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In opening line of the poem On the Tombs in Westminster Abbey, Francis Beaumont draws our attention to the subject of death and specifically our own with his use of the ominous and commanding line, “Mortality, behold and fear!” This immediately reminds us that we are all mortal and therefore will all die. The poem then goes on to demonstrate the fact that we are all equal due to our mortality and thus worldly power is rendered meaningless by death. The poet illustrates this by mocking those who had great power in life as can be seen from the words “royal bones” which reduce all the wealth and stature of the monarchy to mere bones and also by comparing them to fertiliser with the line, “the richest, royalest seed.
He then belittles these kings and queens further by denigrating their revered building of burial with a comparison to a “heap of stones.” In describing their death, Beaumont is giving the message that possession of “realms and lands” is not important.
He also suggests that the fact that they are dead teaches us a lesson as demonstrated by the metaphor, “from their pulpits sealed with dust, they preach, ‘In greatness is no trust’.” By substituting corpses in tombs with preachers in pulpits, he is insinuating that it is their graves, or the fact that they are now dead, teaching us that greatness is actually worthless. The inclusion of the colloquial word, “indeed” adds to the feeling that the poet is speaking to the reader.
The poem acts like a warning to people not to bask in their own greatness by using deliberately horrific images of death such as “bones”, “flesh” and “dust” to show once again that in death we are all equal. The Christian message of “earth to earth, ashes to ashes,” resonates throughout the poem with references such as, “the earth did e’er suck in,” and “buried in dust.” Generally, the lesson that is reiterated throughout the poem is that kings and queens are no greater than others as they too are destined to die and all their wealth and greatness will subsequently be worthless. This can be seen in the line, “…world of pomp and state, buried in dust, once dead by fate.” The idea of fate and that you cannot control your own destiny is also put across. The line, “Though gods they were, as men they died,” summarises the message of the whole poem that no matter how great in life, we will all die the same as all mortals.
The poem Death the Leveller has a very similar message to that of the first poem as can be seen from the first line, “The glories of our blood and state are shadow, not substantial things.” This poem, like the first, is illustrating the fact that earthly power and material wealth mean nothing as they cannot be taken with you in death. Gruesome and ominous imagery is also used in a similar manner to the first in order to convey this warning of death. This is demonstrated by phrases such as “pale captives, creep to death,” “Death’s purple altar,” and “murmuring breath,” which all present a chilling version of death. However, in this poem death is personified, “Death lays his icy hand on kings,” thus creating a picture of this “fate” that we are all unable to escape. Both poems refer to royalty, an example of this in the second is “Sceptre and Crown.”
However, the emphasis in the second poem is on those who are victorious in battle, illustrated by the use of military imagery such as “armour” and also the line, “men with swords may reap the field.” However, although “fresh laurels” symbolise their victories, it is once again stated that these victories will at some point cease to matter as shown by the line, “strong nerves at last must yield.” The message in both the poems at this point is exactly the same in that they teach us that the fate that awaits us all is death. This can be seen from the lines in the second poem, “they stoop to fate,” and, “no armour against Fate,” which are similar to that in the first which states, “once dead by fate.” The line, “they tame but one another still…” shows that these warriors can conquer each other but not death as we are all doomed to die. The words “pale captives” are significant in that they are no longer brave victors as everyone is defeated by death, hence the use of the word “victor-victim.”
The equality between all mortals in death is represented in the second poem by the line, “in the dust be equal made,” which can be likened to the phrase, “as men they died,” from the first poem as they both indicate that once dead, kings and queens are no greater than ordinary peasants. This is indicated by the line, “Sceptre and Crown…be equal made with…scythe and spade.” In addition, the first two poems are similar in that although they refer to powerful people, there is also a more personal warning or preaching of death to the reader. Although Shirley begins with “they”, in the last verse this has changed to, “Your heads must come…”. However, the noticeable difference between the two poems is that only the second offers some hope in the last two lines with the suggestion that if you have lived a good life, you will have a good death. The first poem presents a dark forecast with no reference to any joy in life and instead a tirade about the pointlessness of life as we will all die anyway, whereas in the second poem, after all the horror, there is a brief reference to being remembered after death. It suggests the idea of that we do not simply pass away with the metaphor, “actions of the just smell sweet and blossom in their dust.”
The sonnet Ozymandias continues with the theme of the first two poems in that Shelley also shows in this that mortal power is not everlasting as everyone will die. In the octet, Shelley introduces us to Ozymandias, the cruel, tyrannical leader of a totalitarian state. He depicts Ozymandias’ character effectively in the line, “whose frown, and wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,” and also portrays his power by using adjectives such as “vast”, “colossal” and “passions.” In the sestet Shelley draws our attention to the boastful inscription on the pedestal. Shelley conveys his arrogance in this challenge to every other ruler, “My name is Ozymandias…Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” Shelley’s message is exactly the same as in Shirley’s poem, “boast no more your mighty deeds!” but it is not overtly stated, merely implied. We infer from this that Ozymandias should have been more humble and that even the mightiest of empires will fall, as we have seen with examples such as the Roman Empire or the British Empire. The last three lines of the sestet show that nothing of this once mighty empire is left.
The stark simplicity of the three words, “nothing besides remains,” gives it an emptiness. These three words also give Ozymandias’ boast a deadly irony and the leaders should now “despair” because this is what will become of their empires. The caesura emphasises those three words by creating a pause which allows this fact to sink in. Shelley also creates the effect of the poem fading away to demonstrate the way Ozymandias and his empire had faded. The plosive sounds of the phrase, “boundless and bare,” as well as the soft sounds in “sands stretch” and the alliteration in these two phrases as well as in “lone and level,” help to illustrate this idea. The enjambment also adds to the gentle falling or dying away of the cadence which represents Ozymandias’ downfall.
My Busconductor and Let Me Die a Youngman’s Death differ from the other poems in that they do not refer to kings and warriors but instead describe ordinary people. Instead of being about mortality in general, Roger McGough focuses on one specific individual’s death and thus this death becomes far more poignant. In contrast to the mocking, ironic form of the first three poems in which kings are treated with contempt, My Busconductor is full of pathos. The reader is made to feel sadness for the bus conductor. He tries to make the poem sentimental – the bus conductor recalls things of the past that no longer occur as shown by the lines, “His thin lips have no quips for fat factory girls,” – he has lost the witty banter and life has become more serious and melancholic, and, “he ignores the drunk who snores…” – there is no communication with other people anymore as he is preoccupied. Whereas the other poems contain images of warfare and conquering, Roger McGough describes work and employment in this poem. This can be seen from the words “strike”, “overwork” and “factory girls.” The word “journey” has a double meaning, not only does it mean the bus journey but it also represents the journey of life which for the bus conductor is “nearly done.”
McGough makes the poem even more poignant by describing the simple things the conductor does in his last few precious moments of life such as, “watch familiar shops and pubs pass by,” – he is rediscovering innocent pleasures. He also illustrates effectively how simple, everyday things become more precious when you know they are the last you will experience and how people will try to savour these things and make them last. He does this by showing the conductor appreciating things he had previously taken for granted, as shown by the lines, “and the sky was it ever so blue?” and “he holds a ninepenny single as if it were a rose.” The fact that “he goes gently” makes the reader feel sorry for him, this emotion is not encountered in any of the previous poems as the people featured in those were not humble. This feeling is also evoked by the line, “perhaps for the last time?” In the last stanza the idea of work is once again used in the metaphor, “the deserted bus shelter of his mind,” and also in the comparison of finishing work to finishing life in the line, “one day he’ll clock on and never clock off or clock off and never clock on.” The references to work are perhaps an indication of the fact that McGough knows nothing of this dying man except his work.
The last poem, Let Me Die a Youngman’s Death, differs from the others in that Roger McGough is in fact not writing about dying, but writing about how to live. In addition, it is the only comical poem, although it is grim humour. His use of black humour can be seen in the cruel pun, “good tumour.”. The poem is teaching people how to live life to the full by describing the exciting and adventurous way he wants to live until he is very old. The first and last verse describe traditional death bed scenes to show the way he does not want to fade away. This can be seen from the lines, “not a clean and in-between the sheets holywater death,” and, “not a … ‘what a nice way to go’ death.”
He appears to suggest that he wants a dramatic exit from life by the detailed descriptions such as, “mown down at dawn by a bright red sports car,” and, “rival gangsters…give me a short back and insides.” However, he does not actually wish to die, he wants to live to be really old, but to still have an exciting and wild life. As his exaggeration of the age increases, until “104”, his jokes and description become more exaggerated until the last hyperbole, “cut me up into little pieces and throw away every piece but one.” He saves the best and most salacious joke for the end thus emphasising his desire to live and die in this outrageous manner. This grimly humorous way of approaching death contrasts greatly from the serious tone of the other poems.
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