Thematic Guide to British Poetry

By Ruth Glancy | Go to book overview

Death

No age in poetry, spoken or written, has failed to take up the most human of themes: the end of life. It was central to the old ballads, narrative poems handed down orally for centuries and only recorded as recently as the eighteenth century. One of the best known of the ballads, “The Wife of Usher's Well” tells the chilling story of three sons who are drowned at sea. Their grieving mother's plea that they be returned to her “in earthly flesh and blood” is answered one night in November, and their joyous mother orders a celebratory feast, not recognizing that they are ghosts. The boys' hats are “o' the birk,” or strewn with birch, a sign that they have come from the world of the dead; as the cock crows to herald the day, they remind each other that they can stay no longer. Like all ballads, “The Wife of Usher's Well” achieves its power through repetition, understatement, and a powerful rhythm.

Many of Shakespeare's sonnets are concerned with death while focusing more specifically on love, time, or immortality. In this survey those sonnets will be found under their more dominant themes. In Sonnet 71, “No longer mourn for me when I am dead” (1609), death is the central topic as the speaker warns his friend against grieving over his loss. Do not remember me, he pleads, if doing so will make you sad. If you read this poem after I am gone, do not even speak my name, but “let your love even with my life decay.” The couplet tells the friend that the world mocks those who grieve too long. There is an irony in Shakespeare's tone, however, that reminds the reader that the poet is giving this instruction in a poem that is intended to remind the friend of its author.

Many poems on death see it as the great leveler that brings equality to king and peasant. Shakespeare's “Fear No More the Heat of the Sun,” from Cymbeline (1623), cheerfully reminds us of this impartiality. In four stanzas of six lines each, this delightful song tells us not to worry about

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Thematic Guide to British Poetry
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Introduction vii
  • Anthologies of British Poetry and Abbreviations Used xi
  • Active and Contemplative Lives 1
  • Art, Imagination, and Inspiration 15
  • Beauty 31
  • Carpe Diem 43
  • Christmas Poems 47
  • Death 53
  • Death of the Young 65
  • Duty 77
  • Fame and Ambition 81
  • Family Relations 85
  • Freedom and Captivity 89
  • The Golden Mean 93
  • Immortality 97
  • Industrialism and the City 105
  • Innocence and Experience 111
  • Love 119
  • Marriage 141
  • Music 153
  • Nature and Country Life 159
  • Old Age 187
  • Patriotism 193
  • Politics and Human Rights 197
  • Pride and Vanity 205
  • Rebellion and Conformity 215
  • Regret, Consolation, and Melancholy 221
  • Religion 229
  • Sleep 243
  • Time and Change 251
  • War 257
  • Biographical Sketches 269
  • Further Reading 293
  • Index 295
  • About the Author 305
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