[disinfo ed.’s note: this is an exclusive excerpt from the new disinformation® book by Russ Kick, Death Poems: Classic, Contemporary, Witty, Serious, Tear-Jerking, Wise, Profound, Angry, Funny, Spiritual, Atheistic, Uncertain, Personal, Political, Mythic, Earthy, and Only Occasionally Morbid]
Every poem [is] an epitaph. – T.S. Eliot
Name any well-known poet from any age, any country. He or she wrote at least one poem about death, most likely several poems. I can basically guarantee it. Death is one of the most common themes in the entirety of poetry. Whether it’s a lamentation for a loved one or a public figure, a reflection on their own upcoming appointment with the grave, a meditation on the nature of death, or perhaps what happens afterward, every poet has found inspiration—sometimes welcome, often not—in the fate we all have in common. It provides a lens through which to examine life, changing everything else by its looming, inevitable presence. Our time here is brief; this play has a limited engagement, and there are no do-overs. Everything we do counts. Time is always running out, and the poets know that this casts life in an entirely different light than if we were immortal.
Death also provides a profound mystery—the ultimate mystery, really—to be examined, prodded, hypothesized about, potentially unraveled (but probably not). Poets love a mystery, and there is none bigger. In an interview, the great Anne Sexton said: “You see, I can explain sex in a minute, but death—I can’t explain.”
Finally, death provides a taboo, which poets love. It’s disturbing, not to be talked about. But poetry specializes in taboos. It provides a way to speak about the unspeakable. The social rules of normal discourse, even the social rules of other types of writing, don’t apply to poetry. By approaching things obliquely, by using language in a nonordinary—you could even say “magic”—way, by short-circuiting the rules of dialog and sneaking underneath the barbed wire of our rational, logical minds, poetry can address with impunity any topic it wants to. “Tell all the Truth,” Emily Dickinson wrote, “but tell it slant.”
Given the universality of death in poetry, you would expect to find a lot of anthologies collecting poetry on the topic. Themed collections of poetry are extremely popular. Bookshelves sag with anthologies of cowboy poetry, Japanese poetry, poems about the ocean, poems on motherhood, baseball, spirituality, music, food… The number of books that collect love poetry is beyond calculating. And, as I write this, you can choose from more than ten anthologies of dog poetry in print. (Cats have around the same number.) But no one has brought together a big selection of the wide-ranging poems about death. There are several anthologies of poems specifically about loss, mourning, and grieving, and some of them are specifically marketed as providing readings for funeral services, or as a way to help the bereaved cope with their loss. There is a small omnibus of poems about murder, and you won’t have trouble finding anthologies of war poems.
Just why it has been mostly ignored is puzzling, but my guess is that the taboo of death comes into play here. Maybe it strikes publishers and anthologists as morose. Maybe the topic of death is considered too much of a buzzkill. Putting together anthologies about personal loss and grieving is a psychological service. Creating anthologies about war is an historical and social service. But creating an anthology about death in general—in all its aspects—well, that’s just bleak, right? Morbid. No, actually. Not at all. When you have many of the finest creative minds in history addressing one of the most important aspects of the human condition, you’re going to get riches—a revealing, finely wrought kaleidoscope of ideas, attitudes, and experiences.
You’re going to get Walt Whitman celebrating death as an important part of the richness of life. Lord Byron penning a beautiful epitaph for his beloved dog (there’s dogs and poetry again!). Emily Dickinson going for a carriage ride with Death, and Dylan Thomas pleading with his father to not go gentle into that good night. The ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus ironically but accurately noting death’s role as a healer. The Nobel Prize-winning Modernist poet Wallace Stevens opining that “Death is the mother of beauty.” The decadent Charles Baudelaire reminding his lover that one day she’ll be a rotting corpse. Thomas Hardy—best known for his novels Tess of the d’Urbervilles and The Mayor of Casterbridge—wryly writing about a widow and an ex-wife meeting over the grave of the man they had in common. American slaves singing of the holy glories to come, and the Irish singing about a man who comes back to life at his own wake. The ancient Indian holy text The Baghavad Gita explaining the immortality of our true essence. Biting epitaphs by Scotland’s Robert Burns. Wanda Coleman’s furious litany of innocent African Americans killed by police.
In this collection, several soldier-poets write of life in the trenches and on the battlefield, and Miranda Beeson offers an unexpected angle on 9/11. Former US Poet Laureate Billy Collins cheekily wonders if death is closing in on him, while an earlier Laureate, William Stafford, writes about losing his grip while mountain climbing. The seventeenth-century Cavalier poet Robert Herrick ponders the death of trees, and, around 250 years later, Imagist poet Amy Lowell graphically describes killing flowers. Literary legend D.H. Lawrence uses the moon to form a pact with his dead beloved, while the always astonishing Edna St. Vincent Millay is relieved that her paramour died before their relationship could go sour. The recently departed Lucille Clifton addresses the unborn child she aborted at home, while Charlotte Brontë grieves for her younger sister Anne, killed by consumption. Todd Davis puts a rabbit out of its misery, and Linda Hogan comforts a horse who has lost her foal. Two of the poets here (Tichborne and Villon) wrote verse while waiting for their death sentence the following morning. Others imagine what Heaven or Hell might be like. Some poets can’t wait to die, while the unjustly overlooked Sara Teasdale loves life and nature so much that she doesn’t want to leave, even vowing to find a way back.
As you can tell, this collection ranges dramatically. It goes across all of history, from the ancients straight through to today. Across countries and languages, across schools of poetry. You’ll find a plethora of approaches—witty, humorous, deadly serious, tear-jerking, wise, profound, angry, spiritual, atheistic, uncertain, highly personal, political, mythic, earthy, and only occasionally morbid. Every angle you can think of is covered—the deaths of children, lost loves, funeral rites, close calls, eating meat, serial killers, the death penalty, roadkill, the Underworld, reincarnation, elegies for famous people, death as an equalizer, death as a junk man, death as a child, the death of God, the death of death…
This is a dazzling, largely unmined vein in poetry’s long history. I hope this collection captures a big cross section of that mosaic.
The Nature of Death
In which the poets reflect on what death is, meditate on why it happens, and pontificate on what it means to us.
From “Song of Myself ”
I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men and women,
And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring taken soon
out of their laps.
What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?
They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to
And ceas’d the moment life appear’d.
All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.
Death the Leveller
The glories of our blood and state
Are shadows, not substantial things;
There is no armour against fate;
Death lays his icy hand on kings:
Sceptre and Crown
Must tumble down,
And in the dust be equal made
With the poor crookèd scythe and spade.
Some men with swords may reap the field,
And plant fresh laurels where they kill:
But their strong nerves at last must yield;
They tame but one another still:
Early or late
They stoop to fate,
And must give up their murmuring breath,
When they, pale captives, creep to death.
The garlands wither on your brow;
Then boast no more your mighty deeds;
Upon Death’s purple altar now
See, where the victor-victim bleeds:
Your heads must come
To the cold tomb;
Only the actions of the just
Smell sweet, and blossom in their dust.
has sympathy for weariness:
of the ways
of the struggle
against giving up what was given:
the plus one minus one
of nitrogen for oxygen:
and the unequal odds,
you a cell
against the universe,
a breath or two
against all time:
takes what is left
without protest, criticism
or a demand for more
than one can give
who can give
no more than was given:
doesn’t even ask,
but accepts it as it is,
Poets Have Chanted Mortality
John Crowe Ransom
It had better been hidden
But the Poets inform:
We are chattel and liege
Of an undying Worm.
Were you, Will, disheartened,
When all Stratford’s gentry
Left their Queen and took service
In his low-lying country?
How many white cities
And grey fleets on the storm
Have proud-builded, hard-battled,
For this undying Worm?
Was a sweet chaste lady
Would none of her lover.
Nay, here comes the Lewd One,
Creeps under her cover!
Have ye said there’s no deathless
Of face, fashion, form,
Forgetting to honor
The extent of the Worm?
O ye laughers and light-lipped,
Ye faithless, infirm,
I can tell you who’s constant,
’Tis the Eminent Worm.
Ye shall trip on no limits,
Neither time ye your term,
In the realms of His Absolute
Highness the Worm.
Death Is a Fisherman
Benjamin Franklin (Attributed)
Death is a fisherman, the world we see
His fish-pond is, and we the fishes be;
His net some general sickness; howe’er he
Is not so kind as other fishers be;
For if they take one of the smaller fry,
They throw him in again, he shall not die:
But death is sure to kill all he can get,
And all is fish with him that comes to net.
Death Snips Proud Men
Death is stronger than all the governments because
the governments are men and men die and then
death laughs: Now you see ’em, now you don’t.
Death is stronger than all proud men and so death
snips proud men on the nose, throws a pair of
dice and says: Read ’em and weep.
Death sends a radiogram every day: When I want
you I’ll drop in—and then one day he comes with a
master-key and lets himself in and says: We’ll go now.
Death is a nurse mother with big arms: ’Twon’t hurt
you at all; it’s your time now; just need a
long sleep, child; what have you had anyhow
better than sleep?
“Death is a dialogue between”
Death is a dialogue between
The spirit and the dust.
“Dissolve,” says Death. The Spirit, “Sir,
I have another trust.”
Death doubts it, argues from the ground.
The Spirit turns away,
Just laying off, for evidence,
An overcoat of clay.
Calm Death, God of crossed hands and passionless eyes,
Thou God that never heedest gift nor prayer,
Men blindly call thee cruel, unaware
That everything is dearer since it dies.
Worn by the chain of years, without surprise,
The wise man welcomes thee, and leaves the glare
Of noisy sunshine gladly, and his share
He chose not in mad life and windy skies.
Passions and dreams of love, the fever and fret
Of toil, seem vain and petty when we gaze
On the imperious Lords who have no breath:
Atoms or worlds—we call them lifeless, yet
In thy unending peaceful day of days
They are divine, all-comprehending Death.
From Queen Mab
Percy Bysshe Shelley
How wonderful is Death,
Death, and his brother Sleep!
One, pale as yonder waning moon
With lips of lurid blue;
The other, rosy as the morn
When throned on ocean’s wave
It blushes o’er the world;
Yet both so passing wonderful!
Great is the similarity between
These two fair figures, although one appears
Much paler than the other, far more calm;
Fairer and nobler even, I might say,
Than his companion, in whose arms
I lay so warmly. How divine and soft
Were all his smiles, and what a look was his!
It must have been the poppy-wreath he wore
About his brows that touched my throbbing head
And with its magic perfume soothed all pain
And sorrow in my soul . . . But such sweet balm
Lasts but a little while; I can be cured
Completely only when the other one,
The grave and paler brother, drops his torch.
For Sleep is good, but Death is better still—
The best is never to be born at all.
Translated from the German by Louis Untermeyer
Can death be sleep, when life is but a dream,
And scenes of bliss pass as a phantom by?
The transient pleasures as a vision seem,
And yet we think the greatest pain’s to die.
How strange it is that man on earth should roam,
And lead a life of woe, but not forsake
His rugged path; nor dare he view alone
His future doom which is but to awake.
Sleep and His Brother Death
William Hamilton Hayne
Just ere the darkness is withdrawn,
In seasons of cold or heat,
Close to the boundary line of Dawn
These mystical brothers meet.
They clasp their weird and shadowy hands,
As they listen each to each,
But never a mortal understands
Their strange immortal speech.
From The Faerie Queene
For all that lives, is subject to that law:
All things decay in time, and to their end do draw.
“Were I a King”
Edward Vere, Early of Oxford
Were I a King, I might command content;
Were I obscure, unknown should be my cares;
And were I dead, no thoughts should me torment,—
Nor words, nor wrongs, nor love, nor hate, nor fears!
A doubtful choice for me, of three things, one to crave:
A Kingdom, or a Cottage, or a Grave!
Death the Consecrator
O Death, the Consecrator!
Nothing so sanctifies a name
As to be written—Dead.
Nothing so wins a life from blame,
So covers it from wrath and shame,
As doth the burial-bed.
O Death, the revelator!
Our deepest passions never move
Till thou hast bid them wake;
We know not half how much we love
Till all below and all above
Is shrouded for our sake.
O Death, the great peacemaker!
If enmity hath come between
There’s naught like death to heal it;
And if we love, O priceless pain,
O bitter-sweet, when love is vain!
There’s naught like death to seal it.
“O Death the Healer”
O Death the Healer, scorn thou not, I pray,
To come to me: of cureless ills thou art
The one physician. Pain lays not its touch
Upon a corpse.
Translated from the Greek by E.H. Plumptre
O why should the spirit of mortal be proud?
Like a fast-flitting meteor, a fast-flying cloud,
A flash of the lightning, a break of the wave,
He passes from life to his rest in the grave.
The leaves of the oak and the willow shall fade,
Be scattered around, and together be laid;
And the young and the old, and the low and the high,
Shall moulder to dust, and together shall lie.
The child that a mother attended and loved,
The mother that infant’s affection that proved;
The husband that mother and infant that blessed,
Each, all, are away to their dwelling of rest.
The maid on whose cheek, on whose brow, in whose eye,
Shone beauty and pleasure,—her triumphs are by;
And the memory of those that beloved her and praised
Are alike from the minds of the living erased.
The hand of the king that the scepter hath borne,
The brow of the priest that the miter hath worn,
The eye of the sage, and the heart of the brave,
Are hidden and lost in the depths of the grave.
The peasant whose lot was to sow and to reap,
The herdsman who climbed with his goats to the steep,
The beggar that wandered in search of his bread,
Have faded away like the grass that we tread.
The saint that enjoyed the communion of heaven,
The sinner that dared to remain unforgiven,
The wise and the foolish, the guilty and just,
Have quietly mingled their bones in the dust.
So the multitude goes, like the flower and the weed
That wither away to let others succeed;
So the multitude comes, even those we behold,
To repeat every tale that hath often been told.
“A Very Ancient Ode” (from Japanese Literature)
Mountains and ocean-waves
Around me lie;
Forever the mountain-chains
Tower to the sky;
Fixed is the ocean
Man is a thing of nought,
Born but to die!
Translated from the Japanese by Epiphanius Wilson
William Cullen Bryant
Yet a few days, and thee
The all-beholding sun shall see no more
In all his course; nor yet in the cold ground,
Where thy pale form was laid, with many tears,
Nor in the embrace of ocean, shall exist
Thy image. Earth, that nourished thee, shall claim
Thy growth, to be resolved to earth again,
And, lost each human trace, surrendering up
Thine individual being, shalt thou go
To mix for ever with the elements,
To be a brother to the insensible rock
And to the sluggish clod, which the rude swain
Turns with his share, and treads upon. The oak
Shall send his roots abroad, and pierce thy mould.
Yet not to thine eternal resting-place
Shalt thou retire alone, nor couldst thou wish
Couch more magnificent. Thou shalt lie down
With patriarchs of the infant world—with kings,
The powerful of the earth—the wise, the good,
Fair forms, and hoary seers of ages past,
All in one mighty sepulchre. The hills
Rock-ribbed and ancient as the sun,—the vales
Stretching in pensive quietness between;
The venerable woods—rivers that move
In majesty, and the complaining brooks
That make the meadows green; and, poured round all,
Old Ocean’s gray and melancholy waste,—
Are but the solemn decorations all
Of the great tomb of man.
From “Sunday Morning”
Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her,
Alone, shall come fulfilment to our dreams
And our desires. Although she strews the leaves
Of sure obliteration on our paths,
The path sick sorrow took, the many paths
Where triumph rang its brassy phrase, or love
Whispered a little out of tenderness,
She makes the willow shiver in the sun
For maidens who were wont to sit and gaze
Upon the grass, relinquished to their feet.
She causes boys to pile new plums and pears
On disregarded plate. The maidens taste
And stray impassioned in the littering leaves.
Is there no change of death in paradise?
Does ripe fruit never fall? Or do the boughs
Hang always heavy in that perfect sky,
Unchanging, yet so like our perishing earth,
With rivers like our own that seek for seas
They never find, the same receding shores
That never touch with inarticulate pang?
Why set the pear upon those river banks
Or spice the shores with odors of the plum?
Alas, that they should wear our colors there,
The silken weavings of our afternoons,
And pick the strings of our insipid lutes!
Death is the mother of beauty, mystical,
Within whose burning bosom we devise
Our earthly mothers waiting, sleeplessly.
Charles Wharton Stork
Death is like moonlight in a lofty wood,
That pours pale magic through the shadowy leaves;
’T is like the web that some old perfume weaves
In a dim, lonely room where memories brood;
Like snow-chilled wine it steals into the blood,
Spurring the pulse its coolness half reprieves;
Tenderly quickening impulses it gives,
As April winds unsheathe an opening bud.
Death is like all sweet, sense-enfolding things,
That lift us in a dream-delicious trance
Beyond the flickering good and ill of chance;
But most is Death like Music’s buoyant wings,
That bear the soul, a willing Ganymede,
Where joys on joys forevermore succeed.
From “Sîva” ["Shiva”]
Sir Alfred Comyn Lyall
‘Mors Janua Vitae.’
I am the God of the sensuous fire
That moulds all Nature in forms divine;
The symbols of death and of man’s desire,
The springs of change in the world, are mine;
The organs of birth and the circlet of bones,
And the light loves carved on the temple stones.
I am the lord of delights and pain,
Of the pest that killeth, of fruitful joys;
I rule the currents of heart and vein;
A touch gives passion, a look destroys;
In the heat and cold of my lightest breath
Is the might incarnate of Lust and Death.
If a thousand altars stream with blood
Of the victims slain by the chanting priest,
Is a great God lured by the savoury food?
I reck not of worship, or song, or feast;
But that millions perish, each hour that flies,
Is the mystic sign of my sacrifice.
Ye may plead and pray for the millions born;
They come like dew on the morning grass;
Your vows and vigils I hold in scorn,
The soul stays never, the stages pass;
All life is the play of the power that stirs
In the dance of my wanton worshippers.
And the strong swift river my shrine below
It runs, like man, its unending course
To the boundless sea from eternal snow;
Mine is the Fountain—and mine the Force
That spurs all nature to ceaseless strife;
And my image is Death at the gates of Life.
In many a legend and many a shape,
In the solemn grove and the crowded street,
I am the Slayer, whom none escape;
I am Death trod under a fair girl’s feet;
I govern the tides of the sentient sea
That ebbs and flows to eternity.
And the sum of the thought and the knowledge of man
Is the secret tale that my emblems tell;
Do ye seek God’s purpose, or trace his plan?
Ye may read your doom in my parable:
For the circle of life in its flower and its fall
Is the writing that runs on my temple wall…
Let my temples fall, they are dark with age,
Let my idols break, they have stood their day;
On their deep hewn stones the primeval sage
Has figured the spells that endure alway;
My presence may vanish from river and grove,
But I rule for ever in Death and Love.
Dirge in Woods
A wind sways the pines,
Not a breath of wild air;
Still as the mosses that glow
On the flooring and over the lines
Of the roots here and there.
The pine-tree drops its dead;
They are quiet, as under the sea.
Rushes life in a race,
As the clouds the clouds chase;
And we go,
And we drop like the fruits of the tree,
“I like a look of agony”
I like a look of agony,
Because I know it’s true;
Men do not sham convulsion,
Nor simulate a throe.
The eyes glaze once, and that is death.
Impossible to feign
The beads upon the forehead
By homely anguish strung.
Birth and Death
Methinks the soul within the body held
Is as a little babe within the womb,
Which flutters in its antenatal tomb,
But stirs and heaves the prison where ’t is cell’d,
And struggles in strange darkness, undispell’d
By all its strivings towards the breath and bloom
Of that aurorean being soon to come—
Strivings of feebleness, by nothing quell’d:
And even as birth to the enfranchis’d child,
Which shows to its sweet senses all the vast
Of beauty visible and audible,
Is death unto the spirit undefil’d;
Setting it free of limit, and the past,
And all that in its prison-house befell.
On a Grave in Christ-Church, Hants
Oscar Fay Adams
Turning from Shelley’s sculptured face aside,
And pacing thoughtfully the silent aisles
Of the gray church that overlooks the smiles
Of the glad Avon hastening its tide
To join the seaward-winding Stour, I spied
Close at my feet a slab among the tiles
That paved the minster, where the sculptor’s files
Had graven only “Died of Grief,” beside
The name of her who slept below. Sad soul!
A century has fled since kindly death
Cut short that life which nothing knew but grief,
And still your fate stirs pity. Yet the whole
Wide world is full of graves like yours, for breath
Of sorrow kills as oft as frost the leaf.
From Paradise Lost
Death thou hast seen
In his first shape on Man; but many shapes
Of Death, and many are the ways that lead
To his grim cave, all dismal; yet to sense
More terrible at the entrance, than within.
“Ye hasten to the grave! What seek ye there”
Percy Bysshe Shelley
Ye hasten to the grave! What seek ye there,
Ye restless thoughts and busy purposes
Of the idle brain, which the world’s livery wear?
O thou quick heart, which pantest to possess
All that pale Expectation feigneth fair!
Thou vainly curious mind, which wouldest guess
Whence thou didst come, and whither thou must go,
And all that never yet was known would know—
O whither hasten ye, that thus ye press
With such swift feet life’s green and pleasant path,
Seeking, alike from happiness and woe,
A refuge in the cavern of grey death?
O heart, and mind, and thoughts! what thing do you
Hope to inherit in the grave below?
To His Watch When He Could Not Sleep
Lord Herbert of Cherbury
Uncessant minutes, whilst you move you tell
The time that tells our life, which, though it run
Never so fast or far, your new-begun
Short steps shall overtake; for though life well
May ’scape his own account, it shall not yours;
You are Death’s auditors, that both divide
And sum whate’er that life inspired endures
Past a beginning, and through you we bide
The doom of Fate, whose unrecalled decree
You date, bring, execute; making what’s new
(Ill and good) old; for as we die in you,
You die in Time, Time in Eternity.
Copyright © 2013, Death Poems by Russ Kick, a disinformation® book. Reprint with permission from Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC. Available wherever books or ebooks are sold or from www.redwheelweiser.com or 1-800-423-7087.
Russ Kick is known for his quirky, ingenious, and surprisingly useful collections. He’s done it again. This is the most comprehensive, not to mention the first, anthology of death poetry ever published in the English language, from popular Disinformation author Russ Kick is ultimately life affirming. Death Poems is an unprecedented, vast survey of death in poetry that cuts across time, world cultures, and languages.
Death Poems covers a range of subjects, from the death of children, lost loves, and funeral rites to serial killers, 9/11, the death penalty, roadkill, war, the Underworld, reincarnation, and elegies to famous people.
Included are the famous poems—death poetry’s greatest hits—that have to be included: “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” by Dickinson, “To an Athlete Dying Young” by Housman, “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” by Thomas, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” by Wilde, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” by Whitman, “Adonais” by Shelley, and a bunch more. Also included are poems from Ralph Waldo Emerson, Jane Austen, Emily Bronte, Sappho, Nietzsche, C.S. Lewis, Victor Hugo, Rumi, Benjamin Franklin, Langston Hughes and many, many more.