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15 July 2014

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 —
                           F547 (1863)  J389

Dickinson's sharp eye for detail makes this poem as vivid a slice of life as any Norman Rockwell painting. Various local characters make an appearance as the poet watches from her window. Neighbors come and go, some probably carrying casseroles or flowers as they do today. The doctor, his labors over, drives away in his no doubt important-looking carriage. Some servant throws open a window and "flings" out a mattress and of course the local children will be telling each other that just hours ago someone died on it. 
        My favorite is the minister. This is his moment and he makes an appropriate entrance – "As if the House were His / And He owned all the Mourners – now – / and little Boys – besides." Very droll, and no doubt the children scattered at his approach. Dickinson casts herself in this role, looking back to when she was a boy. It's a playful persona and boys had more freedom to run about than girls, so no wonder Dickinson adopts that vantage.
The milliner arrives to take measurements for an appropriate burial hat. At last the undertaker, he "Of the Appalling Trade", arrives to determine the size of the casket – the body's "House". Once the corpse is housed it will begin its "Dark Parade" as black-garbed mourners, the hearse and coaches full of mourners – many with black horses – head to the cemetery. 
        Who needs the Internet to find out what's going on? In a small town everyone knows what's going on.

Dickinson's observations are emotionally detached. She has nothing to say about the family or the deceased, no speculations, no formulations of grief or sympathy. She is simply recounting what happens on a day of death. Nothing is conventionally pleasant; even the house has a "numb" look. The window from which the mattress is flung opens abruptly and "mechanically".  The minister and undertaker are not sympathetic characters, and of course the funeral procession is "Dark". 
        Even so, the poem is a pleasure to read. We feel the vicarious thrill of watching great drama enfold while ensconced in our own room. We can giggle at the minister, shudder at the undertaker, and nod knowingly at the familiarity of the scene. It is, perhaps, this very familiarity that allows life to go on smoothly all around.

In 1863, the year Dickinson wrote this poem, there would have been more funerals than usual because of young men who came home wounded from the war and didn't survive. But I don't think Dickinson is making a large point here. 


  1. The death is in the "opposite house" -- so it is a little removed from the observer. The poet projects the emotions of the family across the street on the house itself -- the house has a "numb look" and its window opens abruptly and "mechanically" like a pod ("the feet mechanical go round").

    The poem contrasts this deep emotional undercurrent with the ordinariness of daily life. There are boys with a furtive fascination with the dead body and comings and goings. Death is so ordinary that there are ministers and tradesman who make a living on it.

    There is a story of the Buddha. A mother who lost her only child comes to the Buddha bereft and asks "Why?", "Why me?". Tthe Buddha says, "I will tell you, but first you have to bring me a mustard seed from a house that has does not know death. The woman travels through the town, knocking on doors. At each house she is told, no, a father, a child, a grandmother has died here. The woman is left with her grief in the context of a world where death is ordinary -- inseparable from life. This poem reminds me of that story -- particularly the last line -- how death is in each town and village.

    It also reminds me a little of William Carlos Williams' wonderful poem "Tract" -- although I like this poem even better..

    1. This reading of projection of grief on the house coupled with the portrayal ordinary daily life really deepened my appreciation of the poem. Thank you - very belatedly!

  2. Wonderful story, Anonymous. Thanks for posting.

  3. “[ED] has nothing to say about the family or the deceased, no speculations, no formulations of grief or sympathy.” (Susan K)

    The Dickinsons probably didn’t socialize with the Kingman family in the “Opposite House” (257 Main Street). They owned the general store in Amherst.

  4. ‘There’s been a Death’ reads like a matter-of-fact news report “In just a Country Town —”. The reporter-poet watched from a second-floor, south-facing window, a balcony seat, but she’s seen it all before, just another “Dark Parade” to nearby West Cemetery.

    The poem’s tone, “The numb look / Such houses have”, sounds like a projection of how the poet feels, depressed, like nothing in a Rockwell scene. As she said in ‘I prayed, at first, a little Girl’,

    “. . . . the Balance
    That tips so frequent, now,
    It takes me all the while to poise —
    And then — it doesn't stay —”.