They say the best revenge is living well, and in Mary Oliver’s “When Death Comes,” this is exactly the attitude the poet takes—against death itself. Oliver has an antagonistic view of death, comparing it to a “hungry bear in autumn” (2), to “the measle-pox” (6), and to “an iceberg between the shoulder blades” (8). All of these are obviously negative images, and thus Oliver makes her opinion on the subject crystal clear; she doesn’t want there to be any confusion. In line with this, she also describes the coming of death as “tak[ing] all the bright coins from his purse/to buy me, and snap[ping] the purse shut” (3-4). Not only is Oliver portrayed as an object to be bought, but death is made to look even harsher, because he “snaps” his “purse shut,” rather than patiently closing it.
All of this censure of death serves a larger purpose, which is to show how drastically different Oliver’s perspective on life is. Despite emphatically denouncing death, Oliver freely admits her ignorance of what it involves: “I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:/what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?” (9-10). This admission of naiveté opens the poet’s eyes to the world around her. Her lack of knowledge about what death holds causes her to realize how incredible life is. She learns to appreciate every little thing, and view everything with wonder:
And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility… (11-14)
Oliver begins to see the connectedness in all things, and it completely changes the way she looks at the world. This is also exemplified in the line that follows, “and I think of each life as a flower, as common/as a field daisy, and as singular” (15-16). Each person is “common,” in that we are all human beings, but Oliver recognizes the uniqueness of each individual too. In addition to insights like these, the poet expresses a desire to live life to the fullest: “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” (21-23). She wants to forever experience the feeling of being amazed, and to do so, she wants to get out and be adventurous. Oliver now believes that life is meant to be embraced and enjoyed.
The poem’s last few lines further emphasize this point: “When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder/if I have made of my life something particular, and real…I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world” (24-25, 28). Oliver wants to live each day with purpose, and to make every moment memorable. She wants her life to feel like it has real meaning. And though it takes her vilifying death for her to come to these conclusions, if it means her life is better spent, then it’s all worth it.