Death, men say, is like a sea
That engulfs mortality,
Treacherous, dreadful, blindingly
—-Full of storm and terror.
Death is like the deep, warm sand
Pleasant when we come to land,
Covering up with tender hand
—-The wave’s drifted error.
Life’s a tortured, booming gurge
Winds of passion strike and urge,
And transmute to broken surge
—-Foam-crests of ambition.
Death’s a couch of golden ground,
Warm, soft, permeable mound,
Where from even memory’s sound
—-We shall have remission.
In the poem “Death, men say, is like a sea,” Michael Field contests the conventional notion of death as the dangerous and dreadful entity to humanity. Grounding life and death alternately in the symbiotic imagery of the sea and its shore, of a body of water and the sand, Field argues that the force of life is more congruous with the conventional notion of death than we think, that death and life converge and reconcile, and that death is, in fact, a safe and final haven. Subsequently, the poem contends, as the writer Hanya Yanagihara would put it, that life is only bearable because it is going to end soon.
There are four stanzas in the poem: three concerning death and one life. Let’s set it up like this: death 1 + death 2 + life 1 + death 2.1 respectively. As the numbers suggest, the kinds of death and life vary, overlap, and evolve.
The first stanza offers the common perception of death, comparing it to the sea, a body of water that is limitless and highly drownable; it is well capable of extinguishing mortality, most notably that of humans. Men depict and conceive death as something negative and defeatist, something to be dreaded like “storm” and “terror.” Death is then described with two adjectives, “treacherous” and “dreadful,” but also with an adverb, “blindingly;” juxtaposing different parts of speech to describe death, Field signifies the inconsistency in the nature of death (death 1) established by men. The rhyme in the first three lines of the first stanza also distinguishes itself from the other stanzas: for we have “sea,” “mortality,” and “blindingly” appearing less visually coherent from the other perfect rhymes: Stanza 2: “sand,” “land,” and “hand” | Stanza 3: “gurge,” “urge,” “surge” | Stanza 4: “ground,” “mound,” “sound.” Already, Field sets the typical perception of death apart from the rest of the poem; death is in fact not what “men say” it is.
The second stanza then offers another perception of death (death 2). In lieu of a dangerous body of water, now, death is the shore, the “deep, warm sand.” Death has metamorphorized from the indeterminate and volatile form of water into the solid and secure form of sand. It is no longer dreadful but something to look forward to: a safe and final shore, that is again a “deep, warm,” and “tender” entity, which will cover the wave’s “drifted error”; Field draws attention again to the erroneous nature of death 1 grounded in the image of water, which is then reconciled by death 2, since the shore of sand and the sea of water are not antithetical from each other; they constantly converge and integrate into each other (sand absorbs seawater; waves erode and carry sand into the sea).
In the third stanza, finally, “life” appears among its death companions. Life, as depicted here, however, is not distinct from death but in fact quite congruous with how death is perceived in stanza one. Life is “tortur[ous]” with the violence of windy passion; life is “a booming gurge,” a whirlpool of turbulent water in constant collision with the winds. The top of the waves are the “foam-crests,” a high point of water where human “passion” and “ambition” meet and fall, and “transmute” into into “broken surge,” into erroneous waves; life 1 becomes on par with death 1. Field puts forth that how men often perceive death (“treacherous” and “dreadful”) is in fact how life itself is. And since death 2 reconciles with death 1, it also reconciles with life 1 as sea and shore, water and sand converge. Life and death are closer than ever.
If in the first two stanzas the perception of death is mediated by simile: “death… is like”; in the latter two, the entities of life and death assume a more direct nature of being, contracted and assertive: “Life’s” and “Death’s” (bold mine). In the last stanza, death has fully evolved and become a true comfort and a safe haven (death 2.1): “a couch of golden ground,” materially and majestically hued. Death is the ultimate place where you are offered respite from “memory’s sound,” from your burdensome weight of living, from the “torture” and the violence of “passion” and “ambition,” from mortality. You have found “remission,” the release from obligation and pain, the forgiveness of sins. Humanity can find refuge in this place that is death; the world stops calling to you–finally–just as the last line of every stanza retreats from the rest, just as you can in death.
Work Consulted: https://www.interviewmagazine.com/culture/hanya-yanagihara-x-adam-leith-gollner