I admit to having a little trouble with this poem at first but I came across a wonderful analysis of it on a blog called The Prowling Bee. This helped me center the image as her speaking about being witness to a young person’s corpse whom the “simple-hearted neighbors” are watching over and trying to make sense of someone who is too “Early dead” (taken before their time).
It’s remarkable how she equates death with something that is a living spirit. She refers to (perhaps the soul) as “the quiet fairy” who would be scared off if it saw us crying over the body of even a young person taken too soon. The image of death as birds fleeing still has the image of life and movement in it, a transition from one sort of movement to another.
I like that she refers to her neighbors as “simple-hearted” and then uses the word periphrasis to describe how they use so many words to try and make sense of this tragedy, as if words are the only thing keeping us grounded to this side of death and that the more we speak the more likely we might be to keep away the possibility of death coming for us. Yet she also explores reality and death with words, but as a poet she has the eye and ear to give art to this scene by describing the young person’s soul leaving the body as the “Birds have fled”.
Emily’s whole world seems to consist of words, but she’s aware how all of our lives are made up of words – often too many of them – but the great artist is the one who can make best use of those words to give us an image that is simple and free from complication.