The Subject of Death in English Poetry

"Philaster: Oh, but thou dost not know
What 'tis to die.
Bellario: Yes, I do know, my Lord:
'Tis less than to be born; a lasting sleep;
A quiet resting from all jealousy,
A thing we all pursue; I know besides,
It is but giving over of a game,
That must be lost.
Beaumont & Fletcher 

‘O eloquent just and mighty Death’, cried Sir Watter Raleigh in his book – titled so very appropriately -  A History of the World. It is indeed less a history of morality than of mortality, of Thanatos or the Freudian death wise rather than of Eros or the primal love instinct. The consciousness  that death is the ultimate reality, that man’s  life is a short journey from womb to tomb , that man’s very birth is again painfully and paradoxically – the beginning of the end , the death and the intellectual , the virtuous and the vicious has led man to resignation and stoicism, to theology and philosophy.Read More about Poetry   In short dominates his entire life. If poetry be the mirror of life, it will be the re – moldings of reality, if be the effusion of emotions, poetry can certainly not ignore this vital  reality, to some ‘the only reality’. ‘Doth poetry wear Venus Livery?’ asked Herbert, and indeed poetry wears the sable shroud of death too. Death has led poets to write elides and threnodies carpediems and carpe florems and to a host of other poems of non – distinctive genres.
                In Anglo – Saxon poetry death was primarily a cause for heroic celebration, a martyrdom which entailed emulation rather than lamentation. When in the second part of the epical Beowulf. Beowulf himself dies after a mortal struggle during which he slays the murderous dragon his warrior attends the elaborate funeral with sorrow in their mien but defiance in their eye. Although the Battle of Maldon is the story of a disastrous English defeat it is remarkable for its description of the unflinching courage of Byrthnot who dies with glory. But in later stage of the  Anglo – Saxon period death under the influence of Christianity became less of a warrior’s creed, than of a religious fulfillment. A hint is provided in The Sea Farer in which the call of the sea is also in a way of the call of death, the call of god to renounce the world and unite with him. In the Dream of the Road the death of Christ becomes the paradigm of human redemption for aeons to come. Read More about Poetry   

                The next sustained concern with death in English poetry comes with the vibrant dramatic poetry of the Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights, Shakespeare, the myriad – minded artist, presented almost all the faces of death to the human mind. In Measure for Measure, the impending death of Claudio brings about an intense debation death, in which the Duke tells Claudio that the sense of death is most in apprehension:

"Be absolute for death; either death or life
Shall thereby be the sweeter. Reason thus with life:
If I do lose thee, I do lose a thing
That none but fools would keep: a breath thou art,
Servile to all the skyey influences,
That dost this habitation, where thou keep'st,
Hourly afflict: merely, thou art death's fool;
For him thou labour'st by thy flight to shun
And yet runn'st toward him still. Thou art not noble;
For all the accommodations that thou bear'st
Are nursed by baseness. Thou'rt by no means valiant;
For thou dost fear the soft and tender fork
Of a poor worm. Thy best of rest is sleep,
And that thou oft provokest; yet grossly fear'st
Thy death, which is no more. Thou art not thyself;
For thou exist'st on many a thousand grains
That issue out of dust. Happy thou art not;
For what thou hast not, still thou strivest to get,
And what thou hast, forget'st. Thou art not certain;
For thy complexion shifts to strange effects,
After the moon. If thou art rich, thou'rt poor;
For, like an ass whose back with ingots bows,
Thou bear's thy heavy riches but a journey,
And death unloads thee. Friend hast thou none;
For thine own bowels, which do call thee sire,
The mere effusion of thy proper loins,
Do curse the gout, serpigo, and the rheum,
For ending thee no sooner. Thou hast nor youth nor age,
But, as it were, an after-dinner's sleep,
Dreaming on both; for all thy blessed youth
Becomes as aged, and doth beg the alms
Of palsied eld; and when thou art old and rich,
Thou hast neither heat, affection, limb, nor beauty,
To make thy riches pleasant. What's yet in this
That bears the name of life? Yet in this life
Lie hid moe thousand deaths: yet death we fear,
That makes these odds all even."
THOUGH Claudio initially seems content with this idea and manfully declares, ‘I will encounter darkness as a bride, / And hug it in my arms, he soon admits that he is afraid ‘to die, and go we knows not where’:
 "The weariest and most loathed worldly life
That age, ache, penury and imprisonment
Can lay on nature is a paradise
To what we fear of death."
Antony and Cleopatra expresses a more heroic attitude to death in the case of both the hero and the heroines. Antony, in particular, will run to death like a bridegroom “As to a lover’s bed”, and he enjoins his followers to do likewise:
  "Let's do it after the high Roman fashion,
And make death proud to take us. Come, away:
This case of that huge spirit now is cold:
Ah, women, women! come; we have no friend
But resolution, and the briefest end.

                Almost all of Shakespearean tragic heroes be they Brutus, Othello or Romeo, embrace death in preference and shame. Macbeth is the only hero who strikes a discordant notes to this magnificently heroic ending, grand finale by conceiving of death as the appropriately absurd end to an incessant absurd life. For him every death is a “dusty death”, and a process no more significant or sorrowful than the blowing out of a candle. The Jacobean dramatist were even more concerned with death, and if Marston believed that “death hath a thousand doors”, Webster could go further by declaring that “death hath ten thousand. . . . .  . .doors”. Although in most decadent playwrights death is merely an excuse for revenge, it has its glories, too as is borne out by the observation after the duchess’s death : ‘Cover her face, mine eyes dazzle : she died young’ (The Duchess of Malfi).
                Most Elizabethan sonneteers, on the other hand, considerable death to be the enemy of love and the beloved. The cruel phrase, memento mori , forces poets to declare their crusade against time in general and death in particular. In the sonnets Shakespeare considers the various means by which death may be baulked and the most obvious is reproduction:
 "From fairest creatures we desire increase
That thereby beauty’s rose might never die."              
But he would rather make love transcend death by taking recourse to deathless and dateless poetry. His beloved  will continue to live on as long as men can breath or eyes can see through the ecstasy of their love and the splendor of his poetry. In a poignant sonnet he enjoins the beloved, ‘No longer mourn for me when I am dead’, for he feels that the value of the living body lies in the sprits which animates it, and in his case the spirit is one and the same as his poetry which continues to live on with the beloved. Although Spenser, in poems like the Amoretti , declared the poet and the poetic craft has the power to ‘illume’ the beauty of the beloved even after her death as well as to make the love come alive in the minds of later lovers, he also admits in the Fairies’ Queen that ‘death after life doth greatly please.’ Read More about Poetry   
                The metaphysical had variegated attitudes to death. Throwing up a direct challenge, Donne proclaims, ‘Death be not proud”. In on of the Holy Sonnets, he declares that death is the agent of unification with god:
"One short sleep past, we wake eternally.
And death shall be no more, death, thou shall die."               
Vaughan addresses death as ‘dear, beauteous death’, for he likewise death as an union rather than as a separation. But unlike these devout beings, Marvell, considered death not as a reminder that the present life is empty, but that the present life should be compensated for by its intensity. His carpe Diem the virgin to ‘make much of time’.
                Although among the romantics Coleridge and Byron made no profound observation on death and Wordsworth in his Immortality Ode , made the passing suggestion that it is the dead who reside in the bosom of god, and much of his poetry is the product of his vivid recollection of his brother’s death and the expectation of his own impending death. But the poet who declared that “I think I shall be among the English poets after my death’. For a moment he doesn’t envy the nightingale who ‘waste not born for death’, and realizes, like Tagore  that death is even more intense than verse, fame and beauty that ‘death is life’s high need’. Although Shelley the idealist and reformist often equated death with the oppressed condition of the common man as in The Mask, he also romantically calls death ‘a veil’ in Prometheus Unbound and in The Daemon exclaims, ‘How wonderful is death!’
                Death is the subject of all elegies, and other than Milton, the two most successful elegiac poets in English are the Victorian poets Jenny son and Arnold ‘No life that breaths with human breath/had ever truly longer for death’, believed Jenny son, and although he wrote of ‘The charge of the height Bridge’ into the jaws of death’, the death of his own friend Arthur Hallam promoted him to write In Memoriam the most magnificent elegy in the English language. But he himself desired that there should be ‘no moaning of the bar for him’. In Empedocles Arnold presented death as a cure for all diseases and in Sohrab and Rustum sang a requiem for the dead son. Read More about Poetry   
                In the twentieth century the war poets began their descent on death and Rupert Brooke, renewing the heroic tenor of epic poetry, enjoins other to ‘Blow out, you bugles, over dead rich dead’. In The Soldier he declares that his death in some foreign place would transform the soil to England. In stark contrast the other poets of the twentieth century, especially Sassoon and Owen presented the horror of death in battle. For him death is neither decorous nor patriotic. T.S.Eliot, who had pointed out that ‘Webster was much possessed by death’, speaks of spiritual death when he makes the narrator declare, ‘I didn’t know death had undone so many’. But the one poet concerned the most with death is the 20th century in Dylan Thomas. In Death and Entrances he not only laments death, but also praises his father for resisting death. For the man of imagination and instinct of love and liveliness, he believed, death shall have no dominion’.
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