An Analysis of Dudley Randall’s "To the Mercy Killers"
David K. Todd


In order to appreciate a poem properly, care must be taken to analyze and understand many different facets of the work. Poems are often very complex and require a great deal of thought in order to arrive at the intended meaning. At the very least, three particular items of information must be uncovered during the reading of poetry. An experienced reader of poetry will always determine the identity of the speaker, the occasion of the speech, and the central idea of the poem.

In Dudley Randall’s "To the Mercy Killers," the speaker is human. The sex of the speaker cannot be definitely proven. The probability that the speaker is a man is very high due to the graphic use of the language and the grotesque description of slow death. For the most part, women do not speak in this way. The speaker is conscious of the fact that he will one day die. Recognizing the identity of the speaker as human is significant because the reader of the poem will be able to relate to the feelings and emotions of his or her fellow human being.

The second item of information that a reader must determine is the occasion of the poem. In "To the Mercy Killers," the occasion could easily be misconstrued as the desperate pleadings of a man on his deathbed. The very first word of the poem suggests otherwise. The speaker says, "If ever mercy move you murder me, I pray you, kindly killers, let me live" (Randall 875). The word If implies that the situation is not currently under consideration by those being addressed. The addressees are, of course, doctors of medicine. The speaker is expressing his own desire should he ever find himself in such a predicament. Regardless of the hopelessness of his recovery, the speaker emphatically prefers to not be mercifully murdered. In line fourteen, he clearly states, "do not put out my life. Let me still glow" (Randall 875).

The final item of information that the reader of the poem must determine is the central idea that the poet is trying to convey. The central idea of "To the Mercy Killers" is very powerful and unsettling. The poem illustrates that life, no matter how frail and useless, is still life. The speaker says, "Even though I be a clot, an aching clench, a stub, a stump, a butt, a scab, a knob, a screaming pain, a putrefying stench, still let me live, so long as life shall throb" (Randall 875). The sheer definitiveness and power of these carefully chosen words illustrate an unwavering desire to be allowed a chance to fight for life, no matter how futile. The doctor may see his or her decision to end the life of another mercifully. Chances are the patient does not see it the same way. The speaker even goes so far as to illustrate that his begging to die during delirium should be honored. He says, "Even though I turn such traitor to myself as beg to die, do not accomplice me" (Randall 875). The central idea of this poem expresses the powerful desire of a man and the majority of the human race to cling to life until life makes its own exit–without the assistance of others.

The complexity of understanding poetry can be unsettling, but if one takes the time to first understand the identity of the speaker, the occasion of the poem, and the central idea, that complexity can be lessened. Great profit to the soul can be found only with diligence in digging.

Work Cited

          Randall, Dudley. "To the Mercy Killers." Perrine’s Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense.
                8th ed.  Eds. Thomas R. Arp and Greg Johnson. Fort Worth: Harcourt, 2002. 875.


David K Todd, then a sophompre in Management Information Systems, wrote this essay for Dr. Frank Beesley’s ENGL 1102 class during Fall 2001 semester.