The best short poems about death selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Love and death are perhaps the two most popular and perennial subjects for poetry, and many poets have attempted to put our thoughts about mortality into words that burn, in Thomas Gray’s memorable phrase. So choosing just ten definitive poems about death is going to prove tricky. We’ve attempted to make the task a little easier in this post by limiting ourselves to very short poems – none of the ten poems that follow is longer than ten lines, and many are somewhat shorter. We hope you enjoy this pick of the greatest short poems about death.
1. Anonymous, ‘Whan the turuf is thy tour’.
This medieval poem is a memento mori lyric reminding the listener or reader that s/he will die. The title, ‘Whan the turuf is thy tour’, translates into modern English as ‘when the turf is your tower’. When the grass lies over you, your skin and white throat shall (‘Shullen’) be good for worms.
What use then are all the world’s pleasures? We’re guessing this was an early seduction lyric addressed to a woman (‘thy whitë throtë’): the poet is basically trying to persuade the woman to go to bed with him (or so we reckon), before her beauty fades and both she and her would-be lover are in the ground.
2. Anonymous, ‘Inscription in St Mary Magdalene Church, Milk Street, London’.
Included in the wonderfully expansive Penguin Book of English Verse, this short inscription about mortality runs, in full:
Grass of levity,
Span in brevity,
Fire of misery,
A fine example of the memento mori, literally set in stone in one of London’s churches.
3. Sir Henry Wotton, ‘Upon the Death of Sir Albert Morton’s Wife’.
Sir Henry Wotton (1568-1639) is not much read now, but he left behind this lovely little couplet, which we reproduce below:
He first deceased; she for a little tried
To live without him; liked it not, and died.
Written in 1853 and published in 1884, this little poem contains many of the features and themes we find in Rossetti’s poem elsewhere: mourning, death, remembering, love.
Unmindful of the roses,
Unmindful of the thorn,
A reaper tired reposes
Among his gathered corn:
So might I, till the morn!
Cold as the cold Decembers,
Past as the days that set,
While only one remembers
And all the rest forget, –
But one remembers yet.
5. Emily Dickinson, ‘The Bustle in a House’.
No list of the best short poems about death would be complete without something from Emily Dickinson, who was much possessed by death. This one is a short eight-line poem about what happens after a death, and how those who are left behind carry on. We detect a faint pun on ‘mourning’ in the referencing to the ‘Morning after Death’ in the poem’s second line, though another parallel might, surprisingly, be Philip Larkin’s ‘The Mower’: ‘The first day after a death, the new absence / Is always the same’.
6. Housman, ‘An Epitaph’.
Few English poets have treated death so consistently movingly as A. E. Housman. This six-line poem sees death as a release from life’s hardships, another continual theme in Housman’s poetry:
Stay, if you list, O passer by the way;
Yet night approaches; better not to stay.
I never sigh, nor flush, nor knit the brow,
Nor grieve to think how ill God made me, now.
Here, with one balm for many fevers found,
Whole of an ancient evil, I sleep sound.
7. W. B. Yeats, ‘Death’.
In this very short death poem, simply called ‘Death’, Yeats compares man’s awareness that he will die with an animal’s lack of awareness of its own mortality: 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).
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.
This four-line elegy for the men who had died during the early stages of the First World War is one of Thomas’s best poems, extremely poignant in its use of plain language to convey the deaths of those who will never see another springtime.
9. Adelaide Crapsey, ‘Moon-Shadows’.
Crapsey (1878-1914) is not much remembered now, but she left one important poetic legacy: the cinquain, or five-line unrhymed stanza form, modelled on the Japanese haiku. A number of her cinquains touch upon death – she herself died of tuberculosis in her mid-thirties – and ‘Moon-Shadows’ is one of the finest.
On windless nights
The moon-cast shadows are,
So still will be my heart when I
10. Philip Larkin, ‘Going’.
Philip Larkin never learned, in Sigmund Freud’s memorable phrase about King Lear, to make friends with the necessity of dying. ‘Going’ is an early example of Larkin’s mature engagement with the terrifying realisation that death will come for us all. In ten unrhymed lines, ‘Going’ explores death without ever mentioning it by name, instead referring to it, slightly elliptically, as ‘an evening’ that is ‘coming in’. Larkin uses the metaphor of the coming evening – an evening which ‘lights no lamps’ because there is no hope of staving off this darkness, the darkness of death.
Discover more classic poetry with these poems about birthdays, these sacred and religious poems, these poems about animals, and these poems about work. For a good poetry book, we recommend The Oxford Book of English Verse – perhaps the best poetry anthology on the market.
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.