As Cohen suggests poetry like your deeds is what remains of life, suggesting a final immortality for those penned in verse. Poetry is a powerful literary genre that endeavours to showcase emotions through words to provoke thought and reflection on life itself. Throughout history poets have created wonderful works of “ash” for audiences around the globe. A poet’s cultural background, social upbringing and philosophy will affect the diversity of the type of poetry that is written. Poetic thoughts via poetry can become a powerful tool that inspires and reflects an age or explores the important concepts of humanity. The concept of death, and thus its reflection on life, is a common discourse explored in poetry, which reveals that poetry about death is equally poetry about life.
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Culturally, there are diverse attitudes to death. Poetry represents a medium in which poets can display their views on death and record how they personally have been affected by death. Reading poetry about death should not be described as sinister or gloomy, but should be viewed as a tool to better understand or even cope with such a tragic, but inevitable phenomena. Poetry can be written in many different forms to better represent the idealistic views of the poet; the most common forms include sonnets, elegy and lyrical poems.
Poems penned about death also affirm attitudes to life. Poetry implies that even after death there is continuation of life; it lives in the thoughts and actions of others. In writing about death the poet may relate deep sorrow or fear, to contemplate death’s true meaning or to give mortality to the very subject dying. Verse gives immortality to loved ones. John Donne, Dylan Thomas, John Blight, Emily Dickinson, Slessor and Michelle Williams explore the contradiction of life and death through the loss of a loved one, personifying Death and the disastrous effects of war and terrorism.
English writer John Donne (1572 – 1631) is today described as one of the masters of the Metaphysical poets. His poetry and lyrics are often dramatic but marked with freshness and exuberance. One of his major literary pieces Death be not proud, though some have called thee is a sonnet confronting the power of death over man and perhaps death’s own mortality.
Donne at the time of writing this sonnet was in his religious phase heavily impacting on his ideology and thus the subject matter for his poetry. The language differs to modern poets such as Dickinson or Slessor due to the time in which Donne wrote; old English was the common language. Interestingly, this sonnet is written in a very controlled form, for a topic that no-one has direct control over. Unusually, Donne directly addresses Death as though it is a character personifying many of its attributes.
In the first line ‘DEATH be not proud,’ the word death is bolded and capitalised to draw attention to the prevalent theme of the poem. Throughout the poem Donne is anthropomorphizing death, implying it is an equal, while towards the latter half of the sonnet he begins to realise what is so important and frightening about death. Donne’s attitude to death is not fearful but speaks out against death and implying that death is not the end point of one’s life.
Line 9 ‘Thou art slave to fate, Chance, kings and desperate men,’ furthers Donne’s reflection that death is not as powerful or controlling as first thought to be. The personified death is a ‘slave’ to ‘fate, chance, kings and desperate men.’ Death does not choose who dies; fate and chance play the most vital role along with kings and desperate men. Death is not even in control of itself. Throughout the poem Donne utilises juxtaposition, ‘mighty and dreadful’ to display the insignificance of death. The poem concludes with ‘one short sleepe past, wee wake eternally, And death shall be no more; death thou shalt die.’ These last two lines bear witness to the theme that death is not victorious because people sleep and wake eternally alluding to our eternal existence. This sentiment is a reflection of the religious beliefs of the era in eternal life. The irony of ‘death, thou shalt die’ reinforced through alliteration, showcases that death should be afraid, and not the one to be feared.
The underlying theme of raging against death is exhibited in Welsh poet Dylan Thomas’s (1914 – 1953) Do not go gentle into that good night. Dylan Thomas writes from his heart as he directly addresses his dying father, an important influence throughout his life. He consistently writes poetry that exhibits the themes of the cycle of life and death and, unlike Donne, uses a simple form to present a complex message.
The first tercet introduces the poem’s theme of raging against death while also employing the alternating couplet that ends each stanza. In the first stanza Thomas’ theme of resisting death is evident as well as the first line contrasting with the third line. Gentle images are juxtaposed with the repetition of ‘rage’ urging a furious resistance to death prompted by the passion of youth. Thomas is almost commanding his father to ‘not go gentle, but to rage, rage against the dying of the light’. The next three stanzas then provide evidence as to why his father should not give up so easily on life and to ‘rage’ against death as there is more living to do.
Thomas refers to different classes of men, “grave men, good men, wise men, gentle men, wild men” who never give up, but then in his last paragraph he addresses his own father. Death can be faced with fear. In the last stanza he repeats the lines ‘do not go gentle into that good night, rage, rage against the dying of the light’ to emphasise the consistent theme outlined throughout the poem.
Much like Donne, Thomas explicitly pleads to his father on the cusp of old age to resist death. “Do not go gentle into that good night” uses a consistent rhyming scheme where each of the predominant words like ‘night’ in line 1 finds its opposite, ‘light’ in line 3. Through the use of a paradox like ‘Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears I pray’, oxymorons such as ‘blinding sight’, and the symbolic contrast of ‘night’ and ‘light’ to represent death and life, Thomas pleads with his father to summon every essence of strength to combat the inevitability of death. The poet’s plea advocates affirming life until the last breath, rather than learning to accept death quietly.
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Australian poet John Blight (1953 – 1973) captures the theme of death in a different style to the previous two poets. Like Donne, Blight uniformly uses a sonnet ‘Death of a Whale’ that deals with the sea and then moving to more universal implications about death in the final lines. Unlike John Donne and Dylan Thomas, Blight writes about the human capacity for compassion and grief when confronted with death.
The sonnet begins with the alternating contrast of a ‘tiny, delicate’ mouse and an enormous whale to suggest that human compassion and grief are heavily determined by size. The mouse sparks a small sense of grief in our hearts, but then is overturned by the ‘lugubrious death of a whale’, although the grief is more a sense of curiosity. The rhetorical question ‘How must a whale die to wring a tear?’ is asked by the poet, which of course there is no answer for. However, the poem changes in tempo with ‘Pooh! Pooh! Spare us, give us the death of a mouse,’ as the crowd realises the smell of the whale suggesting onlookers would actually prefer a mouse to have died in a tiny hole unnoticed. In the last two lines of the sonnet the reader witnesses a devastating change of mood with ‘when a child dies: but at the immolation of a race who cries?” The poet now refers to arguably the Holocaust in World War Two. The writer is accusing the general populace of being uncaring, and cleverly compares genocide to the death of a mouse and a whale. Blight tortures the inhumane heart of the human being, making an emotional and intellectual impact with the final couplet, suggesting a lack of compassion, perhaps numbness to the destruction of an entire race.4 Blight utilises many poetic devices such as similes including , ‘like a door ajar from a slaughterhouse,’ to provide powerful images of destruction.
It is obvious that when writing about the destruction of war, death too becomes a focal point of war poetry. Poems such as Dead Man’s dump by Isaac Rosenberg, Homecoming by Bruce Dawe and Beach Burial by Kenneth Slessor document attitudes to war and the impact of death on loved ones. Australian poet Kenneth Slessor tackles the frightening images of death in war in his literary verse ‘Beach Burial.’ The word ‘beach’ is often associated with a happy and joyful connotation, but once Slessor links it with the word ‘burial’, one is prepared for something gloomy to follow. War is often a place of death and grief which is heavily portrayed in Slessor’s poem. The gruesome horrors and imagery of death are outlined in Beach Burial.
Beach Burial uses a wide range of sound effects from the softness of the opening adverbs to the sad onomatopoeia of the famous image ‘the sobs and clubbing of the gunfire’. 5 There is also the blatant alliteration of ‘convoys….come’ and ‘bury them in burrows’ adding to the sound effects. Metaphors such as ‘as blue as drowned men’s lips’ and personification like ‘breath of the wet seasons’ is littered throughout the poem displaying Slessor’s diverse range of literary devices and heightening the reader’s sense of death to come. Unlike the other poems, Beach Burial utilises all aspects of poetic devices to display the significance of war and the prevalent theme of death, but lacks any controlled rhyming scheme.
‘Beach Burial’ opens with a warm and friendly introduction with ‘softly and humbly to the Gulf of Arabs.’ Soon the confronting truth hits: ‘The convoy of dead sailors come.’ Burial or death is often symbolised with a cross above the grave; Slessor uses the image of a cross ‘the driven stake of tidewood’ to display a confronting, almost primitive, image. The theme of the poem is vividly presented in the last stanza with the brutal fact that the enemy and allied sailors finally found landfall, a death bed. Both sides of the war are now ‘enlisted’ as one, combined by death, they are peacefully united. This poem is an indictment of death and war and the horror of it.
Elegies are a poetic form which in their dedication to the dead offers immortality. Michelle Williams, female Australian poet poignantly writes about death. Her recent poem Elegy for Bali serves as a dedication to the victims of the Bali bombings and the grief which remains. Bali is often known for its sunny beaches and a popular tourist destination, not linked with death.
In the first stanza, one is bombarded with poignant phrases that allude to the theme of death. Sadness for ‘those who mourn,…burdened by the pain of dawn’ describes the unrelenting grief which continues to rise, day in day out. In stanza two Williams uses words like decimation, rawness of despair and buried to complete the imagery of destruction. Like Donne, she too believes that death brings peace in sleep. The irony is that the father, mother or child left behind feels no such peace. The final stanzas signify a shift in mood. No longer is the reader struck with the emotions of sadness, despair and grief but comforted by love, hope and honour which will seal the families’ wounds. Concluding line ‘Nurture seeds for peace on Earth,’ signals growth and wisdom for the future; with death, life returns.
The personal nature of poetry offers a diverse tapestry of emotions when reflecting on death. Some poets believe death is inevitable and suggest one should not go without a fight, while other poets question our ability to feel compassion on a wider scale. Poetry leaves no doubt that with death follows grief and paradoxically a reflection on life. Romantic poet Lord Byron affirms that ‘Tis
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