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Poems On The Theme Of Death

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 3391 words Published: 4th May 2017

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The theme of death and the dying have pervaded numerous works of art throughout the ages. “Do not go gentle into that good night” by Dylan Thomas, “Remember” by Christina Rosetti, and John Donne’s “Death Be Not Proud” are distinguished examples of poems where the matter of death is being explored. These convey a mood of through the frequent use of extended metaphors; mortality is recurrently personified, compared to the passage of the sun, or even alluded to as a luxurious retreat. In addition to these poems, Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for Death”, “A Mother in a Refugee Camp” by Chinua Achebe, and “And Death Shall Have No Dominion” by Dylan Thomas, employ a variety of evocative imagery, figurative language and descriptive metaphors to convey their respective moods and themes of defiance, loss, and above all, the certainty of death.

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Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night” is a villanelle, a strict poetic form that consists of two alternating rhyme sounds and rhyming refrains. Thomas uses the poem to address his dying father, lamenting at his deteriorating condition and beseeching, imploring him to fervently “rage against the dying of the light”. The 20th century Welsh poet compares death with the “close of day” repeatedly throughout the stanzas, the metaphor forming an integral part of the villanelle. Establishing the allegory of death and darkness, the speaker urges the unnamed listener to “Do not go gentle into that good night”, begging him not to acquiesce to death dispassionately throughout the initial stanza. Here, Thomas has created an extended metaphor in which light and day represent life, and darkness and the night symbolize departure and loss. As the first line is a refrain in the villanelle, it is repeated a total of four times, further reinforcing the imagery. In addition, the poet employs alliteration to emphasize the metaphor and to make the refrain more alluring; “go” and “good” along with “not”, “night” and the ‘n’ sounds in “gentle” and “into” bequeath a pleasing rhythm and sound.

An apostrophe to an unknown speaker who is later revealed to be Thomas’ father, the first stanza establishes the main theme of the poem: defiance in the face of death. Comparable to “And Death Shall Have No Dominion”, which likewise explores themes of prevailing over death, Dylan Thomas uses the imperative form to impart a mood of harsh desperation and resentment. The repetition of “rage” in line 3, the second refrain, accentuates the atmosphere of temerity and anger; in addition, jarring consonant sounds and assonance in the words “dying” and “light” create a sense of conclusion. Another reference to the extended metaphor of sunset and death is fabricated in lines 10 to 11 where the sun’s rapid “flight” across the sky is portrayed. The “sun in flight” symbolizes the exquisite stunning beauty of life but also highlights the much emphasized brevity and inevitability. This concept of life being a radiant incandescent light is alluded to throughout the poem; bolts of lighting, blazing meteors, and other images of light and fire, which captivate readers with the idea of living with intensity, are then contrasted against the stifling darkness and night to convey the splendor and magnificence of life.

The metaphor of death as darkness and night is prevalent throughout “Do not go gentle into that good night”. In lines 4 to 6, second stanza, death is depicted as a certainty: “wise men at their end know dark is right”. However, Thomas continues by declaring that though death always comes to pass, “wise men” do not placidly concede. The men know “their words had forked no lighting”, a metaphor for how they have yet to effect a great impact upon the world, and so they struggle vehemently and cling to life for they have not achieved everything within their capabilities.

Lines 13 to 14 in the penultimate stanza also reinforce the notion of light and darkness. The simile, “Blind eyes could blaze like meteors”, implies that despite the fact that the men are frail and diminished, they still have power over the passage to death and aim to leave a mark behind. Meteors flare excessively bright for a brief moment, before they depart and darkness returns. These “Grave men, near death”, intend to shine and achieve greatness before time runs out as Thomas hopes his father will too. To emphasize the dramatic effect of the metaphor, Dylan Thomas use alliteration with “blinding”, “blind”, “blaze”, and “be”, the short consonant sounds giving it a declaratory quality.

A less dramatic but nonetheless spectacular example comparing death to something in nature resides in stanza 3. Here, the poet depicts the recent generation of men as the “last wave by”. This image of an ocean wave, a cohort of men, is about to crash against the shore, which is a metaphor for pass away. “Crying how bright their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay” as death approaches, these men are regretfully reflecting on what they could have done if they had held on to life for a while longer. The use of the adjective “frail” could either mean themselves are frail or the fact that though they may have great ideas, they no longer have the energy to put them in action. The use of the word “bright” links in with the extended metaphor and the color green used to describe “green bay” implies the sea is brimming with life in contrast to the barren shore.

By associating death with the course of nature; sunrise and sunset, waves on the shore, and meteors; Dylan Thomas had conveyed a sense of the inescapability and inevitability of death. Mortality is unavoidable and just like the certainty of the sun setting each day, everything will come to pass. However, the poet insists that “good men” do not view it with apathy but instead “rage against the dying of the light”.

Using the course of a day as a metaphor for life and death is not exclusive to Dylan Thomas; Emily Dickinson, a 19th century poet, published “Because I could not stop for Death” in 1862, condensing a life cycle into a metaphorical day. Taking a different stance in the view of death from “Do not go gentle into that good night”, Dickinson personifies death has a gentleman, a civil and polite carriage owner, implying that dying and death itself is not so much of an ordeal. The poem details a rendezvous and carriage ride with “Death” that starts in the morning and proceeds throughout the day and into the evening when it grows “quivering and chill”.

Line 9 stanza 3, the speaker and her companion pass a “setting sun” symbolizing life drawing to a close, the alliteration underscoring the significance. In the previous line, “the fields of gazing grain” set the scene and mood, giving the reader a sense of tranquility as an image of a field of golden wheat swaying to and fro from a gentle breeze is established. Dickinson uses an anaphora of “we passed” in those two lines to mimic the stately pace of the “Carriage”. Instead of feeling as if the poem is at a standstill, the reader is aware it is moving forward and of the passage of time.

As the pleasant day approaches evening, there is a sudden transition in mood. The weather grows “quivering and chill”, setting a more somber and solemn tone as well as highlighting the presence of “Death” as he is often associated with the cold. Lines 15 and 16 reveal that the woman is under-dressed: “gossamer my gown, my tippet only tule”. Echoing the first stanza this reflects that she is under-prepared because this carriage ride was not her decision and thus had not planned for it. The first line of stanza 4 contemplates the nature of death; “Or rather – He passed Us – “, describes the sunset. Dickinson suggests that dying feels like the sun, light, and its warmth are abandoning one to the cold darkness that is death. Likewise, Dylan Thomas uses this sentiment in the phrase “the dying of the light”. Emily uses the adjustment, “Or rather – “, after the stanza to enhance the change in mood. The long pause between stanza 3 and 4 allow the reader to notice the poem is developing a shift from a sunny warm day to a chilly ominous dusk.

As night sets, the carriage approaches a “house” which is the last stop and final resting place. A metaphor for a grave, Dickinson stresses the idea that the speaker accepts and is complacent to the idea of dying, a sharp contrast to Dylan Thomas’ vehement protestation at death, by utilizing an image familiar to the readers as a place of repose, further highlighting the composure of the speaker. In the final stanza, it is revealed that the woman has been deceased for “centuries”. Subsequently, the lines, 23 and 24, disclose that she first “surmised” that she was on the path to death after observing the horses’ heads, which were directed “toward eternity”. A devout Christian poet, Emily Dickinson believes in the concept of life after death and thus the noun “eternity” is used to represent afterlife. This is initially introduced in the first stanza where Dickinson describes the entities in the “Carriage”: “held just Ourselves and Immortality”. Here, the poet capitalizes “Immortality” to place emphasis on the importance of the word. The fact that Dickinson uses immortality in place of mortality gives the reader the first hint that the speaker does not recognize death as the end but a passage into eternal life.

“Because I could not stop for Death” likewise has a recurring motif of inevitability; by using the cycle of a day to represent life and death, much like “Do not go gentle into that good night”, the poem feels as if each stanza passes more quickly than the last with the end approaching fast. While the “close of day” Thomas refers to in his poem is something to fight against, Dickson creates a mood of calm acceptance through creating imagery of idyllic scenery throughout the ‘day’ and the composure of the speaker. The use of a sunset as an extended metaphor for death in their respective poems highlights Dickinson’s, and maybe Thomas’, beliefs in redemption or reawakening after death: for every sunset must be followed eventually by a sunrise.

Death is personified as a benevolent suitor in Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for Death”. In sharp contrast, death in “Death Be Not Proud”, though still personified, is depicted as an egotistical ruffian who claims he possesses the ability to accomplish extravagant deeds when in fact he cannot. Written in the 1600s by the metaphysical poet John Donne, the Petrarchan sonnet attacks “Death”, humiliating and insulting him as well as comparing him to thugs and low-lifers in an apostrophe. Right from the first line, the speaker scolds Death, depositing him in his rightful place and commanding him to “be not proud”; or in some versions of the poem without the initial comma after death, the speaker is stating that Death is not so great. Though a few may think he is “mighty and dreadful”, this fact is indubitably a mere fabrication.

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John Donne characterizes death as a conceited, pretentious nuisance who most treat with deference with the exception of the speaker. The following lines emphasize this characterization; Death assumes wrongly that the power to end life is delegated to him. By employing the word, “overthrow”, in place of kill, Donne has further developed the concept of death being a mere bully, someone who hustles people out of their rightful places. Like Dickinson, Donne believed in Christian eternity. The ensuing line, “nor yet canst thou kill”, indicate that death is merely a phase people pass through to attain a new eternal life. During the volta, lines 9 to 10, an intensification of the hostility between speaker and Death cultivates. John Donne likens death to an insignificant slave, suggesting “Death” does not act on his own free will but is manipulated by “Fate, Chance, kings and desperate men”. By capitalizing “Fate” and “Chance”, Donne personifies them as the masters of Death. The subject is then denounced as an outcast, whose only companions are abominable thugs: “poyson, warre, and sicknesse”.

The idea of death, in “Death Be Not Proud”, is not only personified; Donne also constructs a metaphor by associating it with sleep throughout the sonnet. Within line 5, “rest” and “sleepe” are portrayed as “pictures” of death, meaning pale imitations. As slumber bequeaths profound pleasure, death should grant even more as it is the genuine article. This is further explored in line 8 where Donne, like Dickinson in “Because I could not stop for Death”, implies death is a reward of rest, where the “best men” achieve eternal rest for their weary bodies. “And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well”: here, the comparison emerges as an extended metaphor. The speaker further declares that if one desired a gratifying sleep, death isn’t even necessary; heroin and magic or potions could administer the same results. Line 13 of the poem further elaborates on the metaphor; Donne distinguishes the interval between the speaker’s death and the ‘Day of Judgment’ as a “short sleepe”. When the speaker awakes, he will live in heaven with eternal life ahead of him. In the line after, the poet rationalizes that considering there will be no death as everyone has the benefit of eternal life, death as an entity, will cease to exist.

John Donne ingeniously manipulates the concept of death in three different ways during the last line of “Death Be Not Proud”; foremost is the physical death (“death shall be no more”), then the personification of death, and subsequently, death as a metaphor for simple non-existence (“Death, thou shalt die). Comparable to Dylan Thomas’ “And Death Shall Have No Dominion” in which the title speaks for itself, through the use of strategically placed metaphors and suggestive descriptions, John Donne successfully conveys the theme of death’s insignificance to the reader. “Death Be Not Proud” also alludes to death’s inexorableness; by comparing it to sleep, which is inevitable.

Death can also be described as recompense, an interval of relaxation at the end of a long weary day. Akin to Donne’s “Death Be Not Proud” which compares death to restful slumber, Rosetti illustrates death as a retreat, a restful repose. A 19th century Victorian romantic poet, Christina Rosetti wrote “Remember” in 1862, a poem about a woman whose death is imminent and thus expresses her longing to be remembered. The sonnet commences with a plea to an unnamed lover to commemorate the speaker when she is “gone away”, a metaphor for deceased. This representation extends to the subsequent line where the poet conveys death as going “far away into the silent land”. Rosetti’s use of the noun “silent land” describes a silent cemetery, implying a dormant state and an existence that is neither happy nor sad.

The idea of separation is emphasized in the following line where the speaker beseeches her lover to consider her even when he no longer beholds her features or takes her “by the hand”. Lines 5 and 6 imply that the two were conspiring to marry and when the man’s visits to her grave, telling her of the future he had “plann’d”, cease, he should still never forget. However, by line 9, the volta of the sonnet, the speaker abruptly has a change of heart. She decides if only “darkness and corruption leave” an impression, if her death causes anger or her lover only remembers the ambiguity of their love (“Nor I half turn to go, yet turning stay.”), she rather him “forget and smile” than “remember and be sad”. Christina Rosetti presents a mixture of contentment and melancholy; the two lovers ardently exhibit their fervent love for each other yet, inevitably, death pushes them apart. Using simple diction and colloquial conservational language, the English poet establishes visual images of an invalid whispering urgently to loved ones on their death bed.

Chinua Achebe’s “A Mother in a Refugee Camp” likewise touches on themes of remembrance and inevitability. Written during a civil war in Biafra, the poem is a unique representation of love between a mother and child. Inspired by the difficulties and suffering of his people, the contemporary poet describes the devastation from the eyes of a fatigued, yet fastidious, mother. “A Mother in a Refugee Camp” begins with an allusion to the religious image of “Madonna and Child”. To say that “no Madonna and Child could touch” indicates to the intensity of “her tenderness for a son”. The following lines illustrate the harsh, bleak and demoralizing conditions of the “refugee camp” where Achebe draws upon the sympathy of the reader using evocative imagery and descriptive language.

Depicting the residents of the camp, the phrase “unwashed children with washed-out ribs” establishes a mood of neglect and despondency. The paradox of “unwashed” and “washed-out” emphasize the deficient nature of the conditions they are living in; “unwashed” implying the desertion of the children by their guardians and “washed-out” describing their skeletal frame as all the flesh has been leeched off by hunger. Much like the dull shade of an old cloth which has been washed frequently, the essence and spirit of these children are dissolving as their lives ebb away.

The poet of “A Mother in a Refugee Camp” further highlights the devoted relationship between the subject and her son by comparing her against the norm. “Other mothers there had long ceased to care” emphasize the miraculous nature of her assiduous care. Achebe deliberately conveys the denial of the mother, as she rejects the inevitability regarding the death of her son, through describing in detail the procedures she goes through to prepare her invalid son for the day. The mother painstakingly “rubbed him, down with bare palms”, takes “a broken comb” and “began to carefully part his hair. Throughout her administrations Achebe allows glimpses of reality conveying that her son’s death is indeed imminent. His hair is “rust-colored”, a color of wear and neglect, and his head is described as a “skull” indicating to her son’s skeletal features carved by hunger.

Mentioning a pleasant life these two characters once had, the poet contrasts this with an ominous ending: the simile, “like putting flowers on a tiny grave”, demonstrates the forthcoming death of the child. Achebe places emphasis on the mother’s yearning to not forget, to retain the memory of loving a child and through the use of blunt descriptions of a harsh environment in a refugee camp and detailed portrayals of a mother’s love, he has conveyed to the reader a mood of denial and the inevitability of death.


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