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Emily Dickinson’s "There's been a Death, in the Opposite House"

Emily Dickinson's poems inform my own worldview as a poet and scholar. They dramatize the human spirit via deep attention to life's details.

Emily Dickinson - This daguerreotype is likely the only extant, authentic image of the poet.

Emily Dickinson - This daguerreotype is likely the only extant, authentic image of the poet.

Introduction and Text of "There’s been a Death, in the Opposite House"

The following version of Emily Dickinson's "There's been a Death, in the Opposite House," in Thomas Johnson's The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson displays the poem as the poet wrote it. Some editors have tinkered with Dickinson's texts over the years to make her poems look more "normal," i.e., without so many dashes, capitalizations, and seemingly odd spacing, and in this poem to convert the fifth stanza into a perfect quatrain.

Dickinson's poems, however, actually depend on her odd form to express her exact meaning. Editors who tinker her oddities fritter away the poet's actual achievement.

There's been a Death, in the Opposite House

There's been a Death, in the Opposite House,
As lately as Today –
I know it, by the numb look
Such Houses have – alway –

The Neighbors rustle in and out –
The Doctor – drives away –
A Window opens like a Pod –
Abrupt – mechanically –

Somebody flings a Mattress out –
The Children hurry by –
They wonder if it died – on that –
I used to – when a Boy –

The Minister – goes stiffly in –
As if the House were His –
And He owned all the Mourners – now –
And little Boys – besides –

And then the Milliner – and the Man
Of the Appalling Trade –
To take the measure of the House –

There'll be that Dark Parade –

Of Tassels – and of Coaches – soon –
It's easy as a Sign –
The Intuition of the News –
In just a Country Town –

Reading of "There's been a Death, in the Opposite House"

Commentary

This poem offers much food for thought: Dickinson’s use of a male character and the perfidy of editors who regularize her text, as well as the events depicted in the narrative.

Stanza 1: The House Speaks of Death

There's been a Death, in the Opposite House,
As lately as Today –
I know it, by the numb look
Such Houses have – alway –

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The speaker announces that he can tell that a death has occurred in the house just across the street from where he lives. He then explains that he can tell by the "numb look" the house has, and he intuits that the death has taken place quite recently.

Note that I have designated that the speaker is male as I call him "he." In stanza 3, it will be revealed that the speaker is indeed an adult male, who mentions what he wondered about "when a Boy." Thus it becomes apparent that Dickinson is speaking through a character she has created specifically for this little drama.

Stanza 2: The Comings and Goings

The Neighbors rustle in and out –
The Doctor – drives away –
A Window opens like a Pod –
Abrupt – mechanically –

The speaker then continues to describe the scene he has observed which offers further evidence that a death has recently occurred in that opposite house. He sees neighbors coming and going. He sees a physician leave the house, and then suddenly someone opens a window, and the speaker claims that the person abruptly "mechanically" opens the window.

Stanza 3: The Death Bed

Somebody flings a Mattress out –
The Children hurry by –
They wonder if it died – on that –
I used to – when a Boy –

The speaker then sees why the window was opened: someone then throws out a mattress. Then gruesomely he adds that it is likely that the person died on that mattress, and the children who are scurrying past the house likely wonder if that is why the mattress was tossed out. The speaker then reveals that he used to wonder that same thing when he was a boy.

Stanza 4: The Mourners Are Owned by Clergy

The Minister – goes stiffly in –
As if the House were His –
And He owned all the Mourners – now –
And little Boys – besides –

Continuing to describe the macabre events occurring across the street, the speaker then reports seeing "the Minister" enter the house. It seems to the speaker that the minister behaves as if he must take possession of everything even "the Mourners"—and the speaker adds that the minister also owns the "little Boys" as well.

The Created Character

The poet has offered a genuine depiction of what is occurring in present time as well as what occurred in the past, and she is doing so using the character of an adult male who is looking back to his memories of seeing such a sight as a child.

The authenticity of a woman speaking though a male voice demonstrates the mystic ability of this poet to put herself in the persona of the opposite sex in order to create a dramatic event.

Poets, however, need not be mystically inclined to achieve this level of authenticity, but certainly not all poets can pull off such a feat. For example, Langston Hughes created a mixed race character in his poem, "Cross," and spoke in first person, but his depiction was questionable as he assigned feelings to a person not of his own ethnicity based solely on stereotype.

Dickinson’s character is offering insights into an event that are not limited to the observations of one sex; a little girl could make those same observations. Dickinson’s reason for creating a male character to report this event remains unknown, but it is likely she simply felt a more compelling drama could be achieved if her character were a little boy.

Stanza 5: That Eerie Funeral Procession

And then the Milliner – and the Man
Of the Appalling Trade –
To take the measure of the House –

There'll be that Dark Parade –

The speaker then reports that the milliner, who will dress the body, has arrived. Then finally the mortician, who will measure both the corpse and the house for the coffin. The speaker finds the mortician's "Trade" to be "Appalling."

The line, "There'll be that Dark Parade –," is separated from the first three lines of the stanza. This placement adds a nuance of meaning as it imitates what will happen: the funeral procession, "Dark Parade," will separate from the house, and the line departing form the rest of the stanza demonstrates that action quite concretely and literally. (More on this below in "Regularizing Emily Dickinson's Text")

Stanza 6: Intuition Spells News

Of Tassels – and of Coaches – soon –
It's easy as a Sign –
The Intuition of the News –
In just a Country Town –

The speaker then finishes his description of the "Dark Parade" with its "Tassels" and "Coaches" and finally concludes by remarking how easy it is to spot a house whose residents have become mourners. All those people and events elaborated by the speaker add up to "Intuition of the News" in the simple "Country Town."

Regularizing Emily Dickinson's Text

One of the many arguments over the reclusive 19th century American poet, Emily Dickinson, includes the one directed at editors who regularize Dickinson's idiosyncratic style—her many dashes, her seemingly haphazard capitalization, and her sometimes irregular use of spacing.

One can sympathize with those editors who wish to make Emily Dickinson's poems more palatable for readers, but now and then one can find instances in which the editor's regularization has limited the poet's meaning.

That limitation occurs in this poem, "There has been a Death, in the Opposite House." Poetry textbook editors Laurence Perrine (Sound and Sense), Louis Simpson (Introduction to Poetry), and Robert N. Linscott (Selected Poems and Letters of Emily Dickinson) alter the text of this Dickinson's poem in a way that weakens the total impact of the poem.

Limiting Meaning

That slight alteration is the omission of the empty line separating the last line of the fifth stanza from the preceding three. That omission regularizes the stanza, resulting in a poem of six four-line stanzas. Closing up stanza five gives the poem a uniform appearance but limits Dickinson's meaning.

Considering the meaning of the line that Dickinson separated from the rest of the stanza, I suggest that she had a specific reason for the separation. The line, "There'll be that Dark Parade," indicates that a funeral procession will soon be seen. The lines preceding this one state that various persons who serve the dead will be appearing, including the "Man / Of the Appalling Trade - / To take the measure of the House."

The funeral procession, "that Dark Parade," will occur after the measurement of the house and will literally separate itself from the house; and Dickinson, to show this progression concretely, separated the line from the rest of the stanza, whose last word is "House."

By regularizing Dickinson's stanza, the editors make her poem look neater, but they eliminate the special nuance of meaning that Dickinson achieved in her original.

In Thomas H. Johnson's The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, the line is not attached to the previous three, a shown above in the text of the poem. Johnson restored Dickinson's poems to their original forms, without intrusions that would change meaning. He did make quiet changes in spelling such as "visiter" to "visitor" and repositioned misplaced apostrophes such as "does’nt" to "doesn’t."

Dickinson’s own handwritten version of the poem can be seen in R. W. Franklin's The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson or on the Emily Dickinson Archive site that clearly shows the poet's intension that the line be separated from the rest of the stanza.

The text I use for commentaries

The text I use for commentaries

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: What are 2 signs in lines 1-8 of Emily Dickinson's "There's Been a Death, in the Opposite House" that says there is a death in the opposite house?

Answer: The speaker notices that the house has a "numb" look, and he sees neighbors coming and going.

Question: What does the speaker in Emily Dickinson's poem mean by "and little boys besides"?

Answer: Continuing to describe the macabre events occurring across the street, the speaker then reports seeing "the Minister" enter the house. It seems to the speaker that the minister behaves as if he must take possession of everything even "the Mourners"—and the speaker adds that the minister also owns the "little Boys" as well.

The poet has offered a genuine depiction of what is occurring in the present time as well as what occurred in the past, and she is doing so using the character of an adult male who is looking back to his memories of seeing such a sight as a child.

The authenticity of a woman speaking though a male voice demonstrates the mystic ability of this poet to put herself in the persona of the opposite sex in order to create a dramatic event. Not all poets can pull off such a feat. When Langston Hughes created a mixed-race character in his poem, "Cross," and spoke in first person, his depiction was questionable as he assigned feelings to a person not of his own race.

Question: Why do you refer to the speaker a "he" when Emily Dickinson is a girl?

Answer: Dickinson's speaker is male. In stanza 3, he wondered about something he saw, "when a Boy." Thus, it becomes apparent that Dickinson is speaking through a character she has created specifically for this little drama.

Question: Why is the fourth line separated from the other three lines in the 5th stanza of Emily Dickinson's poem?

Answer: This placement adds a nuance of meaning as it imitates what will happen. The funeral procession, "Dark Parade," will depart from the house, and the line departing from the rest of the stanza demonstrates that action quite concretely and literally.

© 2019 Linda Sue Grimes

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