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Visions of Hell and the Afterlife

In the Norton anthology of Modern Poems, several poems depict the religious ideas of the time period. Many poems deal with the love of God, the beauty of God’s world or the power of religion. However, some poems are more ambiguous in their meanings; they look upon religion and religious beliefs as confusing, even frightening. The follow six poems illuminate this particular theme: “The Wasteland: I. Burial of the Dead” by T. S. Eliot, “Gerontion” by T. S. Eliot, “Dead Man’s Dump” by Isaac Rosenberg, “Hell’s Gate” by Robert Graves, “A Strange Meeting” by Wilfred Owen, and “My Life Closed Twice Before Its Close” by Emily Dickinson.

These six poems reveal the confusing, fantastical and even terrifying side of religion. Several modern poems deal specifically with the concept of hell. The three poems in this study attempt to create and image and atmosphere of the afterlife, depicting hell as a place of torment and terror. “Hell’s Gate” by Robert Graves presents a speaker who tells of his fantastical journey into hell. He describes hell as a road that winds through shadows and fire. He is accompanied by a conductor, similar to Dante’s guide in The Inferno. As they near the end of their destination, the conductor confirms that the “eternal masonry” (ln.

14) is indeed the “gate of hell” (ln. 12). Here, the speaker learns that all the damned are made to guard the gates of hell, all the while burning in its heat. Suddenly, the speaker realizes that he actually knows the man guarding the gates of hell. In explicably, the guard shoots the essences of Sin and Death. The second to last stanza describes the scene: And the hollowness of hell Sounded as its master fell, And the mourning echo rolled Ruin through his kingdom old. Tyranny and terror flown Left a pair of friends alone, And beneath the nether sky

All that stirred was he and I. This terrifying journey to hell ends as the two friends triumph and are allowed to return home. Not all representations of hell end so positively. In Wilfred Owen’s “Strange Meeting,” the speaker describes hell as a “profound dull tunnel” (ln. 2) in which he meets a hopeless man. The imagery in this poem is one of battle, implying that hell is constant fighting and perhaps that war is hell. This stranger recounts to the speaker the hopelessness he feels as he made the transition from a courageous and wise person, to one who has no hope left.

He confesses, “I am the enemy you killed, my friend” (line 42). Clearly this man is a symbol for violence, for the senseless killings of man. He could even be representative of Christ, who was purely good, but took on the sins of the world. Either way, it is clear that the speaker must make amends with this man before he is able to continue through the tunnel into the afterlife. The final poem representing hell is “Dead Man’s Dump” by Isaac Rosenberg. This poem also represents a journey, but this one is a journey of those who died tragically young.

Again, the battle imagery is prevalent, such as the shells and shrapnel, as are the images of Christ, such as a “crown of thorns” (ln. 3). This journey is exceptionally dark as the speaker wails and cries out against the cruelty of heaven and earth. He notes the souls of the dead only stand and stare. The reader feels a distinct sense of sadness when he and the speaker find “one not long dead” (ln. 69). This soul has not yet lost hope for heaven and reaches up for it, only to be crushed under the wheels of the death cart. This poem is exceptionally bleak in its expression of hope for the afterlife.

Here, hell is a body-strewn battlefield. The remaining three poems are less obviously dark in their discussions of religion and the afterlife. In Eliot’s “The Burial of the Dead” from The Wasteland, the speaker is slowing attempting to find a source of forgiveness for himself as he recognizes his own immortality. He remembers his life – the places he visited and the people he knew. As his death is imminent her notices people who have gone before and comments “I had not thought death had undone so many” (ln. 62). As the speaker dies, he realizes that he is entering the “unreal city,” where he realizes that he knows one from the war.

The poem ends with his attempt to reach out to another, even in death, though its abruptness leaves the reader unsure of what may happen to the speaker next. Thus, the afterlife here is presented as being ambiguous. This ambiguity continues in Emily Dickinson’s “My life closed twice before its close;” the speaker contends that her life has “closed twice” (ln. 1). The meaning of this is ambiguous, though it could be interpreted as an actual death and a spiritual death or as an actual birth and a spiritual rebirth. The speaker then discusses the mysterious “third event” which will be revealed by Immortality personified.

This more than likely refers to the afterlife. The speaker concludes this short poem by admitting that the thought of the afterlife is confusing and that “Parting is all we know of heaven,/And all we need of hell” (ln. 7-8). Though this line has been interpreted in many ways, it most likely refers to the parting of individuals or friends which is bad, if one of them is going to hell, but good if they are departing earth for heaven. Finally, T. S. Eliot’s “Gerontion” presents a speaker that has reached an advanced age. He is describing his life in images of heat and dryness, from blisters to patches to peelings.

This speaker admits that he has “lost his passion” perhaps for life or perhaps for “Christ, the tiger” (ln. 20). It seems that in his old age, he has given up all hope of everything. Though the man in this poem does not actually die physically, he is obviously spiritually dead. All six poems presented give the reader a view of the afterlife or of the time just before death. Three of them present terrifying and painful pictures of hell in the fiery Christian sense, while the other three are more ambiguous in their meanings, but still provide little hope.

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