Death is the Greatest Blessing But Also the Greatest Tragedy (in Blackwater Woods, Nothing Gold Can Stay, Out, Out-)
Loss is something that is felt by everyone, but the way it is dealt with differs from person to person. Some people will spend time reminiscing over happy memories about what they lost, others will ignore the fact that someone is gone, and others will love and appreciate the person more when they are gone. The effects of death are represented throughout the poems, In Blackwater Woods written by Mary Oliver, Nothing Gold Can Stay written by Robert Frost, and Out, Out also written by Robert Frost. Each of these poems shine a different light upon death. They are all effective in their own way, but the most effective is Out, Out- because it portrays how someone can be alive and happy but in the next moment, they are gone.
Everyone has a personal way of expressing the misery they are forced to withstand. Most of the time, this sorrow is thrown unexpectedly into their path and is impossible to avoid. People who have lost someone or something very close to them often seem to be looking for something. In a way they can seem lost, but on the other hand they will seem like they have found something they have never known. This feeling of anscence is exhibited in Mary Oliver’s poem, In Blackwater Woods. From the beginning of the story readers can tell she is mourning the loss of something, in her case it is a forest. Oliver writes, “Everything I have ever learned in my lifetime leads back to this.” People are taught to love and appreciate others their whole lives, but what are they to do when what they love is gone? The truth is that there is nothing anyone can do when a loved one dies. Mary Oliver tells readers to, “Let it go.” Her approach to death seems more embracing than anything else.
The descriptions of the forest that is caught on fire do more than just depict it as burning. These descriptions such as, “rich fragrance of cinnamon and fulfillment” (Oliver), “cattails bursting and floating away over the blue shoulders” (Oliver), and “pillars of light” (Oliver), show how much she genuinely loved this forest. Readers can infer that the ‘forest’ Oliver discusses is not just a simple forest, but rather, a loved one that she has lost. Loss is something no single person could ever fully understand and she depicts this fact perfectly. The journey through life includes love, loss, and acceptance. People often love a lot of the things they come across in their lifetimes. They’re introduced to someone and learn to love them. As life goes on, they will lose the person, either from dying themselves or losing the person they love. When this occurs one of the people who are grieving will have to come to terms that they lost someone very important. This is acceptance and with acceptance, often comes peace of the mind and optimism.
Seeing the world in an optimistic light can change the way someone portrays beauty. Mary Oliver has an embracing tone throughout In Blackwater Woods, she appreciates whatever she has lost. Rather than feeling miserable about what she has lost, readers are shown that she was grateful that this ‘forest’ was a part of her life. As many people say, it is better to have something and cherish and love it rather than never having it at all. Mary Oliver is embracing the natural course of life, “Oliver’s visionary goal, then, involves constructing a subjectivity that does not depend on separation from a world of objects. Instead, she respectfully confers subject hood on nature, thereby modeling a kind of identity that does not depend on opposition for definition.” (McNew). The goal of this poem is to show that through the natural course of a forest fire, so many emotions can be brought into one person. People need to learn to love what they have, before it disappears and they have nothing.
There is a point in the poem when readers infer that it may not be as optimistic as it seemed at first glimpse. Mary Oliver seems to have almost no hope, “no matter what its name is, is nameless now.” Everyone lives and dies, and many people get forgotten. These forgotten souls become nameless beings; they are literally nothing. This moment relates to a moment that occurs in the poem Out, Out-, when Robert Frost writes, “Little — less — nothing!” It is very sad that people that communicate and love someone every single day can forget said person. When these people slowly get forgotten, they become nothing.
What makes In Blackwater Woods such an effective poem is this quote: “You must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the times come to let it go, to let it go” (Oliver). To love what is mortal means loving something that someone knows they could lose during any waking moment. A mortal is something that is alive and everything that is alive dies eventually. Maure Smith states, “Oliver gives her readers a glimpse at the salvation of life in this world, but she insists that we “must be able / to do three things’.” Death is inevitable and instead of being miserable that someone is gone, it is better for someone to embrace the fact that this person was ever involved in their life. After all, death is one of the chapters of life that everyone will experience eventually because it is inevitable.
Death is a perfectly normal part of nature, everything must endure the wrath of death. According to Jean Alford, “To Oliver, man’s inward struggles to be immortal through art, work, or love do not cancel mortal existence but rather create a fleeting sense of stay.” Oliver is accepting of death. She knows her place in the natural cycle of life and knows that death is inevitable. Death can be seen as a blessing because of how it teaches people to appreciate what they have, while they still have it.
Robert Frost’s approach to death is much like Mary Oliver’s in his poem, Nothing Gold Can Stay. It has an appreciative tone, but more importantly, the point Frost is trying to get across is that nothing can stay new or perfect forever. Everything that is wonderful will eventually change. Life is included in this, it is beautiful, but extremely short. This poem also embraces and encourages change. People should accept change, it is not a decrease in value. It is the door to a fuller life with greater light.
The leaf that Frost mentions in the beginning of the poem is a symbol for life. Robert C. Evans states, “In most plants, of course, leaves endure much longer than a mere hour, but Frost exaggerates to emphasize the undeniable point that change and decay cannot be stopped. Frost uses the older meaning of the verb subside when he states that ‘leaf subsides to leaf’ (l. 5), and once again the swiftness of the poem’s movement contributes to (and reinforces) its meaning.” When leaves start to show in the spring season they are perceived as gold. They are victims of time and before long, they are gone. These leave are a symbol for life. When babies are born they are new and fresh, just like the season of spring. As these babies grow into children, teenagers, and finally adults they fade into death because they are victims of time. Readers can infer that after a certain moment, the world may not seem perfect anymore. Frost writes, “So Eden sank to grief, so dawn goes down to day” [sic]. Eden, which is the Garden of Eden from the book of Genesis in the Bible is the perfect garden that God created for Adam and Eve to reside in. “Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground — trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food” (Genesis 2). Adam, Eve, and all of the rest of God’s beautiful creation could live in peace without any pain. If Eden is sinking down into grief that must mean the world is disparaged. The world is not perfect anymore. Nothing can stay perfect forever nor can anything stay new forever. This includes humans, people will age and soon after, they will die.
The fleeting beauty in the world are humans because beauty is fleeting, just like life. Beauty can be represented by two things in the poem, it can mean literally a “combination of qualities, such as shape, color, or form that pleases the aesthetic senses, especially the sight” (Merriam-Webster) or it can represent life. These beauties of life are being destroyed. People massacre one another on what seems to be a daily basis, destroying human innocence. People have become numb to the words of death and destruction. Through news outlets and videos it seems to becoming a more daily occurrence to see school shootings on the television screen.
More recently there was a video recorded by a New Zealand terrorist who killed Muslims live on Facebook while they were trying to worship. This perfectly depicts what Robert Frost is describing here, “So dawn goes down to day. Nothing gold can stay” (Frost). The man first seen in the video that was about to be murdered utters the words, “hello brother” (Jazeera), while staring down the shooter. He had everything to lose, but instead of reacting in anger or fear he greets the man like he would anyone, with a smile and a warm welcome. This exact moment is almost blissful amidst the chaos. The beauty in his words shows how people can be good in even the most frightening of situations. Humans are like gold but nothing stays gold forever, everything will be tarnished eventually.
Eden sinks down to grief in this horrific video. The people in that church were in a place of safety, “But only so an hour” (Frost) because what happens next is indescribable. The man with the gun proceeds to shoot and kill people in their most vulnerable form, while they are worshipping their God. Nothing good in the world can ever stay and it is because of the people themselves. Taking everything good or ‘gold’ from the world and ruining it. Frost’s poem is effective because while the poem is very short, it gets an extremely large point across: Life is fleeting, just like the beauty of brand new spring leaves on a tree.
The poem, Out, Out- that is also written by Robert Frost relates to Nothing Gold Can Stay because they both have themes revolving around the fact that life is short. Out, Out- takes a slightly different approach to this concept. Robert Frost implies that someone can be here one second and be gone the next. No one is capable of knowing when another person will die, and that is why people are often scared of the thought of death. They also fear death because most people fear the unknown. It is impossible to know what happens after someone dies; no one knows where their soul goes. Religious people may feel a type of relief when a loved one dies. They know that their loved one went to heaven, or some type of afterlife.
People are often so caught up in their own lives that when someone dies, it quickly becomes unimportant to them. Susan S. Adams infers, “readers are given the family’s reaction — first shock; then a realistic acceptance of death,…Life on the farm must go on. Now that the boy is dead, there is “No more to build on there”; they return to their daily chores, building what they can and living their own lives.” The boy’s family immediately returns to their work, “And they, since they were not the one dead, turned to their affairs” (Frost). The only problem with this line is that readers cannot tell whether or not the family members and friends of this boy actually cared about his death. But what else were they supposed to do except move on with their lives? They cannot bring him back to life and they should not be obsessing over the fact that he is gone. They have to move on with their lives even though it will be hard.
The truth is that there is nothing to do but move on when someone dies. Life will go on, it does not matter if someone is living or dead, “Little — less — nothing!” (Frost). Little by little, this person will mean less and less in everyday life. The exact color of their eyes will fade, the sound of their voice will fade, and the image of the dimples in their cheeks when they smile will fade. This will continue and less and less of this person will be remembered until they are forgotten and nothing is left of them, not even a memory. They go from everything, to a little, to less, and then finally to nothing.
When discussing the incident that occurs in Out, Out- Deirdre Fagan states, “It was all in the timing. There is a sense that the slightest change in the day’s events would have changed everything.” The boy was using a saw to chop wood and his hand slipped and he cut into his arm near his hand. Everything is about timing. While timing is just a concept created by the human mind, people would not even be alive if it were not for timing. Others would still be alive if not for timing. If the boy in the poem was given a break from his farm work, it is likely the boy would have never chopped off his hand or died. This is why timing is so extremely important in life. Timing can decide whether or not two people meet, if they get married, if one of them dies, if one of them gets into school, or gets a certain job. Timing is everything and it does not stop.
The topic of timing can be seen as irrelevant, considering it is a manmade concept. But something that is a physical object, rather than a concept, is a candle. Candles can be blown out, but a candle can also be used as a metaphor for life. When someone dies, this is God blowing out their candle. Robert C. Evans writes, “The title alludes to lines from Shakespeare’s Macbeth and thus foreshadows the work’s emphasis on the fleeting nature of human existence. In this case, that existence is especially fleeting, since the victim of accidental death is only a boy.” Throughout Out, Out- it is implied that life is similar to a candle; it is a brief candle that can be easily snuffed out. Anyone’s life can end in a second because it takes the simplest of things for someone to die. This poem is the most effective in portraying death because it shows how even by doing the most simple of tasks, something can go wrong and will change life forever.
It is also most effective because it portrays how tragedy is constantly around us but no one seems to genuinely care. There are many problems around the world that are going on right now. There are people who are starving or dying of thirst in Africa right now. There are mass shootings happening in schools multiple times a month. Homeless and hungry Veterans flood the streets of cities. Thousands of refugees from war stricken countries. Wars rage in the Middle East with no end of conflict in sight. Michigan is still facing a contaminated water crisis, and the opioid epidemic is appearing to grow larger everyday (McCarthy). The world is crumbling, and no one is batting an eye. People are so busy letting the social media become their real world that they are ignoring those who are in need of actual help. It is possible that people choose to ignore these things because the beauty of the soul cannot comprehend the evils of the world.
Though all of these poets know that death is inevitable, it is still felt in many different ways and portrayed effectively through the art of poetry. Death can be seen as something beautiful that teaches people to embrace and appreciate life like in the poem, In Blackwater Woods. Death can be a tool that teaches that while life is beautiful, it is very short, such as in the poem, Nothing Gold Can Stay. The most effective lesson taught about death is within the poem, Out, Out-. It is that life can be taken away at any moment, even while doing the simplest of everyday tasks. People take advantage of the fact that they have so many healthy living individuals in their lives. It is not often that they imagine what life would be like without them. Life is the most beautiful thing, but it is nothing if no one appreciates it and the only way to fully appreciate life is if loss through death is experienced.
- Adams, Susan S. Out, Out —. Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition, Jan. 2002, pp. 1–3.
- Alford, Jean B. The Poetry of Mary Oliver: Modern Renewal Through Mortal Acceptance. Contemporary Literary Criticism, edited by Deborah A. Stanley, vol. 98, Gale, 1997.
- Al Jazeera. Hello, Brother: Muslim Worshipper’s ‘Last Words’ to Gunman. New Zealand News | Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 16 Mar. 2019 “Beautiful.” Collegiate Dictionary. Merriam-Webster, 2016.
- Evans, Robert C. Nothing Gold Can Stay. Student’s Encyclopedia of Great American Writers, Volume 3, Facts On File, 2010.
- Evans, Robert C. Out, Out—. Student’s Encyclopedia of Great American Writers, Volume 3, Facts On File, 2010.
- Fagan, Deirdre. Out, Out—. Critical Companion to Robert Frost, Facts On File, 2007.
- Frost, Robert. Nothing Gold Can Stay. The Yale Review, October, 1923.
- Frost, Robert. Out, Out-. Mountain Interval, 1916.
- McCarthy, Joe, and Olivia Kestin Kestin. 11 Ongoing Tragedies That the World Has Forgotten But We All Need to Remember. Global Citizen, 30 Aug. 2017.
- McNew, Janet. Mary Oliver and the Tradition of Romantic Nature Poetry. Poetry Criticism, edited by Michelle Lee, vol. 75, Gale, 2007. Originally published in Contemporary Literature, vol. 30, no. 1, Spring 1989, pp. 59-77.
- Oliver, Mary. In Blackwater Woods. American Primitive. Back Bay Books, 1983.
- Smith, Maure. In Blackwater Woods. Student’s Encyclopedia of Great American Writers, Volume 5, Facts On File, 2010.
- The Bible. Genesis chapter 2 verse 8-9. Authorized King James Version, Oxford UP, 1998.
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