An Ode to Death by Daud Kamal Poem Summary, Notes and Line by Line Explanation in English


Daud Kamal’s “An Ode to Death” deals with the concept of dying and the uncertainty of life. It explores the mortality of life and the various emotions it evokes in the process of aging. Kamal incites the readers towards a journey; an inevitable journey towards death. Death and dying is a part of life and Kamal through his poem has dedicated to the essence of death and the impact it creates upon the humans. This introspective poem explores the deplorable condition of the human, both in decay and in glory. 

About the Poet

Daud Kamal, a Pakistani poet and translator, was a man of high intellect and deeply heightened sensitivities. Though he had an untimely death, Kamal has created an everlasting impact on poetry. He has even drawn ideas around themes evoking the existential crisis in a man. He delved deep into philosophical themes, often exploring the intricacies behind human emotions and the fleeting nature of human life. He usually penned down in Urdu but his writings have been translated into several languages, including English, to allow a wider readership. 


Kamal’s poem follows a conventional poetic form with a consistent rhyme scheme. The poem is in a continuous flow of lines that carries the theme of the poem throughout. It starts with an introduction that sets the tone of death in the poem. Each line represents a new perspective on death and Kamal uses a wide range of metaphors to create a more concrete impact. The final lines of the poem act as a conclusion to the ongoing theme. It serves as an act of closure to the readers.

Analysis and Summary

Lines 1-5

 Your ode to death is in the lifting of a single eyebrow. Lift it and see. (Conrad Aiken)
 Death is more than certain, says e.e Cummings,
 But the clocks go on ticking as before
 And in every particle of carbon dust 
 There lives a diamond dream


The poem starts with a quotation which points out the minimal distance between man’s life and death. The time taken for death is within the blink of an eye. It happens quickly showing how little the distance is between a man and his death. Kamal then quotes E.E. Cummings, saying that “death is more than certain.” Death cannot be avoided by anyone. The clock continues ticking even if one stops to grief for a lost one. Bereavement doesn’t slow down the fragility of life; it keeps ticking towards death. The poet then creates the image of a chemical composition. He says that even though a diamond is made up of carbon, it’s not all carbon molecules which constitute the diamond being made. This image is compared to that of men, that it doesn’t matter what they have accomplished as death will consume each and every one of them. 


Kamal through the opening lines establish the tone of the poem. He sets the idea of death being inevitable as the persistent theme of the poem. The poet explains that “clocks” have been assigned to each and every human life to project the monotonous nature of life. Clocks are transient showing that lives are temporary, passing by with each ticking of the clock. Death is the only permanent aspect in life. The clocks further depict that death doesn’t slow or stop the time as life goes on till the time runs out. The poet also raises the geological process of carbon molecules transforming into a diamond. The carbon molecules symbolizes the countless dreams and ambitions one has in their life. However not all dreams unfold into reality, just like not all carbon molecules constitute towards the creation of a diamond. Kamal intends to spread the message that despite all rejections and all hopes, death persists. Life is no longer measured in terms of achievement as death consumes all and leaves no mark behind. Even though death is indeed certain, the uncertainty arises over the time of death.

Line 6-12

 How many galaxies yet to be explored-
 How many seeds in the pomegranate of time?
 The pine tree blasted by last year’s Thunderbolt 
 And the burn out match stick in my ashtray
 Look so terribly alike
 I have sat by your bedside and felt 
 Your sinking pulse.


The poet understands the pain behind not fulfilling all those desires and dreams one has before dying. He bemoans the fact that one life is not enough to attain those aspirations. That is only due to the uncertainty of life. No one knows when one’s going to die. The pomegranate acts like the time which consists of seeds reflecting the wishes and dreams of the humans which they want to fulfill. The poet further draws a comparison between big and small creatures. He says that irrespective of whether it’s a humongous pine tree or a tiny match stick, both served their purpose in life and met with their demise eventually. It doesn’t matter what or how much one has acquired in life for they all have to meet the same end. After this the poet takes a personal take upon the poem as he shifts his focus to someone who was dying. He holds the person’s hand and feels the “sinking pulse” and renders it like his own heart sinks in pain.


The poet has constructed certain beautiful lines in this poem to project death as not to be feared at. He laments the fact that humans don’t get to fulfill all their dreams and aspirations in the life presented to them. All time would fall short for all the wishes they want to claim as reality. There are countless dreams to dream just like “galaxies yet to be explored.” The poet compares a pomegranate with the limited time one has and the seeds inside the fruit with their aspirations. Just as how the seeds are trapped within the confines of time, human lives along with their dreams are working within the limited time. The image of a pine tree and a match stick points out that both met with the same end. Size falls short to death as everyone and everything will get to experience the same conclusion. While the poet turns personal and griefs over the sinking pulse of a loved one, it lets the reader to introspect upon their loved ones as lives are all fleeting. Death is coming to grasp and all and one should take heed of the present as much as one can. 

Lines 13-17

Are the hair and bones
 Really indestructible and how long 
 Does it take for the eyes
 To dissolve in the grave?
 Two streams mingle in a forgotten river.
 Between the eye and the tear 


The poet continues the uncertainty of life by saying that the scientific fact goes by that “the hair and bones” remain alive even after the body decomposes. The poet poses a question to the readers asking them whether that means that he will continue to live on even after he has actually died and left the planet as a mortal being. This mingles as an assurance which the poet claims to know, but he knows that just like no one can answer whether one can live tomorrow, similarly no one knows how long the substitute for a soul will survive. Kamal continues by saying that the “two streams” need to mingle to attain the certainty of death. The relationship between “the eye and tear” is like that of life and death. One doesn’t know what might suddenly trigger tears from the eyes just like one doesn’t know when death will snatch life away. 


The poet questions the very idea that he was depicting so far: which is the uncertainty of life. Does life remain in various other forms even after the demise of someone? Till his hair and bones decay and die in the grave will he also remain alive? But no one has an answer as no one knows what is in store for tomorrow. The poet then says that like two streams, the human soul and body “mingle into the forgotten river” of this mortal world. Tears are easy to form and forget just like death, it all happens within the wink of an eye. No one knows the time or cause of such things but that it will surely happen. 

Lines 18-23

There is the archipelago of naked rocks
 Only sleep and silence there-
 No anchorage for grief.
 I, too, have wandered in a forest of symbols
 And clutched at the harlots of memory.
 I have seen the “stars plummet to their dark addresses”


At this point Kamal presents life after death where there is only “sleep and silence.” It denotes the tranquility one attains at one’s passing away. One has reached the ultimate solitude of life. There is no sense of grief or any other emotions to persist. After death one has entered into a boundless deep pf darkness and peace. Once again Kamal turns personal as he recounts his feelings. He claims to have indulged in bad habits and lived a promiscuous life in the memory of “harlots.” However he realizes that irrespective of what life he has led, even he is destined on the same journey to reach death like any other. 


The poet presents the scenario of life after death. Often people have questioned about the afterlife and what that is like. Kamal says that it is like sleeping in a timeless and peaceful area like the group of islands. The “silence” denotes that all the hardships and struggles in life are over and one can roll over and float in a vacuum. Kamal seems to be projecting the Islamic point of view about eternal life after death. It is only through death that humans seem to grasp immortality. An immortal life free of sorrows and other baseless human-like emotions, living a life free from toils and troubles. The poet then talks about his unethical habits that used to indulge in. But he assures the readers that Death doesn’t differentiate. Brave leaders will also meet the same end as he will. Death doesn’t consider how one has lived their lives but that it looms over as the master. 

Lines 24-29

 I have felt your absence around my neck 
 But let bygones be bygones
 Who was the deceiver and who the deceived 
 Was I on a floating island 
 And were you on the shore?
 Which one of us moved away?


These final lines of the poem initiate the nail on the coffin shutting the idea of death as inevitable. The poet cries out that he can feel his death nearing and even though it is monstrous, his hands are tied. Everyone is helpless in front of death. Kamal expresses the innermost thoughts of a man on his deathbed who is helpless and pessimistic. Neither does he know whether it is the life or death who deceived them, nor does he know whether it’s actually the opposite of being the deceiver. All the poet is urging the readers to note that it is not important to be a judge in this matter but to accept death in its truest form when it finally arrives. 


The poet muses on the idea whether death actually deceives them or is life that eventually deceives death. No one knows when life will move away from them and no one knows how close one is to death. Kamal hopes to spread the message that nothing material stands the test of time. Everything eventually wither and decay and fade into oblivion. Even the bones of the human body will decompose into dust with time. 

Fighting death is a foolish move as one cannot escape from the clutches of dying. The poet feels his days are numbered with each passing time and like any other man, he is hopeless and helpless. The idea of dying is morose but it is what it is. It is a part of life which transports one into a different space; a space free from sins and pleasures and troubles. The lingering hands of death will always be there, and it’s only a matter of time before it either moves away if one was “on the shore.”