What is the meaning behind the poem "Year's End" by Richard Wilbur?
We find, perhaps, our most significant clues as to the poem's meaning in the final stanza. The speaker says,
These sudden ends of time must give us pause.
We fray into the future, rarely wrought
Save in the tapestries of afterthought.
More time, more time.
In other words, he means that the long history of deaths that have happened quickly should make us stop and think about our own. The only way in which we manage to exist into the future is as afterthoughts. We always think we have more time, but some day, we will be out of time, and it will likely feel sudden to us.
Throughout the poem, the speaker has described a series of such sudden ends. For example, there are the leaves that have fallen and frozen in the lake "held in ice as dancers in a spell," and the ferns that "laid their fragile cheeks against the stone" and have been memorialized in fossil for thousands of years. He describes the "Great mammoths" that were "overthrown," taken by death it seems, as they made their way through "lands of ice," as well as the lives suspended by ash in Pompeii, people who were frozen in time even as they "expect[ed] yet another sun" in order to finish whatever their work is. None of these life forms anticipated their sudden ends, and yet those ends came anyway.
Therefore, Wilbur encourages us to think on and prepare for our own ends so that they do not catch us so suddenly and unawares. Then again, he seems also to say that it is the nature of living things to fail to do so.
"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.