Emily Dickinson’s poem, “The Bustle in a House” reflects the themes of mortality and immortality by describing the activity that occurs after someone has died. Although the poem is only two stanzas long with four lines in each stanza, it is able to convey the complexity of emotions surrounding death, particularly how it can cause one to become emotionally withdrawn.
The first two lines of the poem read, “The bustle in a House/ The Morning after Death” (Dickinson lines 1-2). The bustle in a house refers to a wake, or the period of mourning that occurs immediately after someone has died. These often take place in the home of the individual that has passed, which is the reason it is described as occurring in a house. The morning after death has two connotations: first, it describes the literal time in which the scene occurs, but it also has a similarity to the word mourning which would align with the overall theme. If only listened to, rather than read, one might hear the word mourning rather than morning. The first two lines also contrasts activity that occurs within a house after someone has passed, with the stillness of the individual who has died.
The second two lines provide context for the scene described in the first two lines. The third and fourth lines read, “Is solemnest of industries/ Enacted upon Earth” (Dickinson lines 3-4). This description shows how even though the house is fully of activity, or bustle, presumably by family and friends of the deceased, there is a prevailing solemn atmosphere to indicate this is not a joyous period, but one of sadness. The usage of the word “industries” is meant to show how this is a very human response, and there is a compulsion for people to gather in the wake of someone passing. Although a social event, this is the most solemn event that could be enacted. The fourth line, which places the scene on Earth, shows how universal this activity is: all communities are affected by death, and nearly all cultures experience a period of mourning immediately after someone has passed that involves a gathering of friends and family.
The second stanza begins with “The Sweeping up the Heart/ And putting Love away” (Dickinson lines 5-6). This stanza provides a metaphor for what occurs during this initial period of mourning. Sweeping up the heart is a reference to the pain that occurs after losing someone, and the heart is swept away in order to help protect those from emotional pain. This meaning is reinforced in the sixth line, which specifies that love is being put away. The metaphor compares this act of closing down emotionally with cleaning a house, although what is actually being described is how one attempts to shield oneself from pain by closing down emotionally and hiding away one’s heart.
The final two lines of the poem, “We shall not want to use again/ Until Eternity,” reinforce how the pain of losing someone can be overwhelming. The pain experienced is described as not wanting to be experienced again until the end of time, or Eternity, which is when we are able to once again see our loved ones according to Christianity, which Dickinson would have believed. Ultimately, the pain can be so great that it becomes a feeling that no one ever wishes to experience again.
The sound of the poem uses half rhymes and unconventional punctuation in its structure. The first stanza contains the half rhymes of “House” with “industries,” as both use an s-sound. Similarly, “Death” half-rhymes with “Earth.” The usage of half-rhymes allows the poem to have a melodious sound, but because half-rhymes are used instead of full rhymes, the effect is more subtle and avoids sounding like a song. The second stanza includes the half rhyme of “away” with “Eternity” to the same effect.
The poem also uses unconventional punctuation, particularly in its capitalization of nouns for emphasis, and how it includes a dash in the fourth line at the end. The dash is used to indicate a slight pause while also identifying a continuation of the poem in the second stanza. The dash therefore acts as a dramatic pause in the reading of the poem.
The second stanza highlights the capitalization of various nouns, particularly “Sweeping, Heart, and Love.” Each of these words convey the emotions of the poem, and the nouns used in the second stanza have more positivity than the nouns in the first stanza. This shows how although grief can be emotionally difficult, there is a silver lining at the end, even if this means one must wait an eternity to be reunited with someone who has passed.
The poem utilizes an iambic rhythm, which places stresses on alternating syllables. The iambic structure provides a constant rhythm throughout the poem, giving it a constant melodious flow that works in conjunction with the half rhymes.
Overall, Dickinson’s poem is one that describes the emotional pain that occurs after one has passed, and both the social and emotional and rituals that occur afterward. Friends and family gather together, but at the same time, there is a closing off of the heart in order to avoid the emotional pain. The poem utilizes half rhymes and an iambic structure which gives the poem an overall rhythmic feel, and the sound and structure of the poem works in context with the overall meaning and theme to create a poem that deftly touches upon the moments after death.
- Dickinson, Emily. “The Bustle in a House.” In The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson. Faber and Faber, 2002.