Three Faces of Death

Death is a grim topic, but, unfortunately, unavoidable. After all, sooner or later, every person has to face death in his/her thoughts and inner fears. Authors feel that they can throw light on themes which are feared to be talked over aloud, death among them.  “I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died” by Emily Dickinson,a distinguished American poet of the 19th  century, “When Death Comes” by Mary Oliver, a well-known American poet of the 20th XX century, and “On Death, Without Exaggeration” by Wislawa Szymborska, a Polish poet and recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, all show the depth of emotional experience related to death and acknowledge the ancient influence of the latter on feelings of a human heart. It is well known that poets are extremely sensitive to their “soul oscillations”, and this essay provides a fine example of the death motif that underlies the three well-known poems.

 “I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died” displays the vision of last minutes before the silent and painless demise of the author on her death-bed. Although, it is obvious that the nature of such seeing is rather gruesome, the lyrical heroine  seems rather apathetic, and her calm mood seems to ensphere the room: “the stillness” (line 2) around the nearly dying woman is compared to the stillness, which is “between the heaves of storm” (4).  The latter probably means that the stillness was preceded by a wave of upheaval, and another upheaval is expected, and this lull is concerned with waiting and expectation.

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The buzzing of the fly is the only sound that fills the air of the premise, and this whirring is full of anxiety and bad omen. The death is near, and the woman feels it in the dry eyes of the watchers and the breath that is ready for the “last onset” (7). Here Dickinson uses an oxymoron (“onset” is the beginning of something, whether “last” is the end) to show that she believes in afterlife. God reveals itself after death, and so do the secrets of human existence. That is why the author says that this “last onset” is the time, when “the king / be witnessed in his power” (8) – the Lord himself will reveal his nature, or it can also symbolize death. The lyrical heroine states that she has devoted her “keepsakes” (9) and anticipates her death hour, meanwhile the fly appears.

The author and the watchers are waiting for the disclosure, and then a hint is given – the fly interferes in the solemn suspense. This insect has a “blue, uncertain, stumbling buzz” that suggests its symbolic nature – the fly can signify death itself (as it can often be found on carrion, and Satan is sometimes named the king of flies) (13). The fly in the poem appears between the light and the dead, which can also be interpreted as something evil that impedes the leaving soul to reach paradise (the fly seems to always distract the dead from encountering God). The sad acceptance of death is manifested in the monotonous, disconnected tone which the writer uses to describe the inside look on a person who is already dead and can only hear, without seeing.

Mary Oliver in her poem “When Death Comes” introduces death with a number of similes: as a hunter which kills its prey (“like the hungry bear” (2)), as an ultimate disease (“like the measle-pox” (6)), and as an iceberg (“like an iceberg between the shoulder blades” (8)). Indeed, death is often associated with cold that destroys everything living. The feeling of hopelessness and irreversibility overwhelms, and this shiver between the shoulder blades (where the heart is placed) makes the reader feel uncomfortable and experience the icy otherworldliness of death. This mighty power is able to play wicked games with humans: it “takes all the bright coins from his purse / to buy me, and snaps the purse shut” (3-4) (Oliver 10). The writer also uses  anaphora when speaking of death – the phrase “When death comes” (1, 3, 5, 7) is repeated four times, and this intensifies the emotional strain of the death`s forthcoming. When talking of death as a place, the author uses a metaphor: the “cottage of darkness” seems to be an eerie and hollow location (10). The lyrical heroine wants to know  this “cottage” better, but afterwards she talks about life as a thing she is fond of, an experience she wants to be amazed by.

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The poetess turns from reflections on death to adoration of life, her transition from the sepulchral “cottage” and slaughterous death`s faces to life triumph is blissful and courageous, and tinges the rest of the poem. The lyrical heroine  emphasizes that every person and sensation in our world is important and precious to her because of imminence of death - the consciousness of the latter makes her valuate every day in life. Therefore, the poem ends with the meditation on the author`s end of life: “I don't want to end up simply having visited this world” (28) (Oliver 10). This means that the lyrical heroine  is ready to accept death since it clear that she does not fear it. Her tone is courageous and she is still full of enthusiasm to explore life.

“On Death, Without Exaggeration” by Wislawa Szymborska is a lively poetic message that laughs on death and its powerlessness over life. The constant revival of life processes in nature and humanity makes death seem a cripple that is ridiculous in its attempts of killing. At first, the poetess reveals many things that death cannot do: “can`t take a joke” (1), “find a star” (2), or “make a bridge” (2). By telling such things, the author drolls on death, because it is obvious that an inanimate concept cannot do things that people can. The writer goes further, and ironically claims that death is always “beside the point” (7), even in such significant moment, as person`s end of life.

Szymborska mocks at death in that the latter cannot even do its job properly – she states that it cannot “dig a grave” (10), or even “clean after itself” (12). Szymborska laughs even over the death`s skills of killing, making  readers understand, that death is laughable in its attempts of frightening people: “Preoccupied with killing, /it does the job awkwardly, /without system or skill” (13-15) (Szymborska 188). The writer also says that death is so weak that can often miss the opportunity of killing its victim. Here the author displays a funny moment: “Many are the caterpillars, /that have outcrawled it” (23-24); the reader is offered to imagine a caterpillar that crawls somewhere on the road, and escapes death from a human shoe to its great joy, and to the death’s great discontent.

By listing the animal parts of body (“bulbs, pods, tentacles, fins” (25-26)), the poetess gives clear evidence that death is nearly an illusion, and all  living beings restore to life very quickly. The poetess also mentions “nuptial plumage”, which may refer to love that also has major power on death. Death, in consideration of Szymborska, is imperfect, and even humans cannot refine its drawbacks: “ill will” (30), “wars” (31), and “coups d’état” (31) “won`t help” (31). There are always new lives, ready to sprout from the dark nothingness, and to prove the might of life and love through their existence: “Heart beats inside eggs. Babies` skeletons grow.” (33-34). Even the person who claims that death is omnipotent (37), contradicts himself/herself by being alive at the moment  of pronouncing these words.

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Szymborska`s tone of narration is frivolous and even provocative. It seems like she is trying to challenge death to an intellectual duel by negating its power. If the poetess could recite her work aloud, she would, probably, sound sarcastic. She is not threatened, or feared at all. On the contrary, the author looks down on death and is adequately courageous to despise it. Moreover, Szymborska sounds calm and certain about her rightness. The author seems to ignore death and all its malicious consequences, she belittles the power that death possesses.

All three poems tend to describe death in different ways – all three faces of death do not come in touch with one another. For example, the common fear of death does not reside in Szymborska`s “On Death, Without Exaggeration”, instead she displays the limitations of death and proves moral courage in laughing at it. “I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died” by Emily Dickinson shows death in a symbolic way – as a fly. Such comparison states that the author has a negative approach towards death, and associates it with Satan (as Satan is the lord of flies). Mary Oliver`s poem “When Death Comes” depicts death as something that should teach readers to appreciate every breath they take while being alive, because death is something people should fear. All in all, these poems help to understand that death is a path to other kind of existence ( be it spiritual or a renaissance in other form of being), and its power is obviously inferior to that of love and life.

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