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

Updated on May 14, 2019
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

Poetry became my passion, after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962.

Emily Dickinson - Commemorative Stamp

Source

Emily Dickinson's Titles

Emily Dickinson did not provide titles to her 1,775 poems; therefore, each poem's first line becomes the title. According to the MLA Style Manuel:

"When the first line of a poem serves as the title of the poem, reproduce the line exactly as it appears in the text."

APA does not address this issue.

Introduction and Text of Poem

The following version of Emily Dickinson's poem #389, "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.

Dickinson's poems, however, actually depend on her odd form to express her exact meaning. When editors tinker her oddities away, they also 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

Emily Dickinson’s"There's been a Death, in the Opposite House" offers a unique glimpse at the skill of this poet, as she speaks through a created adult male character to paint a description of a scene involving the death of a neighbor.

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 —

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 in 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 physical leave the house, and then suddenly someone opens a window, and the speaker offers that the person as well as abruptly also "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: for someone then throw 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 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. 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.

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."

Take note that 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 depart from the house, and the line departing form the rest of the stanza demonstrates that action quite concretely and literally. (More on this below.)

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 with the 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. Her 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.

Emily Dickinson at age 17

Source

Life Sketch of Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson remains one of the most fascinating and widely researched poets in America. Much speculation abounds regarding some of the most known facts about her. For example, after the age of seventeen, she remained fairly cloistered in her father's home, rarely moving from the house beyond the front gate. Yet she produced some of the wisest, deepest poetry ever created anywhere at any time.

Regardless of Emily's personal reasons for living nun-like, readers have found much to admire, enjoy, and appreciate about her poems. Though they often baffle upon first encounter, they reward readers mightily who stay with each poem and dig out the nuggets of golden wisdom.

New England Family

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born December 10, 1830, in Amherst, MA, to Edward Dickinson and Emily Norcross Dickinson. Emily was the second child of three: Austin, her older brother who was born April 16, 1829, and Lavinia, her younger sister, born February 28, 1833. Emily died on May 15, 1886.

Emily's New England heritage was strong and included her paternal grandfather, Samuel Dickinson, who was one of the founders of Amherst College. Emily's father was a lawyer and also was elected to and served one term in the state legislature (1837-1839); later between 1852 and 1855, he served one term in the U.S. House of Representative as a representative of Massachusetts.

Education

Emily attended the primary grades in a one room school until being sent to Amherst Academy, which became Amherst College. The school took pride in offering college level course in the sciences from astronomy to zoology. Emily enjoyed school, and her poems testify to the skill with which she mastered her academic lessons.

After her seven year stint at Amherst Academy, Emily then entered Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in the fall of 1847. Emily remained at the seminary for only one year. Much speculation has been offered regarding Emily's early departure from formal education, from the atmosphere of religiosity of the school to the simple fact that the seminary offered nothing new for the sharp minded Emily to learn. She seemed quite content to leave in order to stay home. Likely her reclusiveness was beginning, and she felt the need to control her own learning and schedule her own life activities.

As a stay-at-home daughter in 19th century New England, Emily was expected to take on her share of domestic duties, including housework, likely to help prepare said daughters for handling their own homes after marriage. Possibly, Emily was convinced that her life would not be the traditional one of wife, mother, and householder; she has even stated as much: God keep me from what they call households.

Reclusiveness and Religion

In this householder-in-training position, Emily especially disdained the role a host to the many guests that her father's community service required of his family. She found such entertaining mind-boggling, and all that time spent with others meant less time for her own creative efforts. By this time in her life, Emily was discovering the joy of soul-discovery through her art.

Although many have speculated that her dismissal of the current religious metaphor landed her in the atheist camp, Emily's poems testify to a deep spiritual awareness that far exceeds the religious rhetoric of the period. In fact, Emily was likely discovering that her intuition about all things spiritual demonstrated an intellect that far exceeded any of her family's and compatriots' intelligence. Her focus became her poetry—her main interest in life.

Emily's reclusiveness extended to her decision that she could keep the sabbath by staying home instead of attending church services. Her wonderful explication of the decision appears in her poem, "Some keep the Sabbath going to Church":

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church —
I keep it, staying at Home —
With a Bobolink for a Chorister —
And an Orchard, for a Dome —

Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice —
I just wear my Wings —
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton — sings.

God preaches, a noted Clergyman —
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last —
I'm going, all along.

Publication

Very few of Emily's poems appeared in print during her lifetime. And it was only after her death the her sister Vinnie discovered the bundles of poems, called fascicles, in Emily's room. A total of 1775 individual poems have made their way to publication. The first publicans of her works to appear, gathered and edited by Mabel Loomis Todd, a supposed paramour of Emily's brother, and the editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson had been altered to the point of changing the meanings of her poems. The regularization of her technical achievements with grammar and punctuation obliterated the high achievement that the poet had so creatively accomplished.

Readers can thank Thomas H. Johnson, who in the mid 1950s went to work at restoring Emily's poems to their, at least near, original. His doing so restored her many dashes, spacings, and other grammar/mechanical features that earlier editors had "corrected" for the poet—corrections that ultimately resulted in obliteration of the poetic achievement reached by Emily's mystically brilliant talent.

Thomas H. Johnson's The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson  The text I use for commentaries
Thomas H. Johnson's The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson The text I use for commentaries | Source

© 2019 Linda Sue Grimes

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