Poems about Death: Whitman, Wilcox, Millay

Flowerpot shards_February 2016

Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

To One Shortly to Die


From all the rest I single out you, having a message for you,
You are to die –
let others tell you what they please, I cannot prevaricate,
I am exact and merciless, but I love you –
there is no escape for you.


Softly I lay my right hand upon you, you must feel it,
I do not argue, I bend my head close and half envelop it,
I sit quietly by, I remain faithful,
I am more than nurse, more than parent or neighbour,
I absolve you from all except yourself spiritual bodily, that is
eternal, you yourself will surely escape,
The corpse you will leave will be but excrementitious.


The sun bursts through in unlooked-for directions,
Strong thoughts fill you and confidence, you smile,
You forget you are sick, as I forget you are sick,
You do not see the medicines, you do not mind the weeping friends,
I am with you,
I exclude others from you, there is nothing to be commiserated,
I do not commiserate, I congratulate you.

. . .

Ella Wheeler Wilcox (1850-1919)

My Grave


If, when I die, I must be buried, let
No cemetery engulf me – no lone grot,
Where the great palpitating world comes not,
Save when, with heart bowed down and eyelids wet,
It pays its last sad melancholy debt
To some outjourneying pilgrim. May my lot
Be rather to lie in some much-used spot,
Where human life, with all its noise and fret,
Throbs about me. Let the roll of wheels,
With all earth’s sounds of pleasure, commerce, love,
And rush of hurrying feet surge o’er my head.
Even in my grave I shall be one who feels
Close kinship with the pulsing world above;
And too deep silence would distress me, dead.

. . .

Edna St.Vincent Millay (1892-1950)

The Shroud


Death, I say, my heart is bowed
Unto thine – O mother!
This red gown will make a shroud
Good as any other!


(I, that would not wait to wear
My own bridal things,
In a dress dark as my hair
Made my answerings.


I, tonight, that till he came
Could not, could not wait,
In a gown as bright as flame
Held for them the gate.)


Death, I say, my heart is bowed
Unto thine – O mother!
This red gown will make a shroud
Good as any other!

. . .

Edna St.Vincent Millay



Listen, children:
Your father is dead.
From his old coats
I’ll make you little jackets;
I’ll make you little trousers
From his old pants.
There’ll be in his pockets
Things he used to put there,
Keys and pennies
Covered with tobacco;
Dan shall have the pennies
To save in his bank;
Anne shall have the keys
To make a pretty noise with.
Life must go on,
And the dead be forgotten;
Life must go on,
Though good men die;
Anne, eat your breakfast;
Dan, take your medicine;
Life must go on;
I forget just why.

. . . . .

Thanksgiving Poems: a Cornucopia

Thanksgiving Bounty 

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

I had no time to Hate”


I had no time to Hate –


The Grave would hinder Me –

And Life was not so

Ample I

Could finish – Enmity –


Nor had I time to Love –

But since

Some Industry must be –

The little Toil of Love –

I thought

Be large enough for Me –

.     .     .

Emily Dickinson

They might not need me – yet they might”


They might not need me – yet they might –

I’ll let my Heart be just in sight –

A smile so small as mine might be

Precisely their necessity.

Emily Dickinson_1830-1886

Emily Dickinson

Who has not found the Heaven – below”


Who has not found the Heaven – below –

Will fail of it above –

For Angels rent the House next ours,

Wherever we remove –

Paul Laurence Dunbar at age 19_1892

Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906)

A Prayer”


O Lord, the hard-won miles

Have worn my stumbling feet:

Oh, soothe me with thy smiles,

And make my life complete.


The thorns were thick and keen

Where’er I trembling trod;

The way was long between

My wounded feet and God.


Where healing waters flow

Do thou my footsteps lead.

My heart is aching so;

Thy gracious balm I need.

.     .     .

Paul Laurence Dunbar

The Sum”


A little dreaming by the way,

A little toiling day by day;

A little pain, a little strife,

A little joy,–and that is life.


A little short-lived summer’s morn,

When joy seems all so newly born,

When one day’s sky is blue above,

And one bird sings,–and that is love.


A little sickening of the years,

The tribute of a few hot tears,

Two folded hands, the failing breath,

And peace at last,–and that is death.


Just dreaming, loving, dying so,

The actors in the drama go–

A flitting picture on a wall,

Love, Death, the themes;  but is that all?

.     .     .

Guido Guinizelli (1230-1276)

Of Moderation and Tolerance”


He that has grown to wisdom hurries not,

But thinks and weighs what Reason bids him do;

And after thinking he retains his thought

Until as he conceived the fact ensue.

Let no man to o’erweening pride be wrought,

But count his state as Fortune’s gift and due.

He is a fool who deems that none has sought

The truth, save he alone, or knows it true.

Many strange birds are on the air abroad,

Nor all are of one flight or of one force,

But each after his kind dissimilar:

To each was portion’d of the breath of God,

Who gave them divers instincts from one source.

Then judge not thou thy fellows what they are.


Translation from the Italian: Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1861)

.     .     .

Luci Shaw (born 1928)

But not forgotten”


Whether or not I find the missing thing

it will always be

more than my thought of it.

Silver-heavy, somewhere it winks

in its own small privacy


the waiting game for me.


And the real treasures do not vanish.

The precious loses no value

in the spending.

A piece of hope spins out

bright, along the dark, and is not

lost in space;

verity is a burning boomerang;

love is out orbiting and will

come home.

.     .     .

Henri Nouwen (1932-1996)



Hope means to keep living

amid desperation,

and to keep humming in darkness.

Hoping is knowing that there is love,

it is trust in tomorrow

it is falling asleep

and waking again

when the sun rises.

In the midst of a gale at sea,

it is to discover land.

In the eye of another

it is to see that he understands you.

As long as there is still hope

there will also be prayer.

And God will be holding you

in His hands.

.     .     .

Walt Whitman(1819-1892)

When I heard the learn’d astronomer”


When I heard the learn’d astronomer,

When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,

When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,

When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured

with much applause in the lecture-room,

How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,

Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,

In the mystical moist night air, and from time to time,

Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000)

Speech to the Young, Speech to the Progress-Toward

(Among them Nora and Henry III)”


Say to them

say to the down-keepers,

the sun-slappers,

the self-soilers,

the harmony-hushers:

Even if you are not ready for day

it cannot always be night.”

You will be right.

For that is the hard home-run.

Live not for the battles won.

Live not for the-end-of-the-song.

Live in the along.

Rabindranath Tagore in 1886

Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941)

Closed Path”


I thought that my voyage had come to its end
at the last limit of my power,

that the path before me was closed,
that provisions were exhausted,
and the time come to take shelter in a silent obscurity.

But I find that Thy Will knows no end in me.
And when old words die out on the tongue,
new melodies break forth from the heart;
and where the old tracks are lost,
new country is revealed with its wonders.

.     .     .

William Matthews (1942-1997)



How easily happiness begins by   

dicing onions. A lump of sweet butter   

slithers and swirls across the floor   

of the sauté pan, especially if its   

errant path crosses a tiny slick

of olive oil. Then a tumble of onions.


This could mean soup or risotto   

or chutney (from the Sanskrit

chatni, to lick). Slowly the onions   

go limp and then nacreous

and then what cookbooks call clear,   

though if they were eyes you could see


clearly the cataracts in them.

It’s true it can make you weep

to peel them, to unfurl and to tease   

from the taut ball first the brittle,   

caramel-coloured and decrepit

papery outside layer, the least


recent the reticent onion

wrapped around its growing body,   

for there’s nothing to an onion

but skin, and it’s true you can go on   

weeping as you go on in, through   

the moist middle skins, the sweetest


and thickest, and you can go on   

in to the core, to the bud-like,   

acrid, fibrous skins densely   

clustered there, stalky and in-

complete, and these are the most   

pungent, like the nuggets of nightmare


and rage and murmury animal   

comfort that infant humans secrete.   

This is the best domestic perfume.   

You sit down to eat with a rumour

of onions still on your twice-washed   

hands and lift to your mouth a hint


of a story about loam and usual   

endurance. It’s there when you clean up   

and rinse the wine glasses and make   

a joke, and you leave the minutest   

whiff of it on the light switch,

later, when you climb the stairs.

.     .     .     .     .

Walt Whitman: “Living always, always dying”

ZP_Walt Whitman with Peter Doyle who was quite possibly his lover_1869ZP_Walt Whitman with Peter Doyle who was, quite possibly, his lover_1869


Of him I love day and night


Of him I love day and night I dream’d I heard he was dead,

And I dream’d I went where they had buried him I love, but he was

not in that place.

And I dream’d I wander’d searching among burial-places to find him,

And I found that every place was a burial-place;

The houses full of life were equally full of death, (this house is, now,)

The streets, the shipping, the places of amusement, the Chicago,

Boston, Philadelphia, the Mannahatta *, were as full of the dead

as of the living.

And fuller, O vastly fuller of the dead than of the living;

And what I dream’d I will henceforth tell to every person and age,

And I stand henceforth bound to what I dream’d,

And now I am willing to disregard burial-places and dispense with


And if the memorials of the dead were put up indifferently

everywhere, even in the room where I eat or sleep, I should be


And if the corpse of any one I love, or if my own corpse, be duly

render’d to powder and pour’d in the sea, I shall be satisfied,

Or if it be distributed to the winds I shall be satisfied.


* Mannahatta  –  the original Delaware/Algonquin Native name

for Manhattan


O Living Always, Always Dying


O living always, always dying!

O the burials of me past and present,

O me while I stride ahead, material, visible, imperious as ever;

O me, what I was for years, now dead, (I lament not, I am content;)

O to disengage myself from those corpses of me, which I turn and look

at where I cast them,

To pass on, (O living!  always living!) and leave the corpses behind.

ZP_1886 photograph of Walt Whitman with Bill DuckettZP_1886 photograph of Walt Whitman with Bill Duckett


Walt Whitman was born in 1819, at Long Island, New York.

By his mid-teens he was working as a typesetter in Brooklyn

and began to contribute juvenilia to newspapers.

At twenty he was a schoolteacher but being a

restless fellow, one to get fired, or to quit, he went from job

to job, writing being the only steady thing.

His poetry collection “Leaves of Grass”, from 1855, is considered

a cornerstone in what might now be called “the American voice”

– plain-spoken and egalitarian – yet grandiose and self-centred, too.

Whitman is the 19th-century father of free-verse poetry in the

English language, basing the form and cadence of his poems

on the Psalms of the King James Bible.

The two poems featured above take the Victorian-era (even in the U.S.)

morbid maudlinism surrounding Death and give it a 180-degree turn.

Whitman died in 1892.