Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 448

The realities of old age and death have depressed many poets, and Pastan ranks among those who have treated this subject extensively, in poems such as “Ethics,” “after minor surgery,” “November,” and “In the Kingdom of Midas.” She even wrote a poem, “1932-,” which meditates upon seeing her name in print with the birth date denoted and the death date yet to come. One traditional response to eventual demise is carpe diem, a Latin term translated as “seize the day.” If one will soon grow old, the thinking goes, one should enjoy life now. One of the most well-known poetic examples of this response may be found in Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” (1681), in which the speaker implores his mistress to give up her chastity while they are young and full of ardor. “An Early Afterlife” has a different twist: Instead of ignoring decline and death, the poet anticipates it, gets the worst over right away, so to speak, and then, having paid for a sort of insurance policy, can go on living without any specter of evil days to come.

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One might look at the parting as being a vaccination, in which a small, but not harmful, dosage of the dread disease is taken into the system, which then produces an antibody, so that when the real thing comes the body can fight it off. In this respect the poem is like A. E. Housman’s “Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff” (1896), which ends by retelling the story of Mithridates, King of Pontus, who builds up a tolerance to poison by eating small daily dosages, thus training himself to ingest large quantities without harm when his enemies eventually try to poison him.

Pastan’s poem implies that people can have a certain control over the afterlife. Rather than spending life fearing death and what it will bring, one may renounce life and its pleasures and thus have nothing to fear from old age and death. In fact, one may find a special appreciation for the pleasures life offers, undiluted by a backdrop of decline and death, or, as Pastan euphemistically puts it, “the inclement weather/ already in our long-range forecast.”

The irony is that Pastan’s solution would not actually work in real life—one cannot bypass the evil day, no matter the mental gymnastics used—and the recognition that this is so simply reinforces death’s power. On the other hand, poets and other artists have often found a measure of consolation in putting terrible realities into artistic form, as in Pablo Picasso’s famous painting Guernica (1937). This does not change the reality, but it gives it a certain perspective that makes it more bearable.

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