Here is an analysis of the poem When Death Comes by American poet Mary Oliver. Oliver, a highly beloved and well-respected writer, won the Pulitzer Prize for her work, American Primitive, in 1984. This was followed by the National Book Award for Poetry in 1992 for her book of poems simply titled New and Selected Poems. Her first book, No Voyage, and Other Poems, was published in 1963. Today, at age 81, she continues to write and publish in many forms. Most recently, her book of essays, entitled Upstream, received laudatory reviews from many publications. Undoubtedly the most popular living American poet today, her poetry is known for the images of nature she seems to so effortlessly depict.
Summary of When Death Comes
When Death Comes is the speaker’s, presumably Oliver, ruminations on what happens after one passes away. The speaker lists the various ways that death will determine it is her time to cross over, and once the speaker is on the other side, she says, she will enjoy the new adventure that awaits, but she will also be able to look back on her life and find comfort in knowing that she was always left in awe and amazement at the beauty and privilege of life, and that, once she is gone, she will find confidence—and solace—in knowing that she did not live a passive live. Rather, she enjoyed every moment, not as a visitor, but as an active participant.
Analysis of When Death Comes
There is a stream of consciousness feel to this poem, which can be read in full here, as the speaker, presumably Oliver, considers what happens to someone after his or her life ends. The fact that there is no set rhyme or meter, and that the stanzas are all of varying lengths, adds to this feeling of the continuous flow of thoughts. True to form, Mary Oliver weaves exquisite natural imagery throughout the poem, which adds to the beauty and simplicity of the work. When Death Comes consists of twelve stanzas, each varying in length from one to four lines. Each stanza bleeds into the next, adding movement to the piece. The majority of the stanzas end with commas, forcing the reader to continuously read the entire piece.
In the first stanza, Oliver wastes no time in getting right to the point. What is interesting in this stanza is the personification of death, who comes to take a person away, purchasing their soul after he removes all of his money from his coin purse. Oliver does not capitalize death, however, which seems to show what little significance she places in the event. Death is not as dramatic as humans make it out to be; rather, it is just another rite of passage in one’s life, perhaps not even the final. The simile in the first two lines must also be noted. Death does not come peacefully, however insignificant it may be. Instead, he comes at the person he is after the way a bear hunts for his food in autumn, right before he begins his winter hibernation. Oliver’s diction here is so clever: death is not just a hungry bear; he is a hungry bear in autumn. The significance and specificity in each word Oliver chooses cannot be denied.
The second stanza continues the thoughts of the first. Death snaps his purse shut definitively; there is no time for second thoughts or doubts. Oliver continues to use similes to compare how death acts, this time, as measle-pox, which probably refers to the two childhood illnesses, the measles and chicken pox. While there are vaccines for both of these diseases now, certainly in Oliver’s time, they were not, and a child coming down with one or both of these sicknesses was as inevitable as a child growing up, or in this case, a person finally succumbing to death.
It is important to also note the repetition Oliver uses in her poem. Many of the lines repeat the title, when death comes, as the speaker is constantly thinking about the topic.
After giving her reader all of the ways in which death comes, Oliver flips the situation in order to detail how she will greet death. Her answer may be surprising. Instead of welcoming death with fear or sadness or regret, Oliver says she will welcome it with curiosity.
Again, Oliver’s diction in this stanza is worth mentioning. A cottage has pleasant connotations attached to it, and it conjures images of warmth, stability, and a feeling of coziness; it is a sharp juxtaposition to the way that death is normally conveyed: cold, dark, and unfamiliar. The use of the word cottage further emphasizes the tone of the poem, which is filled with hope. This is particularly ironic, since many feel despair and dread when pondering their own death.
Oliver switches gears in the fifth stanza, as she begins to discuss how she is choosing to live her life, knowing that death could be staring her down at every corner. To the speaker, everything in life is related; time is not finite or tangible—it is just something one has thought up. Death is just another step in existence.
The following stanza is as beautiful as it is simplistic. She unifies the human existence by comparing each life to a common flower, yet she also shows the distinction from one to life to another—each one is different; each one is beautiful.
She continues this thought from stanza 6 in the stanzas 7 and 8.
The final three stanzas, Oliver melds the idea of her life and her death together, stating what she wants to get out of her life so that she can go into the unknown with peace.
In this stanza 9, Oliver considers herself to be both bride and groom, married to life. She wants to embrace the world and be amazed at all of its offerings.
She repeats the phrase, “When it’s over…” in thestanza 10. In other words, Oliver does not want to have to fret that she had done nothing with the gift of life she had been given. She continues this with the next stanza. She writes,
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
The poem ends with a simple line that completely summarizes her point:
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
In essence, Oliver wants to live her life knowing that in the end, she has taken every chance offered, and that she has marvelled at the world around her.