocks of Salvador Dali, the weird mannequins of De Chirico, the respectable drawing rooms of Magritte interrupted by a quirk of the bizarre.

I see a landscape of people with clocks for faces, where everyone is rooted, puppet-like to the revolving platform of a colossal grandfather clock, forever jammed at noon—indistinguishable from midnight. Around that clock, however, there may be a light, a gleam, whether icy or warm, that hints at another realm of being.

In a final surprise, Dickinson suddenly turns away from the “Dial life.” Who is the nameless, formless “Him” she addresses? Is it death or God she sees? What is certain is that we shall find out. When the clock stops, we shall pass irresistibly beyond the fussy, artificial “decimals” and “decades” of human time and know reality for what it is, stripped of our arrogant belief in our own untrammeled freedom. We shall fall into total oblivion—or eternity.

Emily Dickinson (1830–1886) was an American poet. Although she published fewer than a dozen poems in her lifetime, she left 1,800 poems at her death.

Christopher Nield is a poet living in London.