Saturday, April 26, 2014

National Poetry Month—You Want Death? We Got Death…In Spades

Let’s face it.  Poets are obsessed with death.  Always have been and until the species is eradicated, or someone invents an immortality pill, always will be.  We get paid the big bucks to ponder such things for the rest of you.  It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it. 
When I decided to do around up of mortuary pieces, elegies, dirges, and other cheerful stuff, I had all of the heavy hitters to choose from.  In fact death poems were often their most famous pieces.  Here are a few.
One of the most famous such poems in English was written by the mystic and metaphysician John Donne in the early 17th Century.  It was published posthumously, naturally
Death Be Not Proud

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

—John Donne
By the time the Romantics rolled around poets were wallowing, glorying in death.  Take the arch-Romantic Percy Bysshe Shelley.  Just a slice of one of his most famous poems will do….
From Queen Mab
How wonderful is Death,
Death, and his brother Sleep!
One, pale as yonder waning moon
With lips of lurid blue;
The other, rosy as the morn
When throned on ocean’s wave
It blushes o’er the world;
Yet both so passing wonderful
Percy Bysshe Shelley
In the trail of the Romantics, Victorians on both sides of the water slipped into the maudlin.  Take our beloved Louisa May Alcott as published in a Boston newspaper in 1856…
Little Nell

Gleaming through the silent church-yard,
Winter sunlight seemed to shed
Golden shadows like soft blessings
O'er a quiet little bed,
Where a pale face lay unheeding
Tender tears that o’er it fell;
No sorrow now could touch the heart
Of gentle little Nell.
Ah, with what silent patient strength
The frail form lying there
Had borne its heavy load of grief,
Of loneliness and care.
Now, earthly burdens were laid down,
And on the meek young face
There shone a holier loveliness
Than childhood's simple grace.
Beset with sorrow, pain and fear,
Tempted by want and sin,
With none to guide or counsel her
But the brave child-heart within.
Strong in her fearless, faithful love,
Devoted to the last,
Unfaltering through gloom and gleam
The little wanderer passed.
Hand in hand they journeyed on
Through pathways strange and wild,
The gray-haired, feeble, sin-bowed man
Led by the noble child.
So through the world’s dark ways she passed,
Till o'er the church-yard sod,
To the quiet spot where they found rest,
Those little feet had trod.
To that last resting-place on earth
Kind voices bid her come,
There her long wanderings found an end,
And weary Nell a home.
A home whose light and joy she was,
Though on her spirit lay
A solemn sense of coming change,
That deepened day by day.
There in the church-yard, tenderly,
Through quiet summer hours,
Above the poor neglected graves
She planted fragrant flowers.
The dim aisles of the ruined church
Echoed the child’s light tread,
And flickering sunbeams thro' the leaves
Shone on her as she read.
And here where a holy silence dwelt,
And golden shadows fell,
When Death's mild face had looked on her,
They laid dear happy Nell.
Long had she wandered o’er the earth,
One hand to the old man given,
By the other angels led her on
Up a sunlit path to Heaven.
Oh! “patient, loving, noble Nell,”
Like light from sunset skies,
The beauty of thy sinless life
Upon the dark world lies.
On thy sad story, gentle child,
Dim eyes will often dwell,
And loving hearts will cherish long
The memory of Nell.

—Louisa May Alcott

For his part, Mark Twain was having none of it.  He despised the romantics, the Victorians, their maudlin sentimentality, and the peculiar child death cult it fostered. Twain was clear eyed about death, true loss, and finality.  In Huckleberry Finn he ruthlessly satirized poems like Alcott’s, which were a dime a dozen in any newspapers.  He had young Emmiline Grangeford, a starry-eyed lass obsessed with composing elegies, pen this composition.  Shortly after she joined the mournful dead, apparently dying of heartbreak when she could not find a rhyme for the word whistle, according to Huck.  Alcott, for her part, may have recognized the swipe in her direction.  She castigated Twain and his book as monstrously corrupting of the morals of youth.

Ode To Stephen Dowling Bots, Dec'd

And did young Stephen sicken,
And did young Stephen die?
And did the sad hearts thicken,
And did the mourners cry?

No; such was not the fate of
Young Stephen Dowling Bots;
Though sad hearts round him thickened,
‘Twas not from sickness' shots.

No whooping-cough did rack his frame,
Nor measles drear, with spots;
Not these impaired the sacred name
Of Stephen Dowling Bots.

Despised love struck not with woe
That head of curly knots,
Nor stomach troubles laid him low,
Young Stephen Dowling Bots.

O no. Then list with tearful eye,
Whilst I his fate do tell.
His soul did from this cold world fly,
By falling down a well.

They got him out and emptied him;
Alas it was too late;
His spirit was gone for to sport aloft
In the realms of the good and great.

—Mark Twain

In the 20th Century Edna St. Vincent Millay came to grips with death’s universal finality.

And you as well must die

And you as well must die, belovèd dust,
And all your beauty stand you in no stead;
This flawless, vital hand, this perfect head,
This body of flame and steel, before the gust
Of Death, or under his autumnal frost,
Shall be as any leaf, be no less dead
Than the first leaf that fell, this wonder fled,
Altered, estranged, disintegrated, lost.
Nor shall my love avail you in your hour.
In spite of all my love, you will arise
Upon that day and wander down the air
Obscurely as the unattended flower,
It mattering not how beautiful you were,
Or how belovèd above all else that dies.

—Edna St. Vincent Millay

So, in his own way did e.e. cummings in this famously untitled poem

Buffalo Bill's
                     who used to
                     ride a watersmooth-silver
and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat

he was a handsome man
                                                            and what i want to know is
how do you like your blueeyed boy
Mister Death.

—e.e. cummings 

One contemporary poet turned to traditional forms to view an “inconsequential death” as if it were our own.

Death of a Toad

      A toad the power mower caught,
Chewed and clipped of a leg, with a hobbling hop has got
   To the garden verge, and sanctuaried him
   Under the cineraria leaves, in the shade
      Of the ashen and heartshaped leaves, in a dim,
          Low, and a final glade.

       The rare original heartsblood goes,
Spends in the earthen hide, in the folds and wizenings, flows
    In the gutters of the banked and staring eyes. He lies
    As still as if he would return to stone,
        And soundlessly attending, dies
           Toward some deep monotone,

       Toward misted and ebullient seas
And cooling shores, toward lost Amphibia's emperies.
    Day dwindles, drowning and at length is gone
    In the wide and antique eyes, which still appear
        To watch, across the castrate lawn,
            The haggard daylight steer.

—Richard Wilbur

1 comment:

  1. I love these. Particularly the e.e. cummings and the Twain (with backstory). Thanks for putting this all together.