Confronting Death In Poetry Essay, Research Paper
Raised fists and a fading smile usually follow the confrontation of death as we experience the first stages of denial in the grieving process. We not only grieve at the loss of a loved one, but at the loss of our own life as well. When death rears its ugly head, it demands this response. Whether through art or science, humor or ritual, mankind marks and confronts this passage with both defiance and trepidation that eventually turns into acceptance and submission.
The fear of death seems to be based on two things: the finality of death and the uncertainty of what follows. Many works have been written on the topic, some to offer consolation, others hope, and still others to urge readers to correct their behavior during life itself. The conflicting views put forward by different societies may never be reconciled, since nobody comes back to tell of an afterlife.
Robert Frost successfully delineates this process in his poem, “Out, Out -” as he describes how the boy in the poem experiences the first stage of impending death – that of denial. Frost paints a picture of school age children doing the household chores of adults. Death with children is especially disturbing because in our unconscious mind we are all immortal, so it is almost inconceivable to be openly confronted with the reality of death. For children, this thought is especially implausible because of their youth. It is much easier to turn our attention to less frightening possibilities. The boy states this to his sister after crying out in a rueful laugh, “Don’t let him cut my hand off / The doctor. When he comes. Don’t let him sister!” (Frost 25, 26)
Step two and three of the grieving processes when confronting impending death are anger and depression. Anger is present because humans are the only species with an awareness of past, present and future. With this knowledge we plan our future, cherish expectations, hopes and dreams. Frost portrays that the dreams of the boy are dashed as he comes to the next stage of grieving, that of acceptance. Frost write, “?Then the boy saw all – / Since he was old enough to know? / He saw all spoiled” (Frost 22, 23, 25)
Frost then takes the reader through a similar grieving process as the family and friends of the boy experience some, or possibly all, of the same stages of grief that the boy experienced. It is stark reminder of the lives of the ordinary and of the many families who lost many children before they reached their teenage years. Disease and the lack of medical science back then resulted in a higher death rate of young children.
And then the watcher at his pulse took fright
No one believed. They listened at his heart?
No more to build on there. And they?.
turned to their affairs. (Frost 30, 31, 33, 34)
At this stage the grieving survivors cut each tie and relinquish the bonds that link them to the deceased. Frost depicts that the grieving will have to come to terms with the many life changes that may follow the boys death yet there is utter helplessness that life must go on as they turn away to their affairs.
Edwin Robinson’s “Richard Corey” takes another look at death, through the eyes of the common folk. As he spins the tale of Richard Corey, a rich man, he shows that to some the “good life” consists of wealth, and status.
And he was rich, yes, richer than a king
And admirably schooled in every grace
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place. (Robinson 9-12)
Yet, for others however, life is so painful, so intolerable, that the alternative of oblivion seems a desirable option. They find life so taxing that they overcome any fear of death or punishment after death, perhaps embracing the view that there is nothing after death (a view whose very context of pointlessness invites suicide, regardless of the inherently negative view society has toward it.)
While it is said that death is the great leveller, difference in rank and class are often carried through to the grave. It is interesting though that while the search for the distinguished, such as Richard Corey, may lead us to the grave yard, that search will often uncover the lives of countless others, such as the people of the pavement, whose memories may until then have been neglected. Yet they, in their deaths, can also provide others with a sense of peace that is in some ways a world apart from the fear that we sometimes hold of the moment of death.
Such fear is a thing of the past in Emily Dickinson’s Poem, “I heard a Fly buzz – when I died” as she describes the very essence of stage four of the grieving process – acceptance. Both the dying and the survivors have experienced the depression – the painful process where they must gradually give up all future expectations as they say farewell to the loved one they will lose.
The eyes around – had wrung them dry-
The breaths were gathered firm
For that last onset when the King
Be witnessed in the room. (Dickinson 5-8)
The calmness and the sereneness of the failing life form are interposed with that of a common fly. Dickinson reduces all that life stands for into the form of something that is free to spread its wings and take off for the sky, not in search of heaven, at least not yet. The fly with its uncertain stumbling buzz begins to take on the framework of the only thing standing between life and death as the eyes shut and its image is replaced with one of peace and harmony, escaping this world of struggle to gain God’s eternal reward.
All three authors deal with and do a good job of portraying the stages of grief that impending death brings, no matter what form it comes in. There are allusions in all three poems of earlier years when life and death were narrower spans in time than they are today as our life expectancies rise. A true sign of the times each author lived in.
Dickinson, Emily. “I heard a Fly buzz – when I died.” The Norton Anthology of
American Literature. Ed. Francis Murphy. New York: Norton and Company,
Robinson, Edwin Arlington. “Richard Cory.” The Norton Anthology of American
Literature. Ed. Francis Murphy. New York: Norton and Company, 1995. 1730.
Frost, Robert. “Out, Out -.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Francis
Murphy. New York: Norton and Company, 1995. 1774.