Death by W.B Yeats is a poem that explores the philosophy of death, and its effects on the human mind. Yeats is known to write about complex concepts, using even more complex metaphors.
Understanding the poem requires the readers to read it quite a few times. But you do not need to do that as we have done it already.
Let’s take a look at the poem first and then we’ll present a simplification and stanza-by-stanza analysis of the poem.
Death by W.B Yeats
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.
Simplification of the Poem
A dying animal is neither afraid nor hopeful
But man awaits the coming of death
With fear and hope
Many times man dies in these thoughts
Many times he survives as well
A great man with his pride
Confronts death without fear
He mocks death in the face
Because he knows death very well
He knows that man has created the idea of death
Meaning of the Poem ‘Death’ by W.B Yeats
After reading the simplified version of the poem, it must be clear that this is a very complex poem despite its short length.
Let’s look at the first part of the poem, which has six lines, and then at the rest of the six lines because each part talks about different ideas and concepts.
First Part: Of Death
The first part tells us about the difference in how animals and humans perceive death. Animals have no concept of death. They do not fear it, anticipate it, or hope that death would spare them.
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.
No animal awaits its death as a man does. An animal lives until one day it dies. Without any fear of death.
But man always has the hanging sword of death over his head. He fears it every day. This is the reason why Yeats says that man dies and rises many times.
There are many times when we think it might be the end of us, but then we survive. Most of the time the fear was unwarranted.
We die many times, we rise again many times. And this is the reason why there is fear and hope in man regarding death. He fears he will die, and hopes that he might rise.
Second Part: About a Person
The second part of the poem might have been very confusing to many people as it is about a person.
The man Yeats is talking about is Kevin O’Higgins. O’Higgins was an Irish politician who ordered the assassination of many members of the Irish Republican Army.
He was also the friend of W.B. Yeats. Yeats is saying that O’Higgins confronted these murderous men without fear of death. O’Higgins was assassinated by the IRA in 1927.
This poem was written and published in 1933, years after the assassination. The poet wanted to show that O’Higgins was not afraid to die. In fact, he mocked death.
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.
There are some interesting choices of words here. For example, Yeats calls death the “upon supersession of breath.” Supersession means the replacement, usually in political processes.
The use of this term is used to denote that death is merely a process that comes in place of breath or life. It is used to get rid of the idea of death as the Grim Reaper.
The poem ends with Yeats saying that the brave man with his pride is not afraid of death because he deals with it, and knows it very well. He knows that death is created by man.
The Philosophical Essence of the Poem
From what we can get and understand, this poem’s intentions were not to get muddied in the ditch of politics. ‘Death’ is a poem that explores the philosophy of death.
The poet says that death is a man-made concept and the fear of it comes from its anticipation. We think about death, and we hope that it does not come to us. This thought process is what makes us afraid of it.
Compare that to an animal that has not created or cannot create the concept of death. The animal dies just once. Man dies many times.
He then puts what a brave man with pride does with the idea of death; he laughs at the face of it. He mocks it. He knows that death is a creation of man, and one should not be afraid of it.
And that is the essence and theme of the poem.