The Bustle in a House
The Bustle in a House
Emily Dickinson 1890
“The Bustle in a House,” first published as “Aftermath” in Dickinson’s posthumous first collection, Poems by Emily Dickinson, in 1890, was probably written in 1866. In this poem, Dickinson writes about the brief, busy, suspended period of time between the death of a loved one and the private grief that follows. It is during this time that the bereaved must busy themselves with mundane, or ordinary, tasks in order to get through the experience without emotional collapse. Though it may seem absurd to clean and straighten a house where a loved one has passed away the night before, Dickinson describes this behavior almost as if it were a ceremonial rite. On a practical level, these activities are necessary because friends and neighbors will come calling to the house to pay their last respects to the deceased and they will be comforted by cleanliness and order. On a spiritual level, these activities are cathartic, or emotionally cleansing, because they allow the bereaved some time to prepare themselves for the real work: living the rest of their lives without the loved one.
Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, in 1830 and lived there all her life. Her grandfather was the founder of Amherst College, and her father Edward Dickinson was a lawyer who served as the treasurer of the college. He also held various
political offices. Her mother Emily Norcross Dickinson was a quiet and frail woman. Dickinson went to primary school for four years and then attended Amherst Academy from 1840 to 1847 before spending a year at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. Her education was strongly influenced by Puritan religious beliefs, but Dickinson did not accept the teachings of the Unitarian church attended by her family and remained agnostic throughout her life. Following the completion of her education, Dickinson lived in the family home with her parents and younger sister Lavinia, while her elder brother Austin and his wife Susan lived next door. She began writing verse at an early age, practicing her craft by rewriting poems she found in books, magazines, and newspapers. During a trip to Philadelphia in the early 1850s, Dickinson fell in love with a married minister, the Reverend Charles Wadsworth; her disappointment in love may have brought about her subsequent withdrawal from society. Dickinson experienced an emotional crisis of an undetermined nature in the early 1860s. Her traumatized state of mind is believed to have inspired her to write prolifically: in 1862 alone she is thought to have composed over three hundred poems. In that same year, Dickinson initiated a correspondence with Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the literary editor of the Atlantic Monthly magazine. Over the years Dickinson sent nearly one hundred of her poems for his criticism, and he became a sympathetic adviser and confidant, but he never published any of her poems. Dickinson’s isolation further increased when her father died unexpectedly in 1874 and her mother suffered a stroke that left her an invalid. Dickinson and her sister provided her constant care until her death in 1882. Dickinson was diagnosed in 1886 as having Bright’s disease, a kidney dysfunction that resulted in her death in May of that year.
The Bustle in a House
The Morning after Death
Is solemnest of industries
Enacted upon Earth—
The Sweeping up the Heart 5
And putting Love away
We shall not want to use again
On the morning after a loved one has died, the house of the deceased is full of so much activity that it forms a surprising contrast to the lifeless corpse that would have been laid out in the parlor or elsewhere in the home in Dickinson’s day. The word “bustle” is used brilliantly here, for it can mean an excited activity or a violent commotion. Indeed, the aftermath, or consequences, of death are almost always harsh and violent. In line 2, it is no accident that Dickinson used a homonym for “mourning.” Mourning is the outward, customary expression of grief which Dickinson will elaborate upon in the poem.
This “bustle” mentioned in the first line of the poem is “solemn.” “Solemn,” too, has several meanings. It can mean serious, or it can mean sacred and ceremonial. There is reason to believe that Dickinson intended both meanings, for she uses it to describe “industries,” a word with the archaic meaning of “diligence.” “Diligence,” in turn, can also mean “assiduity,” or pious devotion. In these lines, the spiritual and the practical are intertwined
- Poems and Letters of Emily Dickinson: Unabridged, Caedmon Audio, 1992.
because the sacred rituals and ceremonies performed for the dead are the closest that most people “upon Earth” will ever get to the mystery of immortality before passing away themselves.
In these lovely lines, Dickinson uses housekeeping as a metaphor for the process of letting go of the dead. The heart, broken to pieces by grief, must be swept up and hidden from sight. Love, like memory, must be stored in a safe place. Order must be created to counteract the chaos of death. On a more literal level, it is true that many people, when they are in crisis, turn to thoughtless tasks like housework in order to maintain control of the situation. In fact, Dickinson plays with language by using the “heart,” a word similar to “hearth,” or fireplace, which would have needed to be swept out before the mourners arrived. The house must be straightened up in order for the family of the deceased to receive visitors, but every home is full of evidence left behind by the person who has died.
These final lines escape being melodramatic because of Dickinson’s use of the verb phrase, “shall not want to use.” After great loss, many grief-stricken human beings react by vowing that they will not love again if love is inevitably lost, and loss brings such great suffering. Others hide their love away out of a profound sense of loyalty to the deceased, swearing that they live only with the memory of their lost love until the grave. Both of these reactions, though somewhat irrational, are an important part of the process of grief for many people. Finally, the idea that we will all be reunited with our deceased loved ones in the afterlife (“Eternity”) has been a comfort to the bereaved since the beginning of time.
Readers with just a passing familiarity with the Dickinson’s work, including “The Bustle in a House” often come to the conclusion that the poet was “obsessed with death.” Certainly death and dying are frequent subjects in Dickinson’s more than 1,750 poems, but to accuse her of such a fixation is to underestimate her contributions to American literature. Many of her male poetic contemporaries are equally concerned with death, but have not been thought to be so eccentric on account of it.
There are reasons why nearly 600 of Dickinson’s poems to have to do with death and dying. First, as the descendent of Calvinists Dickinson grew up in a culture that viewed mortal life as a temporary interlude before the moment of death and judgement, and, one hopes, ascension to heaven. Though she rejected her family’s strict religious views, Dickinson would have certainly absorbed the attitudes. Second, death was common in Dickinson’s life. People died of common illnesses and in childbirth with a frequency that is hard for modern readers to imagine. She lost three young friends growing up and was greatly affected by their deaths. Finally, Dickinson’s great strength as a poet is her interest in probing and describing moments in the human psyche, and the moment of death is without a doubt the most dramatic of all possibilities.
In “The Bustle in a House,” Dickinson depicts the state of a household after someone has died. The pairing of death and domesticity is a common theme in Dickinson’s poems. In the poem she describes the noticeable escalation of activity, the bustle, that follows death. In the ninteenth century these activities would include preparing the corpse for burial, packing up belongings, and preparing for guests. Such domestic activities are important to her exploration of the dimensions of death, “solemnest of industries.”
That many of Dickinson’s poems employ imagery of domestic activity is not surprising: she lived virtually her entire life inside her house in Amherst, Massachusetts. She had some household help with the chores, but she still devoted more time than contemporary readers can imagine to her domestic duties. Her letters often reveal an impatience with and a distaste for the routines of housework, but her poems show how she came to see this kind
Topics for Further Study
- Write a long poem describing exactly what the “bustle” consists of, what actions are taken the morning after death. Use specific, clear details.
- Compare the emotion in this poem to Walt Whit-man’s “O Captain! My Captain!” Whitman’s poem was written at almost the same time as Dickinson’s. What do the two poems have in common?
- What do you think the author means by “putting love away”? Is this idea realistic or hopeful?
of work more abstractly, more metaphorically, as a defense against the death and decay that always threatens to overwhelm human beings. Critic Cynthia Griffin Wolf argues that “a reader must understand the routines of housework to appreciate” the poem. This is “no daily chore of dusting off and throwing out,” Wolf continued. Instead it is seasonal work with cyclical implications, the careful folding up and putting aside of summer or winter clothes that will not be used again until a new year has begun. In other words, sweeping up and putting away provides an emotional outlet for the speaker and gives her the chance to contemplate the possibility of an afterlife. She would know from years of experience that what is stored away is usually brought back out in another season.
“The Bustle in a House,” is written in two quatrains, or stanzas of four lines each. As in the majority of Dickinson’s works, the rhythm of the poem is rooted in iambs, regularly recurring two-syllable segments in which the first syllable is un-stressed and the second is stressed. In the first, second and fourth lines of each quatrain, Dickinson uses a three-foot metric line called an iambic trimeter (“tri” meaning three). In the third lines, she changes to a four-foot line, called iambic tetrameter (“tetra” meaning four). This pattern—two lines of six syllables, followed by one of eight, then one of six—is called the short meter. It is one of the English hymn meters familiar to her from childhood.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, common English nouns and other words were often capitalized. Dickinson adopted this out-of-fashion form of capitalization to her own purposes and in this poem applies it in “Bustle,” “House,” “Morning,” “Death,” “Earth,” “Sweeping,” “Heart,” “Love,” and “Eternity.” She does this, perhaps, because her poetry is a celebration of the exact, perfect word, and capitalization can be used to highlight the intensity of meaning.
She punctuates the poem by separating the two quatrains with a dash, her signature mark. Here, the dashes seem to divide the poem between a general, universal topic and specific, personal examples.
The truth about Dickinson’s life in Amherst has been both intentionally and unintentionally distorted in literary and popular accounts. The basic facts are indisputable: she lived almost her entire life in one house, she never married nor seriously entertained any proposals; and she left behind more than 1,700 poems hand-bound and sewn. The myth of the lonely spinster whose delicate nature poems emerged from her broken heart is a modern-day fiction, however. In order to separate Dickinson the artist from Dickinson the myth, it is important to understand why she would have chosen the life she did, given what was available to her at the time.
As the female child in an old and very prominent family with a great many connections, Dickinson was groomed and educated to assume the roles of wife and mother, and would have had certain civic responsibilities as well. At the very least, she would have raised and educated her children, run the household and supervise the staff, and support her husband in his professional life. In the nineteenth century, however, these roles were much more onerous than they seem to readers now. She would have had almost no control over when and how many children to bear and would risk death every time she delivered. She would have spent part of every day dressing to go out and then calling on the old and sick, visiting with members of the
Compare & Contrast
- Late Nineteenth Century: The Civil War, as well as bacterial infection and widespread diseases such as consumption, makes death a familiar part of daily life in the United States.
Today: Through live news reports from both network and cable television, Americans viewers are presented with images of death and tragedy from around the world with an immediacy previously inconceivable.
- Late Nineteenth Century: New Englander death rituals take place in the home, with the dying being surrounded by friends and family in household rooms temporarily made into death chambers. There, the company awaited signs of the dying’s heavenly salvation, received last requests and wills, and witnessed the repentance of sins during the last rites sacrament. The faithful dying sometimes gave witness to the approach, then presence of heavenly salvation. For the onlookers, contact with the dead and dying is considered an important part of living, in that it reminds them of the temporality of the body and the potential passage of the spirit into heavenly eternity.
Today: In most cases, the dying are removed from their homes and cared for in specialized facilities such as hospitals, nursing homes, and hospices. In all cases—and by law—corpses are removed from houses and prepared for burial by mortuary specialists. Even in instances in which the dead are viewed postmortem, their bodies are carefully prepared and doctored. In the eyes of the general public, contact with the dead and dying is seen—both rationally and irrationally— as dangerous, harmful, and disturbing.
- 1830-1855: Transcendentalism, an American philosophical and literary movement born in New England, is at its height. An outgrowth of Romanticism, the transcendentalist attitude opposed middle-class commercialism and looked for evidence of the divine in the world while conceiving very liberally of godliness. It gave priority to personal intuition, organized mysticism, and a broad optimism about human nature.
Today: While many people espouse views of divinity and have faith in a transcendent mover of the world we see, the domain of the mysterious—concerning aspects of everything from causes of death to weather patterns to human behavior—in increasingly collapsed by advances in human sciences.
church, and generally fulfilling civic and social responsibilities. Even if she could have found the time and the solitude to read, contemplate, and write, her work would likely have been seen as completely unseemly, even downright dangerous, for a woman.
Under the circumstances it makes sense that a young woman with towering artistic ambitions, like Dickinson, would chose solitude. She was fortunate that she had some money of her own and did not have to marry for support or protection, which would have been true for a woman without her social status. Dickinson gave up the chance to marry and have a family; in exchange, she had the independence, time, and solitude to devote herself to her writing. She was not an isolated and heartbroken eccentric, having enjoyed many correspondents and a dear relationship with her sister-in-law.
Dickinson’s unconventional way of life and her poetry still strikes readers today as daring and original. Earlier critics have suggested that she published so few of her poems while she was alive because she had no intention of ever releasing them. More recent scholarship suggests that Dickinson regarded herself as a serious poet and imagined an audience for her work beyond her primary reader, who was her sister-in-law.
Dickinson was an avid reader and was well aware of the kinds of poetry popular in her day. She also knew, therefore, how little hers resembled it. Popular poetry of the time was sentimental and genteel. Not even the radical transcendentalists (Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and others) produced much poetry that looked or sounded new. Women’s poetry at the time was even more sentimental, describing emotional states or reiterating conventional behavior. Dickinson’s radical new lines and use of dashes would have been jarring enough, but her unsentimental questioning, and her often erotic imagery, would have offended some editors and readers alike, if she could even have reached them. It’s likely that Dickinson knew she would be wasting her time in battling the literary establishment, especially as a woman poet; even if she succeeded in getting her work into print, it would bring unwanted attention that would distract her from the more important task of writing more poems.
Harold Monro, a British poet and editor whose criticism of Dickinson is included in The Recognition of Emily Dickinson: Selected Criticism Since 1890, argues that Dickinson has been “overrated,” claiming that she was “partially deaf [and] mostly dumb, to the art of poetry.” He goes on to point out how her poems are riddled with mistakes that a better editor would have noticed and corrected. In spite of this negative opinion, he does offer a relatively positive reaction to “The Bustle in a House,” writing that the poem is “clumsy enough, but redeemed entirely by a magic of pathos and loveliness.”
In contrast, W. D. Howells, writing in his W. D. Howells as Critic, offers more sympathetic critique of Dickinson’s poetic talent. Howells writes of her poetry ’s “rarity” and “singular worth” in his 1891 review of her first collection of poems, posthumously. Howells’ enthusiastic opinion garnered respect for Dickinson’s writing by contrasting the negative opinions held by many of his contemporaries. Howells describes “The Bustle in a House” and poems like it as “terribly unsparing … but true to the grave and certain as mortality.”
Sarah Madsen Hardy
Madsen Hardy has a doctorate in English literature and is a freelance writer and editor. In the following essay, she discusses the metaphors in “The Bustle in a House” in the context of Dickinson’s life and culture.
Emily Dickinson’s poem “The Bustle in a House” is a poem of mourning. Unlike typical poems of mourning, called elegies, however, readers do not learn from Dickinson’s poem specifically who died and who is mourning. Dickinson instead refers to the activities in a household where a death has taken place and to the feelings of the deceased’s loved ones. At first glance, the poem may seem quite simple—a description of how, on the morning after a death, the living begin to confront the love they still feel for the departed. However, it uses the unconventional metaphor of housework to describe the process of mourning. In this essay I will explore the cultural and personal contexts of this metaphor in order to shed light on Dickinson’s original concept of the relationship between life and death.
Dickinson was singularly fascinated with death, both the experience of dying itself, and how loss is experienced among the living. Death is one of the most prominent themes in her large body of work. This can be attributed to the fact that the mystery of death raises questions of what it is to live, to be, to have a soul or consciousness—questions at the very center of Dickinson’s poetic inquiry. But it also reflects the fact that death was far more closely woven into the texture of everyday life in the mid-nineteenth-century when Dickinson wrote than it is today. Because antibiotics had not yet been discovered, people frequently died from sicknesses that we now consider mild. Death in childbirth and early childhood were common. Furthermore, less medical intervention was available at each stage of physical decline. The majority of all deaths took place at home, instead of in hospitals, hospices, and nursing homes; thus, people in Dickinson’s time were much more likely to witness the death of their family members. Death was an experience that was closer at hand for Dickinson and her contemporaries than it is for most Americans today—an experience associated with, rather than divorced from, the intimate setting of home.
Dickinson witnessed a number of deaths in her lifetime, describing them from the point of view of an attendant in poems such as “The Last Night that She Lived.” The closing stanzas of this poem describe the dying woman’s moment of passing and the actions and feelings of her intimates immediately afterward as they handle and then contemplate her body. It reads, “She mentioned, and forgot— / Then lightly as a Reed / Bent to the Water, struggled scarce— / Consented, and was dead— / And We—We placed the Hair— / And drew the head erect— / And then an awful leisure was / Belief to regulate—.” In other poems like “The Sun Kept Setting—Setting—Still” and “I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died” Dickinson describes death even more daringly and intimately from the point of view of the dying person, both during and after the moment of death. The latter, one of her most famous poems, is striking because it interposes a buzzing fly upon the dying speaker’s grand spiritual passage to the afterlife. At the moment of “that last Onset—when the King / Be witnessed—in the Room—” it is this common household pest whose presence the dying person feels, rather than that of God. Dickinson juxtaposes the great theological concepts of mortality and eternity with a mundane detail from daily life. “While what is expected [at the moment of death] is the storm of dissolution, the sublime moment of passage,” wrote Judith Farr in The Passion of Emily Dickinson, instead is an awareness of a fly, “its stupid aimlessness a suggestion of the puzzlement that is life as well as its homely sweetness.”
The scene of dying at home is important to Dickinson’s representations of death throughout her body of work. Indeed, it can be argued that Dickinson’s “image of house or home, touching the tangible and imaginative worlds at once, is perhaps the most penetrating and comprehensive figure she employs,” as Jean McClure does in Emily Dickinson and the Image Home. McClure elaborates that Dickinson uses images of the house and home to “treat all of her most pressing concerns, concerns which relate to her place in the universe. Home thus reflects her inner landscape … a sensitivity to space dependent on both personal and social factors.” McClure refers to women’s role in nineteenth American culture as inextricably tied to domesticity, as well as to Dickinson’s personal history—she lived as a recluse, seldom venturing from her family home, from her early twenties until her death at age fifty-five.
Death poses difficult philosophical questions for all who contemplate it. Most people rely on some culturally prevalent form of explanation, such as science or religion, for death’s mysteries. However, Dickinson was in critical dialogue with the dominant ideas of death circulating in her day. Her poetry is steeped in Protestant theology and the rhythm of Protestant hymns. But Dickinson sets her poetic vision of death against the religious doctrine representing God in authoritative, impersonal, and patriarchal (male authority) terms that she would
“For Dickinson … home is, foremost, a metaphor for the self.”
have heard preached at church on Sundays. Another culturally dominant understanding of death to which Dickinson responded in her poetry was derived from sentimental literature—a form of fiction and poetry that was wildly popular in the nineteenth century. Popular sentimental literature was predominantly written by women from whom Dickinson was eager to distinguish herself. As Maria Magdalena Farland described it in her article, “That Tritest/Brightest Truth,” sentimental literature renders death less threatening by using “human emotions to symbolize divine love [and] using homey scenes of life on earth to represent the less-familiar prospect of life-after-death.” Just as Dickinson’s poetry uses ideas and aesthetics from the strict Protestant religious culture in which she was steeped, it also uses ideas and aesthetics from the dominant popular culture of sentimental literature. But, “while sentimental fiction and poetry overwhelmingly tended to affirm the value of such comparisons” between home and the afterlife, Farland argues, “Dickinson’s poems contest and often negate them.”
“The Bustle in a House,” as in “I Heard a Fly Buzz,” poses large spiritual questions pertaining to mortality using modest, homely imagery—a deliberate and provocative juxtaposition. The first verb in the poem, “bustle,” has none of the grand solemnity associated with death and formal, ritualized mourning. Bustle is the somewhat trivial action that is associated with the many small necessities of everyday life, necessities that do not cease for the living even when a death has just taken place. While men—notably, religious leaders—were traditionally in charge of the spiritual preparations for the soul’s passing, it was women’s work to deal with the practical and logistical preparations. Thus, Dickinson refers to the morning-after bustle as the “solemnest of industries,” characterizing it as part of women’s realm of home industry or housework. As in “I Heard a Fly Buzz,” this poem situates death in the home, dramatizing a confrontation between the seemingly meaningless activities of life and the specter of a final Meaning endowed by death. The
What Do I Read Next?
- A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Wolf makes the argument that women cannot be great writers until they create domestic space in order to read and write and think.
- Diary of Emily Dickinson (1993) by Jamie Fuller and illustrated by Marlene McLoughlin is a fictional account of the poet’s inner life and includes several poems written in Dickinson’s style by Fuller, herself a poet.
bustle that opens the poem is a counterpoint to the weighty word, “Eternity,” with which it ends. The poem is filled with similar contrasts. It is set on “the Morning after Death,” setting up a contrast between the night, with its associated darkness and surrender of consciousness, and the day that inevitably follows—and with it, life’s mundane but unstoppable flow.
In the second stanza, Dickinson extends her central metaphor. After a death in the house, life goes on with “the sweeping up the Heart / And putting Love Away.” Thus, it becomes clear that she is not just talking about the general cleaning and straightening up of house that continues to be necessary even after the occurrence of a death within its walls, or even the more intimate and dramatic preparations of the body. Rather, she uses such activity to symbolize the internal, emotional activity of mourning. In “The Bustle in a House” she describes a housekeeping of the heart that must go on even after it has experienced a great loss. For Dickinson—who lived an adventuresome life of the mind between the same four walls of the house where she was born—home is, foremost, a metaphor for the self. Homes and houses in her poetry represent different dimensions of selfhood-consciousness, the mind, imagination, and spirit. To die is, then, to surrender the only known home of the self, rather than to “come home” to God, as the prevalent theological metaphor would have it. Witnessing a death is a partial loss of self for Dickinson; it requires a setting aside of a piece of the self—one’s love for the deceased—until “Eternity,” a concept impossibly abstract for the home-bound, grieving heart to comprehend.
“The Bustle in a House” does not offer the reassurances of either Home in an all-powerful God or those of a homey afterlife that is not so different from the world we know. In the poem death is simultaneously an intimately familiar event and one of awesome mystery. What is familiar and home-like is the love of the deceased that the living carry with them. Eternity is, by definition, not-home, a radically other and unknown place. The living are stuck in the metaphorical houses of themselves, in a place or state radically disconnected from Eternity—disconnected except for the ties of love for the dead that the living must struggle to “put away.”
Source: Sarah Madsen Hardy, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 2001.
Elisabeth Piedmont-Marton teaches American literature and directs the writing center at a college in Texas. In this essay she discusses Dickinson’s use of domestic imagery in her poems about death and dying.
Readers who encounter only a handful of Dickinson’s poems remark how frequently she writes about death and dying. Her interest in the moment of death is not surprising to critics who recognize, like Adrienne Rich noted, that “she is the American poet whose work consisted in exploring states of psychic extremity.” Less critical attention has been paid to domestic life and work, another persistent theme in her poetry.
These activities, which include sweeping, dusting and other household labors, have been overlooked for a couple of reasons. First, early critics belonging to the male literary establishment would have read her use of domestic imagery as an indicator of her femininity and reclusiveness. Then, the first feminist critics of the 1970s devoted little attention to her domestic imagery because its identification with “women’s work” made their project of reconstructing her as a feminist more difficult. More recent critics, primarily feminists, however, understand her use of domestic imagery in more subtle ways. Cynthia Griffin Wolff, for example, notes that “many of the poems that give voice to despair most forcefully and poignantly are strung together with this stabilizing imagery from the domestic world.” “The Bustle in the House,” together with another poem, “How many times these low feet staggered” reveal Dickinson’s deft and layered use of domestic imagery in poems that also concern death.
That the moment of death seems often less momentous than ordinary is one of the most disturbing and powerful characteristics of Dickinson’s poems. Where one expects the sublime, she offers the mundane. Instead of grand passion, she delivers quiet rumination. In both of these poems, for example, the finality of death is set against the insistent cycle of housework. Dickinson uses the image of housework to suggest ways that humans can stem the tide of decay that death signifies. The routine labors of tending to the house and family, Dickinson suggests, anchors women and keeps them from despair.
In “How many times have these low feet staggered,” Dickinson describes a housewife after her death. The first stanza wonders how many times has this humble woman failed or stumbled under the burden of all the work she has to do. There can be no answer, however, because only the “soldered mouth can tell,” and it will never open again. No one else knows because no one else paid attention. The housework, like the woman, was invisible. In the second stanza the poem insists that the woman be seen and touched. It reminds observers that her now cold forehead was frequently hot with exertion or fever, and it dares those present to touch her hair and handle her fingers. The last line of the stanza can be read as a rebuke to those who still see her only as the embodiment of work, reminding them that in death her fingers “never a thimble-more-shall wear.” As is often the case with a Dickinson poem, the final stanza destabilizes the meaning of the poem that had developed to that point.
In contrast to the rather oblivious and callous human viewers of the “low” woman’s body, the household “spirits” in the second stanza are quite animated and attentive. On the occasion of the housewife’s death, they stage a kind of celebration. Flies buzz, the sun shows off the proudly speckled window, and cobwebs fear no retribution. The woman can take a day off and be “indolent,” or lazy, pampering, self-indulgent, only in death. Dickinson uses housework to signify two things. First, the housewife’s work represents the human instinct to fight against death and decay, however futile the battle. As soon as she “staggers” for the last time, death defeats her and her efforts. At the same time, however, it’s hard to miss the celebratory note in the last stanza, as if the poet secretly wants to endorse the victory of dust and finger-prints
“That the moment of death seems often less momentous than ordinary is one of the most disturbing and powerful characteristics of Dickinson’s poems.”
over drudgery. What if, she seems to say, the forces of entropy—represented by cobwebs and fingerprints—have always been in sympathy with the housewife? What if they’re not mocking her, but are instead rejoicing because she is finally liberated from the burden under which she has staggered for too long?
The Bustle in a House also takes housework and death as its subject. In this poem, Dickinson describes the escalation of activity in a household where someone has just died. In this poem, however, the housewife is absent. In the first of the two stanzas, the “bustle” is the subject of the sentence. The impersonal effect is intensified by the Dickinson’s word choices. She describes the deeply personal and intimate acts of cleaning up after death as “industries.” Even more striking, however, is her location of this solemnest of industries not in a particular house, not even indoors, really, but “on Earth.” This is an unusual gesture for Dickinson: in most poems she consistently chooses the particular over the general, the concrete over the abstract, and her poems tend to take place in enclosed spaces.
The second stanza continues to focus on the act and not the person doing it. The subject of its single sentence is two gerunds (verbs that represent uncompleted action), “sweeping” and “putting away.” In a marvelous visual pun, Dickinson allows a glimpse of the material reality of this kind of “industry” in the line “The Sweeping up the Heart.” She knows that reader’s eyes will mistake Heart for Hearth, because that’s the thing housewives ordinarily sweep. The moment of confusion this causes allows both meanings to hang in the air and asserts the deep connection between both kinds of women’s work, the care of both hearths and hearts. In the poem’s last two lines, Dickinson finally introduces a pronoun. But in the choice of “We,” she nevertheless keeps the housewife hidden from view while insisting beneath the surface that the reader make the housewife present. The poem’s concluding lines suggest that the one doing the sweeping and putting away does so for the benefit of others, the “we” who will not want to use them “until Eternity.”
Dickinson scholar Griffin notes that “the speaker’s deep insight is that this is no daily chore of dusting off and throwing out. Instead it is seasonal work with cyclical implications, the careful folding and putting aside of summer or winter clothes we shall not ‘want to use again’ until a new year has begun.” By suggesting that the rituals of grief are like the rituals of domestic duty, Dickinson offers a measure of consolation: death is a stage in a cycle, not an end; love will return in time. But the poem strains against its own imagery and invites readers to reconsider housework as much as it illuminates the cyclical nature of death and grief. The result is a poem that uses housework as a metaphor, but which also distances itself from the work itself and she who would do it.
This attitude toward housework reflects what we know about Dickinson herself, who often expressed resentment at the feminization and futility of domestic duty. According to Ellen Louise Hart and Martha Nell Smith, scholars who edited Dickinson’s intimate letters to her sister-in-law, the two women shared a resentment toward housework because it impinged on their intellectual, artistic, and private lives. Hart and Smith assert that Susan Huntington Dickinson spoke for both women when she wrote to Emily about the burden of “the Spring siege of sewing” that had put her “quite in despair.” In the letter she complains, “I find no time to read or think, and but little to walk—but just go revolving round a spool of ’Coat’s cotton’ [thread] as if it were the grand centre of mental and moral life.”
Dickinson and her sister-in-law share the daring view that housework—traditional and compulsory women’s work—is an enemy of “mental and moral life” of the independent and creative lives they would choose. Because she never married, Dickinson was able to give to her art much of the time and energy she would have been compelled to devote to sweeping and putting away if she had had a family. When housework appears in Dickinson’s poems, therefore, it must be understood as more than a handy metaphor. As Wolff argues, domestic imagery does act as a stabilizing and grounding force in Dickinson’s despairing poems about death. But metaphors work both ways, illuminating and complicating both terms in the pair. “The Bustle in a House,” and others like it, can also be read as poems about housework in which death is a metaphor. For Dickinson, who used domestic imagery in so many poems, housework was no minor annoyance. It represented the entire complex of social and economic constraints under which women labored and which both literally and figuratively deprived them of intellectual and artistic opportunity.
Source: Elisabeth Piedmont-Marton, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 2001.
Lake holds an MA in English and is a poet residing in California. In the following essay, Lake examines Dickinson’s use of the “exact” word and how her style infuses her poetry with its “subtle power.”
Among people who really know little of Emily Dickinson’s work, there are two predominant prejudices: her poetry is morbidly preoccupied with death, and her style is grammatically and syntactically confusing. As with some prejudice, there is at least some basis for making these complaints. Dickinson was at once fascinated with and appalled by death. Out of her own misgivings about the meaning of life and death, she thought often and deeply about the mysteries of death’s seeming extinction of the self. As much as she longed for the comfort of traditional Christian belief or Romantic pantheist mysticism, she found she lacked the ability to believe with simple faith in either. She was, in other words, the consummate nineteenth century agnostic. But she still struggled ceaselessly with the ultimate contradiction death seemed to pose to life. And she was also a keen student of human behavior, having observed death and dying and their effects on all concerned many times first-hand. And as far as Dickinson’s linguistic peculiarities go, her style was unique and arose from her self-developed style of poetic meditation. Early exposed to Webster’s dictionary and his unusual linguistic theories about the relationship between verbs and nouns, Dickinson spent her life searching for the “exact word” to express her insights into the human condition.
In fact, the magic of Dickinson’s poetry lies in its ability to say so much with so few words. She can conjure up an entire scene with a single noun and tell a whole story in a mere phrase. In fact, her work is highly prized for its crystalline compactness in Japan, where haiku reigns supreme. Even in translation, her poetry comes across as almost native to the Japanese. Understanding Dickinson’s technique of using select words and phrases to elicit a scene or to penetrate to the core of human experience helps us to appreciate such a tidy gem as “The Bustle in a House” with a sense of profound wonder. There are absolutely no wasted words in this short poem! Each reveals the depths of an emotional experience that we who live in the twenty-first century seldom encounter. Much in the tradition of the meditation poetry that Dickinson so admired in George Herbert, a seventeenth-century Metaphysical poet, “The Bustle in a House” meditates on the figures of a “grief delayed” in compressed language, syntactical “elision,” and choice imagery. It is a poetic achievement that in many ways anticipates Imagism and other modern poetic movements because of its use of single words and phrases to tell its story through pictures that reveal so much about the human condition with an economy of language.
Today dying is often hidden from us, obscured behind the facade of high-tech “life-support” systems in alien clinical environments. And death is disguised, cosmetically “sanitized,” and made unreal in corporate “funeral parlors.” But in Dickinson’s day, death was “up close and personal,” an entirely domestic affair. The dying often remained in their own beds at home during their illness and later “lay in state” in the family’s front room or parlor. Given the tightness of living quarters at the time and the socially required Puritan ethic of self-control, grieving survivors in Dickinson’s social circle often had nowhere to “hide” emotionally from their inward torment. But according to thanatologists, the psychologists who study the phenomena of death and dying, denial is usually the first of many stages in the grieving process in most cultures anyway. It is logical, then, that retreat into the everyday details of domestic life would be, especially for women of that era, the safest place to hide from the pain of losing a loved one.
Indeed, Dickinson creates an image of quick and efficient domesticity in the poem’s very fist line, “The Bustle in a House.” The repeated sibilants in “Bustle” and “House,” occurring in the first and third stressed syllables of the trimeter line, onomatopoeically produce the swishing sounds of skirts and petticoats moving swiftly about the house. And the second line immediately discloses the reason for all this activity by locating its time and circumstance, “The morning after Death.” Notice,
“She can conjure up an entire scene with a single noun and tell a whole story in a mere phrase.”
however, that the circumstance under which the “Bustle” occurs (“after Death”) and the time at which it occurs (“The morning”) are really the same because “morning” homophonically echoes “mourning,” the real circumstance under which the housekeeping takes place. The “Bustle,” therefore, is part of the “mourning” due to the “Death” of the beloved.
But the third and fourth lines of the poem actually exalt the housework beyond the pale of merely mundane labor and simple psychological denial, asserting that it “Is solemnest of industries / Enacted upon Earth.” With characteristic irony, Dickinson plays with the multiple meanings of words in the dictionary. Consulting Random House’s Unabridged Dictionary (Second Edition), we discover that cleaning house is aptly named an “industry” in this line, for it is indeed an ancient “systematic work or labor,” traditionally performed by women. But “industry” also means “energetic, devoted activity …; diligence.” As such, it implies “application, effort, assiduity, [and] industriousness.” Dickinson, of course, had all these meanings in mind. But as an industrious effort performed in dedication to the dead, this particular housework reveals an assiduity that approaches spiritual devotion. By calling it the “solemnest of industries,” Dickinson also invokes an older meaning of “solemn” to portray this house cleaning as a “sacred,” even a “ceremonial,” activity. In fact, the choice of the word “Enacted” completes the valorization of housework from “just woman’s work” to a sacramental office of religious devotion.
But note that at the end of the first stanza, we find one of Dickinson’s characteristic dashes. Usually used to slow the reading of her poetry’s hymn meter for verbal emphasis, it acts syntactically here to list the contents of the “solemnest of industries” enumerated in the last stanza. Part of the “Bustle in a House / The morning after Death” lies in “The Sweeping up the Heart.” In this, Dickinson plays with the similarity in spelling between “hearth” and “heart,” for sweeping up the hearth was an onerous chore too often performed by women during the nineteenth century. In sweeping up the ashes of the fireplace, the grieving one is actually sweeping up the pieces of her burnt out and broken heart. Of course, along with sweeping comes the folding up of linens for storage in cedar chests, but here the mourner is also folding up “And putting Love away / We shall not want to use again / Until Eternity.” Shutting away one’s love for the deceased with such utter finality is a sign of the state of psychological denial mentioned earlier. But Dickinson’s poem is a verbal snapshot of that precarious time after the personal disaster of a loved one’s death before those suffering from it can integrate its trauma into their lives and get beyond their pain. There is no reason to believe, however, that the grieving will stop at this stage and not proceed further towards healing. Beyond the scope of this poem’s dramatic vignette, there is still a chance this love will be opened up again when the mourner is able to stand love’s ultimate loss in death.
The fact is that Dickinson’s economy of language and syntactical compression empower her poetry to expose so much about the nature of human suffering. Many readers, as mentioned above, find her syntactical deletions and obtuse style confusing. We must understand, however, that Dickinson delighted in telling “all the Truth but tell[ing] it slant—” because in her opinion “Success in Circuit lies” (poem 1129, lines 1 and 2, in The Complete Poems). Telling all the truth “slant” entails an indirect approach that reveals rather than prosaically states the inner dimensions of life. It is a revelation that replicates for the reader Dickinson’s own “evanescent” or fleeting insight into the “Truth” of the human condition. Dickinson’s unusual syntax and her dependence upon isolated words and phrases to tell her story actually reveals the intensity of her thoughts and feelings, as well as the situation she is meditating upon. In fact, her fusion of intellect and emotion accounts for her poetry’s power to involve the reader in an act of consciousness, a direct apprehension of her vision. It is for this quality her poetry is admired in Japan, and it is this subtle power that makes “The Bustle in a House,” for all its brevity, a true masterpiece among Dickinson’s many exquisite poems.
Source: Michael Lake in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 2001.
Griffin Wolff, Cynthia, “Emily Dickinson,” in The Columbia History of American Poetry, Edited by Jay Parini, Columbia University Press, 1993.
Hart, Ellen Louise, and Martha Nell Smith, eds., Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson’s Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson, Paris Press, 1998.
Howells, W. D., “Emily Dickinson Announced,” in W. D. Howells as Critic, Edited by Edwin H. Cady, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973, pp. 189-195.
Monro, Harold, “Emily Dickinson—Overrated,” in Recognition of Emily Dickinson: Selected Criticism Since 1890, Edited by Caesar R. Blake and Carlton F. Wells, University of Michigan Press, 1966, pp. 121-122.
Rich, Adrienne, “Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson,” in Critical Essays on Emily Dickinson, G.K. Hall Press, 1984.
Ferlazzo, Paul, Emily Dickinson, G.K. Hall, 1976.
Though a little old, this book provides an excellent introdcution to the life and work of Dickinson.
Griffin Wolff, Cynthia, Emily Dickinson, Knopf, 1986.
This excellent and engaging biography looks at Dickinson’s life from a femininst point of view and goes a long way toward ending the myth of the poet as a frustrated old maid.