Any work of literature becomes a part of the canon, or famously recognized works, when it has stood the test of time and has proved to be relevant across generations. This poem, The Dying Christian to His Soul, by Alexander Pope focuses on the speaker in his time of death. Across many cultures and generations, people have been preoccupied with death. People fear it, and so they think of it often. People lose loved ones, causing them to wonder what death feels like. While many poets have written on death, none has done it quite like Alexander Pope. In this particular poem, the reader is left feeling victorious over death. The author gives readers reason to believe that this feeling of victory over death is a result of faith, particularly the Christian faith. This is why the poem is addressed specifically to the Dying Christian, and not to his body, but rather to his soul. You can read the poem in full here.
The Dying Christian to His Soul Analysis
Alexander Pope begins The Dying Christian to His Soul with excitement when he says, “Vital spark of heav’nly flame!” Implying that he has either seen or felt some spark of life on his death bed. Referring to this spark as “vital” and “heav’nly” immediately gives the reader a sense of excited anticipation.
In the next line, he quickly reveals that he is ready to leave his “mortal frame”
and in the third line, he reveals the feelings that are going along with death. He begins this line with the word “trembling” which is what one might expect to feel at the time of death. But he quickly reveals that this trembling is one of excitement rather than fear, when he compiles this feeling along with “hoping”, “lingering” and “flying”, which all suggest an incredible excitement at the idea of leaving his mortal body and flying away to another place. He ends the first stanza by making it very clear to the readers that in life, he suffered pain, but that to die would be bliss. He says,
O the pain, the bliss of dying!
Cease, fond Nature, cease thy strife,
And let me languish into life.
This gives readers a feeling of longing for death if it really means to “languish into life”.
Without relinquishing his tone of excitement, he moves into his own thoughts on his deathbed. He explains his physical feelings, that whatever has come over him “shuts his sight” and “draws his breath”. He asks himself, “could this be death?” And these physically feelings would invoke fear, save for that he preceeded these feelings with the sweet angel’s whisper that “absorb[s] him quiet” and asks him to “come away”.
In the third and final stanza of The Dying Christian to His Soul, death has finally come upon the speaker. He sees the world as it “recedes”. The exclamation point after the word “disappears” reminds the readers that even at the moment of death, the excited anticipation has not left the speaker. He continues this tone throughout the stanza when he says,
Heav’n opens on my eyes! my ears
With sounds seraphic ring!
Implying that although his ears and eyes have been shut to the sounds and sights of earthly things, they’ve been opened to the heavenly realm.
Then he explains the way he flies away when he says,
“Lend, lend your wings! I mount! I fly!
He ends this stanza with a biblical quote concerning victory over death.
O Grave! where is thy victory?
O Death! where is thy sting?
Comes directly from 1 Corinthians 15:55, in which the Apostle Paul writes to the Corinthians to educate them, telling them that death has no victory over them. Pope’s poem reveals that he had an understanding of this biblical theology that for the Christian, death has no victory. In fact, it is likely that the entire poem was inspired by this section of scripture. Verse 56 and 57 say, “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Pope clearly held these feelings of victory over death very near to his heart, and this is why he writes a poem of hope and even excitement in the face of death. He titles it, “The Dying Christian to His Soul” to emphasize the role of his faith in his ability to feel triumphant in the face of death.
The Dying Christian to His Soul has become so well known because all people long for a feeling of victory over death. Although the natural response to death is despair, Pope offers an alternative and connects that alternative directly to his faith and biblical beliefs, thus offering people hope that they too can feel a sense of victory over death.