Death is such a fundamental and powerful part of our society that it has understandably been a predominant influence in thousands of years of poetry. Thus for my English literature poetry coursework, I have decided to explore the prominent topic of death and the ways that it is portrayed and presented in poetry. Among the six poems selected poems for this piece of work, A Mother in the Refugee Camp (Achebe) and Do not go gentle into that good night (Thomas) are by contemporary modern poets, Because I could not stop for death (Dickinson), Break, Break, Break (Tennyson) and Remember (Rossetti) are from the nineteenth century, and Death be not proud (Donne) is from the renaissance sixteenth century period. The contrasts in tone, style, viewpoint and period between these six poems promise some notable comparisons and observation.
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Do not go gentle into that good night’s attitude of defiance and resistance of death creates a stark contrast with Emily Dickinson’s well-known Because I could not stop for death. While Do not go gentle into that good night uses dominant imagery and figurative language to create a powerful mood of defiance and resistance, Dickinson does the exact opposite in Because I could not stop for death; she uses mellower and solemner imagery to define a tone of acceptance, obedience and reverence. Within Do not go gentle into that good night, poet Thomas’ use of highly passionate metaphors such as “dying of the light” referring to death and recurring theme of fire and rage to symbol resistance is comparable to Dickinson’s use of a “carriage” as an extended metaphor for the process of death. Dickinson’s reverence of death is apparent as she begins the poem, referring to death in the first line with capitalization, effectively personifying death as a respected gentleman. This is further supported by the fact that the personified death is shown in a positive light with words such as “kindly” – “he kindly stopped for me.” The idea of a carriage is then introduced in “The Carriage held but just Ourselves- And Immortality.” “Immorality” signals the speaker’s belief that life does not end at death, and that life after death exists. In the stanza one, it is clear that the author is compliant to death, willingly “riding” with him. The following middle four stanzas develop the extended carriage metaphor, creating a journey in the process of death. The personified Death is further described to be a respectable and considerate figure – “he knew know haste”, with “civility” used to describe him as a considerate and civil person. Scenes of children and fields act as a trigger of calm nostalgia, and “passing the setting sun” is used as a metaphor for dying. By stanza four, the mood of the poem has changed as the journey towards death nears the end. Having passed the sun, she is now going into the cold, and references to “gossamer, gown, tippet and tulle” – all thin veil material – show that she is underprepared for death. By stanza five, the journey of death has come to an end, as the speaker reaches “a house that seemed a swelling in the ground”, a metaphor for a tomb. In the last stanza, it is revealed to the reader that this carriage journey of death actually occurred long ago, though it remained fresh in the speaker’s memory. It is also revealed that the speaker knew from the start, life would go on after death. Throughout the poem, the extended metaphor of a carriage journey, which gives a moving, flowing feel, as well as the use of standard iambic pentameter rhythm and repetition in structure help give the poem a flow, which contributes to the calm and serene tone of the poem. Dickinson often refers to the speaker and the personified death as “we”, showing their close relationship. It is interesting to note that although Do not go gentle into that good night and Because I could not stop for death have opposing attitudes towards death, their authors use similar literary technique to express these attitudes, even sharing the metaphor of the end of a day as representing death. This demonstrates that however death is perceived and represented, it is essentially the same; the dimming of life accompanied by a mood of mourning, however angry or calm the bereavement is. The two contrasting views of death in for-mentioned poems can be traced to their periods of origin and author’s believes. Because I could not stop for death was written during the Victorian era when religion still had a strong influence on western society, and hence the prominent belief of life after death and immortality, shown in the poem itself, is likely to be the reason for the poems calm acceptance of death. Do not go gentle into that good night on the other hand was written during the contemporary 1950s period when religion had lost much of its grasp on the general public; as a result Thomas’ has reflected society’s secular beliefs at that time as well as his own – that life ends at death – and so he writes so passionately for his father to fight and resist death.
Commonly, poets tend to present a negative attitude of death in their works due to death’s associations with misery and grievance. This view can be seen quite clearly in both Do not go gentle into that good night and seventeenth metaphysical poet John Donne’s Death be not Proud. However, the degree to which Thomas and Donne demonstrate death negatively is quite extreme. As opposed to Thomas’ passionate call for resistance against death, Donne has taken to demeaning death, attacking him on almost personal levels through effective personification. Written in the form of a Petrarchan sonnet, the octane of the poem concentrates of informing death that he is has no right to be proud – “Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not soe” (You are not mighty and dreadful). Death is perceived to be something that is meant to be feared, who is “mighty and dreadfull” and invokes fear and terror. However, the poet tells death that he is in reality not so. Donne mocks death in line four, calling him “poor death”, and declares death to be like sleep and rest, as something that is of “much pleasure”. On the ninth line- the Volta of the sonnet – Donne increases his attacks on death. He writes “Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men”, calling death a slave who merely appears when ordered by others. He then goes on to insult death more with “And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell”, saying death’s mates are essentially thugs, as poison, war and sickness are all miseries of life. In the following two lines, Donne suggests that even drugs and charms can induce sleep better than death, returning to the original theme of death merely being sleep. “Why swell’st thou then?” asks death why he is proud when he clearly has no right. Donne ends the poem with a biblical reference, common in his day when religious influence was strong – “One short sleepe past, we wake eternally” refers to the resurrection of all at the end of the world by Jesus for ‘Judgement’. He then finishes in a characteristically contradictory way for metaphysical poets, by saying “death, thou shalt die” and telling death to die. Throughout the poem, Donne sticks to the many stigmas of poetry writing during his time, using biblical references as well as the literary technique conceit commonly adopted by Metaphysical poets, where he uses the extended metaphor of comparing death to rest and sleep. Within this poem, the flow given by the Petrarchan sonnet’s ABBA rhyme scheme has transformed the poem almost into a sort of angry rant. Hence, while Thomas focuses on the loss of promising life in death which invokes him to advocate the resistance of death, Donne has gone for the extreme, attacking death itself and transforming a fearful, commanding death into a prosaic mortal.
A Mother in the Refugee Camp is a plaintive poem which examines the hardships of life during Biafra’s (now Nigeria) Civil War. Contemporary poet Chinua Achebe has taken a unique approach towards death; rather than offering his own perspective of death he has placed death into context and offered it to the reader through a first-person perspective. By writing about a refugee mother assiduously caring for her child despite his inevitable death under the poverty-stricken conditions, Achebe has successfully invoked the empathy of the reader. The poet begins the poem with significant imagery, referring to the famous Madonna of the Child statue. By comparing the statue to the mother and her child, a strong image is created of the special bond of love between the mother and her child. Achebe then goes on to explore this special bond, describing the mother’s assiduous care for her child. Achebe then creates contrast by describing the grim, harsh conditions of life in the poem, which helps establish a depressing and melancholy mood which blends in well with death. For example, Achebe writes “unwashed children with washed-out ribs”. Through the clever play of the word “wash”, Achebe manages to emphasize the meager, miserable conditions by describing that the children are unwashed, yet there ribs are “washed-out”, meaning that all their flesh is gone, leaving a skeletal frame covered by bone. “Washed-out” also implies deeper meaning into the lives of the children; it suggests that the ‘essence’ has been washed out, like the faded colour of a cloth, and metaphorically implies the fading of the children’s lives, as it slowly ebbs away. To help emphasize the inseparable bond of love between mother and child and its link to death here, the poet also actively puts emphasis on the mother’s indefatigable care for her child. This can be seen in “bathed him and rubbed him down with bare palms” and the way she combs and parts her sons hair. This identifies the state of denial of the mother, who refuses to accept the inevitable death of her son, and is in a superficial state of hope. Achebe however, allows the reader to sense this inexorable doom through flickers of reality, such as “her tenderness for a son she would soon have to forget.” The poets add to this sense of grim reality by finishing off the poem with “like putting flowers on a tiny grave”. Both “Soon she would have to forget” and “grave” directly indicate the fading of life from the child, with grave being a metaphor for the child being as good as dead, and tells of the mother’s manifestation of love amid her inability and powerlessness to alter fate. By contrasting the mother’s denial and hopelessness, and attentive care of her child with the inventible death of the son, the poet has managed to strongly evoke sympathy and empathy from the reader, demonstrating the fated bond between love, death, and the powerful emotions that the connection between the two causes.
Like A Mother in a Refugee Camp, Remember by Christina Rossetti explores the lamentation between death and love. Written in the form of a Petrarchan sonnet, Rossetti writes of a love relationship between the speakers, presumably herself, and a suitor. Throughout the poem, Rossetti sets a melancholy mood as the speaker envisages her own death, as we can see from the first two lines of the poem – “Remember me when I am gone away, gone far away into the silent land.” “Remember me when I am gone” is a sad request by the speaker, setting the mood in the first line. “Silent land” is a metaphor for death, and thus we sense the speaker’s obsession with her own death. The octane of the poem (first eight lines) consists of the speaker telling her lover to remember her once her anticipated death occurs, and sets a depressing tone to the poem. On line nine, the Volta brings a change of direction to the poem for the sextet (last six lines) as the speaker changes her mind, as she tells her lover that if he forgets her to not be sad. The last two lines of the sonnet act as defiant summary – “Better by far you should forget and smile, than you should remember and be sad”. She states that she would rather her lover forget her and be happy, than remember her and be sad. The poem presents the process of deliberation as the speaker tries to solve a dilemma in her life. Within this poem, Rossetti has conveyed the sense of lamentation and grief in a milder manner, creating a sad yet at the same time calm and soothing poem. The speaker within the poem is not so much concerned with death as she is concerned with how her lover will remember her after her death. This lack of focus on death directly helps soften the miserable and mournful tone, changing the overall tone to an ambivalent melancholy. The use of the characteristic ‘ABBA’ Petrarchan Sonnet rhyme scheme also helps give a rhythm to the poem, almost making it into an elegy, as seen in Do not go gentle into that good night, and thus adding to the melancholy atmosphere.
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The theme of death is often closely related to death through the association of loss and grief. The connection between death and love are the fundamental motifs explored within A mother in a Refugee Camp, Remember and Break, Break, Break, and also makes up an important part of Do not go gentle into that good night. A mother in a refugee camp concentrates on the way a powerful mother handles as she watches her son slip away, drawing ever closer to inevitable death under dismal living conditions. Within the poem, author Achebe creates a miserable, mournful atmosphere and evokes empathy from the reader, letting out glimpses of the miserable life that is covered up by the mother’s sedulous care for her child and her state of denial. In Remember, a contrasting calm and melancholy tone can be sensed as Rossetti chooses not to concentrate on the element itself but rather how the speaker will be remembered after her inevitable death. This in turn brings out the relationship between the speaker and her lover, as she eventually chooses from her dilemma that she would rather her lover forget her and be happy, then remember her in mourning and misery. This intimate yet subtle relationship between the dying speaker and her lover gives the poem a tender and touching feel. In Do not go gentle into that good night, Thomas focuses on his dying father, pleading him to resist and fight death as he still has more to live for. The repetitions, refrains, parallelism within the poem as well as its villanelle rhyme scheme marvelously turns the poem into an elegy, effectively demonstrating Thomas’ love for his father as his father slips through the gaps of life. In Break, Break, Break, poet Alfred Lord Tennyson has written an elegy of mourning for his passed away friend “Arthur Hallem” and there is a strong sense of isolation, grief and nostalgia within the poem as Tennyson captures his own emotions. The short poem begins with intensity through the forceful repetition of the word “break”, giving a cold, mechanic feel. Tennyson describes himself as lost for words following his friend’s death, and the repeated assonance “o” sound in “On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!” helps vocalize this feeling of loss. The sea crashing into the cold grey rocks represents the author’s emotional turmoil, as a dark and violent image is conjured up. In stanza two, Tennyson contrasts between happiness in youth and sadness in maturity through his reminiscence of the past. This innocence and joy is shown firstly through alliteration, in “shouts for his sister” and “boat on the bay”, which gives the stanza a sense of flamboyancy, and also through the obvious rhyme between “play” and “bay” which adds to the rhythm. The use of the two children – “fisherman’s boy” and “sailor lad” add to this idea of reminiscence as it contrasts with Tennyson’s friendship with Hallem, which has been severed by death. Thus the two children are a reminder to him of his formal self. The end of the poem reverts back to the “break, break, break” seen in the first stanza and the emotions demonstrated at the start. This lack of progression points to the author’s inability to move on from the emotional turmoil caused by his friend’s death. The depiction of the rocks as “at the foot of thy crags” suggests that they are rough and sharp, showing the painful nature of his emotions. The extended metaphor of a sea throughout the poem helps develop cohesion throughout the poem, giving a soothing melancholy flow suitable to the mourning nature of the poem. The sea is a metaphor for Tennyson’s belief of something beyond the mere cycle of life and death, with the vastness of the sea acting as a mystery in the metaphor. Through the poems mournful nature and Tennyson’s emotional turmoil and pain caused from the death of his friend, the inseparable friendship bond between him and Hallem is strongly inferred.
Death is both intangible and immeasurable; hence the mixed perceptions we have of death are merely figures we have conjured up through our imaginations, catalyzed by emotions and social influences. It is because of this artificial nature of death that it is so powerful; it can be anything and everything our mind perceives it to be- feared, revered, resisted, hated and condescended – it is the root of grief, anger and acceptance. From this piece of work, we see these startling contrasts in perception, from the denial in A Mother in a Refugee Camp, to the composed melancholy in Remember and Break, Break, Break, to the calm acceptance seen in Because I could not stop for death, and finally to the fervent resistance and hatred in Do not go gentle into that good night and Death be not Proud. The connection between death and love is particularly notable, as all six poems have explored this theme to different degrees. It is this subtly intimate relationship between death and love that invokes the bereavement and empathy commonly associated with death.
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