Glad — gay — Houses —
Sealed so stately tight —
Lids of Steel — on Lids of Marble —
Locking Bare feet out —
Brooks of Plush — in Banks of Satin
Not so softly fall
As the laughter — and the whisper —
From their People Pearl —
No Bald Death — affront their Parlors —
No Bold Sickness come
To deface their Stately Treasures —
Anguish — and the Tomb —
Hum by — in Muffled Coaches —
Lest they — wonder Why —
Any — for the Press of Smiling —
Interrupt — to die —
Fr684 (1863) J457
Dickinson’s family home might well be considered one of the houses described by this poem: ‘safe’ and ‘Sealed’; quiet and luxurious; and undisturbed by Death, Sickness, Anguish, and the barefoot poor. Ironically, the houses, a metonymy for the wealthy inhabitants, might be ‘safe’, but that includes being safe from the human condition.
They might be Sweet and Glad and gay, but that requires being sealed off from all unpleasantness. Their laughter might be softer than “Brooks of Plush – in Banks of Satin”, but they live in an oyster’s world – as “People Pearl”. They really don’t know life at all. (‘Pearl’ should probably be read as ‘Purl’: According to the ED Lexicon and other sources, ‘Purl’ means ‘to flow with a murmuring sound’. I hate to lose the image, though, of the oyster shell which, for pearls, really is Plush and Satiny. I suspect Dickinson wanted both meanings: both Pearl and Purl.)
Of course, no house, and particularly one that housed Emily Dickinson is going to be entirely sealed or safe. Nor would it be free of anguish and death, but that’s not for want of trying
I like to read ‘Houses’ here as caskets. Fancier and much more expensive than the simple wooden coffin, steel caskets were introduced in the 1840s. Their ‘Lids of Steel’ were designed to permanently seal in the corpse – whose [eye]Lids of Marble” are equally sealed shut.
Victorian metal grave covers
It’s easy to switch focus back and forth throughout the poem: rich houses, luxurious caskets, nice neighborhood, quiet necropolis. Both exclusive. No Shoes No Service. There is an important difference between the two milieus, however. While the rich are warding off exposure to and admittance of suffering and death, the dead are really dead. They couldn’t step outside their cushy oyster even if they wanted to. On the bright side, they no longer need to worry about Death entering their Parlors or even any ‘Bold Sickness’.
The poem starts to get a bit difficult in the last line of the third stanza. I track the rest of the poem this way: ‘Anguish – and the Tomb –‘ begins a new sentence (although preceded by a dash and not a period) and is a compound subject for ‘Hum by – in Muffled Coaches’. So you have Muffled Coaches with their grim occupants humming by the houses or caskets of the well-to-do (the poor were buried in simple winding cloth or else in a simple wooden coffin).
Why are the Coaches muffled? So that the Sweet, safe, Glad, gay Houses do not have to wonder at life being interrupted by death – or rather, why someone in a gay and smiling house party would interrupt the festivities to die. It is a bit difficult to parse this if the ‘they’ is the casket denizens rather than the wealthy in their Houses, but I take the muffling of noise as a courtesy to the dead who are softly whispering and laughing. They, too, ironically, would not appreciate the interruption.
Are ‘Houses’ meant to be seen as caskets? Would Emily Dickinson have pictured life in an important Victorian house as so restricted? I think she did, although, in another irony, she came to embrace the comfortable privacy of a stately but sealed house. And I picture her at the little desk in her room, listening to the ghostly Purl.
Poetically, the poem has a lot of energy. The initial spondees (two accented syllables) followed by a third accented syllable (in ‘Houses’) and coupled with the alliterations in Sweet / Safe and Glad / Gay give a sprightly emphasis to the first stanza. There are then the tumble-forward trochaic feet (first syllable accented) that dominate the rest of the poem. Dickinson uses a quite a bit of alliteration and this provides a lightness to balance the rather serious social commentary. Even ‘Death’ is softened by ‘Bald’ and Sickness by ‘Bold’. No gruesome or pitying images here.
The poem maintains this balance between a happy meter adorned with charming alliteration until the last five lines. ‘Anguish’ is coupled with ‘the Tomb’, the harsh word signaling a change of mood. And although they ‘Hum’ by, Muffled, they bring the reader up short with the biggest interruption to a soiree possible: dying. It seems a bummer to both the living and the already dead.