When Death Comes
by Mary Oliver
Speaking of Death
Our speaker spends a good deal of time in this poem talking about death – imagining it in different ways, reflecting on how she would like to face it, thinking about how it shapes life. The way she speaks about it tells us not only about death, but about life, and about her own perspectives and desires.
- Lines 1-2: The opening lines set up a pretty straightforward simile, comparing the approach of death to that of a hungry bear in autumn. At the same time as this line gives death a specific presence, it also brings the natural world into the poem. It suggests that our speaker feels that nature is the best way to observe, and communicate thoughts on, something like death.
- Lines 3-4: This time, death is personified. Rather than say death is like a person with a coin purse, our speaker just treats death as a person in order to present another image of death's approach.
- Lines 7-8: What's located between the shoulder blades? Yup, it's the heart. This simile is particularly visceral. It conveys the way that death quenches the warmth and movement of the heart, like a big mass of ice.
- Lines 1, 3, 5, 7: "When death comes" is repeated as the beginning clause of the first four sentences. This use of anaphora provides the linguistic link between all the strange and varied images of death that our speaker gives us.