Literature with Ariff

There's been a Death in the Opposite House 
(Emily Dickinson)

About the Author

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson (December 10, 1830 – May 15, 1886) was an American poet. She was born in Amherst, Massachusetts. She studied at the Amherst Academy for seven years and later spent a short time at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary before returning to her family's house in Amherst. Throughout her life, she was known as an eccentric by locals and this was due to her penchant for white clothing and her reluctance to greet guests or, later in life, even leave her room. Most of her friendships were therefore carried out by correspondence.Although Dickinson was a prolific private poet, fewer than a dozen of her nearly eighteen hundred poems were published during her lifetime. After her younger sister Lavinia discovered the collection of nearly eighteen hundred poems, Dickinson's first volume was published four years after her death.  Her first collection of poetry was published in 1890 by personal acquaintances Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd, both of whom heavily edited the content. A complete and mostly unaltered collection of her poetry became available for the first time in 1955 when The Poems of Emily Dickinson was published by scholar Thomas H. Johnson.  

On May 15, 1886, after two and a half years of worsening symptoms of Bright's disease , Emily Dickinson died at the age of 55. 

Understanding of the Poem

Lines 1-4 (1st Stanza) 

There’s been a death in the opposite house 
As lately as today 
I know it by the numb look Such houses have always 

In lines 1 – 4 the persona observes that there is a certain mood or atmosphere that surrounds a house because death has occurred like shock, gloom and numbness. 
• The persona realises that someone has died in the house across the road. 
• Quietness and sadness surround the house and people. 

Lines 5-8 (2nd Stanza) 

The neighbours rustle in and out 
The doctor drives away 
A window opens like a pod 
Abrupt, mechanically 

In line 5-8 , the neighbours are seen as paying their respects thus walking in and out of the house. The doctor who has confirmed the death leaves the house. The window opens abruptly. 
• The neighbours visit the house. The doctor is no longer needed so he leaves. 
• Someone flings open the window mechanically.

Lines 9-12 (3rd Stanza) 

Somebody flings a mattress out 
The children hurry by 
They wonder if it died on that 
I used to when a boy 

In lines 9-12, throwing the mattress out is a custom practised by the community to cleanse the house. The action get rids of germs. The dead person is referred to as 'it' as he is no longer a person. 
• A mattress is thrown out of the house.
• The children quickly walk past the house wondering if the deceased died on the flung mattress.
• As a young boy, the persona also used to think similarly.

Lines 13-16 (4th Stanza) 

The minister goes stiffly in 
As is the house were his 
And he owned all the mourners now 
And little boys besides 

In lines 13-16, the Minister is a dominant figure when death occurred. 
• The Minister of the Church assures and takes control of the people and situation. 
• Everyone listens to him and follows his order. 
• He performs the last rites for the death. 

Lines 17-20 (5th Stanza) 

And when the milliner and the man  
Of the appalling trade 
To take the measure of the house 
There’ll be that dark parade 

Lines 17-20 explain the job of the undertaker who is seen as appalling. Nevertheless, his help is very much needed in such a situation. 
• The hat-maker arrives to take the measurement for the hat the deceased is supposed to wear. 
• Next, the undertaker arrives to get the measurement to build the coffin. 
• Then the funeral procession where everyone will wear black attire will take place.

Lines 21-24 (6th Stanza) 
Of tassels and of coaches soon, 
It’s easy as a sign 
The intuition of the news 
In just a country town 

In the last stanza, one can sense that death has occurred by looking at the obvious sign that accompany death. In a small town the news of death spread quickly. 
• The tassels (ornaments), the funeral procession which includes coaches (horse and carriage) followed by mourners, are signs that death has occurred.


 Death is a natural occurrence. Yet, it is a sad event for those who lose a loved one (the people are numb with grief).


Although the theme of this poem is death, it does not have a sad and mournful tone. The persona tells us of the goings on in a matter-of-fact manner to convey the idea that death is a natural occurrence. The present tense is used to convey the idea that death is an everyday occurrence.

Moral Values

a)    Accept death in a rational way and by understanding it.
b)    Nothing would last forever.
c)    The importance of preserving and practicing customs and traditions.
d)    The importance of cooperation and feeling of togetherness.


a. How do the people of the house react to the death?  (1 mark)

b. Who does the word “his” in line 14 of the poem refer to?
(1 mark)

c. Why does the persona refer to the undertaker as “the man of the appalling trade”?  
(1 mark)

d. In your own words, explain what the speaker means when he says “then, there’ll be that dark parade”?  

    (2 marks)


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