Death

 Overview

This is a cheery poem… or maybe not, where a personified Death explains his virtues and why we shouldn’t live our lives in fear of him. His point is basically that death is an intrical and inescapable part of life, high and low, and that if we spend our lives trying to avoid or stave off death our efforts will mean that we avoid actually living our lives and ultimately death will catch up with all of us anyway.

Mini-Glossary
hoary – 
a greyish white
cark – an informal way of saying die, which seems to stem from the fact it sounds like the call of death’s winged friend, the crow;
thistle-down – a weedy plant where the seeds can be blown off.

          I am the one whose thought
Is as the deed; I have no brother, and
          No father; years
Have never seen my power begin. A chain
Doth bind all things to me. In my hand, man,–
Infinite thinker,–vanishes as doth
The worm that he creates, as doth the moth
That it creates, as doth the limb minute
That stirs upon that moth. My being is
          Inborn with all things, and
          With all things doth expand.

          But fear me not; I am
The hoary dust, the shut ear, the profound,
          The deep of night,
When Nature’s universal heart doth cease
To beat; communicating nothing; dark
And tongueless, negative of all things. Yet
Fear me not, man; I am the blood that flows
Within thee,–I am change; and it is I
Creates a joy within thee, when thou feel’st
Manhood and new untried superior powers
Rising before thee: I it is can make
          Old things give place
          To thy free race.

        All things are born for me.
His father and his mother,–yet man hates
          Me foolishly.
An easy spirit and a free lives on,
But he who fears the ice doth stumble.Walk
Straight onward peacefully,–I am a friend
Will pass thee graciously: but grudge and weep
And cark,–I’ll be a cold chain around thy neck
Into the grave, each day a link drawn in,
Until thy face shall be upon the turf,
          And the hair from thy crown
          Be blown like thistle-down.

William Bell Scott (1811-1890)

Analysis
Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.
ContextThemesContentLanguage and techniquesStructureTone

Context

An artist, a poet and an art teacher, Bell was a contemporary of the Pre-Raphaelites and in particular the Rossettis (who have tonnes of poems analysed on this site) producing his work from the 1830s until his death in 1890.

The limited biographical details I’ve found don’t paint him as one of the wildest poets about, but you might be interested to know that he got married, fell out of love and then began a 30 year affair, but refused to leave his wife.

Anyway, not much that links us to the content of this poem.

 Themes

Clearly this is focused on death, positioning it in terms of being eternal, inescapable, but at the same time as something that gives us freedom and releases us from the strains of life as the ultimate sleep.

Content

In the eyes of Google this poem is virgin territory as a quick search reveals only one from shaky and uncertain Prezi analysis, which I would largely discount.

This means that this post could become the authority on this poem! An exciting, but a daunting prospect.

Bell doesn’t mess around and tells us exactly what this is about in the title. Death is not only the title, but a personified version (think the grim reaper, but more prosaic) provides the poem’s voice. I will refer to Death as him throughout my analysis, but I am just pandering to my own imagination and really Death is sexless (snigger!).

In the first stanza he describes himself with some lovely, morbid imagery. After establishing his eternal nature, he informs us that basically we’re screwed as he will be visiting every living thing at some point and there is no escaping it. If this message on its own wasn’t enough to make us feel miserable, he rams it home by crushing our human belief that we are somehow special by saying that he will be coming for the worm and moth too – thanks! The stanza ends with a revisiting of the fact he is an inescapable part of life.

This stanza really reminded me of an old clip from a British comedy sketch show that I feel aptly sums up how I felt after reading it:

If we were feeling a bit blue after this, Death moves to calm us and tells us that we needn’t worry about it or fear him. A quick self-description paints him like sleep as a provider of peace, quiet and rest. This is followed by a reminder that he cannot be avoided. However, he finally comes to a reason we shouldn’t fear him, namely that Death brings change and creates joy, which I think associates Death with ageing, but also can be seen as a reflection on the opportunities death creates for those remaining. This joy could also stem from the fact that Death provides a release and freedom from the struggles and toil of life.

Now that Death has made us feel a bit better about our inevitable get together, he begins moaning about the human attitude towards death. He paints two pictures: one is a person just living their life with no thought for the end; the other is constantly worrying about preserving their life and so busy doing this that they are not living life to the full and will inevitable meet their maker regardless of their actions. We should clearly aspire to be the first of these and welcome Death as a friend and inevitable part of our lives.

Language and techniques

Okay, you need to begin with examining this personified Death and what Scott represents him as.

Firstly, he is established as being particularly powerful and an eternal feature of life that existed before the beginning and after the end (if that makes sense). He has ‘no brother, and no father’ suggesting he has no creator and no equal, perhaps further reflecting that there is nothing more powerful that can override or trump his power. The fact that ‘years have never seen my power begin’ further shows that not even time, the universal constant, has any power over Death.

Scott makes him more sinister though in the rest of the opening stanza. We have imagery that compares Death to a jailor with ‘a chain [that] doth bind all things to me’, but he seems to be a particularly nasty one as no matter who his prisoner he ‘vanishes’. This is further established through the diminishment of mankind making us the equal of the ‘worm’ and ‘moth’, which not only demonstrates that all life will meet death, but the choice of insects, often considered lowly beings, really puts humanity in its place. The descriptive aside of man as the ‘infinite thinker’ almost seems to be mocking our own thought of ourselves as being somehow above this shared fate.

The tone and passive aggressive nature of this stanza serves as a way of Scott establishing the harsh inevitability of death and attempts to end any arguments or thought about trying to avoid it, something that is revisited in the final stanza.

At the end of the stanza, the final sentence again reinforces the concept of Death as being beyond all limits of time and experience. He is ‘inborn with all things, and with all things doth expand’, thus the very process of being born and given life ensures our death and expands his reach.

The second stanza presents a completely different perspective. Beginning with the soothing, ‘But fear me not’ it attempts to move us from this image of death as a vicious jailor and instead positioning him as being a force of change and a relief from the stresses and strains of life. Death is now positioned as the ultimate sleep as ‘The hoary dust, the shut ear, the profound, The deep of night’ creates imagery of a pitch black night, still and silent when there is ‘nothing’. Although on the face of it this could seem like another depressing aspect of death, we are again reassured with the repetition of ‘Fear me not’.

This nothing is presented as bringing ‘change’ and ‘joy’. I think this can possibly be interpreted in two ways: firstly, as Death allowing us to begin a new journey as we ascend to heaven where we have ‘new untried superpowers’, which could represent our new eternal existence and happiness; secondly, as ending all our worries and worldly strains as ‘Old things give place To thy free race’ – this may mean that old fears/thoughts/worries are left behind and death provides us freedom from our responsibilities.

I couldn’t really fit this in above, but you may also want to comment on the metaphoric expression that ‘I am the blood that flows Within thee.’ This is a lovely way of expressing that Death is not our enemy, but simply a part of our life that makes life what it is. This is again meant to be reassuring as he is not something to be avoided, but a part of who we are – how can you fear yourself? You can’t… unless you have a gambling problem… or are a violent drunk… or… well, anyway, you get my point!

The opening line of the final stanza communicates the same thing, roughly. If everything is ‘born for me’, we can interpret Death as being something like a watchful father. Alternatively, you could see this as just ramming home the message that we are all destined to die from the moment we are born. However, I think the first of these interpretations is more accurate as it is used as a way to demonstrate that ‘man hates [him] foolishly.’ This line demonstrates Death’s and Scott’s frustration with the attitude of fearing death.

This idea is further expounded upon as the stanza compares the lives of: someone who lives their life as ‘an easy spirit’ without contemplating and worrying about when their existence will come to an end: and someone who fears Death. The latter is described through a metaphor comparing the attitude to walking on ice where the fear causes one to be uncertain and thus ‘stumble’. I am sure Scott didn’t get this idea from watching Disney’s Bambi, but the clip will give you a clear impression of Scott’s comparison:

For those who do not fear Death they have him as a ‘friend [who] Will pass thee graciously’ and not bother them until it is their time. Whereas, those who worry about it with their onomatopoeic ‘grudge and weep and cark’ will be consumed by their fears and their lives with be less fulfilled as a result. Scott uses this lovely image of the ‘cold chain around thy neck’ to represent fear dragging us down until eventually we succumb and are taken to our grave. Those without fear are not dragged to their grave, but are led their by their friend Death when it is their time.

Notice how this analogy between fear and chains is really vivid and brutal (with the face squashed to the ground and the image of hair falling out like ‘thistle-down’ – image below). Oddly it seems as if Death is trying to scare and threaten us out of our fear of him… threatening and shouting at students never seems to make them warm up to me, but who am I to question Death’s methods?

Structure

There isn’t a huge amount to comment on here.

I think I would mention the lack of regularity throughout. The stanzas appear at first glance to be the same, but all have a different number of lines (11,13,12) and there is occasional rhyme, but only in the last two lines of each stanza is this consistent.

This lack of regularity could reflect the fact that Death is not predictable and does not come at a particular age or stage of existence. However, those final lines’ consistency show that although the when is uncertain, Death itself is a certainty and unavoidable.

Tone

Although we have some pretty grim and miserable ideas within this poem, I think it is meant to be a poem that inspires us to live our lives without fear. We go from factual, to passionate and uplifting, to threatening in the final stanza.

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