Context: Night IV attempts to combat the fear of death, which, the poet contends, is not the horrible bugbear that man imagines. The knell, the shroud, the mattock, the grave, the darkness, and the worm are things that terrorize the living, not the dead. But even if death were frightful, what have the aged to fear from it? They see the world for what it is, a very wretched place, and should not repine at leaving it. Even if we admit that life has some joys, we outlive our ability to appreciate them: new people spring up, our neighbors are strangers to us, we accumulate wealth only that we may die rich. We work mightily during our little hour here on earth to achieve fame and wealth, even forming schemes for our future glory when we lie on our deathbeds, but the end for everybody is the inscription, "Here he lies." As men grow old, they become pitiful remnants of what they once were, and they are foolish to cling stubbornly to earth like ancient trees ever sinking their roots deeper into the earth. Man needs but little here in this world, and that little he needs for but a short time; nature, which is economical of its resources, only lends him what he has. Man spends his existence acquiring the key of life, which, as soon as he gets it, opens the gates of death. Oliver Goldsmith echoed the line in the Ballad in Chapter 8 of The Vicar of Wakefield.
O my coevals! remnants of yourselves!Poor human ruins, tottering o'er the grave!Shall we, shall aged men, like aged trees,Strike deeper their vile root, and closer cling,Still more enamored of this wretched soil?Shall our pale, withered hands be still stretched out,Trembling, at once, with eagerness and age?With avarice and convulsions, grasping hard?Grasping at air! for what has earth beside?Man wants but little; nor that little, long:How soon must he resign his very dust,Which frugal nature lent him for an hour!Years unexperienced rush on numerous ills;And soon as man, expert from time, has foundThe key of life, it opes the gates of death.