A Literary Essay: Analysis of Form, Structure and Theme of Death in Selected Poems

Date:  2021-04-16 10:23:51
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Poets utilize the rhythmic and aesthetic qualities of language to compose poems. Every poem has a message wrapped up in its form and structure, and each poem has a unique form which mostly depends on the type of message the poet intends to communicate. In a poem, this form refers to its physical structure that includes rhythms, the length of lines, rhyme systems, the general physical appearance, and repetition that are shaped into a unique arrangement (Boulton 11). It is important to note that when writing a poem, the poet ought to consider the form and length of lines so as to ensure that the intended message fits in the lines as appropriate (Boulton 13). Since words carry various meanings, they have to be arranged consciously and deliberately so that the message is not distorted. Form and structure are, therefore, a very important aspect in theme delivery in any poem. This paper compares and contrasts form and structure, as well as the theme of death in two poems: Dylan Thomas Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night and Emily Dickinsons Because I could not stop for Death.

Form and Structure

To begin with, one of the poems is a lyric while the other is a villanelle. The poem by Dylan Thomas Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night is a villanelle. According to Pershing, a Villanelle has nineteen lines which are divided into five stanzas, each of which has three lines while the final stanza, which is the sixth, has four lines (83). In most cases, a villanelle follows the iambic pentameter which means that each line has ten syllables (Boulton 43). Dylan Thomas poem, for instance, has nineteen lines with line one and three of stanza one being alternately used as the final lines in the rest of the stanzas except for the final stanza whereby the two lines are deliberately used to form a rhyming couplet. This makes the stanza have four instead of three lines; hence, the poem perfectly fits in the category of villanelles. It also follows the iambic pentameter which requires every other syllable to be stressed during elocution. For example, in the line Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight (10), the bolded words are to be stressed during their articulation. Pershing explains that it is unusual for Dylan to apply this structure but it has helped him play around with repetition, metaphors, and syntax to powerfully communicate the intended message (86). The reader can follow and eventually identify the theme of death as the major one being explored.

On the other hand, Emily Dickinsons poem, Because I could not stop for Death is a lyric. A lyric is a poem that uses the first person narrative voice to express personal feelings and emotions, and in most cases, is composed with the aspect of a meter in mind so as to enhance musicality (Boulton 54). Emily Dickinson uses the first person to express her feelings towards death although the persona died centuries ago. Regarding rhythm, she combines both the iambic tetrameter and trimeter. There are four feet per line(tetrameter) except for line two and four of each stanza that have three(trimeter); for example, Because I could not stop for Death / He kindly stopped for me (1 - 2). It is important to note that although does break the regular pattern several times in this poem, there is a semblance of rhyme (Yili 13). Some of the pairs of words that rhyme, albeit scattered, include immortality and civility, eternity and immortality, and finally and civility. The repetition of phrases such as we passed help in putting an emphasis on the intended message. It is also noteworthy that Dickinson has capitalized nouns, such as death, carriage, school, ground, etc. so as to make them stand out to enable a pause and emphasize on the message.

Theme of Death in the Two Poems

The two poets, Emily Dickinson and Dylan Thomas explore the theme of death in different ways. Death is a perennial theme in Emily Dickinsons poems (Yili 13). In the lyrical poem, "Because I Could Not Stop for Death," death is personified and portrayed as so gentle that he patiently stops for the speaker, and then they move in a relaxed manner about town. Because I could not stop for Death / He kindly stopped for me (1-2) and then We slowly drove He knew no haste (5). Throughout the poem, the speaker seems to be at ease with death. Perhaps the approach and demeanor that death takes is what seduces the speaker to the point of submission and fondness. This contradicts the attitude of the speaker in Dylan Thomas "Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night," who seems to freak out even at the mere mention of death. This speaker advises the elderly people, and those who are on the verge of death to "rage, rage against the dying of the light (3). The speaker further points out that:

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 (4-6).

This is obviously a case of a person who fears death. Perhaps, the speaker represents the fearful attitude that many people have towards death. It is important to note that in Emily Dickinsons poetry, Death is an issue that seems to present a no-cause-for-alarm situation (Liu 172). Dickinson is so much at ease with death, unlike Dylan Thomas who could not easily get over the death of his father. The speakers in both poems, therefore, have different attitudes towards death.

Another aspect of death explored in both poems is the issue of the terror and grief that is associated with death. Although the speaker in Dickinsons poem is not terrified of death at all, the one in Thomas poem is. In Dickinsons poem, the speaker gives so much attention and time to death that she gives up all her leisure for his (deaths) civility (8). She says:

We passed the School, where Children strove

At Recess in the Ring

We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain

We passed the Setting Sun (9-12)

Surprisingly, they comfortably move around town, and it is not until it grows cold that the speaker realizes that she is only in a gown. Additionally, the fact that they reach a place where she is to be laid to rest does not terrify this speaker. Perhaps the reason for the lack of terror is that the speaker is already dead (Liu 172). On the contrary, the speaker in Thomas poem is terrified and proposes that death should be vehemently resisted; that even:

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.

This speaker is not willing to accept death and the fact that when it comes, one can do nothing about it. It ends up becoming a rather emotional journey and these emotions seem to run unchallenged throughout the poem even though the style beckons structure and discipline within the theme of night and light (Pershing 88). Nevertheless, the speaker admits that man is helpless against nature since even the good, wise, wild and grave men have had no power against death. On the contrary, the speaker in Dickinsons poem is fine and is not willing to resist death.

Finally, both poems end with a tone of resignation. All the metaphoric and lyrical rhetoric culminates in acknowledgment of the nature of death. Emily Dickinson finalizes the poem with a twist. The reader suddenly realizes that the speaker is already dead. The swelling of the ground (18) whose roof was scarcely visible (19) has already become the new home for the speaker. This speaker adds that:

Since then tis Centuries and yet

Feels shorter than the Day

I first surmised the Horses Heads

Were toward Eternity (21-24).

The speaker reveals that they have been dead for a very long time though it does not seem as long as it is. Turning to Thomas poem, the persona pleads with the father not to be gentle as he dies. The repetition is intended for the tone in addition to other effects. Nevertheless, this speaker seems to ultimately realize that there is nothing he can do about the dying father. So, despite pleading with him to put up a good fight against death, he frantically tells him And you, my father, there on the sad height, / Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray (16-17). This is an indication that no person has power over death and therefore, each person should live expecting that a day will come for them to die.

Although Emily Dickinson and Dylan Thomas have adopted some similarity in poetic structures and their tackling of the theme of death, there are some sharp differences. While Dickinsons is a lyric, Thomas is a villanelle and both poets have dealt with the issue of death in ways that are as divergent as the structures they adopt for their poems except for one similarity, the ultimate acceptance of the overwhelming power of death. Both poets have applied a metaphorical language and carefully arranged their words so as to precisely communicate the intended messages.

Works Cited

Boulton, Marjorie. The Anatomy of Poetry (Routledge Revivals). Routledge, 2014.

Dickinson, Emily. "Because I could not stop for Death." Break, Burn, Blow: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-three of the Worlds Best Poems (1960).

Liu, Qigang. "Death and Immortalityan Everlasting Puzzle: A Comparative Analysis of Emily Dickinsons Two Poems." English Language and Literature Studies 6.2 (2016): 172.

Pershing, Linda. "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night: The Tragic Death of Brian Arredondo." Journal of American Folklore 127.503 (2014): 82-90.

Thomas, Dylan. "Do not go gentle into that good night." Botteghe Oscure (1952).

Yili, Zhu. "Wandering Alone in Reality and FantasyOn the Paradox of Emily Dickinson's Poems." Journal of Shaoxing University (Philosophy and Social Sciences Edition) 6 (2014): 013.

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