Authors use literary works to ensure that readers experience and rethink preexisting ideas of the real world. The experiences are subjective, and death in most of these works is demonstrated differently. The existence of death in each piece may serve a different purpose, like evoking fear, creating curiosity, or providing closure. The theme of death goes hand in hand with loss and grief. William Shakespeare, John Donne, Emily Dickinson, and Maya Angelou have works with the theme of death, loss, and grief, and all characters in their work deal with emotions differently.
William Shakespeare’s Hamlet portrays grief from the beginning of the play. It strikes different characters in the play, and they all react differently to it. The death of Hamlet’s father affects him very severely. He acts bitterly towards Claudius, and his mother believes it is time for him to accept his father’s death and move on. Hamlet reveals to his mother how much his father meant to him, and that is why he continues to grieve. It becomes challenging for Hamlet to stop suffering as he does not get sympathy from anyone, not even his mother.
Hamlet is filled with intentions to kill King Claudius after his mother marries his uncle and fuels his disappointments. Hamlet says,”…would have mourned longer- married with my uncle, my father’s brother, but no more like my father than to Hercules: within a month: ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears had left the flushing in her galled eyes, she married. O, most wicked speed, to post with such dexterity to incestuous sheets.” (Shakespeare, 1.2.151-157). The intentions to kill Claudius are triggered by his insanity, making him continually ponder suicide and revenge. Hamlet uses the vengeance mission to give him hope of overcoming his father’s death. Later on in the play, Hamlet kills Polonius and does not show any grief, which indicates that his mind is lost such that it does not see grief as he has become obsessed with revenge.
John Donne loses his wife, embraces the grief he feels for her, and uses it to love God more. He, however, shows some regret in losing his wife but also portrays that he welcomes the loss because he can now concentrate on the most important things. In his poem, “Holy Sonnet,” he traces the love of his wife back to God, their creator, and seeks to be filled with God so that he can do a better job of loving him. He says, “here the admiring her my mind did whet to seek thee, God; so streams do show the head; but though I have found thee, and thou my first has fed, a holy thirsty dropsy melts me yet.” (Donne 17). Donne knows that his wife will die, and so will all other people, and he chooses to make the best out of the situation. He whistles hymns in the dark because an alternative way of grieving could be too unbearable.
Emily Dickinson uses the speaker in her poem “I measure every Grief I meet” to show similarities between other people’s grief with hers. The speaker in the poem suffers and feels too much pain due to the death of her loved ones, and she finds comfort by finding out that there is someone out there who suffers as she does. That thought makes her feel less lonely and helps her deal with grief more quickly. She says, “I find comfort in noticing what kinds of crosses people are bearing these days, and how they tend to bear them. And I’m still captivated by the thought that some of their sorrows resemble my own” (Dickinson 10). The speaker uses the idea of not suffering alone to remind her that grieving is part of life and can make people more aware of more profound pain or love. Additionally, the speaker implies that with time, grieving people may fake smiles to renew their happiness. We can conclude that it is challenging for the speaker to accept death and even move on despite how “old” the grief is.
In “When Great Trees Fall” by Maya Angelou, the speaker can relate to people who have felt the pain of losing someone. The speaker acknowledges that people feel despair and pain when they lose their loved ones. She also uses the hunkering down of lions to show how people react to death. In the first stanza, she says, “when great trees fall…and even elephant slumber after safety” (Angelou 1). She implies that death makes some people want to hide for safety or run away due to the fear caused by death and grief. The speaker uses time as a healing power for death. She says that after a period, “she can feel “peace bloom.” However, she also indicates that healing is a slow process, and she still encounters feelings of despair and anguish as healing continues. She accepts death and loss and admits that her senses are restored but are never the same again.
There is a notable similarity and difference between how the speakers in the above poems deal with death, loss, and grief. Hamlet is not ready to accept the death but is instead filled with vengeance, which he thinks will help him grieve his father. On the contrary, Donne accepts the death of his wife and uses it to better his relationship with God, implying that he positively perceives death and loss. Dickinson, however, suffers so much for the pain she experienced many years ago after losing a loved one, and she feels the urge to want to know if other people feel the same as she does. She finds comfort in finding that she is not alone in the grieving and painful process. Angelou accepts death and acknowledges that healing after losing someone is possible, and the healing process is slow but will restore a grieving person.
Angelou, Maya. “When Great Trees Fall.” 1987..
Dickinson, Emily. “I Measure Every Grief I Meet.” 1896.
Donne, John. “Holy Sonnet.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 6th ed., v.1. NewYork: W. W. Norton & Company, 1993. 1117.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Edited by G. R. Hibbard UP, 2008.