Closure Of Life
Emily Dickinson: "Death In The Opposite House" 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. The topic of death has been central to 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 present is the notion that the two poems chosen 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 it 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 of 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 emotions, but Stevens' poem is much more realized, the emotions much more original, which in the end makes his much more memorable than Dickinson's.