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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.

Emily Dickinson

#389

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 –

Wallace Stevens

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

them.

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

deceased, etc.

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

attitudinal statements.

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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