illustrated portrait of English poet Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson

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What is the complete poetry explication of "There's been a Death, in the Opposite House," word by word? Today, I read this poem aloud and explicated it in front of the class.  Halfway through my explication, my AP English teacher interrupted me, and tore me apart in front of the entire class. He claimed that my explication was deeply flawed and, yet, did not give a reason why.  He decided to give me a second chance, and so I really want to know this poem, backwards and forwards, so that I can provide a good explication.  Please help me.

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Dickinson continues her obsession with death in this poem, though she is not the narrator. In line 12 she says, "I used to when a boy." Here, she a boy who is merely an observer of a death that has happened in the house across the street.

The first line of the poem is significant as it doesn't following Dickinson's normal iambic tetrameter (a pattern of four unstessed-stressed syllables.) She wants to draw attention to that line by making it irregular in its meter because this is the topic of the poem--the death in the other house. The rest of the stanza (lines 2-4) scan regularly, which supports what Dickinson writes in those lines. She personifies the house as looking numb, as though the house could tell something awful happened inside of it. These stanzas are perhaps in regular meter to underscore the numbness people feel when a loved one has died.

The next time Dickinson deviates is line 8: "Abrupt, mechanically." This supports the above mentioned idea that the house is being personified--it's not doing anything with feeling; it's moving mechanically. She also deviates from her rhyme scheme--away and mechanically are, at best, an off rhyme. She tries to draw attention to the house and how it seems to show the pain of what happened inside of it.

In stanza 3, the narrator refers to the dead person as "It"--as though when someone dies, she is just an empty shell, an It. The deceased is also the subject of children's rumors, as the narrator indicates in line 12.

In stanza four, the minister is spoken of as being stiff--an uncomfortable feeling, but he is given power over the house and everyone in it. Depending on the way you scan the poem, the last two lines about the minister owning the mourners and the boys could be of an irregular meter, and the last line of that stanza (line 16) is another off rhyme.  The minister, traditionally, brings comfort at a time of loss, but this minister is stiff and acting like he owns the place.

Dickinson continues to have her narrator list the different events that happen after a person's death--the milliner, a person who would make the clothes for the deceased and the "man of the appalling trade"--perhaps the undertaker or funeral director.  The narrator comments on the "dark parade," or the funeral march.  What's curious about line 19 in stanza 5 is that the milliner and the man of the appalling trade are measuring the house, not the person who died in the house.  At this point in the poem, the deceased and the personified house become one.

The last stanza returns to Dickinson's normal meter--iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter.  The narrator indicates that all of this happening is as "easy as a sign"--the family may as well have posted as sign that someone had died, because news will travel fast or be inferred by people in a small country town.  Again, Dickinson neglects her rhyme scheme in this stanza, alerting us that something is "off."

Dickinson creates detached and aloof narrator; this is significant because the poem is about death, which is usually an emotional subject.  Since Dickinson took on the voice of a different narrator, and the house is personified and becomes the person who died, perhaps Dickinson is commenting on her own death; that just like a house's facade can show that death has occurred--it becomes numb and mechanical--so her outward appearance can be when she is dead.  The minister will have control over her, and people will talk of her death.

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