This poem is all about death and trying to help someone cope. Strangely though it is addressed to the deceased as an imperative (order), but is really designed to help the poetic voice cope with the loss of a friend or lover as they try to see death as a positive journey ending earthly worries and concerns. However, this is tinged with high emotion throughout and particularly in the final stanza.
Fear no more the heat o’ th’ sun
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages.
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.
Fear no more the frown o’ th’ great;
Thou art past the tyrant’s stroke.
Care no more to clothe and eat;
To thee the reed is as the oak.
The sceptre, learning, physic, must
All follow this and come to dust.
Fear no more the lightning flash,
Nor th’ all -dreaded-thunder-stone;
Fear not slander, censure rash;
Thou hast finished joy and moan.
All lovers young, all lovers must
Consign to thee and come to dust.
No exorciser harm thee!
Nor no witchcraft charm thee!
Ghost unlaid forbear thee!
Nothing ill come near thee!
Quiet consummation have,
And renownèd be thy grave!
William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.
Again I’m not going to tell you about Shakespeare’s background here as you can find info in a million other places and should have a decent grounding just in the interest of maintaining a socially acceptable level of general knowledge.
However, I will tell you about the play this poem/song comes from. In Cymbeline we have the King’s daughter, Imogen, falling victim of a plot by her stepmother to put her non-royal son, Cloten, on the throne by marrying him to Imogen. However, Imogen has fallen in love with and secretly married another chap who is banished for going behind the King’s, Cymbeline, back.
Anyway, it all gets very complicated and Imogen dresses up as a man to run off to find her love and ends up sheltering in a cave with two young men who bear a striking resemblance to her. Well, it turns out they are her brothers who’d been kidnapped at birth and brought up by a traitor. These two brothers, Guiderus and Arvirargus (at this stage known as Polydore and Cadwal), are our speakers as Imogen takes some medicine as she is feeling weak from her journey, which appears to kill her. The poison had been planted by her stepmother at some point, but then switched by the court doctor to something that only had the appearance of being lethal. When her brothers mourn they think she is a good looking man ‘Fidele’ and lament his passing rather than their sisters. I’m going to talk about the poetic voice – as a singular – because in effect the message from each is the same, but it’s good to be aware of the context anyway.
This is the only part that is relevant to us, but just in case you are desperate to know what happens: the wicked stepmother dies, Imogen finds love again and her brothers’ true identities are revealed. It sounds like the most ridiculous plot ever when you read through the Wikipedia article.
Okay, so clearly death, but I think specifically this is about coping with loss and rationalising death for the living so that life can go on, albeit I’m not convinced that the poetic voice really finds a way to deal with. The depth of emotion here should also allow you to talk about love and how deep it bonds people together, but any comments about love will have to be based on the depth of grief communicated.
Imagine this poem is being performed at a funeral.
In the opening lines we are soothing the deceased by explaining he is now safe from earthly issues. Lines 1-2 use two extremes of weather (the burning sun and the freezing winter) to show that this person will no longer have to suffer the discomfort of being too hot or cold; however, think about the connotations of both of these seasons described: summer – warmth, joy, and potentially representing the highs of life; winter – uncomfortable, miserable and possibly representing the lows. Although this seems a positive statement that all suffering is over, I also read a sense of regret that this person will never again enjoy the varied emotions of the human existence.
The rest of the opening stanza confirms what is going on as we learn that life on earth is over and that the deceased has returned ‘home’ to heaven as we all must, whether rich or poor. I’ll explain the bit about wages below in the Language and techniques section.
The second stanza begins to list other worldly concerns that this person is freed from in death: the wrath of politics and politicians; putting food on the table and clothes on his back; or affording the comforts or furniture of life. The final two lines of the stanza echo the first stanza as it is reemphasised everybody dies and that death is inevitable no matter who you are: sceptre (King/royalty), learning (scholars) and physic (doctors). Power, knowledge nor skills will save you from death.
Next up he’s told he’ll no longer have to worry about two more weather conditions: thunder and lightning. Again read between the lines and think what these could refer to in terms of human emotions. Lightning could be shock, perhaps thunder is fear. If someone slanders you they basically slag you off or cast dirt on your name and reputation, but, again, this isn’t a problem for our hero! I love the next line: ‘Thou hast finished joy and moan.’ It seems oxymoronic, but actually makes a lot of sense in our context as there are simply no more emotional ups and downs associated with human existence. What I find interesting is that although this poem is meant to comfort, the suggestion that joy has ended is surely not a positive. Shakespeare ties the good and the bad together like the concept of ying and yang, unable to exist without each other and equilibrium. Again the final two lines of the stanza reemphasised the certainty of death, this time it is all lovers whether young or old who will eventually end up in the ground.
Our final stanza is a huge change in terms of content and structure. The poetic voice seems to fill with emotion as it commands nefarious spirits or magic to leave their beloved friend alone and wishes them a peaceful final slumber.
Language and techniques
One of the things you might read elsewhere is that this poem is anti-life and negative about all the ways one can be hurt, made miserable or scared in the world. However, I’d disagree and think the poetic voice kids himself when he tries to explain that the next life is going to be a more rewarding experience.
So, it’d make sense with the context of the story of Cymbeline that the brothers suggest life is cruel as Fidele/Imogen arrives in a pretty sorry state and seems to have had a tough life. However, remember that Imogen has actually had a life of highs and lows as a royal princess and a contented lover. Anyway the poem mentions ‘fear’, ‘furious…rages’, ‘frown[s]’, ‘the tyrant’s stroke’, ‘dreaded thunder’ and ‘moan’, which all suggest very negative elements of human existence: being afraid; danger and violence; misery and heartache; disagreement and violence; and a heavy emphasis on fear and uncertainty. The language creates a hyperbolic image of the miseries of life, but this merely presented in order to sooth the dead and not to focus on the joys and happiness that will be lost.
Sometimes though you need to reflect on what isn’t in a poem. The grieving tone of the poem suggests that Fidele/Imogen will be missed and hints that the world is not such a miserable place, if it were why would they be able to feel such emotion for a relative stranger? Also, I think it’s significant that as the poem comes towards the end their true feelings begin to appear. The negativity is joined by a statement claiming he/she has ‘finished joy’ as well as ‘moan’. So, while the dead are safe from all the difficulties of human existence, there is a clear suggestion that they are also no longer going to experience the joys and highs of life.
I’d also mention the way language is used to promote Fidele/Imogen as being extremely virtuous. ‘Home art gone’ tells us that she is certain of salvation and a place in heaven and also the word ‘home’ has connotations of warmth, safety and comfort. When it says ‘ta’en thy wages’ we have a metaphor for her purity and innocence; her wages are her actions in life which will be used to secure her fate at the pearly gates where she will be judged. In addition, she is associated with ‘golden lads and girls’ as well as ‘sceptres’ by the poetic voice, which suggests a great worth and recognition of a royal soul (pure, kind, brave) even without the brothers being aware of this at the time.
Let’s also consider the repetition used at the beginning and end of the first three stanzas. ‘Fear no more’ is a lovely little comforting phrase that both soothes the dead and those mourning as it suggests that she has gone to a better place and has no more worries of burdens. While at the end everything ‘come[s] to dust’. This could just be a literal reflection on death and how it equalises all men in that we can’t avoid it, but it also seems to me to be contradictory to the initial message of the poem. The poetic voice is claiming Fidele/Imogen is in a better place, but then presenting us with the stark reality that she will now decay to nothingness on earth. Could this be a suggestion of doubt about the certainty of salvation and Christian belief? Make up your own mind.
The final stanza ends the poem emotionally with exclamation marks indicating a rising voice as they wish her well in death. The one thing I’d mention her is the force of what is being said, now the poetic voice is commanding spirits and magic to do his bidding as there is a feeling that this person deserves special protection in the next life.
This poem is considered a funeral speech. The main things I’d comment on here are the simplicity of the rhyme in the first three stanzas and the slow pace of the poem. Remember the poem is meant to respect the dead and sooth both the deceased and those having to mourn her loss, this is supported by a calm regularity and pauses at the end of the first four lines of stanzas 1-3 – except the opening line which uses enjambment to quickly emphasise the positive aspects of death and thus sooth.
The rhymes are very simple throughout and help create a sense of optimism as the whole poem seems to flow over us gently and easily, soothing our worries. However, I think you could argue that this is hiding the true emotion of the poetic voice, which is more aptly demonstrated by the consistent use of assonance with the moaning ‘o’ vowel repeated throughout the first three stanzas (in lines 1-4 of each).
The fourth stanza is markedly different from the others in structure as well as content. The important thing here is to recognise that the use of imperatives accompanied by exclamation marks demonstrates the depth of emotion in the poetic voice. The first four lines are powerful orders meant to protect Fidele/Imogen in death and contradicting the poems opening suggestion that death would present no problems or worries. The final two lines are used to dignify the deceased by wishing them peace and a well loved and oft visited grave.
Some people argue this should be read positively. However, I’d disagree (as always). I think what’s really going on here is an extremely deep feeling of misery overset by a dignified tone meant to show strength for someone of great worth. The message of soothing in the first three stanzas is delivered with a proud sense of worthiness for Fidele/Imogen, but throughout there are suggestions of high emotions and pain, which culminates in the breaking of emotion and the soothing attitude in the final stanza.
I’d imagine it being read a bit like Funeral Blues (W.H. Auden), albeit Auden doesn’t disguise his emotion in anyway.
I don’t know where I found this and therefore I can’t give any credit, where it is due, but a decent overview of the poem and key themes and ideas within it.
Fear No More the Heat of the Sun (Word document)