An analysis of a short Yeats poem by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘Death’ is not perhaps numbered among the most famous poems by W. B. Yeats (1865-1939), but it is probably the shortest of all his finest poems. In just a dozen lines, Yeats examines human attitudes to death, contrasting them with an animal’s ignorance of its own mortality. ‘Death’ was written in 1929 and included in Yeats’s 1933 volume The Winding Stair and Other Poems. Here is ‘Death’, followed by a few words by way of analysis.
Nor dread nor hope attend
A dying animal;
A man awaits his end
Dreading and hoping all;
Many times he died,
Many times rose again,
A great man in his pride
Confronting murderous men
Casts derision upon
Supersession of breath;
He knows death to the bone –
Man has created death.
In summary, Yeats compares man’s awareness that he will die with an animal’s lack of awareness of this: an animal neither fears death (because it has no concept of dying) nor hopes for life after death (as man does, consoling himself through religion that death will not be the end). When Yeats writes
Many times he died,
Many times rose again
He is probably echoing a sentiment put forward by Shakespeare in Julius Caesar: ‘Cowards die many times before their deaths. The brave experience death only once.’ We ‘die’ in the course of our lives many times, through failure of nerve or failing to live in some other sense; yet we get another chance to make our lives good; this reading of the lines is borne out by the next line, referring as it does to ‘A great man in his pride’.
Indeed, a ‘great man’, one who has to deal with, and confront, men who commit murder, has learnt to ridicule man’s fixation upon death, which is described as mere ‘Supersession of breath’. ‘Supersession’ is an intriguing word here. It means ‘cessation’ or ‘discontinuance’, but this sense of the word is marked as ‘rare’ by the Oxford English Dictionary; the more usual meaning is ‘replacement’ (‘supersession’ being the complementary noun for the verb ‘supersede’, meaning to replace something). The poem, then, suggests an ambivalence: when we breathe our last breath on this earth, do we merely replace one kind of existence with another? What happens to us when we die?
Not that these questions trouble the ‘great man’ Yeats mentions: he ‘knows death to the bone’ and knows that ‘Man has created death’ – that is, death is a man-made concept. Of course, Yeats is not denying that men die; what he is rejecting here is the notion that death or mortality is something we should dwell too much upon. An animal dies, just like a man; but an animal does not live its life governed by questions of what happens when it shuffles off this mortal coil, or what might await it after it’s breathed its last on this earth.
The ‘great man’ Yeats refers to in ‘Death’ is Kevin O’Higgins, an Irish politician who had been assassinated in 1927 (O’Higgins has overseen the execution of several IRA men, which had made him very unpopular among the IRA). But Yeats’s poem is not, of course, rigidly wedded to its political context, and makes a general point about man’s attitude to his own mortality. How can we forget that one day we will die?
About W. B. Yeats
William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) is one of the greatest of all Irish poets. His first collection, Crossways, appeared in 1889 when he was still in his mid-twenties, and his early poetry bore the clear influence of Romanticism. As his career developed and literary innovations came with modernism in the early decades of the twentieth century, Yeats’s work retained its focus on traditional verse forms and rhyme schemes, but he became more political, more allusive, and more elliptical.
His late work, such as his 1927 poem ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, about growing old, show a thoughtful and contemplative poet whose imagery and references defy easy exegesis (what exactly does the ancient city of Byzantium represent in this poem?). And yet, at the same time, there is a directness to his work which makes readers feel personally addressed, and situates his work always at one remove from more famous modernist poets (such as T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound).
Yeats died in 1939. Throughout much of his life, a woman named Maud Gonne was his muse. Yeats asked her to marry him several times, but she always refused. She knew she could be of more use to him as a muse than as a wife or lover. Yeats was in favour of Irish independence but, in poems such as ‘Easter 1916’ which respond to the Easter Rising, he reveals himself to be uneasy with the violent and drastic political and military methods adopted by many of his compatriots. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923.
Continue to explore the world of Yeats’s poetry with our analysis of his brilliant apocalyptic poem ‘The Second Coming’. The best edition of Yeats’s essential poetry (and some of his prose and dramatic works) is The Major Works including poems, plays, and critical prose (Oxford World’s Classics). It also has a very helpful introduction and copious notes. We’ve compiled more short poems about death here.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: W. B. Yeats by George Charles Beresford, 1911; Wikimedia Commons.