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Theme of Death in the Poetry of Dylan Thomas W.B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot

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Death has been and always will be an interesting and compelling topic among poets and authors alike. Death sheds a mysterious vale over life and is often avoided or dreaded within people causing diversity among the reactions of modern poetry and thought. Mortality can be treated as a crisis, a destination, with significance or without, as well as (sadly) by some as a goal. Death provides a wide spectrum of ideas that can be expanded upon with dignity or as a magnanimous ideal.

The poets that I have read and pondered deliver an array of insight on the topic; from its grotesqueness to its humbleness.

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They approach or meditate upon death with disgust as well as with nonchalance. Overall I think that although the poets each dissect and interpret our inevitable encounter in variation they all would agree in its mystery and finality. Death is a prevalent theme in the poetry of W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas’s poetry.

Each of them has examined death from varied angles. One’s perception doesn’t resemble with others. Eliot views death as a process to reach God. Moreover, he expresses his torment to observe the spiritual death of the modern people. On the other hand, Yeats exalts death in his poetry.

In many of his poems, he recollects the memories of the heroes who laid down their life for the independence of Ireland. Besides, he cherished the notion that death will immortalize him. Yeats had a personal theory on art that art is superior to nature. Nature is changeable but art is artificial and it is unchangeable and ceaseless. Indeed, he wished to be immortal through his works. Dylan Thomas was highly affected by the thought of death and his poems reflect that thought. Majority of his poems are concern with death. Thomas knew that death is the end of life but he couldn’t accept it. In other words, he was an escapist.

Now I am going to discuss elaborately the demonstration of death respectively in the poetry of T. S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas and W. B. Yeats. It is mentioned earlier that to Eliot death is a mode to make connection with God. In his early life Eliot was a cynic. He used to lead an amorous and immoral way of life and he didn’t have firm belief in Christian religion. In the third phase of his poetic career he shows his pessimistic attitude towards the modern society and men. ‘Sweeney among the Nightingale’ is a classic example of Eliot’s pessimism. In this poem death denotes the lost of religious, social, and moral values and decays of society.

Sweeney is the central character of the poem. He is a beast like man who devotes his life to fulfill his sensuous pleasure. He is found in a brothel enclosed by two prostitutes who are engaged to entertain him. However, he suspects to be murdered by these harlots and avoids them. Indeed, Sweeney is depicted as the representative of modern men and his actions reflect modern men’s life. Modern men are very much materialistic and they are busy with the worldly affairs. The purpose of sex is procreation but Sweeney visits brothel in order to fulfill his carnal desire. In addition, a prostitute is a threat to the marital bond.

In other words, a prostitute symbolizes the distortion of religious and social values. In a nutshell, Eliot portrays the death of spirituality and distortion of social and religious values. At the fourth phase of his poetic career Eliot wrote religious poems. He joined the Anglican Church of England and regained his religious belief. In Thomas Stearns Eliot’s The Waste Land which is, according to F. R. Leavis, “great and positive achievement and one of the first importance for English poetry”, is the best depiction of modern human’s life. Modern people’s problems especially after the World War have become extremely intricate.

As the natural world has become barren outwardly because of massive death & destruction, the internal state of humans has become complex as well as perverted. They are going through a life-in-death situation, always in fear of death like “a handful of dust” (‘Burial of the Dead’). Moral values have lost dignity. Perverted sex has become a part & parcel in their daily lives. In fact, innocence is considered as perversion. Like Prufrock, every modern human is hopeless. In this waste land, the modern men are like “heap of broken images” (‘Burial of the Dead’), where “the dead tree gives no shelter, cricket no relief” (‘Burial of the Dead’).

Humans have lost true feeling for others, and that’s why, in sex, love does prevail no more. The typist girl, after making love like a machine, feels “glad” when the job is “over” (‘The Fire Sermon’). Women have to remain cautious always to prevent their partners from going away to other women, they are used mere as a tool to produce children; the overt taking of contraceptives destroy their health, yet, they can’t bear giving birth anymore, so, they need pills. But, then, their husbands do not tolerate having such ugly & unproductive wives. Such is the condition of a conjugal life in the modern age.

Besides, homosexuality has become a terrible threat to moral values. In “the Fire sermon”, we see the Smyrna merchant to go through such relationship. Faith in God is overshadowed by the power of money & personal enjoyment. Men, busy for their own business purposes, are crossing the London Bridge at 9 am which is the time of Christ’s crucifixion, meaning that, they are forgetting religious dogmas and emphasizing more on their worldly jobs. The Hollow Men also is a shorter but still a nice portrayal of modern people. Modern men suffer from spiritual paralysis, spiritual decay: “Shape without form… Paralyzed force… ” (Part I). Modernity has brought them to such a state that they have become straw figure, like a scarecrow (Part II) which, in a blow of wind, moves, otherwise has no dynamism of itself. In the poem, the speaker utters: “This is the dead land This is cactus land Here the stone images Are raised… ” (Part III) The reference to stone image is also found in The Waste Land, where modern men are compared to stony rubbish. Modern men have become stone-hearted; vacuity, emptiness and nihilism have grasped them. In Ash Wednesday, the depiction of modern men is also similar but not elaborately portrayed.

By the way, here also, it is evident that modern man is spiritually barren & in quest for moral purification. Religion is the best possible solution for them. It represents the struggle of any devotee in this age. Here a devotee struggles to go through self-examination, self-exploration, penitence and moving towards the path of spirituality. In the poems of Dylan Thomas death is a dominant theme. It can be found in his work from the first adolescent imitations that he wrote for his school paper up to the last unfinished poems that he was working on at the time of his death.

The main concept that comes forward when reading his poems that relate to the subject of death is mutability: the notion that death and the process of dying are already present in life and that life therefore is a doomed subject to change and decay. This is a classic concept that was already mentioned in the works of ancient Greek philosophers. In the 5th century B. C, Anaximander stated that when with the passing of time entities perish, they go back into the limitless unknown where they also originated from. Life could thus even be perceived as a formation that originated from death for a short period of time before returning back to it.

Heraclites observed that all living beings are part of this process and Socrates contemplated that our souls are contaminated with our mutable bodies during the short period in which we are in between limitless and eternal death, and that we are therefore incapable of knowing absolute truth until we have died. Platonism continued with the assertion that life and death are accordingly inseparable. The ancient Greek was also aware of the fact that, since death is present from birth, death must therefore also be present in the sexual intercourse that denotes birth.

This paradox of procreation would later be observed by the early Christians who contemplated that the sin of mankind, which was caused by the fall, implied the entrance of death and mutability. Death should therefore be compensated by procreation, in doing this replacing the deaths that have occurred with new lives that were subject to dying. The topic of mutability was approached with an intensified preoccupation in the works of the early writers namely Shakespeare, Donne, Blake, and Shelly. The poem After the uneral presents Thomas’s preoccupation with the death of another person, his aunt Annie Jones, who died of cancer in 1933. The poem shows how the individual can be affected by the death of another person, how a boy responds to a relative’s death, the strong emotions involved at a funeral, the depressive, grave, dark atmosphere. This poem, says G. S. Fraser, becomes an example of a sincere and profound attitude of solidarity with the other in spite of or just for the sake of death, a real “human interest” in the life and death of the other(1957, p. 21).

This individual is shaken by the terrible smacking of the spade which can even wake up the sleep and suggest ideas of suicide, for the boy “slits his throat” and “sheds dry leaves” in lines 7, 8. The “smack of the spade” seems to make a terrible sound which wakes up the sleep, but this waking up can also be interpreted as the digging up of the bones of the dead, making dramatically evident to the boy the reality of death. Death is everywhere, in the sounds of laments, in the brays of the mule, in the blowing of the winds, in the taps, in the spades, and inside the mind of the boy, in his thoughts of suicide and dry sleeves.

The “smack of the spade” which “wakes up the sleep” seems to make an allusion to the biblical image of the resurrection of the dead, described by the prophet Daniel as a waking up from the sleep (Daniel 12:2). In contrast with the tumultuous and noisy desolation of the lament of “mule praises, brays,” of “Windshake” of ears, of “muffle-toed tap” and “smack of spade” in the “grave’s foot,” the poet describes his solitary contact with the dead Annie in the interior of her house, alone in a silent room with a “stuffed fox and a stale fern” (l. 11).

These images, these sounds, this eloquent presence of death affect the boy violently. The individual is affected by the death of the other and his authentic reaction seems to contrast with the artificiality of the social conventions. After the ritual moment of the burial and the funeral feast, the boy stays alone with the memory of his dead aunt. He wants to be her bard, and to overcome the power of death by the use of the word, by the articulation of the poetic elegiac discourse. He wants to be a serious mourner in contrast with the ironical observers of the first part of the poem.

But line 16 seems to suggest that the poet’s serious attempt is useless for she needs “no druid of her broken body. ” His bardic attempt is frustrated by the dead person herself, whose death is “a still drop” and whose heart is so humble and pure that her death is “dumb and deep,” according to lines 17-20. Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night is famously addressed to Thomas’s dying father, though it appears that the poet never allowed his father to read or hear the poem; it is widely considered one of the finest points about facing death and the need, the desire, the intense longing for life.

But other Thomas poems are haunted by death too. “Fern Hill,” for example, locates poignancy, an almost unbearable beauty, in recollections of childhood when faced with the knowledge of time’s passing and, with that knowledge, the inevitability of death. “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London” is also, as its title makes immediately clear, informed by death, by the need to mourn, to understand, to accept. W. B. Yeats glorifies death in the poem Easter 1916.

The poem begins by paying tribute to the Irish people for leaving behind their previously mundane, trivial lives to dedicate them to the fight for independence. In lines which become a refrain, Yeats proclaims, “All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born. ” The second stanza singles out individual martyrs, killed or imprisoned for their activities, among them his childhood friend Countess Markiewicz (nee Constance Gore-Booth) and Major John MacBride, the husband of Maud Gonne, the woman Yeats had loved long and unrequited.

Although he had considered MacBride merely “a drunken, vainglorious lout,” Yeats acknowledges that he too has been ennobled by his heroism. Stanza 3 notes paradoxically that these martyrs are all changed in that they have become unchanging: their hearts, united by one purpose, have become unchanging as stone, in disturbing contrast to the living stream of ordinary human life. In a characteristic shift of mood, Yeats uses the stone metaphor to warn of the danger of fanaticism: “Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart. The final stanza raises but quickly abandons essentially unanswerable questions about the duration and value of the Irish struggle and the trustworthiness of England’s promise of independence. Instead Yeats confines himself to the more modest task of paying tribute to the fallen patriots by naming them with the tenderness of a mother naming her child. While acknowledging the awful finality of death, Yeats proclaims the meaningfulness of their enterprise, in which they doffed the “motley” of their former clownish days to don green in a life both terrible and beautiful in its purpose.

In September 1913 too, Yeats glorifies Ireland’s revolutionaries and damns all those who are not willing to do what is right for the citizens of Ireland. This poem marks a change in Yeats’ political views; Yeats went from the aristocratic way of idealizing Ireland to taking on a more revolutionary voice. This poem begins by talking about the Dublin Lockout of 1913, which was about workers wanting to unionize. Yeats is speaking to the Catholic bourgeois, in this poem. A “till” is a cash register.

They fumble with their “greasy till,” meaning that they have so much money coming in that they have to grease the drawer of the cash register. Adding “halfpence to the pence” means that they have all this money coming in, but none is going out to the people, who actually need it. They “have dried the marrow from the bone” meaning that the poor are suffering and dying while they live comfortably. “For men were born to pray and save” is a slam against the Catholic bourgeois; they pray and keep their money to themselves. The rich stay rich by not giving any of it away.

The last two lines of this stanza function like a stop sign. They are meant to make you stop and think about what you have read. “Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,” Yeats thinks that the selfishness of the Catholic bourgeois has made everything become meaningless. Ireland has become a poor nation concerned with money, and when money comes into the equation romance is lost; where there is greed there can not be romance. John O’Leary was an Irish nationalist and poet. O’Leary worked as a financial agent of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and he was also the editor of The Irish People.

He was arrested on September 14, 1865 and charged with high treason. He was sentenced to twenty years in an English jail. He was exiled to Paris in 1874. He received amnesty in 1885 and returned to Dublin, where he convinced Yeats to join the cause of literary nationalism. The revolutionaries were willing to stand up for Ireland’s best interest. They were not afraid of the repercussions of their actions. They made people grow up and acknowledge what was going on. They spread their ideas everywhere like the wind, but they also died like the wind.

These people, who fought for Ireland, sacrificed themselves so that Ireland could be a great nation. In conclusion, considering the above discussion an idea can be formed that each of the writers has depicted death differently in their poems and expresses their personal perceptions about death but according to the law of nature everybody had to meet death that is the ultimate goal of life. Though these poets were bound to accept the ultimate truth, through their works they have become immortal and will remain so.

Cite this Theme of Death in the Poetry of Dylan Thomas W.B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot

Theme of Death in the Poetry of Dylan Thomas W.B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot. (2016, Oct 20). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/theme-of-death-in-the-poetry-of-dylan-thomas-w-b-yeats-and-t-s-eliot/

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