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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,

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

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


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