Study Guide

When Death Comes

When Death Comes Summary

Our speaker imagines the arrival of death in several ways: as a bear, a man with a coin purse, a disease, an iceberg. She tells us that when death comes, she wants to die full of curiosity. She explains that because she will die and/or because she wants to die full of curiosity, she considers everything to be part of a brotherhood, and questions conventional notions of time. She compares each life to a flower, in its commonness but also its individuality. She wants to know the names of things well enough to be comfortable with them, and regards each life as precious.

When she dies she wants to be able to say that she knew the world intimately, and embraced it with open arms, like a bride and bridegroom. She tells us that she doesn't want to have regrets or doubts; she doesn't want to be afraid or angry. She wants to have truly lived in this world, not just experienced it as a visitor.

  • Stanza 1

    Lines 1-2

    When death comes
    like the hungry bear in autumn;

    • Our speaker imagines death approaching like a hungry bear. Actually she's even more specific: a hungry bear in fall. This is a pretty menacing image.
    • Mentioning "in autumn" seems to be a way to accentuate how hungry the bear is – in the fall bears are preparing to hibernate, so they're more desperate for food than usual because they need to put on enough weight to make it through the winter.
    • At the same time, there's a way that giving death an image like this, a physical form, makes death smaller, more manageable. A bear is something that we can know about and understand – at least from nature TV shows. Death, on the other hand, is something pretty mysterious.
    • Since the phrase starts with "When," we're waiting to see what happens when death comes.
    • The "When" also emphasizes the inevitability of death. She's not saying "If death comes," she's saying "When death comes." It might seem pretty obvious that we're all going to die, but the speaker really seems to be facing that fact instead of shying away from it.

    Line 3

    when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

    • Now our speaker re-imagines death as a person, a shopper. At least, we're pretty sure it's a whole new image, since most bears don't carry purses.
    • Those bright coins really stand out. They contrast with our preconceptions of death, which is normally associated with darkness.
    • By rephrasing or re-imagining the arrival of death, she's delaying the part where she follows up on that "when" which makes us even more curious.
  • Stanza 2

    Line 4

    to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;

    • So death takes those coins out to buy our speaker's life!
    • Guess we should've seen that coming. Taking lives is kind of death's MO.
    • It makes us wonder: what kind of currency is this? Who does death pay?
    • This line has a strange way of setting up life and death like a market place, a cycle of buying and selling.
    • The sound of the purse snapping shut is kind of terrifying. What might otherwise be an ordinary sound is amplified by the relation to death. Who would have thought a purse could sound so scary or so final?

    Lines 5-6

    when death comes
    like the measle-pox;

    • The re-imagining keeps going: now death's approach is like that of a disease, specifically the measle-pox.
    • We're starting to catch on that death can come in a number of ways. Big or small, slow or sudden, with or without suffering (death with the purse was scary, but didn't sound too painful; the measle-pox sounds like it might be a rather unpleasant way to go).
  • Stanza 3

    Lines 7-8

    when death comes
    like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

    • We've got one more image for death's approach, this time as a sensation: an iceberg between the shoulder blades.
    • We've already seen death as an image, heard that sound of the purse. This comparison is particularly visceral.
    • There's a bit of a size issue. Aren't icebergs really, really big? And people not so much?
    • But the size of the iceberg also helps convey the vastness of death – it's this huge force that acts on us individually.
    • And aren't icebergs really cold? It makes us shiver just to think of it.
    • Let's also not forget the bit about the shoulder blades. What's located between the shoulder blades? Yup, it's the heart. This image conveys the way that death quenches the warmth and movement of the heart, like a big mass of ice.
  • Stanza 4

    Lines 9-10

    I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
    what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

    • Finally we find out what happens when death comes: our speaker wants die with a sense of curiosity, open to what might happen in death, or after it. She gives death an image: a cottage of darkness.
    • It doesn't sound too strange to want to meet death without a lot of fear, but our speaker take it a step further. She wants to go with her eyes open (so to speak) and see what there is to see.
    • By giving death a place – a cottage – she's playing with our ideas of death. Normally we think it's an event, or an ending. But she gives it a location (and not a conventional one like heaven or hell), which suggests we go on existing.
    • For our speaker, death isn't an end, it's a transition – like walking through a door and into a cottage. That doesn't sound so scary. Cottages are usually comfy, homey places. It's not like walking into a castle or dungeon.
    • The darkness could also signify the unknown.
    • For our speaker, though, the unknown doesn't seem to be a source of terror. Actually the opposite: a source of wonder and possibility.
  • Stanza 5

    Lines 11-12

    And therefore I look upon everything
    as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,

    • Because of what she just told us (that she wants to die full of curiosity), our speaker tells us that she views everything as a part of a brother/sisterhood, part of a community.
    • Perhaps part of the reasoning behind this sense of community is also that everything dies (death is kind of a great equalizer, puts us all in the same boat).
    • We also can't help but notice the line break here. "Therefore I look upon everything/" We've already picked up, based on the specificity of her descriptions, that she seems to notice a lot. And this line break suggests that part of the reason she observes things is because of her knowledge of death, and her desire to be open, to learn what there is to learn from what is around her.

    Lines 13-14

    and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
    and I consider eternity as another possibility,

    • Also because of what our speaker has been telling us, she questions our notions of time, and thinks eternity is also possible.
    • Since she doesn't seem to reference any heaven (and the cottage of darkness seems to be a declaration that she does not know what happens), it makes this line more mysterious than it would be if she just said "I believe we spend eternity in heaven when we die."
    • What, then, does she mean by eternity? Is it different from time, because time suggests that everything must change or end?
    • Eternity seems to touch on some of the same ideas as those suggested by the cottage of darkness – like that existence might continue in (or through, or beyond) death.
    • Time is obviously related to death and mortality. It's only a matter of time, right? But if we consider that time doesn't exist, or not as we think of it, that makes death suddenly very different. Maybe it wouldn't be something to fear.
  • Stanza 6

    Lines 15-16

    and I think of each life as a flower, as common
    as a field daisy, and as singular,

    • Our speaker thinks of each life as a flower for two reasons: to recognize its commonness, and also its individuality.
    • Now it's life (instead of death) that is given an image.
    • A flower seems a fragile image in the face of death. Flowers are known for being short-lived; they bloom, and they're beautiful, then they're gone.
    • Still, since the poem has just questioned the nature of death and time, perhaps a flower is no more frail than anything else.
    • (Plus, the field daisy that exists in this poem and our imaginations lives in a sort of eternity).
    • The image of the flower also seems to be a way of making all life equal; equally common (there are lots of flowers out there) and equally unique (no two flowers are exactly alike).
    • From our speaker we get the feeling that a flower's life, in a sense, is no less valuable than a person's.
  • Stanza 7

    Line 17

    and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,

    • Our speaker thinks of each name sounds "comfortable" when spoken.
    • By name we assume she means the names of all the things in of the world: field daisy, black bear, etc.
    • The word "comfortable" suggests familiarity. It suggests a bond, like the line about brotherhood and sisterhood. She wants to know the names (and the things themselves, probably) well enough for their names to feel comfortable on her tongue.
    • And using the word "music" elevates the idea of a name, and the act of naming (which is pretty much the basis of the art of poetry). But we think it also elevates the things that are named, which, presumably, is anything and everything in the world.

    Line 18

    tending, as all music does, toward silence,

    • That naming, that comfortable music in the mouth, tends to turn into silence.
    • Anytime you say something, it's bookended by silence.
    • This seems like a gentle way of pointing again to death. There's not any music (or anything in the world) which does not tend toward silence (or death).
    • So, in a way, this is our speaker's re-imagining of the concept of life and death. Life is a music that eventually becomes silence. Envisioning it this way makes life sound beautiful (we all like music, right?) and death sound gentle.
  • Stanza 8

    Lines 19-20

    and each body a lion of courage, and something
    precious to the earth.

    • Our speaker thinks of every living thing as courageous and precious.
    • The image of a lion lends a strength and nobility to each living thing.
    • Saying "body" is interesting, because, while it is at once very broad and all inclusive (everything has a body), whenever we hear "body" we can't help thinking of that other word that so often comes along with it: soul. Presumably, if there is some existence in that dark cottage of death, we won't be bringing our body with us. But our speaker doesn't come out at make any claims about being more than our bodies, so we think it's best not to linger too long on the thought.
  • Stanza 9

    Lines 21-22

    When it's over, I want to say: all my life
    I was a bride married to amazement.

    • When her life is over, our speaker wants to know that she lived her life amazement by everything around her.
    • She compares the ideal bond to a marriage.
    • Marriage suggests both intimacy and a life-long commitment.
    • Also, there's a sense of staying in that moment of the wedding. She doesn't say she wants to be a wife, but a bride. So it's like it's the wedding day every day. She wants it to be constantly new, wants every day to be a renewal of the vows, of her amazement at the world.

    Line 23

    I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

    • She wants to know that she embraced the world.
    • She's flipped the marriage arrangement: this time she compares herself to the bridegroom, and the world to the bride.
    • This has a way of making the relationship seem both fuller and more equal.
    • And again, it's like a perpetual wedding day. Each day our speaker wants to take the world into her arms – which involves reaching out to and embracing, creating a unity, and actively bringing herself and the world together.
  • Stanza 10

    Lines 24-25

    When it's over, I don't want to wonder
    if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

    • When she dies, the speaker doesn't want to have to wonder if she lived a unique and engaging life.
    • This seems kind of like a richer and more interesting way of saying: I want my life to be special; I don't want it to feel wasted or like it went by in a sort of vague, unreal blur.
    • Or to sum it up even more concisely: I don't want to have any doubts or regrets.
    • "Particular" reminds us of that word "singular" back in line 16.

    Lines 26-27

    I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened,
    or full of argument.

    • She doesn't want to have regrets, or fear, or anger. She wants to be ready for death, and not fight against it.
    • Now she seems to be saying more plainly what she has been saying throughout the poem.
    • She says it so plainly and succinctly, we're not really sure what to add. (We swear we're not just getting lazy!)
  • Stanza 11

    Line 28

    I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.

    • Our speaker doesn't want to have simply lived like a visitor in this world.
    • If she doesn't want to simply have visited it, then what are the other possibilities?
    • "Visited" suggests temporary, but we doubt that's the main way she means it, since she is acknowledging in the poem that she will die, meaning life is always temporary.
    • "Visited" also implies a shallow, or lesser, involvement. Being a visitor means being an outsider. You walk around, maybe you watch the people or look at the architecture; but you don't have much of a part in the life of the place, and you don't really know it very well, at least compared to a local.
    • So perhaps she wants to have been a part, to really have gotten to know her way around.
    • She wants to have made herself at home in the world before she leaves it.