Study Guide

When Death Comes Fear

By Mary Oliver

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In a poem that spends a great deal of time contemplating death, we would expect fear to be a big part of it. Death is scary, right? If you like life, doesn't that mean you dislike and fear death? Well, fear is certainly a part of "When Death Comes," and the images we see of death are fairly scary. But our speaker's impulse is actually to move in the opposite direction. She does love the world, but she wants to approach death with the same curiosity and interest as she does life. The suggestion is that perhaps death is another part of life, not something that is necessarily an end, or to be feared.

Questions About Fear

  1. How are we supposed to reconcile the scary depictions of death in the opening lines with our speaker's apparent lack of fear? Does the fact that our speaker says she doesn't want to be afraid at that moment of death leave open the possibility that she might still be scared right now?
  2. What is it that makes our speaker consider each body "a lion of courage" (line 19)? Is this idea of courage meant to be contrary to the feeling of fear?
  3. At the end of the poem our speaker says "I don't want to end up sighing and frightened,/ or full of argument./ I don't want to end up simply having visited this world." What is the connection between not wanting to be frightened at the moment of death, and wanting to have made this world her home?

Chew on This

Our speaker connects being curious and embracing the world with living well and being able to face death without fear. She suggests, then, that fear comes from being distant from the world.

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