——A simple Child, That lightly draws its breath, And feels its life in every limb, What should it know of death? (1-4)
The poem begins with an abstract question: what can "a simple Child"—presumably young and innocent—possibly understand about the Great Beyond? Hmm, we're not sure. Do we have anything to learn from kids? Let's read on, and find out.
"And where are they? I pray you tell." She answered, "Seven are we; And two of us at Conway dwell, And two are gone to sea.
"Two of us in the church-yard lie, My sister and my brother; And, in the church-yard cottage, I Dwell near them with my mother." (17-24)
Here we find out that the little girl has six siblings: they are seven altogether. Two are off to sea (we hope they are pirates), two are in Conway, and two lie in the church-yard—which means, ya know, that they are dead.
"You say that two at Conway dwell, And two are gone to sea, Yet ye are seven! I pray you tell, Sweet Maid, how this may be." (25-28)
The speaker disagrees with what the girl has to say about her siblings. He counts up the (living) children and only gets to five. How can the siblings be "seven" when two are dead? For the speaker, the dead don't count.
"Their graves are green, they may be seen," The little Maid replied, "Twelve steps or more from my mother's door, And they are side by side.
"My stockings there I often knit, My kerchief there I hem; And there upon the ground I sit, And sing a song to them.
"And often after sun-set, Sir, When it is light and fair, I take my little porringer, And eat my supper there. (37-48)
These stanzas show just how present the dead siblings are in the little girl's life. They are buried just footsteps from her home, and she chills with them—a lot. (Maybe even too much? We'll leave that one up to you.) She hangs with the dead daily; she does her knitting and hemming at their graves, and even eats her supper there.
"The first that died was sister Jane; In bed she moaning lay, Till God released her of her pain; And then she went away.
"So in the church-yard she was laid; And, when the grass was dry, Together round her grave we played, My brother John and I.
"And when the ground was white with snow, And I could run and slide, My brother John was forced to go, And he lies by her side." (49-60)
Here the little girl gets real specific about Jane and John, her dead sis and bro. It sounds to us like Jane suffered in life and that "God released her." It appears that her death was a relief from pain. This is not so true for her brother John, though; he was "forced to go." Sometimes death is welcome; sometimes is it most definitely not.
"How many are you, then," said I, "If they two are in heaven?" Quick was the little Maid's reply, "O Master! we are seven."
"But they are dead; those two are dead! Their spirits are in heaven!" 'Twas throwing words away; for still The little Maid would have her will, And said, "Nay, we are seven!" (61-69)
The speaker yells at the little girl, trying to convince her that he's right—the little girl's siblings don't count, nor do they add up to seven. But the little girl "would have her will." She's stubborn, and she's doubling down. No one is going to convince her that John and Jane don't count. The dead are part of her life and her family, and that's that.