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The theme of any literature work is the predominant thought that the writer of the poem wants to pass through to the reader of the poem. In the poetry the writer expresses himself through his poem; thus, poetry represents the writer’s attitude towards some experience of his life. The period within which the writer lived exerts a potent influence on the work of the writer. I will discuss the theme of death and how it influences the work of Walt Whiteman, Emilie Dickinson and Robert Frost.
Theme of death
Walt Whitman lived during a time when America suffered from strife of the civil war. Whitman was the one of the most active poets in the political scene. He was born in the “Era of good feeling”; however, this “good feeling” did not last long as the country with civil war and divisions over the issue of slavery created tension. This gave to Whitman a lot to draw from in terms of emotions. The theme of death is a predominant theme in Whitman’s works, especially in his combination of poems called Leaves of Grass, which he wrote in the civil period as well as the rendition of the same collection when he was about to die in 1892 (Toynton, 103). In his poem “Come up from the fields, father” which he wrote after serving as an army nurse during the civil war. The poem tells the story of the suffering of a young man who was wounded in the war and the grief his injury brings to his mother. His mother learns the news and feels so badly according the poem; Whitman tells us that she longs to die, too and join her son. There is a sense of despair that precedes the death of her son. Whitman describes the woman’s steps as “ominous and trembling” showing a sense of foreboding. Whitman’s description of the sickly boy as pale and white emphasizes on the theme of death (Reynolds and David, 34). He further adds that the boy is leaning on the door, which means he is just about to die. Whitman also sees the death as a better option for the boy because he makes a comparison between the boy and his mother and he sees that there is a need for his mother to get better but not for the boy. The mothers’ choice of black clothes emphasizes the grief his mother feels after the loss of her son. The deep sense of despair that engulfs the mother of the boy is so immense that she sees death as a form of solution to her grief.
Another poem by Whitman is “when the lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d” has a predominant theme of death, too. This theme is evident from various aspects such as the title, for example. Lilacs are flowers mostly associated with death in the 19th century. In the first stanza, Whitman is mourning the loss of a great star, which in this case could be Abraham Lincolns’ assassination. The sixth stanza of the poem portrays’ the theme of death the most. He describes the somber mood of the streets along which the coffin is passing. The feeling of death is everywhere, the poet shows it by the use of symbolic dark clouds which cover the entire area and bring a sense of doom. He describes the women’s attire, which further emphasizes on this theme. The songs which were sung as the coffin passes through the streets and the sorrowful music that the people in the church were playing capture the feeling of loss. The poet uses the life cycle of the Lilacs to symbolize the continuity of life even when faced with tragic events but he vows to mourn them every spring as shown by the last line of stanza 1 (Kaplan,76). His description of the thrush’s song shows that although it is unpleasant to sing it is but necessary. By using the heart in the poem it shows the sheer love that the poet had for Lincoln who was a prominent leader.
Another poet who uses the theme of death in many works is Emily Dickinson. In her poem, “If I should die,” Dickinson emphasizes on the need for life to continue even upon the death. To show a continuation of life, she uses trade, the rising and setting of the sun, even when death has occurred (Bennet, 63). It is clear that Dickinson sees that one can choose his or her time of death contrary to the known fact that people do not choose when or where to die. In another poem, “Because I could not stop for death” she personifies death a gentle man. The aspect of using the pronoun He is to show the superiority. The pronoun “He” (note that the “H’ is capitalized) is used to show supremacy, perhaps, in this case, of God or Death. In both instances, God and Death are powerful forces which no human being could control. The poet personifies death as a gentleman, which is contrast with the cruel nature in which people perceive death. Emilie Dickinson describes the death using rather unusual voice of calmness and serenity, by describing the drive and she had put away all her sorrows. Emilie Dickinson also discusses the death as an observer when two people hold a conversation having been dead. This again depicts Dickinson as a person who views death as not an end but the beginning of something. Death from the poems of Dickinson is not the end of life, but just the beginning of another life. This poem “I died for beauty but was scarce” is another poem that shows that Emilie Dickinson considered death as a continuity of life, although for a while.
The poem is a conversation between two people how they lived, their successes and failures. Through the poem, the author shows that death makes us equal because she talks of adjusting while in the tomb. In the death people become a family as shown in the conversation with the man in the tomb who calls all dead people brothers. The woman in the conversation feels sorry about her reason for dying while her companion feels no bitterness. This also shows the equality that the death brings, whatever causes the death and it is not important since the destination is similar. By personifying the death, she gives it both the simplicity and complexity of human beings. She also creates a paradox by showing that in the death there is life, as depicted by the conversation held in the tomb. On the other hand, Dickinson was not always accepting death in such way. In her poem “Death is a dialogue”, there is victory over death and she portrays death as the enemy. In other poems she shows the triumph of Christ over death.
What influenced Robert Frost deeply about the death could be seen in his writing. It is the loss of his son, which he writes about in his poem “Home burial”. This poem tells us how the death of his son causes grief to the family. In this poem Robert Frost is distressed about the loss of his son. The woman in the relationship secretly despises her husband for not sharing the grief in equal measure. The poem shows us how different people deal with the loss of their loved ones, and the hopelessness that death brings. “Home burial” also analyzes the death of a marriage. The loss of their son causes the marriage to end; thus, this poem symbolizes two deaths (Thomas and Johnson, 67). The setting of the poem is telling of the way two different people deal with death. The wife stands overlooking the grave and is still grieving for her son but the husband stands near the door which symbolizes that he does not choose to sit and grieve in the house but is ready for life to continue.
His poem “After Apple picking” symbolizes living and after picking apples there is a death; however, Frost does not attach any feeling of loss or fear to it. In fact, there is a sense of longing for death. Frost’s poem has a feeling of resignation attached to it because the narrator of the poem is just waiting for the next phase as if he is tired of the current phase. The usage of apples gives a death a realistic form of imagery. The choice Frost made when decided to use plants shows that he wanted to demonstrate the changes that nature brings, where life and death are cyclical.
All the above mentioned poets have had a feeling of great loss in their lives that directly influenced the poems they wrote. Whitman lived during the civil war and volunteered as an army nurse where he witnessed many deaths. He grew fond of the soldiers and at times even wished to switch places with the soldiers as shown in some of his poems. He became so accustomed to the death that he looked it as a natural phenomenon that occurs with everyone. Emilie Dickinson also experienced a great loss in her life; but she continued to live her normal life. This could be the reason that her poems have the paradoxical aspect of immortality in death. By performing the actions that only those who are alive can perform Emilie Dickinson perfectly depicts immortality in the death. In some other poems she reiterates on the need for life to continue even when faced with death. These poems were a way for her to comfort herself after having lost so many loved ones. Robert Frost had a greater acceptance of the death than Dickinson and Whitman; however, the common factor for all three poets is that all of them experienced death at a personal level.