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The Attributes of Death in Poetry

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Death occupies a special place in the hearts and minds of humans. On one hand, death is a terrifying concept, as it signifies the end of the human experience as we know it. On the other hand, death can promise untold rewards and a future in a life better than this one. Regardless of one's views of the afterlife, it is clear that death is a central concept in poetry. This is part one of a sample research paper that explores the nature of death in poetry and the attributes that death appropriates in literary works.

Death: History's oldest literary device

A fundamental psychological and existential concern, the idea of death is explored in:

  • “Richard Cory” by Edwin Arlington Robinson
  • “When Death Comes” by Mary Oliver
  • “Suicide Note” by Anne Sexton
  • “Not Waving but Drowning” by Stevie Smith
  • “I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died” by Emily Dickinson.

Each of these poems uses distinctive literary devices to analyze the nature of death from different perspectives. Accordingly, they convey varying descriptions of death. However, despite their different approaches, the poems largely agree with one another as they portray three characteristic features of death as it is conceived in the human mind.

The first commonality is found in “When Death Comes,” “Suicide Note,” and “Richard Cory” as, through their speakers, these poems explore death in terms its universality; death is something that all living things must someday face.

Second, the poems “Not Waving but Drowning,” and “Suicide Note” each depicts the psychological subjectivity of death; it is something which must be experienced alone.

Finally, “When Death Comes,” “I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died,” and “Not Waving but Drowning” each describe the overwhelming incomprehensibility of death; it is essentially unknown to human beings, and therefore death is also curiously fascinating.

Each of these poems looks at death through different lenses, but these viewpoints eventually converge on and highlight its fundamentally universal, subjective and incomprehensible nature.

Death is universal

The universality of death in human society is perhaps most directly articulated in “Suicide Note” as the speaker predicts that he or she will “sink with hundreds of others/on a dumbwaiter into hell.” (19-20) The others that the speaker mentions indicate that he or she is not alone in dying; many will share the same fate. While here, the speaker only mentions the hundreds who accompany him or her on the descent, he or she directly references the universal aspect of death in line 69-71 telling the reader of the note:

“Everyone has a death/his own death/ waiting for him.” (Suicide)

In addition to referring to the idea that death is universal, the speakers use of the present tense possessive “has” highlights that death is not an abstraction off in the future; it is something that human beings have in common at the present. The universality of death is also in the forefront of “When Death Comes” as Mary Oliver’s speaker identifies:

"Each name a comfortable music in the mouth/tending, as all music does, toward silence.” (17-18)

The speaker is here using the names, the music, and silence to as symbols to describe the eventuality of death; life, like music, is beautiful, but they both must come to an end at some point. “Richard Cory” speaks much to this same point. This poem is comprised in an alternate rhyme scheme of ABAB, which leads the reader to associate the poem with a ballad telling the story of a great or heroic figure. Richard Corey, the subject of the poem, very much fits this bill, being described as “a gentleman from soul to crown,” wealthy, respected, and admired. (3) However, his suicide at the end of the poem is Robinson’s evidence that there is no person, regardless of status or rank, for whom death is not inevitable. Through their use of language, symbolism, and irony, these three poems serve to highlight the universality of death.

Death is purely subjective

The idea that death is a purely subjective experience is a key theme in Stevie Smith’s “Not Waving but Drowning.” While the poem is thematically concerned with the isolation as none of the people who knew the dead man when he was living understood:

“(he) was much farther out than (they) thought/and not waving but drowning.” (3-4)

As none of the people gathered around his body do not hear him, now that he is dead, his alienation from those around him is even more emphatic; he was alone in life, and he continues to be alone in death. Additionally, the subjective nature of death is referenced in Sexton’s “Suicide Note” before the poem even begins. The quote by Artaud that comprises the first epigraph of the poem states:

“You speak to me of narcissism but I reply that it is a matter of my life.” (Suicide)

Sexton’s appropriation of this line serves to highlight the intensely personal aspect of death; suicide may well be narcissistic in a sense, but every person’s death is theirs alone, and they must face it by themselves, whether voluntarily or otherwise. Furthermore, the speaker of the poem says of his or her suicide:

“Of course guitars will not play!/The snakes will certainly not notice/New York City will not mind.” (96-98)

By listing the things that will not happen when the speaker ends his or her own life, the speaker demonstrates that the difference between a person’s life and death is, cosmically speaking, negligible.

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