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
The buzz saw snarled and rattled in the yard And made dust and dropped stove-length sticks of wood, Sweet-scented stuff when the breeze drew across it. And from there those that lifted eyes could count Five mountain ranges one behind the other Under the sunset far into Vermont. And the saw snarled and rattled, snarled and rattled, As it ran light, or had to bear a load. And nothing happened: day was all but done. Call it a day, I wish they might have said To please the boy by giving him the half hour That a boy counts so much when saved from work. His sister stood beside him in her apron To tell them ‘Supper.’ At the word, the saw, As if to prove saws knew what supper meant, Leaped out at the boy’s hand, or seemed to leap— He must have given the hand. However it was, Neither refused the meeting. But the hand! The boy’s first outcry was a rueful laugh, As he swung toward them holding up the hand Half in appeal, but half as if to keep The life from spilling. Then the boy saw all— 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!’ So. But the hand was gone already. The doctor put him in the dark of ether. He lay and puffed his lips out with his breath. And then—the watcher at his pulse took fright. No one believed. They listened at his heart. Little—less—nothing!—and that ended it. No more to build on there. And they, since they Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.
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.
#9 The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner
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.
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.
#8 Le Lac
|English Title:||The Lake|
|Poet:||Alphonse de Lamartine|
Towards new and different shores forever driven onward, Through endless darkness always borne away, Upon the sea of time can we not lie at anchor For but a single day? Oh lake, the year has scarce run once more round its track, And by these waves she had to see again, Look! I have come alone to sit upon this rock You saw her sit on then. Beneath those towering cliffs, your waters murmur still, And on their ragged flanks, your waves still beat, The wind still flings those drops of spray, that last year fell On her beloved feet. Do you recall that evening, when we sailed in silence? Upon your waters a great stillness held; The only sounds were those of oars that struck in cadence Your harmonious swells. Read Full Poem Here
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.
#7 Annabel Lee
|Poet:||Edgar Allan Poe|
It was many and many a year ago, In a kingdom by the sea, That a maiden there lived whom you may know By the name of Annabel Lee; And this maiden she lived with no other thought Than to love and be loved by me. I was a child and she was a child, In this kingdom by the sea, But we loved with a love that was more than love— I and my Annabel Lee— With a love that the wingèd seraphs of Heaven Coveted her and me. And this was the reason that, long ago, In this kingdom by the sea, A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling My beautiful Annabel Lee; So that her highborn kinsmen came And bore her away from me, To shut her up in a sepulchre In this kingdom by the sea. The angels, not half so happy in Heaven, Went envying her and me— Yes!—that was the reason (as all men know, In this kingdom by the sea) That the wind came out of the cloud by night, Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee. 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; For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams Of the beautiful Annabel Lee; And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes Of the beautiful Annabel Lee; And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side Of my darling—my darling—my life and my bride, In her sepulchre there by the sea— In her tomb by the sounding sea.
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.
#6 Death Be Not Proud
|Alternate Title:||Sonnet X|
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.
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.
#5 Because I Could Not Stop For Death
Because I could not stop for Death – He kindly stopped for me – The Carriage held but just Ourselves – And Immortality. We slowly drove – He knew no haste And I had put away My labor and my leisure too, For His Civility – We passed the School, where Children strove At Recess – in the Ring – We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain – We passed the Setting Sun – Or rather – He passed Us – The Dews drew quivering and Chill – For only Gossamer, my Gown – My Tippet – only Tulle – We paused before a House that seemed A Swelling of the Ground – The Roof was scarcely visible – The Cornice – in the Ground – Since then – 'tis Centuries – and yet Feels shorter than the Day I first surmised the Horses' Heads Were toward Eternity –
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.”
#4 Demain dès l’aube
|English Title:||Tomorrow, at dawn|
|Poet:||Victor Marie Hugo|
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.
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.
#3 O Captain! My Captain!
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; But O heart! heart! heart! O the bleeding drops of red, Where on the deck my Captain lies, Fallen cold and dead. O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells; Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills, For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding, For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning; Here Captain! dear father! This arm beneath your head! It is some dream that on the deck, You’ve fallen cold and dead. My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still, My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will, The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done, From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won; Exult O shores, and ring O bells! But I with mournful tread, Walk the deck my Captain lies, Fallen cold and dead.
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.
#2 Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night
Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light. Though wise men at their end know dark is right, Because their words had forked no lightning they Do not go gentle into that good night. Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay, Rage, rage against the dying of the light. Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight, And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way, Do not go gentle into that good night. Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay, Rage, rage against the dying of the light. 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.
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.
#1 The Raven
|Poet:||Edgar Allan Poe|
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary, Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore— While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping, As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door. “’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door— Only this and nothing more.” Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December; And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor. Eagerly I wished the morrow;—vainly I had sought to borrow From my books surcease of sorrow—sorrow for the lost Lenore— For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore— Nameless here for evermore. And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before; So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating “’Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door— Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door;— This it is and nothing more.” Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer, “Sir,” said I, “or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore; But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping, And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door, That I scarce was sure I heard you”—here I opened wide the door;— Darkness there and nothing more. Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing, Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before; But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token, And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, “Lenore?” This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, “Lenore!”— Merely this and nothing more. Read The Full Poem Here
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.