Category Archives: Poetry and Death

Brief Analysis of Emily Dickinson’s, “Because I could not stop for Death”

Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886) was born in Amherst, Massachusetts. After studying at the Amherst Academy for seven years in her youth, she briefly attended the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary before returning to her family’s house in Amherst. Dickinson never married, and most friendships between her and others depended entirely upon correspondence. For most of her life she lived as a recluse.

While Dickinson was a prolific poet, fewer than a dozen of her nearly 1,800 poems were published during her lifetime. Although her acquaintances were probably aware of her writing, it was not until after her death that her younger sister discovered Dickinson’s cache of poems. Today most experts consider Dickinson to be one of the greatest American poets. Here is probably her most well-known poem, followed by a brief analysis .

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –

And Immortality.

We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –

Or rather – He passed Us –
The Dews drew quivering and Chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground –

Since then – ’tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity –

Analysis – In this poem, Dickinson speaks from beyond the grave about death—personified as a gentleman who picks her up in a carriage. They drive along slowly, as she ceases to work and views the world she is leaving behind. She grows cold as the dusk falls, and they stop at her burial-place, marked by a small headstone. In the final stanza, we learn that her ride with Death took place centuries ago, but seems to her as if it happened yesterday. When she took that ride with death she first realized that the horses and carriage were taking her to an afterlife.

Commentary – When reading this poem I visualize a deep and introspective woman imagining that she will find recompense for the loneliness of her life in a beautiful afterlife. This is touching, but the philosopher in me doubts any of this is true. Of course I could be wrong.

Longfellow’s “Morituri Salutamas” – A Poem About Old Age

In 1875, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807 – 1882) accepted an offer from the American Civil War hero Joshua Chamberlain to speak at his fiftieth reunion at Bowdoin College, Longfellow’s alma mater. There he read his poem “Morituri Salutamus.” (“We who are about to die, salute you.”) The poem begins with a Latin quote by the Roman poet Ovid which reads: “Tempora labuntur, tacitisque senescimus annis, Et fugiunt freno non remorante dies.” (“The times slip away, and we grow old with silent years, and the days flee unchecked by a rein.”)

The poem expresses his belief that while we cannot stop the inexorable march of time, we can mitigate its effects by learning as we pass through life—for maturity allows for insights unachievable in youth. He also voices his belief that there is much left to do in old age. It is true that most of us won’t do our best work in old age, but perhaps if we have learned something in life we will become better people as we age.  And while many criticized the simplicity of Longfellow’s simple rhymes, I find them comforting.

The final stanzas of Longfellow’s poem exhort his fellows to continue to work and dream even as they age.

But why, you ask me, should this tale be told
To men grown old, or who are growing old?
It is too late! Ah, nothing is too late
Till the tired heart shall cease to palpitate.
Cato learned Greek at eighty; Sophocles
Wrote his grand Oedipus, and Simonides
Bore off the prize of verse from his compeers,
When each had numbered more than fourscore years,
And Theophrastus, at fourscore and ten,
Had but begun his “Characters of Men.”
Chaucer, at Woodstock with the nightingales,
At sixty wrote the Canterbury Tales;
Goethe at Weimar, toiling to the last,
Completed Faust when eighty years were past.
These are indeed exceptions; but they show
How far the gulf-stream of our youth may flow
Into the arctic regions of our lives,

Where little else than life itself survives.

As the barometer foretells the storm
While still the skies are clear, the weather warm
So something in us, as old age draws near,
Betrays the pressure of the atmosphere.
The nimble mercury, ere we are aware,
Descends the elastic ladder of the air;
The telltale blood in artery and vein
Sinks from its higher levels in the brain;
Whatever poet, orator, or sage
May say of it, old age is still old age.
It is the waning, not the crescent moon;
The dusk of evening, not the blaze of noon;
It is not strength, but weakness; not desire,
But its surcease; not the fierce heat of fire,
The burning and consuming element,
But that of ashes and of embers spent,
In which some living sparks we still discern,
Enough to warm, but not enough to burn.
What then? Shall we sit idly down and say
The night hath come; it is no longer day?
The night hath not yet come; we are not quite
Cut off from labor by the failing light;
Something remains for us to do or dare;
Even the oldest tree some fruit may bear;
Not Oedipus Coloneus, or Greek Ode,
Or tales of pilgrims that one morning rode
Out of the gateway of the Tabard Inn,
But other something, would we but begin;
For age is opportunity no less
Than youth itself, though in another dress,
And as the evening twilight fades away
The sky is filled with stars, invisible by day.

Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life” – A Poem About the Passage of Time

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron in 1868.jpg

The passage of time steals our youth, our vitality, and any permanence that we might hope for. How best to respond to our situation? Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) tried to answer this question in 1838 in his poem “A Psalm of Life.” They contain some of my favorite lines of poetry.

What The Heart Of The Young Man Said To The Psalmist.

Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.

Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each to-morrow
Find us farther than to-day.

Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;

Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.

Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.

Epilogue – Still, as I have argued in my recent book on the meaning of life, the wisdom that may come with age makes death even more tragic. The wisdom which took so much time and effort to achieve vanishes with our passing, since it is mostly ineffable—incapable of being transmitted to the young. They have to learn it on their own … as they age.

So for now, until we have eliminated death, the passage of time drives us inexorably toward our end. And this is a reason to lament our fate … and battle to defeat it.

Summary of Thomas Gray’s: “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”

Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” is one of “the best-known and best-loved poems in the English.” For each of its stanzas I provide [in brackets] a brief explanation of its meaning which may not be clear to a modern ear.

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

[Someone has died; the cows are coming down the meadow; the farmer is coming home; and now the speaker has the world to himself.]

Now fades the glimm’ring landscape on the sight,
And all the air a solemn stillness holds,
Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,
And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds;

[The landscape is fading away; the air is quiet except for the buzz of insects and the bells around the necks of livestock.]

Save that from yonder ivy-mantled tow’r
The moping owl does to the moon complain
Of such, as wand’ring near her secret bow’r,
Molest her ancient solitary reign.

[An owl is hooting, probably from a church tower, and disturbed by the presence of someone, probably the speaker.]

Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree’s shade,
Where heaves the turf in many a mould’ring heap,
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.

[The simple country folks are dead and lying in their graves in the churchyard.]

The breezy call of incense-breathing Morn,
The swallow twitt’ring from the straw-built shed,
The cock’s shrill clarion, or the echoing horn,
No more shall rouse them from their lowly bed.

[Things that usually wake people from sleep will not wake the dead.]

For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn,
Or busy housewife ply her evening care:
No children run to lisp their sire’s return,
Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share.

[All the pleasures of life that the dead can no longer experience.]

Oft did the harvest to their sickle yield,
Their furrow oft the stubborn glebe has broke;
How jocund did they drive their team afield!
How bow’d the woods beneath their sturdy stroke!

[All the things these dead people did while they were alive.]

Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
The short and simple annals of the poor.

[We shouldn’t mock the simple lives that these dead peasants lived.]

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

[Don’t make fun of the dead, for you will be dead one day too.]

Nor you, ye proud, impute to these the fault,
If Mem’ry o’er their tomb no trophies raise,
Where thro’ the long-drawn aisle and fretted vault
The pealing anthem swells the note of praise.

[Don’t blame the dead if they don’t have fancy monuments for gravestones.]

Can storied urn or animated bust
Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?
Can Honour’s voice provoke the silent dust,
Or Flatt’ry soothe the dull cold ear of Death?

[No fancy urn or bust will bring back anyone from the dead; no honors make death better.]

Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway’d,
Or wak’d to ecstasy the living lyre.

[Maybe these dead had passions, ruled empires, or played music.]

But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page
Rich with the spoils of time did ne’er unroll;
Chill Penury repress’d their noble rage,
And froze the genial current of the soul.

[Knowledge is like a collection of pages that get filled as time goes on; but the dead never get to see the pages now being written; and their potential is frozen in death.]

Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flow’r is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

[Many gems and flowers are unseen; many heroic lives are never recognized.]

Some village-Hampden, that with dauntless breast
The little tyrant of his fields withstood;
Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
Some Cromwell guiltless of his country’s blood.

[Some of the dead stood up to tyrants, were brilliant like Milton, or wretched as Cromwell.]

Th’ applause of list’ning senates to command,
The threats of pain and ruin to despise,
To scatter plenty o’er a smiling land,
And read their hist’ry in a nation’s eyes,

Their lot forbade: nor circumscrib’d alone
Their growing virtues, but their crimes confin’d;
Forbade to wade through slaughter to a throne,
And shut the gates of mercy on mankind,

The struggling pangs of conscious truth to hide,
To quench the blushes of ingenuous shame,
Or heap the shrine of Luxury and Pride
With incense kindled at the Muse’s flame.

[(The above three stanzas run together.)The dead’s situation in life prevented them from receiving approval, and made it impossible for them to avoid fear. Instead they died unknown because of their poverty. They also didn’t have time to do what it takes to get remembered in history, or to commit crimes like killing kings or being merciless. And they had no time to use fancy language or be inspired by the Muses.]

Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;
Along the cool sequester’d vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

[These dead lived far from the city, and didn’t make a lot of noise in their lives.]

Yet ev’n these bones from insult to protect,
Some frail memorial still erected nigh,
With uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture deck’d,
Implores the passing tribute of a sigh.

[Their memorials may not be fancy, but they can cause us to pause.]

Their name, their years, spelt by th’ unletter’d muse,
The place of fame and elegy supply:
And many a holy text around she strews,
That teach the rustic moralist to die.

[Their memorials were inscribed by the illiterate, who are ironically muses teaching the simple folk to be prepared for their own deaths.]

For who to dumb Forgetfulness a prey,
This pleasing anxious being e’er resign’d,
Left the warm precincts of the cheerful day,
Nor cast one longing, ling’ring look behind?

[Who will give up life without looking back longingly at what they are leaving behind.]

On some fond breast the parting soul relies,
Some pious drops the closing eye requires;
Ev’n from the tomb the voice of Nature cries,
Ev’n in our ashes live their wonted fires.

[We die best with our loved ones at our side, and nature cries from the grave that our passions live on.]

For thee, who mindful of th’ unhonour’d Dead
Dost in these lines their artless tale relate;
If chance, by lonely contemplation led,
Some kindred spirit shall inquire thy fate,

Haply some hoary-headed swain may say,
“Oft have we seen him at the peep of dawn
Brushing with hasty steps the dews away
To meet the sun upon the upland lawn.

[(The above two stanzas run together.) The speaker is aware of the dead so he is remembering them in this poem. What would a villager say about the speaker after the speaker died? The villager would say he saw the speaker hurrying through the grass to watch the sun go down.]

“There at the foot of yonder nodding beech
That wreathes its old fantastic roots so high,
His listless length at noontide would he stretch,
And pore upon the brook that babbles by.

[And the villager would say he saw the speaker sitting under a tree looking at a brook.]

“Hard by yon wood, now smiling as in scorn,
Mutt’ring his wayward fancies he would rove,
Now drooping, woeful wan, like one forlorn,
Or craz’d with care, or cross’d in hopeless love.

[And the villager would say he saw the speaker rambling in the woods.]

“One morn I miss’d him on the custom’d hill,
Along the heath and near his fav’rite tree;
Another came; nor yet beside the rill,
Nor up the lawn, nor at the wood was he;

[And the villager would say that he missed seeing the speaker in his usual places.]

“The next with dirges due in sad array
Slow thro’ the church-way path we saw him borne.
Approach and read (for thou canst read) the lay,
Grav’d on the stone beneath yon aged thorn.”

[And the villager says that saw that the speaker had died.]

THE EPITAPH
Here rests his head upon the lap of Earth
A youth to Fortune and to Fame unknown.
Fair Science frown’d not on his humble birth,
And Melancholy mark’d him for her own.

[This is Gray’s epitaph. It says he was a young person of humble birth, a scholar and a poet, who experienced depression.]

Large was his bounty, and his soul sincere,
Heav’n did a recompense as largely send:
He gave to Mis’ry all he had, a tear,
He gain’d from Heav’n (’twas all he wish’d) a friend.

[He was generous and sincere; he fought his depression; and heaven sent him a friend.]

No farther seek his merits to disclose,
Or draw his frailties from their dread abode,
(There they alike in trembling hope repose)
The bosom of his Father and his God.

[Don’t concern yourself with his good and bad points for now he is resting, hopefully in eternal life with his god.]

Wilfred Owen: “Dulce Et Decorum Est”

Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen MC (18 March 1893 – 4 November 1918) was an English poet and soldier, one of the leading poets of the First World War. His shocking, realistic war poetry on the horrors of trenches stood in stark contrast to both the public perception of war at the time and to the patriotic verse written by earlier war poets such as Rupert Brooke. Among his best-known works – most of which were published posthumously – are “Dulce et Decorum est“, “Insensibility“, “Anthem for Doomed Youth“, “Futility” and “Strange Meeting“.

He was wounded in combat in 1917 and wrote many of his most important poems while recovering in the hospital near Edinburgh. He rejoined his regiment in June 1918, and in August, he returned to France. He was awarded the Military Cross for bravery at Amiens. He was killed on November 4 of that year while attempting to lead his men across the Sambre-Oise canal at Ors. He was 25 years old. The news of his death reached his parents one week later on November 11,  Armistice Day, which marked the end of the war. He is buried at Ors Communal Cemetery.

Of his many great war poems, this is one of the very best. (“Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori,” are the first words of a Latin saying (taken from an ode by Horace). The words, widely quoted at the start of the First World War, mean “It is sweet and right to die for your country.”) Two readings are found below one with actual footage of the Battle of Somme.

Dulce Et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!– An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.–
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

And a newer reading: