The Grim Reader: 10 Poems About Death

I don’t know much about poetry. I don’t claim to not like poetry, I just don’t seem to find myself reading it all that often. But I do know that when I do read it, I am constantly amazed by how so much emotion is brought about by so few words. And what is one of the hardest, most emotional things to talk about? Death. (Particularly my death, but I’m sure you’re quite attached to your mortal coil as well.) So I turned to the poets to see what they have to say about it. Here are 10 beautiful (and occasionally humorous) poems about death and the big sleep.

Nothing but Death by Pablo Neruda

 

Love and Death by Sara Teasdale

Shall we, too, rise forgetful from our sleep, 
And shall my soul that lies within your hand 
Remember nothing, as the blowing sand 
Forgets the palm where long blue shadows creep 
When winds along the darkened desert sweep? 
Or would it still remember, tho’ it spanned 
A thousand heavens, while the planets fanned 
The vacant ether with their voices deep? 
Soul of my soul, no word shall be forgot, 
Nor yet alone, beloved, shall we see 
The desolation of extinguished suns, 
Nor fear the void wherethro’ our planet runs, 
For still together shall we go and not 
Fare forth alone to front eternity. 

 

And you as well must die by Edna St. Vincent Millay

 

Death poem by Moriya Sen’an

我死なば
酒屋の瓶の下にいけよ
もしや雫の
もりやせんなん

Ware shinaba
sakaya no kame no
shita ni ikeyo
moshi ya shizuku no
mori ya sen nan

Bury me when I die
beneath a wine barrel
in a tavern.
With luck
the cask will leak

 

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night by Dylan Thomas

 

(Here’s the author himself reading it. And of course, there’s this version too.)

 

On Death by Percy Bysshe Shelley

The pale, the cold, and the moony smile
Which the meteor beam of a starless night
Sheds on a lonely and sea-girt isle,
Ere the dawning of morn’s undoubted light,
Is the flame of life so fickle and wan
That flits round our steps till their strength is gone.

O man! hold thee on in courage of soul
Through the stormy shades of thy wordly way,
And the billows of clouds that around thee roll
Shall sleep in the light of a wondrous day,
Where hell and heaven shall leave thee free
To the universe of destiny.

This world is the nurse of all we know,
This world is the mother of all we feel,
And the coming of death is a fearful blow
To a brain unencompass’d by nerves of steel:
When all that we know, or feel, or see,
Shall pass like an unreal mystery.

The secret things of the grave are there,
Where all but this frame must surely be,
Though the fine-wrought eye and the wondrous ear
No longer will live, to hear or to see
All that is great and all that is strange
In the boundless realm of unending change.

Who telleth a tale of unspeaking death?
Who lifteth the veil of what is to come?
Who painteth the shadows that are beneath
The wide-winding caves of the peopled tomb?
Or uniteth the hopes of what shall be
With the fears and the love for that which we see?

 

 

My God, It’s Full of Stars by Tracy K. Smith

 

(Read the full poem here.)

 

Because I Could Not Stop for Death by Emily Dickinson

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— 

 

Grief by Matthew Dickman

 

Execution poem by Seong Sam-mun

이 몸이 죽어 가서 무어시 될고 하니,
봉래산(蓬萊山) 제일봉(第一峯)에 낙락장송(落落長松) 되야 이셔,
백설(白雪)이 만건곤(滿乾坤)할 제 독야청청(獨也靑靑) 하리라.

What shall I become when this body is dead and gone?
A tall, thick pine tree on the highest peak of Bongraesan,
Evergreen alone when white snow covers the whole world.

擊鼓催人命 (격고최인명) -둥둥 북소리는 내 생명을 재촉하고,
回頭日欲斜 (회두일욕사) -머리를 돌여 보니 해는 서산으로 넘어 가려고 하는구나
黃泉無客店 (황천무객점) -황천으로 가는 길에는 주막조차 없다는데,
今夜宿誰家 (금야숙수가) -오늘밤은 뉘 집에서 잠을 자고 갈거나

As the sound of drum calls for my life,
I turn my head where sun is about to set.
There is no inn on the way to underworld.
At whose house shall I sleep tonight?


What poems about death have stuck with you over the years? 

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