Study Guide

When Death Comes Quotes

  • Mortality

    When death comes (line 1)

    This is certainly a good way of grabbing a reader's attention. The poem begins with a direct acknowledgement of mortality. And since this phrase is not only the title, but also the first line (which then gets repeated!), the poem really makes sure that we come face to face with it. That 'When' at the beginning also alerts us to the fact that death's approach is going to lead to something else – some act, desire, or train of thought.

    takes all the bright coins from his purse
    to buy me (lines 3-4)

    Aside from being an arresting image, this line sets up death as a sort of exchange. Whether the exchange is between death and the speaker (between death and each life it takes) or between death and another abstract (such as life in general) it's definitely an interesting idea. We see death personified fairly often, but usually he just takes a life. We've never seen him buy one before. Having a currency seems to suggest a system or balance. Can life buy the dead back from death, like how decomposition gives rise to new life?

    I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
    what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness? (lines 9-10)

    We've already had some clues that our speaker has a pretty different understanding of, or approach to, death. But this line seals it. The darkness tells us that our speaker doesn't claim to know what goes on in death, but the image does give it a sort of location. We're used to thinking of death simply as an end, or as an event. Or else something that leads to heaven or hell. This line suggests that our speaker thinks it might be stranger and more mysterious than that. This is the completion of that 'When' and announces the main desire expressed in the poem: to approach the world (life and death included) with curiosity and a capacity for wonder, and without fear.

    and I think of each life as a flower (line 15)

    Flowers are notably short lived. So part of what this line does is to stress the evanescence of life. It also might suggest a connection between that brevity and the beauty and vibrancy that flowers also represent. Do we think flowers are beautiful partly because they're only around for a little while?

    each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
    tending, as all music does, toward silence, (lines 17-18)

    We could see this as another subtle way of recognizing that the beauty and splendor in life is tied to the fact that it is temporary. This line recognizes the loveliness of each name (and, by extension, each thing), by comparing it to music, which is a form of art, and one that is pretty much universally loved and appreciated. Then it points out that all music tends toward silence. What does all life tend toward? You guessed it! Just as music is defined by the silence around it, life is defined by death.

    When it's over […] (lines 21 and 24)

    Here, toward the end of the poem, we see that mortality has been rephrased. We began with "when death comes," and now we have "when [life's] over." Having life replace death as the center of this phrase seems to mirror the movement of the poem – beginning with a contemplation of death, it moves to a contemplation and philosophy on how to live.

  • Man and the Natural World

    like the hungry bear in autumn (line 2)

    In our first image of the poem, which is also our first glimpse of death, the speaker chooses an image from the natural world. We get a glimpse of fallen leaves, the shaggy fur, the bulk, the breath and teeth. Using an image from nature announces that the speaker feels that the natural world provides a way of observing and communicating large and complex forces such as death.

    And therefore I look upon everything
    as a brotherhood and a sisterhood (lines 11-12)

    Our speaker very much sees herself as part of a community of living things. By using the phrase "I look upon everything," and emphasizing it with the line break, she also suggests the importance of observation in understanding and being part of the world.

    and I think of each life as a flower, as common
    as a field daisy, and as singular (lines 15-16)

    The image of each life as a flower has a way of stressing the commonality of each thing, making them all of equal worth and beauty. We feel that for our speaker this is definitely not a matter of putting everything down to the level of a common flower, but of raising everything up and celebrating its strength and beauty, while also noting the brevity of each individual life. Amazingly, she manages to use the same image to also stress the uniqueness of each living thing. One simple little flower image conveys both equality and individuality.

    each name a comfortable music in the mouth (line 17)

    Again we seem to be both equalizing and elevating each thing. Each name (and, by extension, each thing) is music, whether it's a fruit fly or a golden retriever. And music is lovely.

    each body a lion of courage, and something
    precious to the earth. (lines 19-20)

    The image of the lion lends courage and strength to each living thing. We can't help but reflect back on the image of a flower. A flower also has a strength – the plant pushes up out of the soil, the bud grows and unfurls, the flower holds itself up against gravity and wind. We think our speaker would find this strength and courage equal to that of any lion or muscle man.

    I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms. (line 23)

    Reaching out to, being in contact with the world is crucial for the speaker. Being wedded to the world entails a strong and intimate unity. The use of the infinitive form of the verb ("taking") also makes the act an ongoing thing. The speaker doesn't want to just have an experience one time where she felt connected to the world. She wants to continually make the effort, and be connected.

    I don't want to end up simply having visited this world. (line 28)

    This last line stresses the importance of being a part of the world, of making it a home.

  • Awe and Amazement

    When death comes
    like […] (lines 1-2)

    Right away in the opening images that describe the approach of death, we can see our speaker's capacity for imagination, and for taking in the vast and strange nature of an awesome force like death. While the images certainly can be scary, there is also a sense of wonder and appreciation for all the wild and different forms death can take, the ways it can feel.

    I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
    what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness? (lines 9-10)

    This line is the first clear announcement that our speaker intends to make curiosity her response to the unknown, and not fear or disinterest. She intends to be open and available to the wonders and possibilities of the world, and what might be beyond this world.

    And therefore I look upon everything
    as a brotherhood and a sisterhood, (lines 11-12)

    That line break puts emphasis on the act of looking upon everything. We cannot be amazed and awed and we cannot get to know the world, if we don't observe it. As the line continues, it also stresses seeing the connections between things. It makes those connections seem as important as the things themselves.

    and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
    and I consider eternity as another possibility (lines 13-14)

    This capacity for awe and amazement also seems connected to a willingness to disregard certain conventions (such as our view of time) and entertain ideas such as eternity (which is certainly an awesome concept, in both senses of the word).

    I think of each life as a flower, as common
    as a field daisy, and as singular (lines 15-16)

    Her capacity for amazement does not just apply to big, abstract forces like death, but also for the smallest, most transient of things. This line demonstrates an equality of care and attention given to things great and small.

    When it's over, I want to say: all my life
    I was a bride married to amazement" (lines 21-22)

    Here our speaker comes right out and says it. She wants to be connected to a sense of amazement all throughout her life. Being able to be amazed seems to be a way of taking in the world, of both appreciating and being a part of it.

  • Fear

    When death comes (line 1)

    The approach of death is, well, frightening. We bet that for every movie you can name that doesn't have the threat of death as the main source of tension and fear, we can name ten that do. What we're trying to say is that fear of death is pretty universal. Living things tend to have an aversion to death right? That's part of how we stay alive. Still, it's worth noting that this line does not try and crank up our fear to the boiling point. It's a fairly calm and contemplative entrance to the idea of the moment of death. But it definitely undoes the latch and lets fear into the room.

    like the hungry bear in autumn (line 2)

    OK, we don't want any kind of bear to come at us, much less a hungry bear trying to stock up before winter. More than anything else this image suggests the implacability of death. Bears are big. There's not much you can do to stop a bear that's coming at you. It's a way for our speaker to say: death is coming, and it's not going to be stopped.

    like the measle-pox (line 6)

    If we thought things couldn't get any scarier, now we have all the suffering of a long drawn out disease to consider. Our speaker is giving us a variety of images and comparisons. Death is a complicated thing, it seems, capable of coming in many ways.

    like an iceberg between the shoulder blades (line 8)

    This imagining of death is almost the sensation of fear, that shiver down our spine. Ever heard the expression of an 'icy feeling of dread'?

    I want to step through the door full of curiosity" (line 9)

    This is the pivot, the turning away from fear. Our speaker is announcing that despite all that we might normally be terrified about, she will not be afraid. She chooses instead to be curious, to be open to amazement that is available if you step out from under the fear.

    I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened (line 26)

    Now our speaker makes it even more clear that it is her intention to take a path that leads away from fear. There's the sense that, as well as not being much help, the fear would be a waste, getting in the way of the possibilities and wonder that might exist beyond this life.