Ballad Meter, Baby
We're betting that most of you were raised on Mother Goose and Dr. Seuss. No matter what it is that you hear in childhood, those are the rhythms that will be ingrained in your psyche forever, for better or worse.
For Dickinson, from the earliest days, she attended the First Church of Amherst, Massachusetts where Samuel Worcester's edition of Isaac Watts' The Psalms and Spiritual Songs was all the rage. It's no wonder that her poems fell into a similar rhythm as all those old hymns.
How so? Well, most of her lines alternate between iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter, like so:
The Neighbors rustle in and out —
The Doctor — drives away —
A Window opens like a Pod —
Abrupt — mechanically — (5-8)
Versions of Verses
Various versions and formats of this poem abound. In her lifetime, Dickinson published precious few poems. Many misdirected do-gooders who anthologized her poems after her death tried to correct—so to speak—her oddball spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and her lack of stanzas and titles. The version we're using attempts to preserve some of her idiosyncrasies, while also breaking the poem into quatrains (stanzas of four lines each) to emphasize her metrical and rhyme schemes.
Speaking of Rhyme…
You aren't crazy, Shmoopers. We promise. So if you noted that Dickinson's rhymes seem a bit, well, wonky in this poem, it's not just a figment of your imagination. And it's not that she goofed or didn't try hard enough. She was after that wonkiness. She wanted it that way:
Somebody flings a Mattress out —
The Children hurry by —
They wonder if It died — on that —
I used to — when a Boy — (9-12)
"Out" and "that" have similar ending sounds, but their vowels are off. They're kinda sorta almost rhymes. In the poetry biz, we call those slant rhymes.
"By" and "Boy"? Same old story. They sound close enough to be almost the same word, but they're not quite right. That "almost" is huge for Dickinson and no doubt she meant it to be suggestive. Between the two words a small "o" intercedes, nearly a zero. The children hurry as childhood flashes by, and once a boy, now a man, soon to be a stiff. Is this slippery slope from boyhood to the grave present in this slant rhyme? Shmoopers know better than to put anything past this poet.