When Death Comes
by Mary Oliver
When Death Comes Theme of Man and the Natural World
In speaking of both life and death, images from the natural world (bear, iceberg, field daisy) are central to the way the speaker communicates in "When Death Comes." For her, the natural world is not only an avenue through which we can (and should!) observe these forces at work, but it's also our home, since we are part of "a brotherhood and a sisterhood" of living things. We get the feeling that, when the speaker compares each life to a flower, part of what she's doing is putting all forms of life on equal footing (whether flower or person or fish), telling us, in another way, something that she declares a few lines later – that "each body" is "something precious to the earth" (lines 19-20).
Questions About Man and the Natural World
- Why does the speaker use images from the natural world to talk about death and life? Do you find the comparisons she uses to open up possibilities, or do you feel they trivialize or lessen the scope of such big forces?
- The poem seems to use images from a rural setting. Do you think the poem would work with more urban images, say those from a city or suburb?
- How are we meant to understand the speaker's desire to be "the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms." What do you think this union would entail, in terms of day-to-day life?
Chew on This
By comparing each life to a flower, and declaring each body precious, the speaker makes an argument for the equal worth of all living things.
As seen particularly in the image of the bride and bridegroom, and the last line of the poem, the speaker longs for a stronger connection to the world, which she hopes to accomplish by examining the world until the name of each thing is "a comfortable music in the mouth."