British Literature Essay
Death is inevitable and what happens after death will always be a mystery to the living. For this reason, the afterlife has always been a topic which artists have chosen to explore in their works. Throughout the chronology of British literature, artists have used society's views as a basis to examine the afterlife, and look at it in new ways. The afterlife has been a theme in British Literature from the Anglo-Saxon period of Beowulf to the twentieth century writings of Dylan Thomas. The mysteriousness of the afterlife makes it a topic which artists will always be eager to analyze.
During the Anglo-Saxon Period which lasted from 449 AD to 1066 AD, the popular belief of the times was that a person's life was predetermined by Wyrd, the Old English word for fate, and there was nothing which the individual could do to change his destiny. The most famous writing from this epoch is the epic poem Beowulf. Beowulf, the main character, had no fear of the evil monster Grendel because he believed "Grendel and I are called/ Together," by fate. He also displayed his faith in the beliefs of society when he told Hrogthgar "Fate will unwind as it must." When Grendel died, the soldiers "had no semse of sorrow, felt no regret for his sufferings," because they believed Grendel was destined to die, and there was no way to defy destiny. They also did not pity Grendel because they considered him to be entirely evil because it was his fate. The Anglo-Saxon's strong belief in fate led to them not fearing death as much as during other times periods in British Literature. Beowulf's strong belief in fate was a reflection in the society's pagan belief in fate. Due to the fact that the society at the time of Beowulf was pagan, they did not believe in the afterlife.
The Christian revision to Beowulf illustrated a different outlook on death and the afterlife. When monks were copying the story, they realized it dealt with pagan ideals, and they incorporated Christian ideals into the text. The monks included the concept God was the ultimate one who controls fate. This was shown when Beowulf told Hrogthgar "God must decide/ Who will be given to death's cold grip." The monks also inserted the idea that there is an afterlife. When Grendel died, "hell opened up to receive him." They thought the pagan beliefs about death and the afterlife in Beowulf were unacceptable, so they included their Christian views of death and the afterlife into the poem. The society's values greatly influenced the monks revision of the poems.
"The Seafarer" is another Anglo-Saxon poem which deals with the afterlife. The poem was written by Bede, who was a monk, so it contains the Christian views of the afterlife which are very similar to the one's included in the Christian revision to Beowulf. The speaker believed "Death leaps at the fools who forgot their God./ He who lives humbly has angles from Heaven/ To carry him courage and strength and belief." This showed the belief that God must be worshipped to get to Heaven, and if you do not follow God, like Grendel in Beowulf, you will not go to Heaven. In the poem, the persona expressed that riches can not buy entrance into heaven in the afterlife because, "nothing/ Golden shakes the wrath of God/ For a soul overflowing with sin, and nothing/ Hidden on earth rises to Heaven." This poem reflected an Anglo-Saxon monk's views of the afterlife, which were centered around his strong faith in Christianity.
During the Medieval Period, the Catholic church played a dominant role in society. In England, the church's abbeys and monasteries were the main centers of learning and the arts before the founding of Oxford and Cambridge universities during the thirteenth century. The church preached that following their faith would led a person to the afterlife. A piece of literature which displayed the belief in the afterlife was Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The story starts at a Christmas party at Camelot when the Green Knight enters and offers to let a knight hit him with an ax if he can return the blow a year and a day later. Sir Gawain, the most brave knight of the round table, accepted the challenge, and he chopped off the knight's head. The Green Kngiht then picked up his head, and rode away. A year and a day later, Gawain went to the Green Knight. He kneeled before the Green Knight, ready to take the blow. However as the Green Knight is about to lower his ax, Gawain "pulled his shoulders back, just a bit." The Green Knight noticed this and was shocked. He said, "Gawaina? You can't be Gawain, his name/ Is too noble, he's never afraid, nowhere/ On earth - and you, you flinch in advance!" The Green Knight then swung again, but he only nicked Gawain. Later, the Green Knight and Gawain talked about what happened. The Green Knight told Gawain he was testing him, and that Gawain was very great, " 'but you failed a little, lost good faith/ -Not a beautiful belt, or in lust,/ But for love of your life.' " Gawain was completely ashamed because he had flinched, and he declared, " 'A curse on cowardice and a curse on greed!/ They shatter chivalry, their vice destroys/ Virtue.' " Gawain considered his fear of death to be a "sin." This was because the society believed knights should not be afraid of death because they will be rewarded in the afterlife for having chivalry. The society's view of the afterlife affected the standards of conduct, and Sir Gawain and The Green Knight is an excellent example of this.
In the Elizabethan Age, the character of Macbeth, in the play Macbeth, denied the Christian belief in the afterlife, and he reverted to the pagan idea of there being no afterlife. After Macbeth discovered the witches had deceived him, he realized he did not defeat the fate which the witches had predicted, and now he was trapped with no way to return to the good man which he once was. This led to him developing a morbid view of life and death. At the end of the play, when reflecting upon the death of his wife, he stated, "Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player/ That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,/ And then is heard no more; it is a tale/ Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/ Signifying nothing." Macbeth thought life had no purpose and there was no afterlife. He compared life to being on "the banks and shoal of time," because he life as an insignificant sand bank which would be covered over by the vast sea of time and eternity. Shakespeare used the character of Macbeth to show that if a person sacrifices his integrity and morals, religion is meaningless and the person's life has no purpose. Macbeth's lack of belief in the afterlife was a sign of just how far he had fallen from the pious man he once was.
The Jacobean Age of the Renaissance was a time of great religious turmoil in England. The first group of English Protestants who desired to "purify" the Church of England, came to America to practice their religion. Scientists like Galileo and Copernicus disputed that the center of the universe was the sun, not the earth, and there may be multiple world. This research was a challenge to the basis of the divine ordered, hierarchical universe which the church stated was truth. This caused some people to start to question many parts of the church, including the church's view of the afterlife. Andrew Marvell was one artist who challenged the church's view of the afterlife. In "To His Coy Mistress," he told his lover if they had time be would love her "ten years before the flood,/ And you should, if you please, refuse/ Till the conversion of the Jews." However, they were not able to do this because they did not have "world enough, and time." Marvell saw life as a battle against time and death. He also stated, "The grave's a fine and private place,/ But none, I think, do there embrace." In order to defeat time and death, he offered the idea of Carpe Diem, and living life to the fullest. This concept was shown in the poem when he told his lover, "We cannot make our sun/ Stand still, yet we will make him run." Marvell did not believe in the afterlife, so he advocating a Carpe Diem philosophy because he thought life was all a person has.
John Donne's writings during the Jacobean Age expressed a very different view than that of Marvell. He strongly supported the church's view of the afterlife. In "Holy Sonnet 16" Donne belittled death. He told death it should "be not proud," because it is not a terrible thing. Donne challenged the belief that death was powerful in the line, "Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men." The sonnet also challenged the mystique of death because it stated that death is not unique because it is like sleep and, "poppy or charms can make us sleep as well/ And better than thy stroke." Donne even suggested death may bring pleasure because sleep and rest bring pleasure, and they are images of death. "Holly Sonnet 16" also stated that death should not be feared because it is only a short phase which leads into the afterlife, and one we are in the afterlife death is no longer a concern. This idea was expressed in line 13, "One short sleep past, we wake eternally and death shall be no more." This concept was also in "Corinthians I" which this sonnet was based on. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, "Listen to this secret: we shall not all die, but in an instant we shall be changed as quickly as the blinking of an eye." Another parallel between the two writings was Donne told Death, "thou shalt die," and in "Corinthians I," Paul wrote "Christ must rule until God defeats all enemies and puts them under his feet. The last enemy to be defeated shall be death." Both writings expressed that death is not to be feared because in the afterlife we go to a better place where death will not be a concern.
Donne also mentioned that the afterlife is a better place in his "Meditation 17." He believed "When one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language, and every chapter must be so translated." Donne also described the afterlife as a "library where every book shall lie open to one another." In this meditation, Donne not only created a metaphor for the afterlife, but he also expressed that "tribulation" and "affliction" are what make people ready to go to Heaven in the afterlife. He stated, "Tribulation is treasure in that nature of it, but it is not current money in the use of it, except we get nearer and nearer to our home, heaven, by it." Donne's great faith in the Catholic religion was what shaped his view of the afterlife.
During the Romantic Age, Percy Bysshe Shelley offered another perspective of the afterlife. In "Ozymandias," he described a monument which was built to Ozymandias during the 13th century BC. The monument was broken apart, and only its head and legs remained alone in the barren desert. On the base of the statue, was inscribed the words, "My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:/ look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!" This statue which was once a symbol of the power of Rameses II is now in complete ruin. The poem shows how pride and glory are only temporary earthly things. It also mentions that we are all equal in death. "Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare the lone and level sands of time stretch far away." This line means we area all on "level sands," when we enter the afterlife and it is time to be judged. According to the poem, glory during life does not mean the person will have the same glory in the afterlife. It doesn't matter how many monuments a person built to attest to his glory, he must face the same judge as the slave sculptor which created the monument.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson expressed the idea held by Marvell that death is an enemy which a person should fight. In "Ulysses," a Victorian Age poem, Ulysses was past his prime yet he still struggled to the most of his life, and did not wait for death to come for him. He felt "'Tis not too late to seek a newer world," and he believed "Death closes on us all; but something ere the end,/ Some work of noble note, may yet be done." Ulysses believed a person should take advantage of the life they are given, and live life to the fullest. He thought when death was approaching, a person should continue "to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield." The poem expresses the need to look ahead, and continue on with life, even though death may be approaching. "Ulysses" and "To His Coy Mistress" both advocated a Carpe Diem philosophy, but in "Ulysses," the persona had a belief in the afterlife. He believed that he may reach the "Happy Isles" which is the place heroes went after death. It is interesting how both encourage Carpe Diem, yet they have contrasting views of the afterlife.
The Victorian age poetry of A.E. Housman, brought forth another idea about afterlife. In "To An Athlete Dying Young," the poet contradicted the idea in "Ozymandias" that having glory during life does not mean a person will have glory in the afterlife. Instead, he suggested a person is immortalized the way he is when he dies, and in the afterlife he has the honor and prestige he had during life. Housman told the athlete, "silence sounds no worse than cheers/ After earth has stopped the ears:/ Now you will not swell the rout/ Of lads that wore their honors out." The athlete will live his afterlife in glory which he had on earth, and according to this thought, Ozymandias will live in the afterlife as "king of kings."
In the 20th century, Dylan Thomas offered advice about how to live the time before the afterlife. In "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night," he advised people to "rage against the dying of the light." He is telling people to continue to make life meaningful and live it to the fullest before they go "into that good night," which symbolized the afterlife. This concept is very similar to the ideas in "Ulysses." Both poems suggested that people should struggle to make the most of their lives, and they each expressed a belief in the afterlife.
Throughout the chronology of British literature, artists have presented many different perspectives on the afterlife. There are views which I agree with, and there are views which I don't agree with. One of the ones which I support is John Donne's idea of death not being a terrible thing because it leads to the afterlife which is a better place. I support this idea because I have been raised in a rather religious family, and it has been instilled in me that death is not bad, and there is an afterlife to go to. I also agree with the ideas in "Ulysses" and "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" that one should struggle to make the most out of his life and to make it meaningful. This idea is very appealing to me because I believe a person should always attempt to make the most out of what he/she is given, and it is important to never give up. While I don't agree with the poems which state that there isn't an afterlife, analyzing and thinking about them has been valuable for me because it has forced me to consider my views, and to build up a stronger support of my views to counter the ideas presented in these poems.