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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

In the first stanza of the poem, the speaker seems baffled by the tears that have risen, unbidden, to his eyes as he looks on the autumnal fields around him. He says that the tears have come "from the depth of some divine despair." This quotation seems to contain something close to an oxymoron in the phrase "divine despair," because despair is characterized as a sin in Christian belief. To despair implies that one has given up hope, that one has lost faith in God, and so how can such a feeling be described as "divine" when it signifies a failure of religious faith? Such a contradiction seems appropriate in the context of the rest of the poem, however, because the speaker describes the "days that are no more" as both "fresh" and "sad," as "sad" and "strange," as "dear" and "sweet," as "deep" and "wild." While these concepts are not, strictly speaking, opposites, there are some contradictions among them.

These bygone days are both "Fresh as the first beam glittering on a sail" of a boat that brings lost loved ones "up from the underworld" and "Sad as the last" ray of sun "That sinks with all we loved below the verge" and takes a loved one down into Hades. These days that are long past feel immediate and vibrant and new as well as sad and final and grief-inducing. These bygone days also feel "sad and strange" as the "earliest pipe" of birds' songs to the ears of a dying man, or like the sun's rays spilling through the casement of a window, glowing as "a glimmering square." The dying man recognizes the beauty of these events but is saddened by them because he cannot rise up and enjoy them. Ultimately, the speaker calls these days a "Death in Life" because they are so irretrievably gone, cemented permanently in the past—and yet they still feel so vivid and intense. He mourns the fact that they are over, lamenting that they, like something that has died, cannot return.

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