When Death Comes

Oliver, Mary

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poem

Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.
  • Date of entry: Apr-23-2001


When Death Comes is a blank verse poem that proclaims the poet's manifesto for life. In defining the moment of death for herself, she is defining how she wants to have lived her life up to that point.


The poet's chosen modus vivendi is that of Socrates: the unexamined life is not worth living: "When it's over, I want to say: all my life / I was a bride married to amazement. / I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms." This poem is more an exuberant declaration of the wonderment to be discovered in the natural world than in the religious experience of the Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross, who uses much the same language. Both poets share the belief that the spiritual is inherent in everything around us. If we do not discover it, it is our fault and our loss. "When Death Comes" is a wonderful poem about life. It would provide a fruitful comparison with Emily Dickinson's various death poems.


The collection in which this poem appears won the National Book Award for Poetry.

Primary Source

New and Selected Poems



Place Published