In this poem, ‘My Days among the Dead are Past’, Robert Southey speaks from the point of view of a man who identifies with the dead rather than the living. He walks among them, talks with them, and counts himself as one of them. He learns from their lives, and he knows that his future is with them. However, he also realizes that if he wants to be like the greatest of them, he must stop living among the dead, and start interacting with the living. This particular poem was published three years before his death, but it is speculated that Robert Southey wrote ‘My Days among the Dead are Past’ many years earlier. The speaker is likely to represent the author himself. There are two valid interpretations of this poem. There are two different titles to this poem as well, and each title gives the poem a different meaning.
My Days among the Dead are Past Analysis
My days among the Dead are past;
Around me I behold,
Where’er these casual eyes are cast,
The mighty minds of old;
My never-failing friends are they,
With whom I converse day by day.
The first few lines of this poem give insight into the title. They reveal that the speaker once found himself spending his time among the dead. He preferred to be with “the mighty minds of old” and he felt such a connection with them as to call them his “never-failing friends”. He also claims that he talks with them every day. This gives the reader the image of a man who chooses to spend his time among the gravestones, talking to those who have been long dead, admiring their lives and deaths, and counting himself among them. The title, however, reveals that the speaker has decided to be done spending his time conversing with the dead. Those days are past.
An alternative view is that the narrator is stood in a library and the “mighty minds of old” are the authors of the books.
With them I take delight in weal,
And seek relief in woe;
And while I understand and feel
How much to them I owe,
My cheeks have often been bedew’d
With tears of thoughtful gratitude.
With these lines of ‘My Days among the Dead are Past’, the speaker reveals why he feels such a deep connection with the dead. He feels he can talk to them about his delights in life, and “seek relief” in conversing with them about his grief. He believes that he owes everything to those who went before him, and his gratitude to them is so great that he has often shed tears of thankfulness. This is what he means when he says that his “cheeks have often been bedew’d with tears of thoughtful gratitude”.
My thoughts are with the Dead, with them
I live in long-past years,
Their virtues love, their faults condemn,
Partake their hopes and fears,
And from their lessons seek and find
Instruction with an humble mind.
The speaker then delves deeper into his connection with the dead. To him, they are not simply the decaying bodies of people he has never known. He is keenly aware of the effect they have had in shaping his life, whether he knew them or not. He knows that there are great lessons to be learned by those who have lived and died. He mentions “their virtues” as well as “their faults” and he claims that he “partake[s] their hopes and fears”. He also seeks to learn from history. He says that he will learn from those who have lived before him and that from them he will seek “instruction with an humble mind”.
My hopes are with the Dead, anon
My place with them will be,
And I with them shall travel on
Through all Futurity;
Yet leaving here a name, I trust,
That will not perish in the dust.
The speaker then claims that his “hopes are with the dead, anon”. He knows that soon (anon), he will be buried with the rest. He knows that life is short and that the graves he looks at are those of people who have been in the grave infinitely longer than they lived. He knows that he, too, will spend more time in the grave than alive. This is why he says, “my place with them will be”. Then he says that he will travel on with the dead “through all futurity”. He knows that eventually, his place will be in the grave with the rest who have gone before him, and he has sought to learn from them in life. Now, as he stands before their graves, knowing that he has all of eternity to be buried with them, he resolves himself to be done spending his time among the dead. He wants to leave “a name that will not perish in the dust”. This, along with the title, implies that the speaker has had a realization that if he is to leave behind him any mark of his having lived on earth, he would have to live among the living, rather than reminiscing among the dead.
Many critics have said that because ‘My Days among the Dead are Past’ was once titled, “stanzas written in my library” that the dead with whom the speaker identifies are in fact writers, and he communicates with them through reading their works. Some critics have also claimed that when he says, “my days among the dead are past” he does not mean that he is done spending time with the dead, but rather that the dead are no longer dead to him. Rather, they become alive when he opens their written works. They speak to him when he reads their work, and he responds to them when he writes. This is how he converses with the dead. This interpretation also implies that the speaker does not resolve to be done spending his time with the dead, but rather concludes that the dead are not dead to him because they are alive in their writing.
- The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica, Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. “Robert Southey.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 01 June 2016.