Views of Death in Literature
Literature whether true or fiction usually reflects human experience. One of the greatest topics of interest in literature is on man’s mortality. Through three poems, “To An Athlete Dying Young “by Alfred Housman, “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley, “To his coy Mistress” by Andrew Marvell and one short story “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin the authors assert that death is sure and with the use of biographical/historical and philosophical approach in literary criticism it will be explain here that just as human experience varies so are people’s views towards it.
In the first poem “To an Athlete Dying Young”, Housman views death as an instrument for immortalization. Housman, in the first stanza, presents a young athlete, a runner, in the peak of his career who suddenly died. Housman recalls the time when this particular young man comes home in victory and that “man and boy stood cheering by” and that he was brought to his house carried upon the shoulders of adoring crowds (Smith & Hammond 75). Upon reading the first stanza the reader can picture out happy people welcoming a victorious athlete and holding feasts in his honor.
However, in the second stanza, Housman presents a sad picture of the young athlete being dead. Yet instead of feeling sorrowful about it Houseman praise the athlete for dying young as he states, “smart lad, to slip betimes (early) away” (Smith & Hammond 75). Instead of crying over the fact that the young athlete who shows a promise of a bright future in his athletic career had to die so soon while he is still reaping glories, Housman thinks it is better that he dies. He said that even though he reaps glories as a young man (“and early though the laurel goes”) nevertheless it will quickly vanish (Smith & Hammond 75).
Moreover, Housman thinks there is an advantage of dying young for the athlete will not witness the pain of seeing the breaking of the records he set as a runner and that there is really nothing to be sad about not being able to hear the “cheers” of men for in death silence or the sound of cheers will not make any difference. Another reason why Houston thinks it was just appropriate for him to die is also because he will not experience the fading of his glory as time passes. In a philosophical view, Housman presents here the reality that death comes at any age and in any situation, e.
g. in the peak of one’s career. Even in the midst of success and happiness, death will suddenly come. Housman had proven this to be true early on in his life when his mother died while he was only twelve years old. Before that, the Housman family had been so happy; they are financially secure and have a loving and God- fearing mother and father. However, their happiness was cut short when Housman’s young mother became ill and died. Therefore, one should not be confident that because he is young and successful death will avoid him.
Just as the promising career of a runner is suddenly stopped by death so is the promising motherhood career of Housman’s mother ended when she died young ( Graves 13). Also, it is very clear in this poem how Housman would prefer to die in the glory of his youth than in being forgotten in his old age. This view may be shared by only a few for most men would prefer to see the young man live much longer to win more races. However, now that Housman had become older he now sees the advantage of early death.
Although death may be a sad human experience he realizes that death, even at a young age, has its way of preserving what is beautiful in human beings. Early death has the power to “immortalized” greatness. For example, the young athlete will always be remembered as a champion as the last stanza states, “and round that early-laurelled head…. And find unwithered on its curls” (Smith & Hammond 75). In the same way, Housman’s mother is immortalized, for in his eyes, his mother never grows old; in dying young her fresh face of youth is preserved.
In the second poem “Ozymandias”, Shelley views death as ruining the accomplishments of man . Shelley talks about a stone statue in the old ruins in Egypt. There, a traveler sees a tyrant statue with writing in the pedestal that says,” My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings, / Look on my Works ye mighty, and despair (Smith & Hammond 35)! ” Shelley continues to say that amidst that boastful writing, the statue is surrounded by ruins and decay. So it was funny that he is inviting someone to look at his works (which had now decayed) in order to despair of how powerful a king he is.
According to history, the statue may likely refer to Rameses II who was the pharaoh Egypt in the 13th century. The Greeks’ name for Rameses II is Ozymandias. The real inscription in that statue is, “I am Ozymandias, King of kings. If anyone would know how great I am and where I lie, let him surpass any of my work”; so it can be observed that Shelley simply revise the writing in his poem (“Ozymandias” 1994). Nevertheless, both talks about the pride a person has felt towards his accomplishment.
Yet no matter how great a man’s work had been, a time will come when all of that he will leave behind. Obviously, Rameses looks around and sees how beautiful are his buildings and his pyramids so that he challenges others to surpass it. Yet many centuries later, almost all of the things he had done are all in ruin and many of them would not have been discovered without archeology. The symbols of his glory are mostly buried in the desert sand and even what remains of the statue that hold such boastful words is described as “two vast and trunkless legs of stone/ Stand in the desert …
Near them, on the sand/Half sunk, a shattered visage lies”( Smith & Hammond 35). Through a historical perspective, Shelley clearly illustrate in the poem that all of man’s work will not always remain. During their times, Kings and Pharaohs may take great pride on their monumental buildings but soon, like any other mortal, they will need to leave it to its ruin. The difference however is in the fact that even in ruin, man’s work may endure but he will not. He cannot live forever to take care or improve his accomplishments.
In the third poem,” To His Coy Mistress”, Marvell views death as standing in the way in satisfying man’s lustful desire. Marvell talks about a man who convinces his lover to give up her virginity for him and not to be shy anymore. He said that her behavior is alright if they had all the time in the world. He said he can wait “till the conversion of the Jews”, which means even if it will take a long time (Smith & Hammond 17). The Jews are a chosen people whom God had declared as stubborn so it will take some time before they will be converted.
Shelley states that the man, if he has the time, will just be contented to just be with his mistress “to sit down and think which way/To walk, and pass our long love’s day” (Smith & Hammond 17). He said that his mistress is worthy to be loved for a hundred years. However, the lover says that he is always reminded that death may soon take away his beautiful lover and instead of him it will be the worms who will enjoy her virginity. When that happens he said that his lust will no longer be satisfied (“into ashes all my lust”) and in the grave no one will embrace her (Smith & Hammond 17).
Therefore, he is convincing his mistress that while she can still respond passionately to his lust, she must surrender her body to him, to enjoy physical pleasures, to “roll all our strength, and all/Our sweetness, up into one ball; And tear our pleasures with rough strife” (Smith & Hammond 17). In a philosophical view, what Marvell is trying to establish in the poem is that while man is still young and alive he must not deprive himself to enjoy physical pleasures. Man do not live forever, what he has is only a short time so that if possible he should not wait too long to have an intimate physical relationship.
By convincing his lover to surrender his virginity to him as soon as she can does not mean that he does not have a high regard for it or that he is only interested with it but that he knew that any time soon both his and her life will end. If both of them live forever, the man would not mind waiting and he will be just contented to be with her and enjoy her company without touching her. But the thought of death always makes him worried that his lust for her will never be satisfied. Finally, in the short story, “The Story of an Hour”, Chopin views death as the means to freedom.
In the story, Chopin talks of a young woman, Mrs. Mallard, who has a heart trouble and others are so concerned that the sudden death of her husband in a train accident will worsen her condition. So the people close to her tried to break the news to her as gently as they can for if she gets too emotionally excited, she may die of heart attack. When the news is finally made known to her, Mrs. Mallard “wept at once, with sudden, wild abandonment, in her sister’s arms” (Fishman & Summerfield 132).
Afterwards, however, she realizes that the death of her husband meant freedom to do what she wants for “she saw beyond that bitter moment a long procession of years to come that would belong to her absolutely….. there would be no one to live for during those coming years; she would live for herself”, and that idea made her happy and took away her sorrow” (Fishman & Summerfield 132). She will be free her from having to “bend down” on another’s will (her husband). Therefore, now that her husband is dead she looks forward to the coming years with excitement and wish that she will live long.
With that thought, she is feeling triumphant when she comes out of her room and descended the stairs with her sister Josephine. However, her husband appeared in the doorway, alive and well. Mrs. Mallard is shocked and fell dead. The doctor misinterpreted why she died; although he was right that she died of a heart disease, he thought that it was because “of joy that kills”. However, as previously mentioned Mrs. Mallard was somehow happy that her husband is already dead for now she will be free from her obligations to him, especially that she oftentimes does not love him.
Seeing her husband alive in the doorway must have taken all her joy away. Chopin’s mother married her father when she was barely sixteen years old. His father was already 39 years old and had just lost his first wife. Her mother, young as she was, was carefree but was only forced to marry because her family needed money. It was obvious that she was not compatible with her husband because of their wide age difference and that she was handling heavy family responsibilities at a tender age. In other words, she was not that happy with him.
Scholars who studied Chopin’s life states that the short story “The Story of An Hour” is inspired from the real life story of Chopin. Her father suddenly died in a train accident; her mother has a sister named Josephine and the last name Mallard is similar to the last name of a man who really died that accident, Bullard. However, in order not to make it too obvious, Chopin reverses the story by presenting the husband as alive and the wife as dead (Toth 10-11). In the story, Chopin, a feminist, presents that the death of a husband can be the means by which women are freed.
Through these four literature selections, three poems and one short story, the different views of the mortality of man are presented. In the poem “To an Athlete Dying Young”, Alfred Houseman sees early death as a good instrument for immortalization; in the second poem “Ozymandias”, Percy Bysshe Shelley sees death as putting an end to man’s accomplishments; in the third poem, “To His Coy Mistress”, Andrew Marville sees death as standing in the way in satisfying man’s lustful desire; and the short story,” The Story of an Hour”, Kate Chopin sees death as the possible means to freedom.
Works Cited Fishman, Judith and Judith Summerfield. Responding to Prose: A Reader for Writers. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Educational Pub. , 1983. Graves, Richard Perceval. A. E. Housman: The Scholar-poet. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979. “Ozymandias”. University of Toronto Press. 1994. Accessed December 10, 2008 <http://rpo. library. utoronto. ca/poem/1904. html> Smith, Philip and Earl Hammond. 100 Best-Loved Poems. New York: Courier Dover Publications, 1995. Toth, Emily. Unveiling Kate Chopin: The Centennial Story. Jackson: Univ. Press of Mississippi, 1999.Sample Essay of EssayTigers.com