This poem pulls together a lot of threads, in terms of tone. It's like our speaker has pulled us aside to confide her personal philosophy on life and death. We can tell she's serious, but the way she's talking also carries a sense of energy and vibrancy. Even when she's describing death, the creative and vivid descriptions tell us that the poem is not going to be all somber and fearful. And while, on the one hand, all the repetitions she uses can make the poem almost sound like a chant, our speaker also manages to sound calm and reasonable. She uses logical words like "Therefore." She'll build up the momentum with those long sentences, but then slow things down to tell us something plainly.
The music of her language works throughout to enrich and reinforce what she's telling us. We'll give you a few examples. At the beginning, the hard, abrupt sounds of "snaps," "shut," and "pox" make us jump a little in fear (lines 4 and 6). Then, in line 9, the language becomes more open and expansive with all those vowel sounds in "through," "door," "curiosity," and "wondering." That shift in language meshes with our speaker's declaration that she wants to step out from under fear, and be open to the possibilities that might exist in death. And try reading this line aloud: "each name a comfortable music in the mouth." It takes a bit of effort to make all those m-sounds, doesn't it? We can't do it without feeling extra aware of all that music that's going on in our mouths.
The title of this poem is short and simple. It alerts us to the poem's concerns (i.e., death and thoughts springing from the arrival of death), it's just a few words, and it's the same as the first line of the poem. Having the title be the same as the first line of the poem works to ensure that the reader doesn't get stopped up on the first line. Since we've already encountered the line, we're not going to stop and wonder about it (we will have already done that after reading the title), and so we can move on in the poem, without the momentum being interrupted. In fact, the repetition increases the momentum of the poem and helps reinforce the resonance of the idea of death's arrival. After all, the poem has just started and already the moment of death has been mentioned twice. The line also appears several more times in the opening of the poem, and each time it rings a little louder in our mind because we keep recognizing it as also being the title of the poem.
In a general sense, this poem has a rural feel. It seems to take place somewhere where you might occasionally encounter a bear, where the locals would know which flower is a field daisy, and where you might find a cottage. But it also lives in the imagination: those vivid descriptions of death's approach are like little vignettes; we flash from one possibility to another – in the woods, then a market place, then a small room or hospital bed, then we're inside a person, feeling that chill between our shoulder blades.
We also step back in our speaker's imagination (like zooming way out on Google Maps) to consider the whole world. Then we zoom way in to look at a field of flowers, then a single flower. The poem is definitely taking place in our speaker's mind, dealing with some abstract concepts, but at every step of the way we get those snatches of the world – a dark cottage, a little strain of music, a glimpse of a bride and groom.
Our speaker, the way we picture it, is a thoughtful woman who lives in a rural area. Although death is the major focus of the poem, and death is clearly connected to the body, our speaker doesn't really have a physical presence here. We get the image of death as an "iceberg between the shoulder blades," but that comes before we've encountered the speaker (notice she doesn't say 'my shoulder blades.') Then later we have the line "taking the world into my arms," but it seems more of a metaphorical gesture than a specific image of our speaker.
We can tell, though, that she's a close observer of the world, particularly the natural world. The vivid images tell us that she pays very close attention to the world around her. We can picture her bending down in the field to examine the petals of a tiny flower or standing still for an hour in the woods to watch a bear shamble by in the distance. And the fact that she devotes a lot of attention to the mysteries of life and death, and to developing her own philosophy, tells us that she also has a lively intellectual and spiritual life.
This poem covers some big topics and packs a lot of thought and wisdom. Yet it also manages to be wonderfully clear and accessible.
Mary Oliver's poems are remarkably consistent in their approach. She experiments with several styles in terms of line breaks and structure and length, and takes on the big themes of life and death and desire, but she usually approaches them through the observation and celebration of the natural world.
Her body of work is like a long, varied, and beautiful treatise, arguing that most important work is to notice and sing the glory of the world, in all its aspects. Or perhaps in all its natural aspects (she doesn't write much about cars and cities). So when you see lines that are all about looking or observing, about being full of curiosity, about being full of amazement – well, there's a good chance you've got your hands on a Mary Oliver poem.
"When Death Comes" is a free verse poem. That is, it doesn't follow any particular formal structure of rhyme or meter. Still, there is a definite rhetorical structure: 'When _____, I want to ____. Therefore I ____.' Then it repeats the form partway: 'When ___, I want to ___. When ____, I want to ____.' It looks funny written like that, but that's essentially the movement of the poem. Of course, our speaker draws out most of those parts, linking a bunch of clauses together, so that the basic structure is a lot less obvious, and the rhythm is a lot more interesting.
That rhythm draws heavily on repetition and piling on successive clauses. Almost every line is either beginning with a phrase that was used earlier, or establishing a phrase to be repeated later. Each of the following is repeated at least once in the poem, as the beginning of a clause – "When death comes," "I look upon," "and I," "and each," "when it's over," "I was," "I don't want to." Aside from sounding good, the effect of this repetition is to make the language feel very rich. It's like doing variations on a melody. If the exact same phrase were being repeated it would probably get boring, but by starting at the same place then reaching in a different direction, it helps to link ideas together while also expanding their reach.
Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.
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.
For our speaker, it's important to not only observe and think about life and death, but to make a conscious effort to live in the way she has determined is best. By changing her approach, she turns from fear toward courage and amazement; she takes the moment of death and turns it into a meditation on the way she wants to live.
A big part of this poem is celebrating the bond between all living things. Even as the poem explores death, it focuses on the courage of each living thing, and the way that death makes each thing precious.
A mention of brides and bridegrooms might imply sex, but this poem is pretty non-sexual in its passion. Though we do get a glimpse of shoulder blades (scandalous!).