Poetry Sunday: When Death Comes by Mary Oliver

We lost Mary Oliver last week. She died at the age of 83. She was a prize-winning poet who wrote of the natural world, and she was one of the most popular of modern poets. Her poetry is very accessible and that is not a bad thing. 

This is actually one of her most famous poems and it could serve as a summation of her life. At the end of that life she could well and truly say that she did not "end up simply having visited this world."

When Death Comes
by Mary Oliver
When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;
when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.
When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom; taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

Comments

  1. I was introduced to Mary Oliver by the sister of my daughter-in-law. In fact,it was her collection A Thousand Mornings that brought me back to reading poetry. I prefer to think of my death this way. In which collection can this poem be found? Thank you for posting it.

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    Replies
    1. I believe it is from the book that is simply titled New and Selected Poems, but I don't own it and I'm not absolutely certain. Someone correct me if I'm wrong.

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    2. Thanks. I just decided to print out a copy from your blog for myself. It is not that I spend a lot of time thinking about dying, except when someone I know or know of dies. But I know it is coming and her words are wise and helpful.

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  2. How lovely! I like the first two verses:
    "When death comes
    like the hungry bear in autumn..."

    Now that's a powerful literary image! :-)

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    Replies
    1. She was known for providing powerful images from Nature in her poems.

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  3. I would like to reprint this lovely poem in my literary and art journal, Artemis Journal, which is a non-profit small press. Do I need permission from her estate? I would also like to dedicate the journal to her.
    Thank you for your advice,
    Jeri Rogers
    Editor and founder
    Artemis Journal
    www.artemisjournal.org

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    Replies
    1. Her poems are under copyright. In fact, I'm probably erring by quoting her here, although I'm in good company with many sites online within the past week. Her passing is a great loss to the world of poetry. You might consult the Poetry Foundation: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/mary-oliver. Perhaps you can find the answer to your questions there.

      Incidentally, thanks for bringing your journal to my attention.

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