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

In ‘There’s been a Death, in the Opposite House’ Dickinson explores themes of death and community. Through the use of a male speaker, she examines the actions of a small town after a death. The tone is mostly straightforward and descriptive as the speaker describes what he sees through his window. There are moments where emotion bleeds into the description as well though, for example when the speaker uses a euphemism to describe the job of the undertaker. 

 

Summary of There’s been a Death, in the Opposite House

‘There’s been a Death, in the Opposite House’ by Emily Dickinson is a short, multifaceted poem that describes a house and its visitors. 

The speaker, who is later revealed to be a man, watches the comings and goings of the “opposite house”. There has been a death there and people go in and out taking care of all the unpleasant business that must be attended to. This includes a visitor from the Minster and airing out the mattress. Eventually, the undertaker comes and the speaker moves into describing the funeral procession. He takes a larger view of the whole situation and how these same events play themselves out, in the last lines of the poem. 

 

Structure of There’s been a Death, in the Opposite House 

‘There’s been a Death, in the Opposite House’ by Emily Dickinson is a six stanza poem that is separated into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains follow a very loose rhyme scheme of ABCB, changing sounds from stanza to stanza. The majority of the poem uses half-rhymes rather than perfect or complete rhymes. For example, “by” and “Boy”. These two words are an example of half-rhyme. 

Half-rhyme, also known as slant or partial rhyme, is seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line, or multiple lines of verse. Another example is “His” and “besides”. 

Dickinson chose to move back and forth in this poem between iambic tetrameter (four sets of two beats per line) and iambic trimeter (three sets of two beats per line). 

 

Literary Devices in There’s been a Death, in the Opposite House 

Dickinson makes use of several literary devices in ‘There’s been a Death, in the Opposite House’. These include but are not limited to personification, capitalization, and a euphemism. The first, personification,  occurs when a poet imbues a non-human creature or object with human characteristics. For example, in the first stanza where the speaker says that the houses have a “numb look”. They are transmuting the emotions associated with death onto the surrounding buildings. 

A euphemism is a saying that’s used to replace something unsavory or inappropriate. In this case, the poet uses the phrase “appalling trade” to describe the work of the undertaker. Dickinson also makes us of seemingly sporadic capitalization. There is no single definitive reason why Dickinson capitalized the words she did. Often, the words she chose were the most prominent of the lines, the ones that were the most evocative and meaningful. They are often also nouns or important adjectives. No matter the reason, the capitalization forces a reader to pay closer attention and emphasize the words it is applied to. 

 

Analysis of There’s been a Death, in the Opposite House

Stanza One 

There’s been a Death, in the Opposite House,

As lately as Today —

I know it, by the numb look

Such Houses have — alway —

In the first stanza of ‘There’s been a Death, in the Opposite House’ the speaker begins by making use of the line that later came to be used as the title. This line informs the reader that across the street someone passed away. The houses around the speaker look “numb” as if they too are in shock after finding out about the death. This is an interesting use of personification that likely is meant to speak to the wider atmosphere at the time of loss. The speaker can feel it in the air that things have changed. 

She uses the word “alway” at the end of the fourth line. This is done in order to rhyme with “Today” in line two and is really just the word “always” without the “s”. The use of the dash at the end of this line makes it seem as though “alway” is drifting off indeterminately. 

 

Stanza Two 

The Neighbors rustle in and out —

The Doctor — drives away —

A Window opens like a Pod —

Abrupt — mechanically —

In the second stanza of , the speaker says that the Neighbours are moving around “in and out”. He’s watching them from his house, taking note of what they do. He notices the “Window” that “opens like a Pod” This strange simile paints the window as structured, mechanical and “Abrupt”. The speaker is close enough to the other homes to hear and see what his neighbors are doing. He can look into, and hear into, their lives. 

 

Stanza Three 

Somebody flings a Mattress out —

The Children hurry by —

They wonder if it died — on that —

I used to — when a Boy —

In the third stanza of ‘There’s been a Death, in the Opposite House’ the speaker describes other observable actions in the neighborhood. Someone throws a “Mattress out” and Children hurry to their destinations. The mattress is being aired out and action that the speaker thinks might be related to the death. This could be the source of the children’s rushed movements. Perhaps they too can sense the death. 

Dickinson’s speaker refers to the deceased person as “it” in the third line. This is striking and extremely unusual and says something about the speaker’s perceptions of death. He provides more information about himself in this stanza. He is male, he used to spend time, as the children do, wondering about death when he was a child as well. This reveals to the reader that the speaker is a grown man. 

 

Stanza Four 

The Minister — goes stiffly in —

As if the House were His —

And He owned all the Mourners — now —

And little Boys — besides —

The fourth stanza provides more information about the scene. The “Minister” goes into the house “stiffly” as if bracing himself for what he’s going to see inside. He acts as though the house belongs to him, carrying himself as though he’s more important than anyone else. Even the children are compelled into his control. 

 

Stanza Five 

And then the Milliner — and the Man

Of the Appalling Trade —

To take the measure of the House —

There’ll be that Dark Parade —

More people go in and out of the house. Dickinson uses alliteration in the first line, describing the visitors to the home. She also uses a euphemism in the next line to describe the man’s “Appalling Trade”. This doesn’t reveal much to the reader but the next line makes it seem as though he’s likely the undertaker. He’s there to take “measure”. 

They are repairing for the “Dark Parade,” or funeral. This relates to the “Dark Parade” happening in the poem as people go in and out of the house. 

 

Stanza Six 

Of Tassels — and of Coaches — soon —

It’s easy as a Sign —

The Intuition of the News —

In just a Country Town —

In the final stanza of ‘There’s been a Death, in the Opposite House’ the speaker describes the funeral procession or the “Dark Parade”. There are cars and tassels, with all the ceremony that one expects on such an occasion. The speaker adds in the last lines that all of this is not complicated. In a small town, everything goes as it should and everyone knows what’s going on by intuition or observation. 

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