Come Away, Death

Introductory Note
Editors
The song, "Come away, come away, death," is sung by Feste, a clown in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night 2.1.52-68.

The poem was published in April of 1941, an exceedingly bleak point in the war. In this month there were heightened air attacks by Germany on London and other British cities, resulting in heavy civilian casualties. Simultaneously, German forces overran Greece while British forces in North Africa lost Derna and Bardia.

Willy-nilly ... clown's logic
Editors
See the chop-logic of the First Clown, the gravedigger, in Hamlet 5.1.16-19: "If the man go to this water and drown himself, it is, will he, nill he, he goes, mark you that. But if the water comes to him and drown him, he drowns not himself ..."
Comic in epitaph, tragic in epithalamium
Editors
See Hamlet 5.1.236-239 and 267-269.
mused rhyme
Editors
See Keats's "Ode To a Nightingale" 53.
poppy seeds
Editors
The narcotic properties of the poppy have been associated with death since ancient times. The poppy is particularly associated with the war dead; see Colonel John McCrae's "In Flanders Fields."
he came in formal dress
Editors
allusion to Death knocking on man's door, possibly the medieval figure of "The Dance of Death"
sacramental wine
Editors
as in the last rites of the Catholic Church or in Methodist communion
acanthus leaf
Editors
The acanthus is a Mediterranean plant whose leaves are the basis of the ornamentation used on the capitals of Corinthian columns. In Christian art the acanthus symbolizes heaven.
hyacinth
Editors
flower associated in Greek mythology with the youth Hyacinthus, beloved by Apollo and accidentally killed by him
the flame of the capitals
Editors
Capital letters were illuminated in medieval manuscripts. Pratt also may have intended to make a secondary pun on the medieval sacking of capital cities.
turn of the thumb
Editors
literally, turning of a page, but also, perhaps, reference to the thumbscrew, an instrument of torture sometimes used by the medieval church
Venetian mosaics
Editors
A revival of Byzantine mosaic art in the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries A.D. in Italy produced many fine examples of the art; among the best known are those in the Basilica of St. Mark, Venice.
paternosters
Editors
The paternoster (L., pater noster, "our father") is the Lord's Prayer, especially in Latin.
clay to clay
Editors
This phrase parallels the burial service, "ashes to ashes, dust to dust," but may also refer to God's modelling man from clay. See Isaiah 46.9, 64.8, and Job 10.9. See also Pratt's verse drama "Clay."
gride
Editors
a strident or grating sound
traction tread
Editors
With World Wars I and II death came in a new and mechanical form -- the tank.
one September night
Editors
possibly a double allusion: World War II began on 3 September 1939 after the invasion of Poland by Germany. However, the poem was prompted by the Battle of Britain of August and September 1940. On 7 September, the date of the heaviest raid, 400 bombers struck London.
the sound of a motor drone
Editors
This suggests the V2 buzz bombs of World War II; when the sound of the motor stopped, the bomb had begun its descent.
Druid
Editors
The Druids were a powerful religious order of priests, prophets, and poets among the ancient Celts before the advent of the Christianity.
Piltdown
Pratt
a place in Sussex, England, from which were unearthed the remains of a prehistoric man
[Ten Selected Poems 137]
Editors
In 1953, 12 years after this poem was written, the skull was exposed as a fake.
scarps
Editors
steep slopes
Java
Editors
Java man, Pithecanthropus, a genus known from skulls discovered in Java; considered one of the links between the apes and man
stylus
Editors
ancient writing instrument for use on clay or waxed tablets
Apocalypse
Editors
generally refers to a revelation, and here alludes to one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (conquest, war, famine, and death) as described in Revelation 6:1-8