comparing when death comes by mary oliver to an athlete dying young by a e housman and a rose for emily by william faulkner

Comparing When Death Comes by Mary Oliver, To an Athlete Dying Young by A.E. Housman and A Rose for Emily by William Faulkner


            Death for people has different meanings; some think that death is the end of everything, the end of their life and other might say that death is the beginning of a new adventure.

Some religions see death as another opportunity to live another life with a clean slate. Hinduism believes in reincarnation or the cycle of being born again after dying; a person can be reincarnated into an insect if he/she has lived his/her life with evil; the person will be reincarnated depending on the karma the person receives when he/she is living his/her current life.

Everyone is subjected to death and dying; no one can escape death. Everyone will have to face death one day and whatever people’s perspective might be about death, they cannot escape it. So, if a person plans to live his life, he/she must seize the day and look at the bright side of things, instead of wasting all efforts on things that will not even matter in the end.

Analysis of the three literary works

            The poems of Oliver and Housman and the short story of Faulkner have all tackled death in different situations.

Mary Oliver has authored many books, all of them containing poetries and prose. One of her most known poems is When Death Comes. Mary Oliver became popular when she won the Pulitzer Prize for her literary work, The Journey. When Death Comes is a poem that tells its readers that death may come “like the hungry bear in autumn” (Oliver line #2 1270), death will come by surprise, but unlike other people who would rather spend time knowing when or what may come after death, Oliver celebrates the mystery of death and how mysterious death is to everyone.

            Among the poems of Alfred Edward Housman, the most famous is about an athlete who died at the peak of his career in poetry. Housman wrote that it was better to die after one has done something important than to die old with a forgotten glory; when a person dies after being known for something, he/she is subjected to the fame he/she received; people will still remember what that person did and will still glorify him/her after death. But when a person dies old, his/her contributions to society are forgotten, his/her fame is gone, and people will most likely just ignore that person’s death or ask who he/she is. The poem To an Athlete Dying Young has been quoted in television and in movies over a dozen times and it is still quoted up to this day.

            William Faulkner has been known for his gothic literature. His short story entitled A Rose for Emily is famous for being dark and hunting. Faulkner created his short story with an edge; the narrators were the townsmen themselves, making the issue of Emily a town case. Faulkner used the townsmen to tell the story of Emily to create mystery because there is a chance that the townsmen might be exaggerating what happened in the Grierson household. The only person who knew what happened in the house of the Grierson was their servant, Toby. But because Toby’s voice was not used regularly, it was rusty. The case of Emily shocked the town of Jefferson; it involved death, murder and possibly necrophilia. Despite its gruesome theme, people and the townsmen of Jefferson were still drawn by the mystery of Emily.

Comparison of the literary works

Opinions of death in the literature

            People have all sorts of opinion about death and the literary works to be compared also have their own opinion about death. In the work of Mary Oliver, William Faulkner and A.E. Housman, they have also given a slight description of death.

            For the poem of Mary Oliver, she has written that death may come and one would not even know it until it hits that person. In the literature When Death Comes, the poetry is saying that death may come at an instant, even if the person was not expecting it or even if the person is still expecting more out of life, it can come and take that person’s life, “like the hungry bear in autumn” (Oliver line #2 1270) and “takes all the bright coins from his purse/to buy me, and snaps the purse shut” (Oliver line #s 3-4 1271).

            The poetry of A.E. Housman was about an athlete who died young. Housman said that if a person would die, it is better for him/her to die while he/she still has all glory, “And silence sounds no worse than cheers” (Housman line #15 105). In To an Athlete Dying Young, the athlete need not worry because when he died, the people still remember his glory; they were all carrying his coffin in their shoulders, cheering upon him, and his family could see that people appreciated his effort and his existence, “And home we brought you shoulder-high” (Housman line #4 105).

            Death may indeed come like a hungry bear and people may appreciate what one has done more when he/she dies young. But in the short story of William Faulkner, he implied that not all people can handle death, most especially if the person is close to someone. The short story A Rose for Emily did not accept a father’s death at an instant; Emily kept the corps in their home for three days, acting like nothing happened before finally breaking down and deciding to bring his father to the grave, “She told them that her father was not dead” (Faulkner 396).

            People have different ways of facing death. In the poem of Oliver, she has decided that since death cannot be determined by anything and anyone, it is better to do everything she wants to do so that when death comes, she would feel bad about the things she could have done. In the poem of A.E. Housman entitled To an Athlete Dying Young, he has introduced a new perspective for the dying athlete to face death; he told him not to worry about his death because it will be a meaningful death. People will remember him and cherish the moments when he was still alive. In the short story of William Faulkner entitled A Rose for Emily, he has shown that some people cannot accept death no matter what. People cannot accept death and they refuse to let death take their loved ones like what happened with Emily when his father died.

Significance of death in the literature

            In the poetry of Mary Oliver, she said that death was a common music. People live their lives the way they wanted to live, but in the end, it all leads to silence, to death “and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,/ tending, as all music does, toward silence” (Oliver line #s17-18 1271). And at the end of her life, she does not want to have any regrets; she wants to live her life fully the way she wants to live, not hesitating about anything; she does not want regrets, thinking what she could have done when she was alive, “I don’t want to find myself signing and frightened,/ or full of argument” (Oliver line #s 26-27 1271).

            The poetry of Housman, on the other hand, suggested something similar with Oliver’s: it was better for the athlete to die young because he will not be outlived by his name. Like in the poetry of Oliver, the athlete will have no regret; he has reached the peak and he would not be alive when other people manages to outlive his name, “Runners whom renown outran/ And the name died before the man” (Housman line #s 19-20 105). If the athlete is dead, the younger athletes can no longer outrun him and if they did, people will just think that they would not have a chance if the dead athlete was alive to defend his glory.

            In the story of A Rose for Emily, Faulkner stated the opposite of what Oliver and Housman were saying. Instead of living their lives and accepting change so that when they die, they have lived the life they wanted, Emily did the opposite; she embraced the past life and refused to accept the changes that were happening in her life. She refused to accept that her father was dead and that her lover Homer did not want her anymore.

            In the short story of Faulkner, Emily would rather live with a lie than face the death and resentment of his lover to her. She did not want to face the truth about what happened to the person close to her; she did not want change in her life. When her father died, she acted as if he was still alive, and when Homer Baron did not want to marry her, there was an indication that she killed him, the corps of Homer Baron was even seen at her home when, after the townsmen entered her home, “The man himself lay in the bed” (Faulkner 400). There were also indication that Emily slept with the corps of Homer Baron because there was an indented pillow and a gray hair on the pillow beside Homer Baron’s corps, “we noticed that in the second pillow was the indentation of a head… we saw a long strand of iron-gray hair” (Faulkner 402).


            Most people cannot accept the changes that are happening in their live. Some would rather be an Emily, who refuses to accept the changes; some would rather be like the poem of Oliver, seizing the day and accepting changes so that when death comes, they will have no regrets about what they could have done in certain situations; and some would rather look at the bright side like in the poem of Housman. Even if the athlete died, he has lived and died longer than his name, his glory will be preserved and his legacy will outlive him.

Works Cited

Oliver, Mary. ‘When Death Comes’. In The Wadsworth Anthology of Poetry. Boston, MA: Thomson Higher Education. 2006. Print.

Housman, Alfred Edward. ‘To an Athlete Dying Young’. In 101 Best-Loved Poems. Toronto, Ontario: Dover Publication, Inc. 1995. Print.

Faulkner, William. ‘A Rose for Emily’. In The Portable Faulkner. New York, New York: Penguin Books. 1977. Print

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