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The Different Aspects Of Life And Death English Literature Essay

In our existence, we are inexorably intertwined with different aspects of life: from bliss and love to pain and death. While all aspects of life can be experienced and expressed by us, death cannot be; however, we can be certain that death is inevitable. It is the enigmatic elements of death which is responsible for its popularity among literature. Many have chosen to explore death in, arguably the most expressive form of literature, poetry; Wiswala Szymborska and Rainer Maria Rilke are two poets who have explored the inevitability of death in the two poems ‘The End and the Beginning’ (1993) and ‘The Song of the Widow’ (1894) respectively. The discussed topics include the significance of the titles, impacts of death on individuals and societies, the personas’ and poets’ emotional response to death, role of time in death’s approach and ultimately, the objectivity and subjectivity of the two poems.

Both Szymborska and Rilke focus on the inevitability of death immediately in the titles, making them portentous. Although the poets’ use of syntax and diction contrasts, they both aim to set a negative atmosphere to engage the reader. The straightforwardness of the title ‘The Song of the Widow’ effectively communicates the overview of the poem, introducing death clearly. The diction of “song” directly refers to a lyrical and emotive composition, allowing the reader to easily grasp the form of poetry and the characterization of “widow” aids in setting a depressing mood as it connotes grief and lament the persona over her deceased husband. Contrastingly, Szymborska applies particular syntax to add ambiguity to the title: the uncertainty of precisely what “end” and “beginning” refers to builds suspense because the reader is unable to discern the outcome of the poem. Indeed, the diction of “end” implies death and hence creates a melancholic atmosphere; the syntax of “end” preceding “beginning” could indicate the dominance of death. Subversively, Szymborska’s use of ambiguity in the title may mirror the obscurity of death’s approach, imposing an ominous feeling on the reader.

Although death’s approach might be obscure, their impacts are nonetheless familiar: in ‘The Song of the Widow’, its effects on individuals are focused on whereas in ‘The End and the Beginning’, the impacts on societies are dealt with. Szymborska applies the alliteration of c to echo the destructive sound of “carts loaded with corpses” against “rubble”; this metaphor represents the inevitable death of infrastructures caused by wars. The use of the hyperbole “loaded” accents the depressing imagery of the vast scale of deaths involved. The “carts” may metaphorically exemplify how the origins of wars get ‘transported’ away and forgotten fast; Szymborska is fundamentally illustrating our ignorance on the root problems of conflicts and deaths through this poem. Similarly, Rilke uses dental alliteration to reveal the impacts of the death of the persona’s husband. The persona is metaphorically “daily diminishing”, implying how her vitality is being seeped continuously. The vulnerability of the persona is accentuated by broaching “fate” as it “gave [her] up” and “’left [her] standing”. The passive voice and helpless tone serves to convey the supremacy of “fate” over the persona’s life; it could be argued that Rilke focuses on the supernatural feature of “fate” to reinforce his strict disagreement against metaphysical naturalism, which states that [1] all basic truths are truths of nature. Rilke believes that [2] humans are only spectators of life and there are other forces apart from nature which exist in our lives.

In reaction to the impacts the inevitability of death brings, emotions seem to be significant in ‘The Song of the Widow’ but not in ‘The End and the Beginning’. The lack of emotions witnessed in ‘The End and the Beginning’ is accented by the situational irony of describing this war as “a little boring”, creating a blunt atmosphere and demonstrates the harsh reality of deaths and their repercussions without the bias interference of emotions. Furthermore, this stern tone may be used to imitate the soldiers’ stoic nature, being extremely submissive to their generals and killing heartlessly. Conversely, poignant dictions “utter wretchedness”, “pain” and “tears” in ‘The Song of the Widow’ accents the persona’s mental response to death’s impacts. This cynical tone is reinforced by the common usage of negative dictions, including the triad “no more good, no more new, no more wonderful”, to reflect the persona’s pessimistic outlook on life.

The element of time is arguably one of the many factors which determine death’s approach and this is epitomized by the use of structure in both poems. The last stanza in ‘The Song of the Widow’ consists of numerous enjambment and lack of punctuation used to create a relentless and slow pace. The conjunction “and” commences the last two lines of the stanza and forms a lackluster tone to reinforce the persona’s torpid life. Rilke’s use of comma before the emotive diction “abandoned” ends the poem abruptly and signifies isolation; because “abandoned” is the last word of the poem, Rilke may be hinting how we inevitably meet death. Death’s unavoidable approach is further supported by the personification of “death” having no “patience”. Subversively, ‘abandonment’ is an existentialist jargon referring to the fact that [3] God does not exist and we decide our own being. It could be argued that the diction “emptied” may denote that the persona has experienced the metaphoric death of essence and therefore, is free to choose her path or is “abandoned” in the existentialistic sense. In contrary, there is an abundance of terminal caesuras in the tenth stanza of ‘The End and the Beginning’, forming numerous short phrases and consequently increasing the pace. This could represent the victim’s ephemeral lifespan. Additionally, the conjunction “and” in the last two lines of the stanza have dissimilar implications than the ones in ‘The Song of the Widow’: they signify interruptions rather than creating a flow to embody the abrupt deaths that occur in wars. In contrast to the existentialist approach in ‘The Song of the Widow’, a Marxist perspective can be taken in ‘The End and the Beginning’. The greed for power and money of members of high status in society has forced the lower class citizens to struggle and help “tidy up”; the large scale of the inevitable oppression, emphasized by the repetition of “someone”, is caused by the disparity between these classes. Szymborska’s cynical tone in stating the irony of how “all the cameras have gone to other wars” perhaps reveals the sadistic nature in humans, where conflict and deaths are treated as entertainment.

The objective view of ‘The End and the Beginning’ contrasts to the subjective view of ‘The Song of the Widow’; this difference is portrayed by the utilization of the poets’ use of persona’s voice and tense. Szymborska intentionally makes the persona detached from the war by narrating the poem in third person. Szymborska narrates this poem in an observer’s point of view possibly because [4] since 1931, she lived in Krakow, which was [5] relatively unharmed at the end of World War II and therefore, she would not have been exposed to the first-hand experience of war. Moreover, the swift transition of tenses in “those who knew” to “those who know little” accentuates Szymborska’s pessimistic view that revenge, conflict and deaths are passed down generations inexorably. Subversively, the progression of knowledge from “those who knew” to knowing “nothing less than nothing” could be an allusion of death since “nothing less than nothing” could refer to a defunct individual compared to knowing “nothing”. On the other hand, the subjectivity in ‘The Song of the Widow’ is presented by the use of first person narration in a free verse poem, directly revealing the persona’s temperament and thought. Her rhetorical questioning, in a restless tone, of “what, then, belonged to [her]; was [hers], [her] own” emphasizes her helplessness. With the assist of the repetition of the second person diction “your”, we can easily empathize with the persona’s mental struggle because, in microcosm, it could be a representation of other similar situations where we have to face the impacts of the death of loved ones or the loss of possessions. For example, Rilke may possibly be referring this struggle to his mother’s emotional deterioration when [6] his parents’ marriage fell apart in 1884. From a feminist’s approach, the persona, whether it is referring to the “widow” or Rilke’s mother, is presented as vulnerable because of the metaphoric death of financial and social support from male figures, who are deemed as dominant in the patriarchal society. This is reinforced by Rilke’s use of an imperious tone where the persona “saw [his husband] coming” and “took and took”, signifying that her husband’s dominance even after his death, as it caused her to lose everything.

Ultimately, death is a central theme in both poems; while Szymborska portrays death stoically and superficially by dealing with literal death of population and metaphoric death societies, Rilke focuses on the intangible emotional aspects of individuals to express death’s approach. Death is inevitable; everything has an end given sufficient time: it could be argued that time is responsible for death’s inevitability. Hence, the connection between time and death’s approach could be a possible extension topic to explore.

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