Exploring Themes Of Death Within Poetry English Literature Essay

1452 words (6 pages) Essay in English Literature

5/12/16 English Literature Reference this

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Christina Rossetti’s ‘Remember’, Phyllis McCormack’s ‘Crabbit Old Woman’ and Chinua Achebe’s ‘Refugee Mother and Child’ all explore the effects of death and the suffering it causes for everyone directly involved. In Rossetti’s ‘Remember’ the poet shows us the pain and despair associated with death. McCormack’s ‘Crabbit Old Woman’ is a plea for people to see past the typical stereotype of old people as being hopeless and not worth caring for, when they are nearing death. Chinua Achebe’s ‘Refugee Mother and Child’ conveys to us the utter devotion a mother feels for her child whilst knowing that her time is limited, and is based on refugees in the Nigerian civil war in the 1960’s.

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As this is a sonnet it should follow either the Petrachan structure or the Shakespearean structure, ‘Remember’ does neither, although it is quite similar to the Petrarchan structure. A Petrarchan structure would typically follow the rhyming pattern of A-B-B-A/A-B-B-A/C-D-E-C-D-E (the slashes representing the change in stanza), whereas Rossetti’s sonnet follows the rhyming structure of A-B-B-A/A-B-B-A/C-D-D-E-C-E. I found that Rossetti commonly changes the rhyming pattern in her sonnets [1] . This is done intentionally as the meaning form the octet has now been changed in the sestet. At first it was a plea for her partner not to forget her, and then it changed to her wanting her partner to forget. This makes the poem very fluid because not only does the context of the lines change, the rhyming pattern has also adapted to this change in context. The iambic pentameter adds a very smooth rhythm to the poem, making it seem as though the woman is calm and not angered, even in death.

‘Crabbit Old Woman’ and ‘Remember’ are alike in the sense that they both have a voice presenting an argument which pleads for remembrance. In ‘Crabbit Old Woman’ we are presented with an old lady whose goal is to try and convince the nurses to see past the typical stereotype of old people as hopeless and not worth caring for, as she is nearing death and does not want to be remembered as such. The title of this poem immediately evokes a sense of death as old age is often associated with it. The first 22 lines are a series of questions which are directed towards the nurses, and are trying to reveal the typical beliefs that the nurses have when caring for the old woman. The turning point of this poem occurs at line 23-24 “Then open your eyes/ you’re not looking at me.” This line is the old lady demanding to be acknowledged by the nurses. The original negative attack upon the nurses has now changed to positive, happy memories as we are led through her life. In this life story the language has completely changed from a conversational style to a more poetic style. This change is shown by line 34 “with wings on her feet,” which is a metaphor for the freedom she once had, whereas now her freedom is restricted as she cannot leave the hospital. The recollections of her life are extremely accurate and since we are going through her life as she ages it feels as if we are turning the pages of a book “At forty”, “At fifty”. One interesting thing that McCormack has done is that she has kept this part all in present tense. Doing this is a way of showing the reader that these memories are kept fresh in her mind, and it shows us that she can remember it with ease.

The next turning point of the poem again induces a mood change except this time it is from positive to negative. The very first line (line 57) of this mood change alone sets the tone for the rest of the poem. “Dark days are upon me,” this line shows us just what her life is like now, fearful and cold. The personification of nature in line 67/68 “Tis her jest to make/ old age look like a fool.” shows us her thoughts and feelings; that she feels like an idiot and is there to be laughed at. This last part contains imagery associated with death-“crumbles”, “old carcass” and “battered heart”. This imagery makes the reader realize what is happening to the woman in her old age, and that her death is inevitable. The final thing worth mentioning about this poem is that although the woman does not want to die she accepts that her death is a “stark fact” and asks the nurses one more time to see past her physical body and look inside and see who she really is.

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Similarly, ‘Refugee Mother and Child’ also presents a series of “stark fact[s]” to present the horrors of death for the refugees in Nigeria. In Chinua Achebe’s ‘Refugee Mother and Child’ we are shown what daily life is like for refugees in the Nigerian civil war; they are filled with death and sorrow. This poem is based on the refugees who were in the civil war in Nigeria in the 1960’s [2] , and although he bases this poem on only one of the refugee families, in essence this was what was happening to all the refugees. This civil war created millions of refugees which had to flee to the south-east of Nigeria to avoid being killed2. One of the first things Achebe does in this poem is evoke a sense of religious images of veneration by referring to “Madonna and Child”. These images suggest the sheer devotion the refugee mother feels for her dying child, and it also attaches not only a physical love but a spiritual love as well. This first stanza is in complete contrast the second one in which we are presented with negative and vulgar language, which portrays the situation of the refugees. Achebe has effectively appealed to three of our senses: touch, smell and sight with “combed the rust-colored hair”, “odours of diarrhoea” and “blown open bellies” respectfully. Achebe uses these vulgar images to try and make us understand the cruel reality of the world, which is, many innocent people suffering due to the effects of war. Physical descriptions of the refugees such as “washed-out ribs and dried-up bottoms” are used to again try and make us understand the horrors that these people face every day. Stanza 2 starts off with a fairly long opening sentence which has few verbs. This is worth mentioning because since there are less verbs it implies the lack of energy these people have. The mother is associated with a “ghost” twice in this poem. This choice of diction gives us the feeling that she is close to death and that even her own death is inevitable, not just her child’s. Lastly Achebe reminds us of the mother and child’s previous lives, which were normal (this would have been before the civil war in Nigeria). In doing this we are brought closer to them. The final simile of the poem “now she did it like putting tiny flowers on a grave” brings us back to reality and makes us realize that the child will die.

All three poems deal with the theme of death often in direct and clear ways. Although each of the poet’s talk about different aspects of death, they all still complement each other in terms of the final outcomes for the characters portrayed in the poem. Achebe’s poem shows the outcomes of wars and political struggles whereas Rossetti’s and McCormack’s poems both deal with death in a more controlled environment where the cause of death is not due to the countries struggles. The main difference between all three poems is the way death is presented. In ‘Remember’, although death is a vital part of the poem it also revolves around emotions of the characters instead of just the vulgarity of death. This is a contrast to ‘Refugee Mother and Child’ where the vulgarity of death is the main aspect of the poem. ‘Crabbit Old Woman’ also differs to the other poems as age is an important characteristic of the piece. ‘Refugee Mother and Child’ and ‘Crabbit Old Woman’ similarly use physical imagery which ‘Remember’ does not. This use of physical imagery makes understanding the poet’s message ultimately easier. In conclusion these poems have given me a greater appreciation for the complexity of death and how it can differ so profusely from person to person.

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