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My Life Closed Twice Before Its Close
My life closed twice before its close--
It yet remains to see
If Immortality unveil
A third event to me
So huge, so hopeless to conceive
As these that twice befell.
Parting is all we know of heaven,
And all we need of hell.
A paradox is a statement which contains apparently opposing or incongrous
elements which, when read together, turn out to make sense. The first line
is paradoxical in that there are separate meanings for the words "closed"
and "close" -- Dickinson tells of having suffered 2 great losses, so
monumental as to be comparable to death. She wonders if another such
devastating event awaits her in the future.
There’s been a Death, in the Opposite House,
As lately as Today --
I know it, by the numb look
Such Houses have—alway --
The Neighbors rustle in and out --
The Doctor—drives away --
A Window opens like a Pod --
Somebody flings a Mattress out --
The Children hurry by --
They wonder if it died—on that --
I used to—when a Boy --
The Minister—goes stiffly in --
As if the House were His --
And he owned all the Mourners—now --
And little Boys—besides --
And then the Milliner—and the Man
Of the Appalling Trade --
To take the measure of the House
There’ll be that Dark Parade --
Of Tassels—and of Coaches—soon --
It’s easy as a Sign --
The Intuition of the News --
In just a Country Town --
The Emperor of Ice-cream
Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.
Take from the dresser of deal
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.
It would be extreme understatement to say that death has long been a topic
in literature; the topic has been central to human thought since the
beginning of human thought, and is no stranger to the pages of literature,
both classic and modern. However, in twentieth century America, death has
been sanitized to a great degree. One way in which twentieth century
Americans have been shielded from death is the replacement of the wake at
home with the funeral director and the funeral home. We have replaced
familial cooperation and shared grieving with convenience. What seems to
have happened in light of these changes is that the event of death seems to
have become more one-dimensional in its emotion than it may once have been.
What this long-winded introduction is attempting to lead toward is the
notion that the two poems chosen for this discussion deal with death in the
home on multiple levels of tone and emotion. Because the norm of the times
was to deal with death (both before and after) in the home, both poems
approach the topic with a distinct sense of intimacy and comfort. Emily
Dickinson’s poem, "There’s been a Death, in the Opposite House," is
believed to have been written in 1862. Wallace Stevens’ poem "The Emperor
of Ice-cream," was published in his first collection of poetry, in 1923.
Both poems have common elements (home and death, hustle and bustle, and a
certain sense of irony), yet it is apparent that sixty-some years separate
An initial distinction can be made between the two poems’ sense of
perspective. The speaker in Dickinson’s poem is noticeably outside the main
action of the poem—an outsider. The first line makes that clear: "There’s
been a Death, in the Opposite House." The first line in Stevens’ poem,
however, makes clear that the speaker is somehow an integral element of the
goings-on in this death house. Here, the speaker seems to be orchestrating
the whole event: "Call out the roller of big cigars." The speaker needs
this particular person to perform tasks necessary for the wake. We, as
readers, are viewing the events from inside the home. This is in distinct
contrast to the patchwork story that the reader and speaker create through
Dickinson’s poem, based on
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American Christians, Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, The Emperor of Ice-Cream, Harmonium, Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson
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