The Outlook of Death in Three Poems
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Death is life’s only certainty. At the moment when each year – each day – begins to weigh heavy importance, we are forced to circumspect not only on the aspects of death, but also life, grief, and the after-life. This essay explores the outlook of death from three poems – Crabbit Old Woman by Phyllis McCormack, Refugee Mother and Child by Chinua Achebe, and Remember, by Christina Rossetti. These verses have moved people with their semblances of reality, and this essay studies the various outlooks of death presented.
Crabbit Old Woman is written in the persona of an elderly woman reflecting on her life in a nursing home. This first-person account positions us to view the situation from her angle. She is frustrated at the young nurse’s inability to see beyond her physicality. The poem is structured through short, six/seven syllable lines, rhetorical questions and rhyme, which establishes a sense of it being a rapid rapport with the nurse, whilst also an inner dialogue. The poem critiques the presumptuousness of our highly visual society.
Nature is pejoratively personified in “Nature is cruel, ’tis her jest, to make old age look a fool”. The physical effect of age is evident, “The body it crumbles”. The word ‘crumbles’ metaphorically refers to biscuit-like weakness, which reinstates her physical state. Her physical and emotional beings, however, are presented as separate entities through juxtaposition – for “inside this old carcass, a young girl dwells”. This denotes the eagerness with which we, as a community, sort people into categories that do not holistically represent them inside and out. The sibilant images “stocking” and “shoe” are used in conjunction to create the effect of alliteration. They are metonymical with children – vulnerable and naï¿½ve. However, this same theory is applied to her, a wise, experienced, woman. “As I move at your bidding” and “When you say in a loud voice, ‘I do wish you’d try'” reveal the patronizing authority the geriatric nurse exerts over her, as if she is a child.
Her outlook on life is accepting of its impermanence. She states, “I think of the years… all gone too fast – /And accept the stark fact, that nothing can last” as a resigning summary. She flits wistfully over her youth, over her lover, her dead sons, and her grandchildren, in a chronological flashback. The use of metaphorical clichï¿½s “with wings on her feet” and aposiopesis, “A bride now at twenty – /my heart gives a leap” adds great emotional impact to her reminiscences. This creates the effect of her remembrances being all that she has to sustain her sanity, when her dignity has been stolen, “I remember the joys… pain… and I’m living life over again”. The combination of metric poetry and parallelism draw a comparison between her past and present.
Despite her inextricable slew of memories, her life is ultimately consigned to a nursing home – and in addition, not even acknowledged. In a similar fashion, Remember touches over the desire to move on, smile and live whilst being able to retrospect without tears. There is an incredible sadness among her words, as we empathize with her isolation and abandonment, “I look at the future, I shudder with dread”, and we feel sympathetic when she notes “my young are all busy/with young of their own”. The reader also strongly empathizes with the suffering portrayed in Refugee Mother and Child. To counter-balance the young, irritable nurse’s obscured perception of an acquiescent, old woman, a leitmotif is employed throughout the poem: the imagery of eyes with “open your eyes” and “see ME”, ‘me’ capitalized, as if the nurse is can only discern her defects. “And I think of the years, and the love I have known.” reverts to the inexhaustible wisdom that comes with age, and descends towards the central theme of death’s approach.
By contrast, Refugee Mother and Child builds a stale setting, plagued with disease, in which death is far too common and too near to allow for lengthy reflection as seen in Crabbit Old Woman. The writer, Chinua Achebe, draws up a picture of sickly adults and emaciated children. The extreme deprivation and harsh conditions have eroded the sense of normal, human emotion, to create a lifestyle based solely on primitive survival instinct. The mother and child in subject are left to fend for themselves. Achebe was born into civil war and brutality, and so, was eclipsed by these very sights.
The poem is based on the persecution of the Biafran tribes in 1966 that sought independence. The poem is written in free verse coupled with enjambment, to create a perpetually haunting atmosphere. Death and loss are foreshadowed from the outset, in “a son she would soon have to forget.”. This is an exception, as “Most mothers had long since / ceased to care”, which highlights the heart-wrenching loss this mother in particular is about to face. “No Madonna and Child could touch that picture of a mother’s tenderness” symbolizes their relationship. These paintings were famous for their illustration of the dimpled baby looking into the eyes of a smiling mother, her golden tendrils gently caressing his cheeks. This comparison, however, implies that the Madonna in the painting has not been forced to watch her child verge on death, she has not selflessly abandoned her own pain to ease her child’s. The hard consonants ‘t’ in ‘touch’ and ‘tenderness’ followed by the fricative consonants in “son she soon” shape a contrast, giving the effect of a summary, a closing of curtains, a resignation.
The decrepit environment is vividly drawn through the use of dysphemisms. The surroundings are described using clauses, enabling the reader to stack up a series of adjectives to mold an image. There is a sense of pungency and pervasion in “air was heavy with odours”. The use of the adjective ‘heavy’ to describe air is oxymoronic, which only accentuates the consuming power of the odour. The use of synaesthesia is crucial to the intensity of the descriptions. The senses of smell, vision, and texture are employed with ‘diarrhoea’, ‘dried-up’, ‘blown empty bellies’, to convey the severity and dryness of the circumstances. The poem emphasizes the vast difference between western, developed society, and the underdeveloped ‘Third World’, for even a simple combing of her child’s hair is a task lined with the certainty of death, as “In another life, this would have been a little daily act of no consequence”. This shows that this child is already incarcerated, unlike Remember or Crabbit Old Woman, and will never have the opportunity to learn and love, like they did. In his short, only primitively thinking existence, he has already – prematurely – experienced death.
As well as harsh conditions, the poem also looks at the impact of death on a close relation. It highlights the fiendish torment of helplessly watching a loved one dissipate. The child’s head even becomes a “skull”, the mother with a “ghost of a smile” and “ghost of a mother’s pride”. These images of referring to the ‘skull’, ‘rib’ and skeletal structure, and ‘ghost’ all share explicit connotations with death. Each action, each look, is “like putting flowers on a tiny grave”, the words “flowers” and “grave” creating a devastating comparison, and a premeditation of death. This simile alludes to how death is so close that it inhabits and intermingles with every thought and feeling, exerts control over every move, and creates a constant, tentative hope that the person will last, for the pulse to beat, just a bit longer – again, reverting to the theme of an approaching death.
Remember, penned by Christina Rossetti, is a sonnet addressed to her lover for him to read after her death. It illustrates an uncertainty in the choice between life and death. The author, having been a devout Christian, is intrigued by her legacy and remembrance after death. The poetry is written in euphonious rhyme, lending an assonant, romantic, love-letter feel. The first two stanzas begin with ‘Remember me’ – which immediately introduces the element of memory, also a central theme in Crabbit Old Woman. There is, however, a twist, “Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay” – this nuance is a conscious pause for consideration – life or death? “You tell me of our future you had planned” questions the verity of their love, which is not strong enough to have her choose life over death. It summons up the possibility that a person could be ready for what awaits them after life. This is in contrast to Refugee Mother and Child, in which the child is pushed into a premature death not of his own choice.
She proceeds to write, “if the darkness and corruption leave, a vestige of thoughts I once had, better that you forget and smile”. This unveils her ulterior thoughts of how she was not quite as much in love with her lover as he thought she was, which brings up the concept of unresolved issues or mistruths between the dead and the living – are they to be abandoned? Forgotten? I, myself, have grieved. When a loved one dies, you grieve, too, for everything that was never said between you. However, she assures him that she should be remembered for how he believed she was, for the positive aspects of their relationship – and to: “Only remember me, you understand.” She brings up grievance – and her desire for him not to be sad without her is apparent with her use of imperatives, “Better that you forget and smile, than that you should remember and be sad.”
Her view on their relationship furthering is not discussed, she only mentions that she shall lapse into an eternal quietude, “Gone far away into the silent land; When you can no more hold me by the hand.”. This euphemistically describes the cold, saddening permanence of never, ever being in contact with one passed away. She does not slip in any comforting words of any future meeting in a higher place, but presents herself as something gone and gone forever. This is, however, only one of many views on life after death.
In closing, the way in which an individual approaches death is dependent on their background, their culture, their lifestyle, their family, their situation. The authors have expressed their experiences through the conventions of poetry. It may be the anguish from watching a loved one die through famine, poverty, war, and catastrophe. Or it could be the physical assumptions we make of an old person, their depth imperceptible. Then there is the fear and irresolution of what lays beyond, and the issue of bereavement. In truth, these poems all capacitate one thing – there is no answer. The finality of life is more obscure than the miraculous birth of it.