THERE’S been a death in the opposite house
As lately as to-day.
I know it by the numb look
Such houses have alway.
The neighbors rustle in and out, 5
The doctor drives away.
A window opens like a pod,
Somebody flings a mattress out,—
The children hurry by; 10
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, 15
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 20
Of tassels and of coaches soon;
It ’s easy as a sign,—
The intuition of the news
In just a country town.
There is so, so much very deeply creepy stuff going on in this poem.
It’s frequently anthologized, but I know it best by just that first line. I didn’t remember all the disturbing detail from my past encounters with this poem–just that first line. The first stanza is interesting, with its suggestion that what transpires within a house affects the appearance of its exterior. This works on a symbolic level, too–what happens within us can be written on our faces, or at least give off a feel that hints at what’s going on inside.
The second and third stanzas, though, are where things really start to get dark. The second stanza ends with a window opening “like a pod,” and I am too much a product of my times not to imagine some kind of sci-fi business there. In the third stanza, the mattress of the deceased goes flying out that window, and the speaker identifies with children wondering “if It died on that.” Shudder. The dehumanizing of the dead person is brief but chilling. And then we learn that the speaker, in a rare twist from Dickinson’s usual M.O., is male.
Then we get the litany of the folks in all the death-related trades who enter the house, and things do not get less unsettling. The minister goes in as if he owns the house, mourners, and all the little boys, too. The milliner (why do we need a hat??) and “the man/Of the appalling trade,” presumably the funeral director, then enter.
The speaker ends by imagining the “dark parade” that is about to transpire, and then pulls back the focus by presenting this as just one of many such incidents “in just a country town.”
In many of Dickinson’s poems about the deaths of individuals, the focus is entirely on the deceased and that person’s impact on those s/he left behind. This poem is different–the deceased is never even really described as human. The entire thrust of the poem is toward the wrongness of death, the dehumanization of it.
It’s a disturbing poem on many levels.