Editor’s note: This post was originally published in October 2013. We’ve selected it as one of the posts we’re republishing for our 10th anniversary celebrations in May 2017.
Whatever your Halloween plans are, you can’t go wrong in taking a few minutes to sit down, crack open a (seasonally appropriate) beer, and read a handful of classic poems about death and dying. Using Russ Kick’s new anthology, Death Poems, as our source, we’ve selected ten of the best verses from throughout the ages about death and dying, and present them to you as a special Halloween/Day of the Dead gift.
“If I Should Die,” Emily Dickinson
If I should die, And you should live, And time should gurgle on, And morn should beam, And noon should burn, As it has usual done; If birds should build as early, And bees as bustling go,– One might depart at option From enterprise below! ‘Tis sweet to know that stocks will stand When we with daisies lie, That commerce will continue, And trades as briskly fly. It make the parting tranquil And keeps the soul serene, That gentlemen so sprightly Conduct the pleasing scene!
from Queen Mab, Percy Bysshe Shelley
How wonderful is Death, Death, and his brother Sleep! One, pale as yonder waning moon With lips of lurid blue; The other, rosy as the morn When throned on ocean’s wave It blushes o’er the world; Yet both so passing wonderful!
“Only Death,” Pablo Neruda
There are cemeteries that are lonely, graves full of bones that do not make a sound, the heart moving through a tunnel, in it darkness, darkness, darkness, like a shipwreck we die going into ourselves, as though we were drowning inside our hearts, as though we lived falling out of the skin into the soul.
And there are corpses, feet made of cold and sticky clay, death is inside the bones, like a barking where there are no dogs, coming out from bells somewhere, from graves somewhere, growing in the damp air like tears of rain.
Sometimes I see alone coffins under sail, embarking with the pale dead, with women that have dead hair, with bakers who are as white as angels, and pensive young girls married to notary publics, caskets sailing up the vertical river of the dead, the river of dark purple, moving upstream with sails filled out by the sound of death, filled by the sound of death which is silence.
Death arrives among all that sound like a shoe with no foot in it, like a suit with no man in it, comes and knocks, using a ring with no stone in it, with no finger in it, comes and shouts with no mouth, with no tongue, with no throat. Nevertheless its steps can be heard and its clothing makes a hushed sound, like a tree.
I’m not sure, I understand only a little, I can hardly see, but it seems to me that its singing has the color of damp violets, of violets that are at home in the earth, because the face of death is green, and the look death gives is green, with the penetrating dampness of a violet leaf and the somber color of embittered winter.
But death also goes through the world dressed as a broom, lapping the floor, looking for dead bodies, death is inside the broom, the broom is the tongue of death looking for corpses, it is the needle of death looking for thread.
Death is inside the folding cots: it spends its life sleeping on the slow mattresses, in the black blankets, and suddenly breathes out: it blows out a mournful sound that swells the sheets, and the beds go sailing toward a port where death is waiting, dressed like an admiral.
“On the Death of Anne Brontë” by Charlotte Brontë
There’s little joy in life for me, And little terror in the grave; I’ve lived the parting hour to see Of one I would have died to save.
Calmly to watch the failing breath, Wishing each sigh might be the last; Longing to see the shade of death O’er those belovèd features cast.
The cloud, the stillness that must part The darling of my life from me; And then to thank God from my heart, To thank Him well and fervently;
Although I knew that we had lost The hope and glory of our life; And now, benighted, tempest-tossed, Must bear alone the weary strife.
“And you as well must die,” Edna St. Vincent Millay
And you as well must die, belovèd dust, And all your beauty stand you in no stead; This flawless, vital hand, this perfect head, This body of flame and steel, before the gust Of Death, or under his autumnal frost, Shall be as any leaf, be no less dead Than the first leaf that fell,this wonder fled, Altered, estranged, disintegrated, lost. Nor shall my love avail you in your hour. In spite of all my love, you will arise Upon that day and wander down the air Obscurely as the unattended flower, It mattering not how beautiful you were, Or how belovèd above all else that dies.
“Annabel Lee,” Edgar Allan Poe
It was many and many a year ago, In a kingdom by the sea, That a maiden there lived whom you may know By the name of Annabel Lee; And this maiden she lived with no other thought Than to love and be loved by me.
I was a child and she was a child, In this kingdom by the sea, But we loved with a love that was more than love— I and my Annabel Lee— With a love that the wingèd seraphs of Heaven Coveted her and me.
And this was the reason that, long ago, In this kingdom by the sea, A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling My beautiful Annabel Lee; So that her highborn kinsmen came And bore her away from me, To shut her up in a sepulchre In this kingdom by the sea.
The angels, not half so happy in Heaven, Went envying her and me— Yes!—that was the reason (as all men know, In this kingdom by the sea) That the wind came out of the cloud by night, Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.
But our love it was stronger by far than the love Of those who were older than we— Of many far wiser than we— And neither the angels in Heaven above Nor the demons down under the sea Can ever dissever my soul from the soul Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams Of the beautiful Annabel Lee; And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes Of the beautiful Annabel Lee; And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side Of my darling—my darling—my life and my bride, In her sepulchre there by the sea— In her tomb by the sounding sea.
“He Wishes His Beloved Were Dead,” W.B. Yeats
Were you but lying cold and dead, And lights were paling out of the West, You would come hither, and bend your head, And I would lay my head on your breast; And you would murmur tender words, Forgiving me, because you were dead: Nor would you rise and hasten away, Though you have the will of wild birds, But know your hair was bound and wound About the stars and moon and sun: O would, beloved, that you lay Under the dock-leaves in the ground, While lights were paling one by one.
“Epitaph to a Dog,” Lord Byron
Near this spot Are deposited the Remains of one Who possessed Beauty without Vanity, Strength without Insolence, Courage without Ferocity, And all the Virtues of Man without his Vices.
The Price, which would be unmeaning flattery If inscribed over Human Ashes, Is but a just tribute to the Memory of “Boatswain,” a Dog Who was born at Newfoundland, May, 1803, And died in Newstead Abbey, Nov. 18, 1808.
When some proud son of man returns to earth, Unknown by glory, but upheld by birth, The sculptor’s art exhausts the pomp of woe, And stories urns record that rests below. When all is done, upon the tomb is seen, Not what he was, but what he should have been. But the poor dog, in life the firmest friend, The first to welcome, foremost to defend, Whose honest heart is still his master’s own, Who labors, fights, lives, breathes for him alone, Unhonored falls, unnoticed all his worth, Denied in heaven the soul he held on earth – While man, vain insect! hopes to be forgiven, And claims himself a sole exclusive heaven.
Oh man! thou feeble tenant of an hour, Debased by slavery, or corrupt by power – Who knows thee well must quit thee with disgust, Degraded mass of animated dust! Thy love is lust, thy friendship all a cheat, Thy smiles hypocrisy, thy words deceit! By nature vile, ennoble but by name, Each kindred brute might bid thee blush for shame. Ye, who perchance behold this simple urn, Pass on – it honors none you wish to mourn. To mark a friend’s remains these stones arise; I never knew but one – and here he lies.
“God Lay Dead in Heaven,” Stephen Crane
God lay dead in heaven; Angels sang the hymn of the end; Purple winds went moaning, Their wings drip-dripping With blood That fell upon the earth. It, groaning thing, Turned black and sank. Then from the far caverns Of dead sins Came monsters, livid with desire. They fought, Wrangled over the world, A morsel. But of all sadness this was sad — A woman’s arms tried to shield The head of a sleeping man From the jaws of the final beast.
“Death,” Rainer Maria Rilke
Before us great Death stands Our fate held close within his quiet hands. When with proud joy we lift Life’s red wine To drink deep of the mystic shining cup And ecstasy through all our being leaps— Death bows his head and weeps.