A death poem is a genre of poetry which focuses on death. Numerous renowned poets have explored the nature of death, talked about the death of someone and even their own imminent death. The death of a young, beautiful and dearly loved woman was a recurrent theme in the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe, who is famous for his dark romanticism. His poems on death include Annabel Lee and The Raven. Another renowned American poet Emily Dickinson often explored the nature of death, most popularly in her poem Because I Could Not Stop For Death. Many well known poems dealing with death also came out of the First and the Second World War. These include The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner. Here are the 10 most famous death poems of all time.
#10 Out, Out
Poet: Robert Frost
The title of this poem is an allusion to the quotation: “Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow…” in William Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth. It is spoken by Macbeth after he hears that his wife has committed suicide and refers to how unpredictable and fragile life is. The poem tells the story of a young boy whose hand gets accidentally severed by a buzz saw leading to his death due to excessive bleeding. It ends with people’s reaction to the death and how life still goes on. Robert Frost focuses on the innocence and passivity of the boy in the poem and Out, Out is considered by some as a critique on how war forces young boys to leave their childhood behind and be destroyed due to the circumstances created by ‘responsible’ adults. Out, Out is among Robert Frost’s most critically acclaimed and renowned poems.
Since he was old enough to know, big boy
Doing a man’s work, though a child at heart—
He saw all spoiled. “Don’t let him cut my hand off—
The doctor, when he comes. Don’t let him, sister!”
#9 The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner
Poet: Randall Jarrell
A ball turret was a spherical-shaped container with a gun which was fitted to aircraft during World War II. The ball turret gunner was one of the most dangerous assignments in the war. They were protected only by a glass bubble jutting out from the bowels of the plane. Their position was fixed and thus they couldn’t hide from an enemy attack. This 5-line poem tells about the death of a gunner in a ball turret of an American war plane. Its primary theme is that an act which would seem disgusting otherwise becomes acceptable to humans during institutionalized violence. The poem uses the graphic violence during warfare to bring to notice the dehumanizing powers of “the State”. The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner is one of the most famous poems to come out of World War II.
From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
#8 Le Lac
English Title: The Lake
Poet: Alphonse de Lamartine
Lamartine is considered to be the first French romantic poet and Le Lac is his best known poem. The poem is an elegy for Julie Charles, the poet’s muse and the wife of the famous physician Jacques Charles. Lamartine had met Julie in 1816 on the shores of Lake Bourget in Savoie, France. The two were supposed to meet again in August the following year but she became ill with tuberculosis and subsequently died. Lamartine went to the lake alone visiting the places they that explored together the previous year. He then recorded the experience in this poem of sixteen quatrains. Le Lac met with great acclaim on being published and inspired a generation of French Romantic poets. It is the most famous French elegy and one of the most widely read French poems.
O Lake! Scarce has a single year coursed past.
To waves that she was meant to see again,
I come alone to sit upon this stone
You saw her sit on then.
#7 Annabel Lee
Poet: Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe is the most famous American romantic poet and one of the most influential figures in English literature. This was his last complete poem and it was published in New York Tribune on 9th October 1849, two days after his death. The poem follows one of Poe’s recurrent themes — the death of a young, beautiful and dearly loved woman. The narrator, who fell in love with Annabel Lee when they were young, believes that their love was so intense that angels became envious and caused her death. He retains his love for her even after her death and is sure they will be reunited. Annabel Lee is thought to be written by Poe in memory of his wife Virginia Eliza Clemm Poe, who had died a couple of years earlier.
But our love it was stronger by far than the love
Of those who were older than we—
Of many far wiser than we—
And neither the angels in Heaven above
Nor the demons down under the sea
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
#6 Death Be Not Proud
Alternate Title: Sonnet X
Poet: John Donne
Along with Edmund Spenser and William Shakespeare, John Donne is regarded as the most important sonnet writer of the Elizabethan era. Death Be Not Proud is part of his 19 poems known as Holy Sonnets. In it, Donne directly speaks to Death, as though he is a person. Donne tells him not to be proud due to the awe in which people hold him because he can’t truly kill anyone as their souls live on in the afterlife. He goes on to compare death to “rest and sleep”, which he considers pleasurable, and infers that death would be more pleasurable. He concludes by saying that after death people awake into eternal life leading to the death of death itself. Death Be Not Proud is the most famous poem of John Donne with its opening lines especially being extremely popular.
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
#5 Because I Could Not Stop For Death
Poet: Emily Dickinson
Emily Dickinson is considered among the greatest poets in English literature. She is known for her unusual use of form and syntax; and for being “the poet of paradox”. Many of Dickinson’s poems deal with the themes of death and immortality; and this is the most famous of them all. In it, Emily personifies death as a gentle guide who takes a leisurely carriage ride with the poet to her grave. Also known as The Chariot, the poem comprises of six quatrains and during these, the personification of death changes from one of pleasantry to one of ambiguity and morbidity. Because I Could Not Stop For Death is regarded as one of the finest poems of Emily Dickinson. According to prominent American poet Allen Tate, “If the word great means anything in poetry, this poem is one of the greatest in the English language; it is flawless to the last detail.”
Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
#4 Demain dès l’aube
English Title: Tomorrow, at dawn
Poet: Victor Marie Hugo
Victor Hugo was at the forefront of the romantic literary movement in France and he is regarded as one of the greatest French poets. Leopoldine Hugo, the eldest daughter of Victor, died in a boat accident with her husband while she was 3 months pregnant. She was only 19. Her death had a deep impact on her father and he wrote many poems expressing his loss, including this one. In the poem, the speaker expresses his love for a person telling her how he is unable to remain away from her. He is going to meet her and he says he knows that she waits for him. In the last lines of the poem it is revealed that he is visiting her grave. One the best-known masterpieces of Victor Hugo, Demain des l’aube is perhaps the most famous French romantic poem.
Tomorrow, at dawn, the moment the countryside whitens,
I will leave. You see, I know that you await me.
I will go through the forest, I will go across the mountain.
I can no longer remain away from you.
I will trudge on, my eyes fixed on my thoughts,
Without seeing anything outside, without hearing any sound,
Alone, unknown, back bent, hands crossed,
Sad, and the day for me will be like the night.
I will not look upon the gold of nightfall,
Nor the sails from afar that descend on Harfleur,
And when I arrive, I will place on your grave
A bouquet of green holly and heather in bloom.
#3 O Captain! My Captain!
Poet: Walt Whitman
Walt Whitman composed O Captain! My Captain! after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865. The poem is classified as an elegy or mourning poem; and was written to honor the president and mourn his death. In the poem, Whitman refers to Lincoln as the captain of the ship, representing America. The poem also has several references to the American Civil War; and political and social issues of the time. It begins by describing the mood of the nation after the victory of the Union in the Civil War. The speaker then asks his Captain to rise and join the celebration not acknowledging that Lincoln is dead. He finally accepts that the Captain is dead and mourns his loss. O Captain! My Captain! is still widely read in the United States. It is the one of the most famous poem of Whitman and perhaps the most famous elegy written by an American.
O Captain! My Captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won;
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring
#2 Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night
Poet: Dylan Thomas
This poem is the most famous example of villanelle, a nineteen-line poetic form consisting of five tercets followed by a quatrain. In it, the poet, Dylan Thomas, is sitting beside his dying father, who is crestfallen as he is about to die. Thomas urges his father to not go timidly but to fight against his approaching death and cling to life. The lines “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” and “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” are repeated throughout the poem. They are intended as a metaphor comparing life to bright daylight and death to the darkness of the night. The urgency in the tone of the speaker has made Do not go gentle into that good night one of the most widely read works of 20th century literature and it is the most famous poem of Dylan Thomas.
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
#1 The Raven
Poet: Edgar Allan Poe
In January 1845, The Raven appeared in the New York Evening Mirror and became an immediate popular sensation. It was soon reprinted, parodied and illustrated; and made Poe a household name. The poem tells the story of an unnamed lover who, while lamenting the death of his beloved Lenore, is visited by a talking raven. The raven enhances his distress with its constant repetition of the word “Nevermore”, slowly plunging him into madness. The poem makes use of a number of folk and mythological references; and is noted for its stylized language and supernatural atmosphere. It influenced numerous later works including the famous painting Nevermore by Paul Gauguin. The Raven is the most famous poem of Edgar Allan Poe, who is renowned for his dark romanticism. It is also perhaps the most famous poem about death.
“Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!” I shrieked, upstarting—
“Get thee back into the tempest and the Night’s Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken!—quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.“