The speaker begins to describe a terrible feeling that she doesn’t directly name. Instead, she describes this feeling by saying what it was not: she knows that “It was not Death” because she could still stand up, while “all the Dead, lie down.” In other words, she was up and moving around rather than buried in the earth.
- But by comparing her experience to death, the speaker suggests that what she went through felt like death in many ways.
- Her feeling, the speaker suggests, included a profound sense of nothingness or numbness: the only thing differentiating her from “the Dead” was the fact that she could still stand up.
- The repetition of “Death” in a different form (“Dead”)—an instance of polyptoton—reinforces the sense that the speaker’s experience felt close to death.
The speaker then offers a second comparison to describe her feeling: she says that what she went through “was not Night.” But just like she only knew that she wasn’t dead because she could still stand up, the speaker emphasizes that she only knows that what she felt wasn’t “Night” because bells were still ringing as they do in the middle of the day.
The speaker is referring to church bells that announce the hour, and she uses a strange and striking image to depict this: instead of just saying that the bells rang, the speaker says they “Put out their Tongues, for Noon.”
- By “tongue,” the speaker means the part of a bell that clangs against its walls.
- This personification is a bit disturbing, given that it makes the bells seem like they're mocking or laughing at the speaker by sticking out their “tongues.”
The speaker, apparently, wasn't all that reassured to realize that it was not in fact the middle of the night; the image here suggests that everything around the speaker had grown alienating, uncomfortable, and strange. She was like a zombie, the walking dead, and her dark feelings of despair felt dramatically out of place in the middle of the day.
These lines set up a pattern that will be important to the poem as a whole: as the speaker lists what her experience was not, she uses anaphora to create rhythm and structure. Here, the phrase “It was not” repeats at the beginning of the first and third lines. This line calls attention both to the impossibility of describing the speaker’s experience, and the insistent presence of this terrible experience, which the speaker can only describe through the repeating word “It.”
This opening quatrain also establishes the poem’s ABCB rhyme scheme. Although this rhyme scheme is a typical one for a poem written in quatrains (a.k.a. four-line stanzas), it's important to note that from the very beginning the poem both sticks to the rhyme scheme and diverges from it:
- “[D]own” and “Noon” create only a slant rhyme, not a full rhyme.
- This slant rhyme adds to the sense that something was “aslant” in the speaker’s experience: something was fundamentally wrong or askew, and through the poem, she will attempt to describe it.