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As Cohen suggests poetry like your deeds is what remains of your life, suggesting a final immortality for those penned in verse. Poetry is a powerful literary device that endeavours to showcase emotive feelings and words to provoke thought and reflection on life itself. Throughout history poets have created wonderful works of “ash” for audiences around the globe. A poet’s cultural background, social upbringing and philosophy will affect the diversity of the type of poetry that is written. One’s thoughts via poetry can become a powerful tool that inspires and reflects an age or explores the important concepts of humanity. The concept of death, and thus its reflection on life, is a common discourse explored in poetry. This essay will discuss the variety of attitudes to death immortalised through poetry and argue that poetry about death is as much about life. SHOULD I MENTION THE POEMS HERE?
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‘Death’ is a prevalent theme in many poetic pieces and plays a vital role in representing an array of emotions and attitudes towards death. Culturally, there are diverse attitudes to death. Poetry represents a medium in which poets can display their views on death and record how they personally have been affected by death. Reading poetry about death should not be described as sinister or gloomy, but should be viewed as a tool to better understand or even cope with such a tragic but inevitable phenomena.  Poetry can be written in many different forms to better represent the idealistic views of the poet; the most common forms include sonnets, eulogy and lyrical poems.
Poems penned about death also affirm attitudes to life. Poetry tells the reader that even after death there is continuation of life; it lives in the thoughts and actions of others. Writing about death is used by the poet to relate deep sorrow or fear, to figure out deaths true meaning or to give mortality to the very subject dying. Poetry gives immortality to loved ones. Poets such as Donne, Dylan Thomas, John Blight, Emily Dickinson, Slessor and Michelle Williams explore the contradiction of life and death through losing a loved one, personifying death and the disastrous effects of war and terrorism.
John Donne (1572 – 1631) is today described as one of the masters of Metaphysical poets. His poetry and lyrics is often dramatic but is marked with freshness and exuberance. One of his major literary pieces ‘Death be not proud, though some have called thee’ is a sonnet confronting the power of death over man and perhaps death’s own mortality.
The interesting language differs to modern poets such as Emily Dickinson or Kenneth Slessor due to the time in which Donne wrote; old English was the common language. Interestingly, this sonnet is written in a very controlled form, for a topic that no-one has direct control over. Unusually, Donne directly addresses Death as though it is a character personifying many of its attributes.
In the first line ‘DEATH be not proud,’ the word death is bolded and capitalised to draw the reader’s attention to the prevalent theme of the poem. Throughout the poem Donne is anthropomorphizing death, talking about it as an equal while towards the latter half of the sonnet he begins to realise what is so important and frightening about death. Donne’s attitude to death is not about fear but about speaking out against death and suggesting to the reader that death is not the end point of one’s life.
Line 9 ‘Thou art slave to fate, Chance, kings and desperate men,’ Donne further reflects that death is not as powerful or controlling as first thought to be. The personified death is a ‘slave’ to fate, chance, kings and desperate men. Death does not choose who dies; fate and chance plays the most vital role as well as kings and desperate men. Death is not even in control of itself. Throughout the poem Donne utilises many different poetics devices such as juxtaposition, ‘mighty and dreadful’ to display the insignificance to what death actually is. The poem concludes with ‘one short sleepe past, wee wake eternally, And death shall be no more; death thou shalt die.’ These last two lines bears witness to the theme that death does not win because people sleep and wake eternally alluding to our eternal existence. The irony of ‘death, thou shalt die’, showcases that death should be afraid, and not the one to be feared.
Another poem that exhibits the underlying theme of raging against death is Welsh poet Dylan Thomas’s (1914 – 1953) ‘Do not go gentle into that good night.’ Dylan Thomas writes from his heart as he directly addresses his dying father, who was an important influence throughout his life. He consistently showcases poetry that exhibits the themes of the cycle of life and death and like Donne uses a simple form to present such a complex message.
The first tercet introduces the poem’s theme while also introducing the alternating couplet that ends each stanza. In the first stanza Thomas’ theme of resisting death is evident as well as the first line contrasting with the third line. Gentle images are juxtaposed with the repetition of “rage” urging a furious resistance to death. Thomas is almost commanding his father to “not go gentle, but to rage, rage against the dying of the light”. The next 3 stanzas then provide evidence as to why his father should not give up so easily on life and to fight against death as there is more living to do.
Thomas talks about different classes of men, “graven men, good men, wise men, gentle men, wild men” who never give up, but then in his last paragraph he talks to his own father. Death can be faced with fear. In the last stanza he repeats the lines ‘do not go gentle into that good night, rage, rage against the dying of the light’ to leave the reader with the consistent theme outlined throughout the poem. His message is that he wants people to fight against death.
Much like Donne, Thomas explicitly pleads to his father to not let death win, to fight against it. “Do not go gentle into that good night” has a consistent rhyming scheme and uses countless examples of alliteration (rage, rage), oxymorons (blinding sight), similes (like meteors) and repetition.
MAYBE HERE PICK UP ON THE OXYMORONS OR CONTRASTS AND THE METAPHORS OF LIGHT AND DAY TO REPRESENT LIFE AND DEATH.
Australian poet John Blight (1953 – 1973) writes about death in a completely different style to the previous two poets. Like Donne, Blight uniformly uses a sonnet “Death of a Whale” that deals with some aspect of the sea and then moves on to more universal implications about death in the final lines. Unlike John Donne and Dylan Thomas, Blight writes about the human capacity for compassion and grief when confronted with death.
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The sonnet begins with the alternating contrast of a ‘tiny, delicate’ mouse and an enormous whale to determine how human compassion and grief is heavily determined more or less by size. The mouse sparks a small sense of grief in our hearts but then is overturned by the ‘lugubrious death of a whale’ although the grief is more a sense of curiosity. The rhetorical question ‘How must a whale die to wring a tear?’ is asked by the poet, which of course there is no answer for. However, the poem then takes a wild turn as ‘Pooh! Pooh! Spare us, give us the death of a mouse,’ as the crowd realises the smell of the whale suggesting onlookers would actually prefer a mouse to have died in a tiny hole where no one would notice. In the last two lines of the sonnet the reader witnesses a devastating change of mood to ‘when a child dies: but at the immolation of a race who cries?” The poet now asks its reader to consider, arguably the Holocaust in World War 2. Blight is accusing the general populace of being uncaring, and cleverly compares it to the death of a mouse and a whale. Blight tortures the inhuman heart of the human being, making an emotional and intellectual impact on the reader in final couplet, suggesting a lack of compassion, perhaps a numbness to the destruction of an entire race.
Blights poem also utilises many poetry devices such as similes, ‘like a door ajar from a slaughterhouse,’ provides a powerful image for the reader. AGAIN TRY AND WEAVE THIS IN
It is obvious that when writing about the destruction of war, death too becomes a focal point of war poetry. Poems such as “Dead Man’s dump” by Isaac Rosenberg, “Homecoming” by Bruce Dawe and “Beach Burial by Kenneth Slessor document attitudes to war and the impact of death on loved ones. Australian poet Kenneth Slessor tackles the frightening images of death in war in his literary verse ‘Beach Burial.’ The word ‘beach’ is often associated with a happy and joyful connotation, but once Slessor links it with the word ‘burial’, one is prepared for something gloomy to follow.  War is often a place of grief and death which is heavily portrayed in Slessor’s poem. The gruesome horrors and imagery of death is outlined in “Beach Burial”.
While reading “Beach Burial” the reader is aware of a wide range of sound effects from the softness of the opening adverbs to the sad onomatopoeia of the famous image ‘the sobs and clubbing of the gunfire.’ There is also the blatant alliteration of ‘convoys….come’ and ‘bury them in burrows’ adding to the sound effects. Metaphors such as ‘as blue as drowned men’s lips’ and personification like ‘breath of the wet seasons’ is littered throughout the poem displaying Slessor’s diverse range of literary devices and heightening the readers sense of death to come. Unlike the other poems, “Beach Burial” utilises all aspects of poetry devices to display the significance of the war and the prevalent theme of death but lacks any controlled rhyming scheme.
The first line of “Beach Burial” is a warm and friendly introduction into the poem with the line ‘softly and humbly to the Gulf of Arabs’ but then the confronting truth hits the reader, ‘The convoy of dead sailors come.’ Burial or death is often symbolised with a cross above the grave; Slessor uses the image of a cross ‘the driven stake of tidewood’ to display a confronting image. The theme of the poem is vividly presented in the last stanza with the brutal fact that the sailors finally did find landfall, both enemy and ally found the same landfall, a death bed. Both sides of the war are now ‘enlisted’ as one, combined by death, they are peacefully united. This poem is an indictment of death and war and the horror of it.
Elegies are a poetic form which in their dedication to the dead offers certain immortality. Michelle Williams, female Australian poet writes about death from a very touching, real life point of view. Her recent poem “Elegy for Bali” is a dedication to the victims of the Bali bombings and the grief which remains. Bali is often thought of as sunny beaches and an extremely popular tourist destination, not a sight of death.
In the first stanza of the elegy, the reader is already bombarded with poignant phrases that surround the theme of death. Sadness for ‘those who mourn,….burdened by the pain of dawn’ describes the unrelenting pain which continues to rise, day in day out.
In the last two stanzas the poet takes a dramatic twist with a shift in mood. No longer is the reader hit with emotions of sadness, death or destruction but comforted by love, hope and honour. ‘Nurture seeds for peace on Earth,’ is the concluding line that signals growth; with death, life always appears.
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