Death (by William Bell Scott) In-Depth Analysis and Critical Evaluation

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The Poem

  • Sadly I cannot locate the poem online. Refer to the ‘Songs of Ourselves’ Volume II anthology provided, pg. 209.

Background of the Poet

  • William Bell Scott (12 September 1811 – 22 November 1890) was a Scottish artist in oils and watercolour and sometimes printmaking.
  • He was also a poet and art teacher, and his posthumously published reminiscences giving a chatty and often vivid picture of life in the circle of the Pre-Raphaelites.
  • He was especially close to Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Structure and Rhyme Scheme

  • Okay! This is a fun poem guys — I promise!
  • 3 stanzas of all irregular lengths; The first stanza has 11 lines, the second has 13, and the third has 12.
  • This irregular structure denotes the irregular passage through life.
  • It could also denote the irregularities between how people of the world die: for instance, some people may die warm in their bed at an old age, whereas someone may die at a young age due to a car crash.
  • Additionally, you would notice certain trends repeating themselves through the stanzas. For example, the 3rd line of each stanza is comparatively much more shorter than the other lines. He does this to create a certain suspense at the beginning of the stanza, and to lay more emphasise of the 3rd line of each stanza he shortens it to what is crucial to convey and in order to allow the reader to explore the lines more concisely. He may also do this because the words conveyed in such lines may be important to the poet himself that he must separate/isolate it from the rest of the poem in such a way. We’ll get down to the specifics below.
  • Irregular rhyme scheme – again denote the random nature of life and death: how we cannot expect or systematically presume how our lives will unfold.
  • It is important to note that the final 2 lines of each stanza is a rhyming couplet. Why does he do this? The poet does this because through life we go through a series of challenges and difficulties, however it is only at the end of life (each stanza represents a life, in this one instance, we may infer) that we understand the true essence and purpose of life – in addition we take life for what it is: a simple journey through age and time. Also at old age we begin to come to peace with ourselves and past. Also the 3 couplets can also be considered as life lessons almost, as we will explore in the language analysis below.

Title

  • Pretty simple – ‘Death’. Eloquently and concisely captures the purpose of the poem and what is explored consistently throughout it. Not too much to it.

Themes

  • Death
  • Infinity
  • Existentialism
  • Relation to familial ties

Language Analysis and Critical Appreciation

  • First stanza. He uses enjambment in the first line ‘…thought / Is as…’, in order to denote how seamless and restless his thoughts are — additionally, to denote how big of a weight it is thinking about death.
  • It is important to know that throughout this stanza death is being personified through this poem and the point of view is that from ‘Death’, as if Death were a person. This can be linked back to the title and why it is relevant here.
  • ‘…as the deed:’, so the poet uses caesura for a breaking to further qualify or exemplify/explore what he is talking about. Death is saying that even thinking about it is as gruesome as actually dying. This is how manifold even the idea of dying is, as Death says it to be.
  • ‘…I have no brother, and / No father; years’: Okay this is VERY important, listen up! Death is trying to say that s/he has no familial ties (related back to the theme of family), and therefore exists as an independent force that has no origination nor will further the legacy. Death says this because we go through the ideology that all things must originate from something/somewhere, however Death waives this as being idiosyncratic to Death because s/he has no such bonds of blood or genes but instead just simply exists. This is further explored as we go through the poem. Additionally, the poet uses enjambment again to emphasise the number of ‘years’ Death has lived in order to propagate how endlessly Death has survived through the ages. Moreover, the poet uses caesura ‘father; years’ in order to separate the term ‘years’ and isolate it from the rest of the preceding line of the poem. Why? To give the idea of ‘years’ weightage and importance — again, to further emphasise the amount of years Death has endlessly lived and evolved.
  • ‘A chain / doth bind all things to me.’: A chain being an abstract idea. The poet uses a symbol of a chain, where the idea of a ‘chain’ is usually used in a negative/restrictive context — we may deduce that the idea of death has evolved as something mournful and depressing in contemporary society. This is why Death is bounded by everyone through this abstract symbol of a ‘chain’, and it is important in exploring further the idea or common conception of Death as something dark and gloomy. Enjambment used to show the manifold chains that are bounded to all living and non-living things between ‘…chain / Doth…’.
  • ‘…man,— / Infinite thinker,—’: Calls man an infinite thinker, i.e. calling (wo)men intellectually smart as they strive to gain knowledge throughout this world and that is what makes them ‘infinite’ thinker. However, this may also be satirical in the sense that where humans believe that they can achieve knowledge that is God-like, in reality Death may somewhat mock this idea since Death believes that s/he himself/herself is the one that is infinite rather than people. Additionally, despite all the knowledge that people may gain or strive for in this earth, death awaits us nonetheless.
  • ‘…vanishes as doth / The worm that he creates’: Worm may be a metaphor for something bigger — perhaps worldly activities, or chasing materialism, consumerism, worldly success, etc. The poet is saying that individuals ‘vanish’ (i.e. die) due to the ‘worm’ that he ‘creates’, i.e. the challenging society is built up with individuals who all agree and abide by the competitive values that we accustom ourselves to — and while we are striving for earthly success, we kill ourselves in the process. Death somewhat acknowledges this phenomena.
  • ‘…as doth the moth / That it creates, as doth the limb minute / That stirs upon that moth.’: Okay a lot is going on here. Moth = an insect, and could be another symbol for what was explored above (‘worm’). Individuals become the moth (i.e. the worm, i.e. the society, i.e. the whole values/norms/competitive ideals that we exhibit in society) that we created in the first place. And the ‘limb minute’ is how if we are referring to a general moth, we may try to kill the moth with an arm. This could be what the poet is trying to suggest, that as we create a society that ultimately is so competitive or facade-like, we ultimately may try undermining it as we acknowledge how problematic it may be, and thus this could be what Scott is talking about here. Alternatively, the ‘moth’ could be a symbol of all the things that will eventually die and ‘doth’ being Death, and thus this is a reminder for the readers. Of course, you may see this line differently as I am sure there are multiple different interpretations to this line, surely.
  • ‘My being is / Inborn with all things’: Again, pretty evident. Death is intertwined and mixed into all things that are alive, and with a person being born, Death is automatically born with that living thing. Death is with everyone, always, forever. Enjambment to again emphasise it. Scott uses a lot of enjambment throughout his poem: be sure to acknowledge that.
  • ‘With all things doth expand.’: So as all things grow and gradually reproduce, Death itself expands its boundaries as the number of living things increases which must ultimately die. This is basically included to further endorse the endless existence of Death and how it is something no one may escape.
  • He uses a metaphor in the beginning of the stanza, where he gives 3 examples.
  • ‘The deep of the night’: This is something abstract. Death is basically trying to say that it is something that you may not always acknowledge exists — which is very true because many of us don’t go through day in and day out consistently acknowledging that we WILL die one day, as a fact — however, nonetheless, Death will continue to exist regardless of being acknowledged and these metaphors help us to relate Death to other humanistic or earthly phenomena like ‘…hoary dust’, which we may very well pass through but not always acknowledge. The poet also uses asyndeton to adequately explore the three metaphors and emphasise them equally to the readers: ‘The hoary dust, the shut ear, the profound.’ Again, you may have your own interpretation for this, which is certainly fine, just be sure to back it up with text!
  • ‘…Nature’: So the poet is personifying the idea of existence (i.e. nature) to have humanely organs: a heart, which is basically that which provides subsistence to the rest of the body.
  • ‘…negative of all things’: Death is usually given a connotation of being negative.
  • ‘…I am the blood that flows / Within thee…’: So Death is the blood itself in which Life’s heart pumps. Basically the poet is trying to say: with life, there is always death. There is no other way. And therefore, people should embrace the idea rather than fearing it, because we have been born with the limitation that we all follow the same path of death eventually.
  • ‘Old things give place / To thy free race.’: Ultimately old people will eventually die, and therefore this frees up the spots for people to assume traditionally superior roles in society which are predominately held by old experienced people. Once these old people die, this gives other young members of society the opportunity to also achieve high statuses in society and thus makes it into a ‘…free race.’
  • Again, comment on consistent use of enjambment, metaphors, symbols, personification and caesura used by the poet. This is crucial and should be intertwined with the above points to emphasise them and give them a large horizon of meaning for the reader’s convenience and understanding.
  • Throughout the final stanza he explores two main ways of approaching death. Firstly, Death reminds us that ‘All things are born for me.’, and therefore all living and non-living things will eventually succumb to perishing. ‘…Me foolishly.’ It is very important to comment on the word ‘foolishly’ because this shows that Death sees it as irrational where humans despise death because they were born with the string attached that they will perish eventually and in time. It is also considered wasted energy and anxiety.
  • ‘..easy spirit’: Comment on the word easy, where it denotes simple people who embrace the idea and thus do not encounter any hardships with ultimately dying.
  • ‘…but grudge, and weep / And cark’: So the poet almost gives a catalogue of words of how people react to the prospect of having to face death one day, and revisits the idea of Death being a ‘chain’, and that is how it feels like to people who begrudge Death and do not embrace it. Basically Death produces a prospectus where if you embrace the idea of Death then you will gracefully pass through both life and death in harmony. However, if you do not encounter the idea with ease then you will be greeted with frustration and pain along the way.
  • The word ‘crown’ is meant to infer the word ‘head’, however perhaps Death is using the term crown in an ironic way where people may think that it is as if their heads are crowns with the level of arrogance people have developed where they think they will not die one day and their pleasures will indefinitely live on. So, as a result, this could be another attempt of a satirical comment coming from Death. Alternatively, Death may just be informing us that ultimately Death will greet us whether we like it or not, and it certainly seems better to embrace it rather than trying to avoid it.
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