DEATH, IMPERMANENCE AND ACCEPTANCE: A LITERARY THEME COMPARISON
By Myranda Grecinger
Throughout history we have seen evidence of man’s obsession with mortality. The idea that everything has an end has been considered time and time again. In an effort to understand the unknown humans often come up with stories and poetry that give them an explanation they can grasp. The problem with this way of dealing with impermanence is that it often shows just how insecure and un-accepting of these unavoidable changes we can be. Literature often has the ability to show just how vulnerable humans can be and yet somehow managing to find elegant, beautiful and dignified ways to show it. Three examples of these written master pieces are “I Used To Live Here Once,” by Jean Rhys (1976), “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” by Dylan Thomas (1951) and “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” by Robert Frost (1923), all of which can be found in the online course book from Ashford University, “Journey Into Literature” by R. W. Clugston, (2010) although they each may have individual elements that differ from the others, the theme remains the same, Death, impermanence and how it is dealt with.
Theme is defined by Webster’s dictionary online as “a unifying idea that is a recurrent element in literary or artistic work” (Webster’s, 2011). Each of the three literary works listed above basically describe life cycles and human behavior in its’ gravest sense, this is a shared recurring and unifying idea. The authors have them do so using very symbolic language or symbolism. According to Webster’s dictionary, symbolism is “the representation of a concept through symbols or underlying meanings of objects or qualities” (Webster’s, 2011). Literary devices such as imagery, similes, and metaphors assist the reader in experiencing what is being said rather than just reading it. Also each of these pieces incorporate the usage of rhythm, making the readers experience more intense and giving it a set tone right away. These shared elements tell us that the writers were trying to convey something in a certain manner and they guided the reader’s interpretation a bit through the use of such tools.
In the poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay”, Robert Frost (1923) makes great usage of symbolic language by describing the cycle of the trees. He begins by pointing out that before there is green on the trees in spring, there is yellow, or as he says “gold”, in this way he is giving the visual of something not only bright and beautiful, but also valuable and spectacular. (Ferguson, 1973) The magnificence in the color is also described as the “hardest hue to hold” (Frost, 1923); by saying this he tells us that this phase will not last. Within the first two lines of this poem Frost tells us without coming right out and saying it that this poem is about change, or perhaps more accurately, how things do not stay the same. He also tells us that “her early leaf is a flower”, (Frost, 1923) describing the stage before the leaf is fully open and formed but also at the same time comparing a simple leaf to the beauty of a flower and the tree its’ self to a woman. Personification is a literary term that describes the attribution of some human characteristics to a non-human thing (Webster’s, 2011). The personification of the tree its’ self being a woman changes the meaning behind the poems entirety, everything takes on new meaning. The gold meaning value is perhaps referring to the value of a new life or pregnancy, the flower is possibly a birth, if that is true then we consider the next line “but only so an hour” (Frost, 1923) to be a reference to how short life is. The next two lines in this poem would then be a reference to death and grief. The final line in this poem, its’ namesake, “Nothing Gold Can Stay” (Frost, 1923) is a summing up of the poem them, life is not meant to last forever.
Although this poem is very short, the explanation of life and death is there and undeniable. The author, in this case chooses not only to discuss life and death, but to in a way, embrace it. Frost showed the life cycle, even the grieving after death as somewhat of a thing of beauty. This poem gives recognition to the idea that death is a part of life, that whether or not it is accepted, it is going to happen because life does not last forever (Bagby, 1993). Though possibly a bit morbid, this poem is a positive outlook on dealing with death from an omniscient third person point of view. While this poem takes a very detached but detailed description of the reality of these events the effect is quite an intense description leading to an almost reassuring truth for the reader, but other written works take a far different approach.
“Do Not Go Down Into That Good Night,” by Dylan Thomas (1957) is a poem that uses heavy amounts of symbolism to address the point of death and impermanence. The author chooses a far different path in heavy contrast with Robert Frost’s poem to reach that theme. The poem is shown from a noticeably opposing omniscient third person point of view that changes to first person in the final stanza.
Throughout the poem repeated references are made about the night and the light. By using the words “the night” (Thomas, 1957) as a synonym for death the author is comparing death to something dark, mysterious, dangerous or even evil. He seems to give the act of dying a negative connotation immediately. Likewise, by using the words “the light” (Thomas, 1957) to represent not only life, but apparently what he considers to be truly living, or a fulfilled life, the author helps the reader to see the intense contrast he feels for living and dying and to feel his anger against the latter.
The author appears not only to encourage others to “rage against the dying of the light” but to also almost despise and certainly have very little compassion for those who do not. In the final stanza of the poem the reader becomes aware that this poem is directed towards the narrator’s father who is apparently on his deathbed and we then get the picture that this literary piece was written not necessarily to assist others but more as a way, perhaps, for Thomas himself to come to grips with his own father’s passing.
Death is often difficult for many people to accept and they often turn to varying methods of creativity when working through grief. It is in our nature as human beings to try to make sense of things and this was apparently Thomas’ way of doing that. Fighting against death or the natural order of things is in essence fighting against change, and that is never a successful fight in the end, it is inevitable. Perhaps the timing is a more accurate description of what the author wished his father would rage against, yet once again, the point comes back to the narrator himself who wished to fight against his father’s impending mortality and had little to do with his father’s needs or desires at all, but his inability to accept that this change would take place before he was ready for it, though it is doubtful this is a situation that one can truly prepare for, we always know it is going to happen eventually, but we try not to face the idea of an end.
In complete contrast to Frost’s poem, Thomas’ poem displays a seeming inability to detach. Even the fixed form of this poem, Villanelle, (Types-of-poetry, 2005) a nineteen line poem in which every other line rhymes, shows such a need to hold on and regain some control. It is the glimpse into the unknown that causes death and the ever changing nature of the world to create such a need for some to find some sort of manageable pattern or fight for just a little more time to prepare, of course it is this unknown that some authors choose to face head on and come up with an explanation that makes sense to them, “I used to live here once”’ by Jean Rhys (1976) is one such literary example.
In this short story, Jean Rhys describes the journey of a girl across a river and down a familiar path that leads to a house with children playing in the yard where the girl apparently used to live, in the end many clues add up to make the girl and the reader aware that she is dead. The majority of the clues in this story are symbolic in nature. The first thing that the reader is told is that the girl is standing at a river looking at the stones and that she remembers every one, then after a detailed description of each stone suddenly the girl is standing on the other side. In many literary pieces as well in regular conversation dying is referred to as “crossing over” in much the same way as making tough decision is often referred to as “standing at a cross road”. Although it is very possible at the beginning of the story that the girl is simply crossing a river, the fact that she never actually does cross the river and is suddenly standing on the other side allows the reader to contemplate the idea that there may be more going on than is being discussed at face value.
The story continues on giving several context clues all involving symbolism. The author describes the sky as “glassy” (Rhys, 1976), glass is another popular metaphoric reference, usually related to reflection or used to show how fragile things are. In this case, perhaps the author is establishing an early connection to the fact that the girl’s reality is askew and that this is simply a reflection of a former existence. It is also possible that she was referring to the fragile nature of human life. In any case, it is immediately clear how important this symbol is by the way that the author mentions it twice.
Later in the story Rhys explains that things are not quite the same as the girl remembers; letting the reader experience the fact that things have changed through the use of imagery. As the girl goes along down the path (which could, incidentally, be symbolic of a spiritual journey) she begins to realize that things are different such as new road construction and a particular pine tree being gone. There are many remarks in this piece regarding natural elements, we see recurring undertone in many written works containing themes related to death and change such as the poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay” by Robert Frost (1923). Each of the changes in this story bring along the realization that over time things will change. The girl in the story does not seem to mind the unfamiliar things; however, she does seem a bit perplexed by these changes which let us know that she has been away.
The story ends with the girl calling out to some children playing in the yard who seem to ignore her. When she reaches out to touch them and they only respond by discussing with each other how cold it has become. Rhys ends the story with the line “That was the first time she knew” (Rhys, 1976). From this line all over the symbolism in the story is brought together and the reader’s suspicions are confirmed, this is a story about coming to grips with what happens after death. Unlike Dylan Thomas’ poem “Do Not Go Down Into That Good Night” (Thomas, 1957) this poem seems to address the acceptance of the person who has died rather than the survivors, but they are similar in that both written works contain themes that include not only death and impermanence, but also acceptance.
Each of these authors wrote extremely different pieces, however, each of these pieces share many important components. The themes in each of these literary works include death, impermanence, and acceptance. Another similarity between these three pieces is that each of them used symbolism to assist the reader in grasping the theme in a much more complete manor. With the aid of the symbolism the author is able to not only tell about the emotions and thoughts of the characters, but helped the reader experience them and visualize what it was like to be there. The use of naturalistic references was shared between the short story by Jean Rhys and the poem by Robert Frost to illustrate change, and because nature is always changing, this was a valuable symbol in representation of the passing of time. The form of each of these stories is also important because each of these authors used the formation to help get their points across, and although each of them were making a different point and each used a different form, the use of form as a literary aid is still a similarity between the pieces.
Although they all shared a similar theme and despite the fact that they all used symbolism and form to aid the descriptions that lead to these themes, there were also many differences between each of these pieces. The words and symbols that were used in each of these stories were very different, for instance a tree to represent life or possibly a woman in Frost’s poem, light to represent life in Dylan Thomas’ poem and the children playing to represent life in Jean Rhys’ short story, but the end result is the same, we have a strong symbol that leads us to the idea of life. The shared theme also has some major underlying differences in each piece, such as the fact that in Thomas’ poem the issue is non-acceptance in those dealing with change and death, in Frost’s poem it has more to do with a detached notion of the cyclic nature of life and death than any form of acceptance, and in Rhys’ short story the theme has more to do with the acceptance and realization of the person who died.
The similarities and differences between each of these pieces are very clear and intense making them great whether told together or separately. The tone in each one differs so greatly from the others that they probably would not sound right when told one after the other. It was not difficult feat to compare these literary pieces, each one is easy to appreciate on its’ own merit and as part of this grouping.
Frost, Robert (1923) Nothing Gold Can Stay.
Rhys, Jean (1976) I Used To Live Here Once.
Thomas, Dylan (1951) Do Not Go Down Into That Good Night.
Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary. (1998, February 22). Webster's Online Dictionary with Multilingual Thesaurus Translation Retrieved April 9, 2011, from
Examples of Poetry and Structure of Poetry (2005, October) Retrieved April 8, 2011, from
Ferguson, A. R. (1973, Fall). Frost and the Paradox of the Fortunate Fall: Frost Centennial Essays. University Press of Mississippi
Bagby, G. F. (1993, Fall). Frost and the Book of Nature. University of Tennessee Press
An Important Note From The Author
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Thank you for your cooperation. Myranda Grecinger