‘So in the church-yard she was laid;
And, when the grass was dry,
Together round her grave we played,
My brother John and I
‘And when the ground was white with snow,
And I could run and slide,
My brother John was forced to go,
And he lies by her side.’
‘How many are you, then,’ said I,
‘If they two are in heaven?’
Quick was the little Maid’s reply,
‘O Master! we are seven.’
[…] —We Are Seven (Bartleby)
This poem is a bit creepy, since the speaker has some morbid desire to crush a little girl’s enduring love for her dead siblings.
An earlier stanza reads thus:
‘You run above, my little Maid,
Your limbs they are alive;
If two are in the church-yard laid,
Then ye are only five.’
Yet, at the conclusion of the poem, the speaker doesn’t ask “How many be alive?” Instead he says,
‘But they are dead; those two are dead!
Their spirits are in heaven!’
‘Twas throwing words away; for still
The little Maid would have her will,
And said, ‘Nay, we are seven!’
He fed her a line that ended with “heaven”.
It’s not much surprise that she answered with “seven”.
However, the speaker doesn’t seem to notice that… from the outside perspective as the receiver of the poem, we know full well that the little girl won’t change her mind. The last stanza adds a rhymed couplet that stretches out the tension — but it’s only the tension of seeing the banana peel on the floor or seeing the cream pie in someone’s hand. We know exactly what’s coming, and the fact that the speaker is calling attention to the stubbornness and short-sightedness of the little girl means that we can see that the speaker is just a stubborn and short-sighted. The speaker doesn’t even try to muster up the power of the poetic structure of the poem, because if he did, he could at least ask “How many be you alive.” The speaker is just as out of sync with the form of the poem as he is with the conventions of sentiment, which would cherish and celebrate the little girl’s devotion.
The speaker does not learn a lesson in this poem, but we do.