There's been a Death, in the Opposite House Introduction
In A Nutshell
In a country village, there's always somebody in your business. Nothing happens without everybody knowing it. And discussing it 'til the cows come home.
So if somebody dies, that's Big News. Which is precisely what this poem's all about: what it's like when a neighbor kicks the bucket and the town's all abuzz. Death is front-page news in "There's been a Death, in the Opposite House," by Emily Dickinson. She may not have published many of her poems in her own lifetime, but the news (read: poetry) she did report (read: write) has echoed longer and further than she might have dreamed.
In this little ditty, Emily Dickinson returns to an old, thematic favorite: death. Only, instead of waxing philosophical as she does in many of her other death-related poems, she's more interested in the business of death and its aftermath, giving up-to-the-minute reports about who's coming to the house and why. So if you're curious about 19th-century small-town funeral practices, pull up a chair. If you're just interested in reading another Dickinson ditty, well, that works, too.
Why Should I Care?
As the pop psychology goes, the first stage of grief is denial. Come to think of it, denial may be the second and third stage, too. Nobody wants to face the facts of mortality.
But that's not the way Emily Dickinson rolled. "There's been a Death, in the Opposite House" plops death right under your nose, so along with the speaker, you can see and hear and read all its signs.
It may be true that most people today die in a hospital or a nursing home, somewhere out of the way, but in Dickinson's time, death was as close and commonplace as any other domestic occurrence. Check out how plainly she presents the passage of people in and out of the house. She's not focusing on mourners or the corpse. Nah, she's more interested in the business and activities that follow a death. But while this poem doesn't play up the emotions, it offers a kind of cooler comfort, a recognition that the course of events that follow death is perfectly normal, easy, even right.
If Dickinson had shown the mourners crying their eyes out or tearing out their hair, well, that might be a bit more familiar to our modern-day melodrama. But it wouldn't be our cool, calm, and collected Emily. She's got that stiff upper lip, you know.