Study Guide

When Death Comes Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

By Mary Oliver

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Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

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.

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.

Turning from Death to Life

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.

  • Line 10: Our speaker poses a rhetorical question which opens up the possibilities in death. By using a question instead of a statement (and especially a question whose answer can't be known), she leaves the door as wide open as possible.
  • Line 10: Referring to death as "that cottage of darkness" is a transformation through metaphor. It makes death a place, and begins the process of turning our conventional notions of death on their head.
  • Lines 11-12: Our speaker uses the enjambment (the line break) to create a brief pause so that for a moment, until our eyes can move over to the beginning of the next line, we consider the phrase "Therefore I look upon everything" by itself. We think this is important, since this poem is all about observation, curiosity, and being open to amazement.
  • Lines 11, 13: The repetition of the phrase "I look upon" is a use of anaphora, which helps put a greater emphasis on the act of observation, and the perspective that our speaker takes toward the world.

The Equality of All Living Things

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.

  • Lines 15-16: The simile comparing each life to a flower has two purposes, which our speaker lays out for us. It describes the commonness of life, which stresses the commonality of experience shared by all things, and also the uniqueness of each life. Thus our speaker uses this one comparison to make a complex point about how a life can be both individual and shared, unique and common.
  • Line 17: Here our speaker compares each name to a comfortable music in the mouth. This line hovers somewhere between a simile and a metaphor. Our speaker has dropped the 'as' but it is carried over by implication from the line before. Whatever you want to call it, the comparison has a way of unifying each thing, by placing the emphasis not on the differences between names, but how they are all "music in the mouth."
  • Lines 22-23: In order to take her place in the world, to embrace her connection to the community of living things, our speaker wants to metaphorically wed herself to amazement and to the world. These lines have an implied personification of amazement and the world, transforming them into a bridegroom and a bride.

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