“Dead Boy” deals with the intrusion of death into a rural community. The poem’s form is conventional: quatrains rhyming abab or cdcd. The relatively prosaic title, “Dead Boy,” sets the no-nonsense tone. The speaker breaks with the sentimental tradition, using understatement to distance both speaker and reader from emotional involvement in the death of this unnamed child. No attempt is made to describe the grief of the boy’s extended family (county kin) and neighbors; instead, the reader learns that they “do not like” what has happened. Thus, the reader is led to examine this death with detachment, and the full emotional impact is saved for the final stanza and the speaker’s conclusions about this “deep dynastic wound.”
The speaker ironically undercuts any tendency toward sentimentality, describing a boy not heroic, talented, or beloved by the community; his disposition seems more “stormy” than sunny. At times his mother called him a sword beneath her heart, but her bitter weeping shows deep love for him.
Having approached raw emotion in describing the mother’s grief, however, the speaker immediately retreats to ironic discussion of changed attitudes toward the child; death has transformed a squealing, pasty-faced pig into a “little man,” and in his face, the speaker professes to see family resemblance.
The speaker shifts from this little man to focus on the “elder men” of the community, who represent age and its accompanying loss of vitality. Uncomfortable remaining in the house, these men congregate outside, exchanging rumors in an unsuccessful attempt to deal with their deep dynastic wound, the loss of a male heir to carry on the family name.