Emily Dickinson Essay, Research Paper
My Life Closed Twice Before Its Close
My life closed twice before its close–
It yet remains to see
If Immortality unveil
A third event to me
So huge, so hopeless to conceive
As these that twice befell.
Parting is all we know of heaven,
And all we need of hell.
A paradox is a statement which contains apparently opposing or incongrous
elements which, when read together, turn out to make sense. The first line
is paradoxical in that there are separate meanings for the words “closed”
and “close” — Dickinson tells of having suffered 2 great losses, so
monumental as to be comparable to death. She wonders if another such
devastating event awaits her in the future.
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 –
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 –
The Emperor of Ice-cream
Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.
Take from the dresser of deal
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.
It would be extreme understatement to say that death has long been a topic
in literature; the topic has been central to human thought since the
beginning of human thought, and is no stranger to the pages of literature,
both classic and modern. However, in twentieth century America, death has
been sanitized to a great degree. One way in which twentieth century
Americans have been shielded from death is the replacement of the wake at
home with the funeral director and the funeral home. We have replaced
familial cooperation and shared grieving with convenience. What seems to
have happened in light of these changes is that the event of death seems to
have become more one-dimensional in its emotion than it may once have been.
What this long-winded introduction is attempting to lead toward is the
notion that the two poems chosen for this discussion deal with death in the
home on multiple levels of tone and emotion. Because the norm of the times
was to deal with death (both before and after) in the home, both poems
approach the topic with a distinct sense of intimacy and comfort. Emily
Dickinson’s poem, “There’s been a Death, in the Opposite House,” is
believed to have been written in 1862. Wallace Stevens’ poem “The Emperor
of Ice-cream,” was published in his first collection of poetry, in 1923.
Both poems have common elements (home and death, hustle and bustle, and a
certain sense of irony), yet it is apparent that sixty-some years separate
An initial distinction can be made between the two poems’ sense of
perspective. The speaker in Dickinson’s poem is noticeably outside the main
action of the poem—an outsider. The first line makes that clear: “There’s
been a Death, in the Opposite House.” The first line in Stevens’ poem,
however, makes clear that the speaker is somehow an integral element of the
goings-on in this death house. Here, the speaker seems to be orchestrating
the whole event: “Call out the roller of big cigars.” The speaker needs
this particular person to perform tasks necessary for the wake. We, as
readers, are viewing the events from inside the home. This is in distinct
contrast to the patchwork story that the reader and speaker create through
Dickinson’s poem, based on outside clues and speculation.
Another distinction can be made between the perspectives of the two poems’
situation in time. In the Dickinson poem the death seems to have just
occurred, perhaps an hour or two—at the very least “As lately as Today.”
Whereas the death in Stevens’ poem seems to have taken place perhaps a day
or two before the events of the poem. This impression is given, it seems,
by the manner of events taking place in the poem—they are not the events
one would associate with the very day of death. The corpse must have been
already washed and dressed, so that the characters of the poem can now
spend their time preparing flowers and food for the wake. In Dickinson’s
poem, the actions of the characters appear to be the more immediate
concerns of postmortem—airing out the house, discarding the mattress of the
Another difference between is noticeable in the tone of the two poems.
Dickinson’s poem is much more somber than Stevens’. The very list of
characters that come and go and “hurry by” the death house is something not
unlike the funeral procession that Dickinson alludes to near the end of her
poem, as the “Dark Parade.” The neighbors are first to arrive, second only
to the immediate family, whose members are surely already inside. Then the
Doctor comes and goes, followed by the defenestration of the mattress (YES!
I finally get to use that word in a real setting! ….Sorry). At this point
the person is finally dead, and those people who were not as close to the
person (say, the family, neighbors and doctor), can now join in this
“procession” of visitation.
The somber tone comes through in some of the word choices as well. The
house itself has a “numb look” to it. The mortician, or perhaps the
coffin-maker, is described as belonging to “the Appalling Trade.” It seems
worth noting the implication of “pall” or “pallbearer” in this particular
word choice. What is consistent in the tone of the poem is the idea of
death as a looming figure. “There has been a Death,” to be sure, but the
speaker does not know this from first hand experience; the speaker can tell
by the look of the house itself. The speaker wonders, like the boys, how
the death occurred. The signs make it clear that there has, in fact, been a
death, and it occurs to the speaker that a funeral procession will soon
follow. This realization is stated with a sense of dread, and that sense of
dread is heightened by the fact that the line is set apart from the
otherwise regular four-line stanzas. There has been a death, but the
speaker seems preoccupied, not with what has been, but what will be.
Conversely, there is an air of acceptance and lightheartedness in Stevens’
poem. The death has taken place and the time has come to move on. The
speaker here allows that the women should wear comfortable clothing. The
choice of words conveys a relaxed sensibility. Let the women wear such
clothing—let the boys bring flowers, let be, let the lamp—there is an
implication of acceptance and tolerance of whatever might happen in the
recurrent use of that single word. While the corpse is present in the
situation, the emphasis is on the living and on the creation of the scene,
the creation of those things that will make the event alive for the living.
The call for the roller of cigars suggests a sense of relaxation. The call
that he whip desirous ice-cream suggests festivity rather than mourning.
This poem, in contrast to Dickinson’s, does not include people that do not
belong in the scene. There are no outsiders in the forms of Minister,
Milliner, Doctor, or “the Man / Of the Appalling Trade.” The scene in
Stevens’ poem seems more like a household setting. The boys are asked to
bring flowers in last month’s newspapers, and there is a sense of comfort
and familiarity in the fact that the boys must know where those newspapers
are. The embroidered sheet is taken from the dresser of deal (a cheap type
of wood) missing three knobs—the dresser seems to invoke a sense of
humility. The furnishings are not being embellished or hidden from any of
the type of outsiders that Dickinson’s poem includes. What is more telling,
is that the sheet gotten from that dresser is not likely to be long enough
to cover the whole of the corpse’s body. This is not a major concern to the
speaker of the poem; again, this seems to illustrate a sense of comfort and
acceptance of “things as they are.” The goings-on of the characters in The
Emperor of Ice-cream, are the goings-on of life. Life in the face of death
is the tone of this poem, versus the looming agony of death in Dickinson’s.
If we were to isolate the overall tone of each poem in a few choice words,
Dickinson’s poem is focused on “There’s been” and “There’ll be,” while
attitude of Stevens’ poem is best be discovered in the phrase “let be.”
In Dickinson’s poem each stanza has a central focus; the focus is an action
or an image, each one providing more certainty to the belief that there has
been a death. These images and actions lead up to the eventual, haunting
realization that there will be a funeral procession. There is a focus in
each of the two stanzas in Stevens’ poem as well, in the couplets that end
each stanza. The difference between the two poems foci is that Dickinson’s
is image and Stevens’ is attitude. This is not to say that Dickinson’s poem
is without attitude; however, the attitude of her poem comes as the poem
builds—it is an ancillary effect. In Stevens’ poem the couplets serve to
put focus on themselves, and they take advantage of the spotlight to make
The corpse in Stevens’ poem is a corpse. “If her horny feet protrude, they
come / To show how cold she is, and dumb.” There is no attempt made, much
like the cheap and worn dresser, to hide what the thing under the sheet is.
The following line, the first line of the second couplet, actually works at
spotlighting the fact that she is dead: “Let the lamp affix its beam.” Show
it as it is—a corpse. If this is an opinion of the speaker, the true
attitude, the true challenge to think, comes in the second line of the
couplet: “The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.” The couplet seems
to tell the reader, perhaps the other inhabitants of the poem, Look. She is
dead. If you need help, here is a spotlight. See? She is dead and we are
living. We are the makers of our own lives. Come and have some ice-cream.
Hurry, before it melts.
The couplet at the end of the first stanza works in a similar manner. “Let
be be finale of seem. / The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.”
(emphasis mine) The idea of letting “be” be the finale of “seem,” suggests
that however something might appear—whether it is an emotion, sensation, at
state of life or death—in the end we must come to the realization that it
is or was, and that we are or were. In any case, it comes down to that most
important of verbs—to be. This poem answers Hamlet: “To be, or not to be,
that is the question.” That answer is: to be. Life is too short to worry
about mere appearances; let the present be the guiding factor. Let what is
be the final understanding of what the thing means. In this situation, the
woman is dead. In life, the woman may have used the sheet to cover her feet
and let her face be exposed, but she is dead now; if her feet are now
exposed, it only serves to reinforce the fact. This is her current state.
The couplet does not end on a negative note, though. The declaration that
“The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream” thrusts the focus to the
present condition of the living, and calls the reader and the characters of
the poem to relish living.
The images and phrasing of Stevens’ poem help to illustrate this idea of
freshness and vitality in the face of death. The calling out for the
cigar-roller at this usual time of mourning, so that he may “whip / In
kitchen cups concupiscent curds” is an unlikely image. Take into account
the playful alliteration, and the image becomes increasingly vibrant. If we
interpret the “wenches” as prostitutes, the scene becomes even more
comical. The high point of this amusing aspect of the poem is that the
focus of the wake, the deceased, is shrouded in a sheet too short for the
length of her body. And there is no reason to mind that it is too short,
for it helps to illustrate how dumb she is. The rule that one must speak
kindly of the dead is not in effect at this wake. And of course, the ethos
of the poem is shrouded in that peculiar, rhyming couplet. The final result
is that a somber occasion has been portrayed in a highly comical, or at the
very least peculiarly funny, manner.
The humor in Dickinson’s poem, if one could call it humor, is much more
sublime, much more dry. Perhaps a better way to describe these moments
would be as “play.” There are a couple of occasions where the mind can be
made to believe that there are alternate ways to read what is an otherwise
straightforward poem. One of these is the stanza about the minister. “The
Minister—goes stiffly in—” is an obvious pun at the expense of the newly
dead; the term “stiff” had begun to be associated with a corpse around the
same time that this poem was believed to have been written. The description
of the minister’s entrance into the house is at least peculiar, appearing
as if he “owned all the Mourners . . . and little Boys—besides.” Another
moment of play comes when the undertaker’s (or coffin-maker’s) visit is
described as his taking “measure of the house.” Measure being taken of the
inhabitants’ demeanors, or of the corpse itself, so that a custom casket
can be crafted. But this is as playful as the poem becomes. The overall
mood of the poem is consistent—somber and looming. The final line of the
poem does impart a bit of comfort to the poem; “In just a country town”
does lend itself to a reading of comfort and familiarity. In a small town
the inhabitants can recognize the death of a neighbor by reading the clues
on the street.
But this certainly is a comfort much different from the comfort of Stevens’
poem. Comfort for Dickinson is in the form of easily discernible signs of
death—”easy as a Sign,” she writes. But the idea that these signs are
“Intuition of the News” implies a threatening news. The speaker knows what
the news is, but the news itself conjures “dark” and “appalling” thoughts.
The final thoughts of the speaker negative.
In the end, Dickinson’s poem has a tone that one would expect to feel in a
poem about death in the home. This is perhaps one reason why this
particular poem is not nearly as memorable as Stevens’ poem, though both
share a similar topic. Dickinson’s choice of images, however accurate to
the truth of any actual events, are not as interesting as those in The
Emperor of Ice-cream. The flinging out of a mattress may be a lasting image
to those people who saw it happen, or knew the deceased, but an
insufficiently shrouded corpse, cold and dumb, is far more original. The
“stiff” minister has a degree of wit, but the muscular roller of big
cigars, creating concoctions in the kitchen has a higher degree of
originality. The characters in Stevens’ poem are far more realized than the
stock characters of Dickinson’s. And while the notion that a person can
know the news by watching the behaviors of the neighbors is certainly
charming, it lacks the rhetorical edge and intellectual ambiguities that
Stevens packs into two rhymed couplets.
Both of theses poems are worthwhile reading, and both capture an element
that is now absent from American culture. However, the sixty years that
separate the creation of these two poems seems to have provided a degree if
sophistication which has made Wallace Stevens’ vision of death at home a
vision shared by all of his readers. Both poems have a sense of multiple
emotion, but Stevens’ poem is much more realized, the emotions much more
original, which in the end makes his much more memorable than Dickinson’s.
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