Study Guide

When Death Comes Man and the Natural World

By Mary Oliver

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.