Only the soldered mouth can tell –
Try – can you stir the awful rivet –
Try – can you lift the hasps of steel!
Stroke the cool forehead – hot so often –
Lift – if you care – the listless hair –
Handle the adamantine fingers
Never a thimble – more – shall wear –
Buzz the dull flies – on the chamber window –
Brave – shines the sun through the freckled pane –
Fearless – the cobweb swings from the ceiling –
Indolent Housewife – in Daisies – lain!
F238 (1861) 187
This reflection on the death of a housewife is much more intense than the platitudes in earlier poems such as “She died – this is the way she died” and “Glowing is her bonnet.” The poem is packed with powerful words, evocative words, that suggest nightmarish scenes: the “low feet” stagger, and here we are reminded of Jesus staggering beneath the weight of the cross; the dead mouth is soldered shut – a harsh image of the implacable silence of the dead; the body is stiff, an “awful rivet” – again the machine imagery as if the body has become an inert rod; the rib cage becomes “hasps of steel.”
This first stanza has no peace or resignation; no hint of womanly virtues. Death has not come like the gentleman caller of a later death poem, “Because I could not stop for death,” or other poems where angels and parades of Saints welcome the newly departed “home.” Instead, some process surely begotten by the Industrial Revolution has brutalized a once soft and living body into something hard and soul-less.
|This would be a nice place|
for the Housewife
The poet directly addresses the reader: “Try,” she urges, to make the “rivet” move, try to get the ribs moving again as the lungs draw breath. But this is a sardonic urging. It is clear she means that nothing can be moved. She goes on in the second stanza and softens the imagery. The forehead is “cool” where once it burned with fever. This is a very human and not metallic image. The hair is “listless,” because life has left it, too. But she distances herself from the reader when she inserts the “if you care” qualifier in the suggestion that “you” lift the hair. The machine image from the first stanza is still echoing. People wouldn’t care, the poet suggests, to handle the hair or stroke the forehead of a lifeless body. You might as well stroke the head of a rivet. If one cared, one could also pick up the “adamantine” hand. “Adamantine” means as hard and impenetrable as possible. The fingers have turned to stone.
The third stanza is located in the near future. The poet writes as an apostrophe, as if adopting the third-person narrative voice more typical of poetry. We now see the house empty of its housewife. The “dull flies” buzz against the windows. The windows need washing – the sun has to be “brave” to shine though all the freckled dirt. The spiders no longer have to hide: their old webs hang from the ceiling, swaying with every movement of air. This is portraiture through absence. We get a sense of the departed woman by the signs of housewifely neglect that develop. She was not one to have allowed them while she was living.
The last line is deliciously ironic, and here the poet addresses the dead woman directly. “Lazybones,” she might have well said. “Lying around in the daisies when your house is so dirty.” Clearly only death would separate this woman from her dust broom.
Another bit of meaning achieved through absence is the absence of any reference to heaven or the afterlife. The body is now just mechanical detritus and what else there might be is, hopefully, lolling about the flowers taking it easy for a change. Even the bit of teasing at the end of the poem doesn’t erase the sense of almost horror at contemplating the dead body.
In keeping with the heaviness of the imagery Dickinson employs spondees and trochees to reinforce the lifeless weight of the corpse. The poem begins with by showing the dead woman as having been sick, her “low feet staggered.” The three adjacent accented syllables give a heavy stagger to the line. The repetition of “Try – can you” draw out the effort. The pattern is echoed in the final stanza with “Buzz the dull flies,” “Brave – shines the sun,” and “Fearless – the cobweb.” It’s not a comforting poem in conventional terms (gone to a better life, etc.), but the last image of the “Indolent Housewife” amid the daisies is quite triumphant in a way: she has triumphed over her daily drudgery and over the “riveting” experience of death.