What is the meaning behind the poem "Year's End" by Richard Wilbur?  

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"Year's End" conveys a number of different images or ways of looking at death. This topic develops from the timing referenced in the title, since many people would interpret the end of a year as being a death experience for that year.

To begin with, falling snow is covering town and lake, hiding any creatures still active beneath the thin layer of ice. Leaves that fell into the lake, blown by the wind, are "frozen where they fell    And held in ice as dancers in a spell," but will retain their beauty as they are encased by the ice.

Wilbur compares the leaves frozen in the ice with the ferns "Which laid their fragile cheeks against the stone A million years" and have created fossils, perfect images in every detail. Next he points out how exact are the imprints of the people and animals who suffocated and were buried by the ash of the volcano at Pompeii.

The little dog lay curled and did not rise But slept the deeper as the ashes rose And found the people incomplete, and froze The random hands, the loose unready eyes Of men expecting yet another sun To do the shapely thing they had not done.
The closing stanza recognizes how suddenly death can come, usually with no forewarning of its approach. All we can do as "The New-year bells are wrangling with the snow" is to enjoy the new year of life while it lasts until the snow of death arrives.
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