‘How Did You Die?’ is an inspiring poem written to help the reader question and therefore understand what aspects of their life they should value. Through the use of rhetorical questions, imagery, and figurative language, the speaker implies that persisting through life’s troubles is the greatest of aspirations. Sometimes that means fighting and losing — even death — but the poem makes it clear the only defeat you should fear is the personal one that occurs inside you the moment you choose to give up.
How Did You Die? Edmund Vance CookeDid you tackle that trouble that came your wayWith a resolute heart and cheerful?Or hide your face from the light of dayWith a craven soul and fearful?Oh, a trouble's a ton, or a trouble's an ounce,Or a trouble is what you make it,And it isn't the fact that you're hurt that counts,But only how did you take it?You are beaten to earth? Well, well, what's that?Come up with a smiling face.It's nothing against you to fall down flat,But to lie there -- that's disgrace.The harder you're thrown, why the higher you bounce;Be proud of your blackened eye!It isn't the fact that you're licked that counts,It's how did you fight -- and why?And though you be done to the death, what then?If you battled the best you could,If you played your part in the world of men,Why, the Critic will call it good.Death comes with a crawl, or comes with a pounce,And whether he's slow or spry,It isn't the fact that you're dead that counts,But only how did you die?
Explore How Did You Die?
‘How Did You Die?’ by Edmund Vance Cooke is an uplifting poem about finding value not in your defeats but in your decision to persevere.
‘How Did You Die?’ is a poem built on rhetorical questions, which each of its three stanzas digging a little bit deeper into the speaker’s ideas on how to approach life’s troubles. The first stanza is about how one chooses to react to the arrival of adversity — do they “tackle” it or hide from it? The second stanza is about what happens after you rise to the challenge of whatever trouble has found you and are soundly beaten by it. Do you stand back up, or do you give in to despair? For each of the first two stanzas, the speaker implies that the only thing that ever matters is “how you take” life’s hurts and “how did you fight– and why?”
The final stanza then relates those previous questions to death (the ultimate existential “trouble” humanity faces). The speaker explains through further rhetorical questions that all a person can hope for is to have “battled the best you could” and to have “played your part in the world of men.” If that can be done, then what does it matter if you die? It’s far more significant “how” someone died — which isn’t about the literal cause of a person’s death but is rather an inquiry into why and for what reason they died.
Structure and Form
‘How Did You Die?’ is a three-stanza poem composed of octaves. Each stanza has a similar structure: the first four lines of each octave introduce the stanza’s topic and offer two opposing viewpoints regarding trouble and/or death. Lines 5-6 of all three stanzas also contain images created via figurative language that illustrate the speaker’s points. While the final lines of each stanza reiterate and assert the speaker’s final thoughts on where people should find meaning or value in their defeats and/or deaths.
The poem uses a rhyme scheme of ‘ABABCDCD’ with no definite meter. This particular rhyme scheme is made up of both perfect and slant rhymes, creating a rhythm that helps accentuate the ending phrases of each line while also softening its didactic tone.
‘How Did You Die?’ uses a number of rhetorical questions, the purpose of which is to stir up the reader’s own thoughts and experiences with life’s difficulties. But they also allow the speaker to digress into their own answers to those questions. Cooke also uses oppositional diction (“resolute heart” and “craven soul”) and images (“You are beaten to earth?”) to convey the severity and importance of the poem’s themes. Creating these dichotomies of reactions/approaches to life and its troubles that help crystallize the speaker’s belief that perseverance is the greatest virtue to aspire to.
There are also examples of figurative language throughout the poem, particularly in lines 5-6 in all three stanzas. Whether it’s comparing the metaphorical weights of trouble people carry, illustrating the idea that with more strife comes more strength, or the personification of death as a thing that comes for everyone at different times.
Did you tackle that trouble that came your way
With a resolute heart and cheerful?
Or hide your face from the light of day
With a craven soul and fearful?
Oh, a trouble’s a ton, or a trouble’s an ounce,
Or a trouble is what you make it,
And it isn’t the fact that you’re hurt that counts,
But only how did you take it?
The first stanza of ‘How Did You Die?’ starts with a series of rhetorical questions directed at the reader, asking them how they approached the myriad troubles that found them in life. Did they meet them head-on (“resolute heart and cheerful”), or did they try to hide (“with a craven soul and fearful”) from them? Then the speaker makes a comment on the nature of trouble itself, offering up three different types: trouble that weighs a ton, trouble that weighs an ounce, and trouble that only weighs whatever we make it. Ending the stanza with another rhetorical question, the speaker proposes that the pain of such problems is less important than how you face them.
The questions reveal the speaker’s own views on “trouble” as well as one of the themes of the poem: that the measure of a person is determined by their actions in times of hardship. The metaphor in lines 5-6 (which is also an example of anaphora due to the repeated “a trouble’s” that begin each phrase) about the different weights trouble can have emphasizes that people are often afflicted by problems of varying size — but they can also be compounded and made worse by our own action or lack thereof. The last rhetorical question reiterates it’s not the size of the trouble nor the “hurt” it caused you that matters “but only how did you take it?”
You are beaten to earth? Well, well, what’s that?
Come up with a smiling face.
It’s nothing against you to fall down flat,
But to lie there — that’s disgrace.
The harder you’re thrown, why the higher you bounce;
Be proud of your blackened eye!
It isn’t the fact that you’re licked that counts,
It’s how did you fight — and why?
In the second stanza of ‘How Did You Die?’ the speaker begins a new round of rhetorical questions, with these focusing on how the reader reacts to being overcome by “trouble.” After you’ve been “beaten to earth” do you rise with a “smiling face” or do you choose to “lie there” resigned to it (“that’s disgrace”)? Choosing to rise is a commitment to persevere, and the greater the suffering, the greater the potential for surpassing it. The speaker even urges the reader to “be proud” of the scars and injuries they’ve earned from facing down (and being beaten) by their troubles. This doesn’t matter in the speaker’s eyes, as a victory over life is nonexistent, and everyone succumbs to one trouble or another eventually. Rather, what’s more noteworthy is the way someone resists life’s trials even after being defeated by them — as well as their personal motivations for doing so.
This set of rhetorical questions reveals the speaker’s views on defeat. If it’s essential how one interacts with “trouble,” it’s doubly so how one responds to being “licked” by it. According to the speaker, there are just two options: to emerge undaunted or to stay down in fear. As in the first stanza, the speaker believes it is better to meet a thing head-on rather than cower. They use the image of a bouncing object (“the harder you’re thrown, why the higher you bounce”) as a metaphor for an idea similar to the often-quoted aphorism by Friedrich Nietzsche: “what doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger.” The speaker also uses the image of a blackened eye to signify the kind of marked ways life can both physically and emotionally bruise us.
And though you be done to the death, what then?
If you battled the best you could,
If you played your part in the world of men,
Why, the Critic will call it good.
Death comes with a crawl, or comes with a pounce,
And whether he’s slow or spry,
It isn’t the fact that you’re dead that counts,
But only how did you die?
The final stanza of ‘How Did You Die?’ tries to answer the question of suffering through that most dreaded of human defeats: mortality. Everyone has to face death eventually; all the speaker says you can hope for is to have “battled the best you could” against life’s troubles or to have “played your part” in the world. Here the speaker refers to “the Critic” (i.e. a literary critic) who, based on this criteria, would label anyone who achieved such things as having a “good” life. Like the different variations of “trouble” in the first stanza, it’s also pointed out how death comes to everyone at different paces, but it arrives eventually. Just like the previous two stanzas, the final one ends with a rhetorical question as well, one that emphasizes that death itself is unimportant compared to “how” you died.
In the third stanza, the central topic is death as both a consequence of standing up to “trouble” and as an existential inevitability. As a result, all you can hope to strive for is to face death with the same steadfast dignity as you would with any of life’s problems. The personification of “Death” in lines 5-6, which recalls the speaker’s treatment of “trouble” in the first stanza in the same lines, underscores the fact that it’s something that can’t be eluded forever. Once again, the speaker explains that death shouldn’t be viewed as a defeat, and to do so would probably lead to a kind of hopeless nihilism since everyone experiences it. Instead, meaning is found in death by looking at how a person lived right up until the moment they passed away. And the poem’s final rhetorical question is less about the circumstances of someone’s death than it is about the spirit with which they lived their lives.
The poem has a number of themes, from perseverance to recognizing the value of someone’s life doesn’t come from measuring their defeats or even their death. But rather looking at how they lived and kept themselves afloat amidst life’s troubles.
Rhetorical questions are literary devices that forward a thought or idea in the form of questions rather than giving outright assertions. In the poem, the speaker offers choices in the form of rhetorical questions to the reader, which makes the poem less didactic and self-righteous in tone.
The meaning of the poem is rooted in the speaker’s views on how one should approach trouble. It is far better for people to struggle and persist than to give in.
- ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’ by Dylan Thomas – a poem about not giving in to death.
- ‘If We Must Die’ by Claude McKay – a poem that rallies against racial injustice and the high cost for fighting oppression.
- ‘Nothing Will Die’ by Alfred Lord Tennyson – a poem that looks at death as an inevitable but necessary part of life.