Some conceptual realities have always haunted human minds among which death is significant. It has also inspired writers, poets, and fiction writers to dwell upon this idea with significant thoughts. Some have called it a new country, while others have called it a black reality. Some have personified and others have signified it. In poetry, poets have written on and about death in a new way in their poems some of which are given in an order of importance. Here are the 10 best poems on death.
The poem that stands first among the best death-related is by a popular English metaphysical poet, John Donne. Death Be Not Proud presents death as a person to whom the poet dares ask questions, stating that it should be arrogant and proud over what it has been doing to the people by taking their lives. The poet, rather, summarizes his theory that death is merely taking away of the soul that is akin to sleep and that it has been the slave of chance, fate, kings, and other desperate persons. He concludes that there are several other reasons for death as well as sleep. So, he tells Death by the end that it will also die. Some of the popular lines of this poem are as follows.
- Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so.
- Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
- Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men.
This is the 71st Sonnet of William Shakespeare which is one of the best death-related poems. It falls in the sequence of “Fair Youth” sonnets of Shakespeare. The poem presents a speaker urging the lover not to mourn his death. Although it could have different meanings from the actual poetic utterances of the speaker, the pragmatic lesson of the speaker’s last words “Lest the wise world should look into your moan / And mock you with me after I am gone” shows that the speaker is going to die soon. This beautiful description of death has made this poem popular. Some of the significant lines of this poem are as follows.
- No longer mourn for me when I am dead.
- Nay, if you read this line, remember not.
- The hand that writ it; for I love you so.
- Lest the wise world should look into your moan, / And mock you with me after I am gone.
To an Athlete Dying Young by A. E. Housman
This heart-touching poem by Victorian poet A. E. Houseman was first published in his collection Shropshire Lad in 1986 and has become popular for the theme of death since then. It focuses on the funeral procession of an athlete who has breathed his last during his youthful period. The poet gives an elegy praising the departing hero and showing his intellectual thoughts about death and mortality. Although Houseman does not delve deep into the personal life of the young athlete, this anonymity has shown the grim reality of death as menacing and thought-provoking. That is why the poem merits attention. The memory of the young man such as “We chaired you through the market-place” shows the poetic talent of Housman. Some of its popular lines are as follows.
- Man and boy stood cheering by.
- And early though the laurel grows / It withers quicker than the rose.
- And silence sounds no worse than cheers / After earth has stopped the ears.
Elegy in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray
Despite its popularity among the writers, significance in the literary world, and general praise it has won from the public, this poem by Thomas Gray could be placed here as one of the best poems about death. It is because of the length and archaic wording. Initially, the poem was written and published in February of 1751 and it was revised later. Interestingly, the poem also faced the problem of piracy at that time, an issue that emerged without Gray’s knowledge. The poem is marked for its memorable phrases such as “far from the madding crowd”, “paths of glory” and “ancient solitary rein.” Some of its memorable and prominent lines are as follows.
- The cock’s shrill clarion, or the echoing horn, / No more shall rouse them from their lowly bed.
- Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour. / The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
- Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest, / Some Cromwell guiltless of his country’s blood.
- Here rests his head upon the lap of Earth /A youth to Fortune and to Fame unknown.
Because I Could Not Stop for Death by Emily Dickinson
This poem celebrates Dickinson’s desire to meet death face to face, posing it as a masculine figure. It was written and published around 1863. Emily personifies Death as a gentleman that takes her on a ride in his carriage and passes by several everyday happenings and objects that she loves to see. The presentation of the Death as a masculine figure who has “kindly stopped” for her, showing companionship of Immortality has made this poem is included among the death-related poems. Dickinson’s use of personification has made Death a kind and gentle fellow. The mention of the school, house, children, and horses remove the fear of Death from the readers. Some of its celebrated lines are as follows.
- He kindly stopped for me – / The Carriage held but just Ourselves – / And Immortality.
- We passed the School, where Children strove.
- We passed before a House that seemed / A Swelling of the Ground.
- I first surmised the Horses’ Heads / Were toward Eternity.
Spring and Fall: to a Young Girl by Gerard Manley Hopkins
The poem is written about a character, Margaret, Manley Hopkin, a British poet. It is stated to have been penned down when he was walking to a train station. It first appeared in 1880. The poem sheds light on the thematic strand of death as well as the fall of man. This fifteen-lined poem presents Margaret, a young child, to whom the poet poses a question about her gloomy state of mind. The poem presents the questions in memorable phrases such as “heart grows older”, and “Sorrow springs.” These phrases have made the poem among the best poems. Some other memorable lines are as follows.
- With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
- Sorrow springs are the same.
- What heart heard of, ghost guessed.
- It is Margaret you mourn for.
Crossing the Bar by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
This beautiful poem was written by Lord Tennyson and first appeared in 1889 and set the tone for his upcoming pessimistic world due to its being elegiac in structure and theme. The poem presents an extended metaphor of life and death that is the “sandbar” and the ocean as the metaphor of the world lying beyond death and flood which is a departure from this world. The poem has set standards for creating metaphors for abstract ideas. Its memorable lines are as follows.
- And may there be no moaning of the bar / When I put out to sea.
- When that which drew from out the boundless deep / turns again home.
- I hope to see my Pilot face to face / When I have crost the bar.
The poem is one of the best among poems about death with the distressing atmosphere that it presents in the very first stanza. Although it appeared back in 1843 in Graham’s Magazine, it has set the stage for further such poems from Poe, a writer known for his mystery stories. The poem implies that human life is an idiotic act that ends on death which is too hideous to be borne and that the dark forces of death control this universe of human beings. It has a total of five stanzas, the poem ends on the note of the heroism of a worm whom he calls the Conqueror Worm. Some of the memorable lines of this poem are as follows.
- Lo! ‘tis a gala night.
- Mines, in the form of God on high / Mutter and mumble low.
- And much of Madness, and more of Sin, / And Horror the soul of the plot.
- Out – out are the lights – out all!
Called pastoral elegy, this poem appeared in 1637 when Milton composed it in the memory of his best friend, Edward King, who studied with him at Cambridge. Written in English as compared to his other poems that were composed in Roman and Greek, this poem sets the tone for upcoming English elegiac poems. The impact of the poem could be still felt across the globe where English Literature is taught at the academic level. The poem invited some harsh comments from some critics and yet it has lasted centuries on account of the theme of death. Despite being a classic, this poem is still one of the best. Some memorable lines of the poem are as follows.
- At last he rose, and twitched his mantle blue.
- But O the heavy change, now thou art gone.
- Alas! What boots it with incessant care.
- The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed.
Thanatopsis by William Cullen Bryant
As the title suggests that “Thanatopsis” is about death, it is suggestive of death and its relations with human beings. Interestingly, the poet, William Cullen Bryant wrote it quite early in his age when he was just 17 and even forgot about it. And more interesting thing is that Wordsworth, the poet of nature, inspired Bryant to write this poem. The poem first appeared in 1811 and has become the most popular poem about death in the United States. The most significant thing about the poem is that it opens with Nature communicating in “various languages” about happiness and beauty with “healing sympathy.” The second part talks about the “resting place” that’s why the poem has been placed in this list. Its most important lines or quotations are as follows.
- To him who in the love of Nature holds / Communion with her visible forms, she speaks / A various language.
- Earth, that nourished thee, shall claim / Thy growth, to be resolved to earth again.
- Thou shalt lie down / With patriarchs of the infant world—with kings, / The powerful of the earth—the wise, the good.
- All that breathe / Will share thy destiny.