A Clock Stopped by Emily Dickinson: Summary and Analysis

Apparently about a clock suddenly coming to a stop, the poem deals, in fact, with death and its deep philosophical and religious implications. Exploiting the age-old-superstition of a person dying when a clock stops, and using the conventional comparison of life to a clock. Emily Dickinson portrays death as a sudden breakdown of a Swiss-made clock, indeed, the Swiss-clock metaphor controls the whole poem. The implicit comparison of man's life to a mechanical device underlines as much the fragile nature of the physical life of man as it emphasizes the meaninglessness of human existence.

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

A clock has stopped; it is not merely a mantel clock. If it were an ordinary Swiss made clock, the Swiss mechanic would have set it right. The puppet which was rhythmically ticking till a short-while ago has now dangled still. The master craftsman of Swiss cannot bring back movement of the clock, just as John Calvin, the great designer of Protestantism's complex philosophy, in spite of his clear logic and mathematical precision cannot explain away the reality of death. The splitting of the line symbolizes the sudden stopping of the clock and suggests more than the mere breakdown of a mental clock; it means the termination of life, which means the onslaught of death.

Since the clock metaphor is central to the poem, reference to Geneva is appropriate, because it is the center of the watch making industry in Swiss. But it was also the residence of John Calvin, the designer of Calvinism, the complex philosophy of Protestantism. So the poem develops another level of meaning. The skill referred to may be the matter-of-fact craftsmanship of a watch mechanic, and it also means the ponderous philosophy and sophisticated logic of Calvin.

The line Can't put the Puppet .... dangled still  suggest the sudden shift from movement to immobility. The puppet which is till now making a bowing movements of courtesy comes to a sudden stop and dangles still. The puppet image also suggests the helplessness of man when death confronts him. The master craftsman controls it as it is moving and quick with life. But when it dangles lifeless and motionless, ironically, even his power and skill are ineffective.

The second stanza deals with the physical aspects of the body at the time of death. The focus now is on the moment of death and the dying throes and convulsions of the puppet. The body is no more than the a trinket, a trifling ornament when the limbs start functioning, and the soul bows out of it into Degreeless Noon, which is eternity. The image of the figures quivering out of Decimals sustains the clock concept with which the poem begins. Trinket, the trifle ornament, which is the human body is struck with a sense of reverential fear and wonder one experiences when one sees the vision of God. But 'awe' and 'Trinket' are incongruous and mock the concept of the vision of God one is believed to have at the time of death.

The hands on the clock make quivering movements and cover the decimal measures of distances between any two figures. But the line also suggests human life, making its quivering movements across the decimal units of time. In relation to clock the line refers to the spatial dimension which gets transmuted into temporal dimension in relation to human life. At noon when the hands of the clock are superimposed upon one another, no spatial degrees or angles are seen between the hands on the clock. From the temporal point of view, hours, minutes and seconds are merged into one infinite unit of time, which is eternity.

Unlike the first two stanzas, the third stanza is concerned with the spiritual aspect of death. The human life, once it reaches eternity, cannot be revived. In spite of the best efforts of the doctor-designer, human life cannot be restored. This negation blasphemously hints at the limitations of the restorative powers of God. The Pendulum referred to in these lines suggests a life-force frozen and inert. Snow suggests negation and despair, which cannot be undone even by the master-doctor and designer.

The importunities of the Shopman (another name for God, the creator and designer) are greeted with a big indifferent `No'. The spiritual aspect of the theme runs on into this stanza. The negative response to the importunities of the "Shopman" comes from in between the gilded hands of the clock. Gilded pointers and slim seconds, obviously refer to the hands on the clock through which the negative response to the "Shopman's" importunities, is heard.

The word "Arrogance" is used in the sense of difference, and the whole phrase means a vast temporal gulf of difference between the "Dial life" and Him. Dial life here is the temporal and meaningless existence of man. Him might mean God in which case the whole stanza stresses the difference between the temporal existence of man and the eternal life of God. But it might also mean the soul that has escaped from the body into eternity, in which case the temporal difference spoken of earlier refers to the difference between the temporal physical existence and the eternity of the soul that has been liberated from the body.

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Shrestha, Roma. "A Clock Stopped by Emily Dickinson: Summary and Analysis." BachelorandMaster, 8 Jan. 2018, bachelorandmaster.com/britishandamericanpoetry/a-clock-stopped-summary-analysis.html.