Debra Bruce

The Prince Is Dead
Helen Hunt Jackson (1830-1885)

A room in the palace is shut. The king
      And the Queen are sitting in black.
     All day weeping servants will run and bring,
But the heart of the queen will lack
All things; and the eyes of the king will swim
With tears which must not be shed,
But will make all the air float dark and dim,
As he looks at each gold and silver toy,
And thinks how it gladdened the royal boy,
And dumbly writhes while the courtiers read
How all the nations his sorrow heed.
     The Prince is dead.

The hut has a door, but the hinge is weak,
And to-day the wind blows it back;
There are two sitting here who do not speak;
They have begged a few rags of black.
They are hard at work though their eyes are wet
With tears which must not be shed;
They dare not look where the cradle is set;
They hate the sunbeam which plays on the floor,
But will make the baby laugh out no more;
They feel as if they were turning to stone,
They wish the neighbors would leave them alone.
     The Prince is dead.

"The Prince Is Dead": Helen Hunt Jackson

hen I first read "The Prince Is Dead," I was stunned by the bold, loud, forthrightness of it. I kept hearing a word which is not actually part of the poem-proclaim-with its bell-tones issuing commands, announcing birth and death as in the world of monarchs, which is the setting of this poem.

     Known best, though not by a large audience, for her activist writings such as her novel, Ramona, about the unjust treatment of American Indians in her lifetime, Helen Hunt Jackson was familiar to me mainly because of her friendship with Emily Dickinson.
Jackson was the popular-in-her-lifetime writer whose reputation had been demoted by literary history to a scurrying around the edges of Dickinson's True Genius.
Jackson was the popular-in-her-lifetime writer whose reputation had been demoted by literary history to a scurrying around the edges of Dickinson's True Genius. Having this sense of her so strongly for so many years, I'd only read a few of her women's anthology pieces, usually in the context of other writers of her time, and I had written her off as sentimental and decorative.

     But this poem proclaimed itself. One day as I was driving, I was thinking about what makes it so strong, and I thought of its "powerful iambics"-which is not a thought I wanted to have!---- in the context of the many triple meters of women's poetry in the 19th century. Back home I took a look and realized I was dead wrong: the poem is predominately anapestic tetrameter, not the grand iambic pentameter I thought I remembered. Its bold proclaiming comes from declarative sentences, enjambment, and diction. It rings out the terrible news, breaking syntax in ways that reminded me of Milton, starting in line one, "The king/ And the queen" which harshly separates the two in their sorrow, and a few lines later, "But the heart of the Queen will lack/ All things;" which underscores the queen's pain with its hard monosyllabic rhyme ("lack" rhyming with "black") and its syntax which slams us over the line-break into the end of the clause in the first metrical foot. The words in this poem are hard, no "soft fringed" eyelashes or "frolic child," phrases I found in other poems of the period about dying children; instead we have "begged," "rags," and "stone." A "sunbeam" appears in stanza two, but that's as close as we get to the diction we might expect, and it's preemptively attacked by "hate." And the baby in stanza two didn't coo or murmur; he "laughed out."

     This poem refuses to turn away from the inconsolable grief of the parents, placing the loss of the royal couple alongside that of the commoners. The royals have leisure to sit still with the news; the commoners have to keep working. Which is more horrible? Unlike other poems of this period (as well as from earlier centuries) about the death of children, it takes no comfort from religious faith. I was moved to learn that Helen Hunt Jackson wrote it after she'd lost both of her children, the first in infancy from a tumor, and the second when he died at 9 from diphtheria. She had lost her husband as well, and in this bleakest of times she began her career as poet and activist. Interestingly, other women poets of the time wrote more directly about their own motherhood, some of them even including the names of their children in their poems. I was surprised by how personal some of these poems were, but I found this one by Jackson to be the most powerful by far.


Debra Bruce’s third book, What Wind Will Do, was published by Miami University Press of Ohio, and she’s had work in The Atlantic, The Formalist, Poetry, Ploughshares, The Virginia Quarterly Review, Prairie Schooner, and other journals.  She has been the recipient of grants and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, The Illinois Arts Council, The Poetry Society of America, and Poetry magazine.  She is a professor of English at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago. Visit Debra Bruce's website.


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