Thematic Guide to British Poetry

By Ruth Glancy | Go to book overview
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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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