In the first stanza, Wilbur makes winter and snow signifiers of the ending of the year. An interesting aspect of the stanza is that the turnover of the year is pessimistically viewed as a “dying” of the current year instead of a more optimistic “birthing” of a new year, implying that there is something to mourn. The feeling of life “trapped” by the winter is portrayed, comparing the rooms of houses with the waters alive underneath the surface ice of lakes. However, there is also optimism in that it is implied that the “trapped” life is very much alive and will inevitably emerge from their icy traps as alive as ever.
The title of the poem is “Year’s End,” but the poem itself is not simply about the end of the year—Wilbur relates the year’s end to the inevitable end of things—to death, and to change. Wilbur offers a slight irony in the second stanza: the frozen, fallen leaves “seemed their own most perfect monument,” implying that the leaves have acquired a new kind of worth by having fallen and frozen. In the third stanza Wilbur offers another irony. The “perfection in the death of ferns” (here Wilbur may be referring to prehistoric gigantic ferns), similar to the case of the fallen leaves, implies that there is something perfect about extinction.
Similarly the mammoths and the ancient city of Pompeii, subject to inevitable death, are rendered in an exalted light. In the fourth stanza, there is a “little dog” that sleeps deeper “as the ashes rose” (as the fire died down), suggesting that it complacently accepts the death of things around it. Wilbur suggests here that men are hopeful, not mindful of death but simply eager for life, expecting the life-giving energy of “another sun” to give them another chance to do the things they had hoped to do but have not done.
In the last stanza, Wilbur explicitly tells us, that we must pause and consider the progress of time that inevitably delivers death. Wilbur tells us that we (humans) merely complacently accept the advance of time without too much thought. In this last stanza Wilbur finally admits the coming of the new year into the picture, although the “New-year bells” are portrayed as “wrangling with the snow,” perhaps signifying the conflict (and the uselessness of the conflict) between the old and the new.