Herewith a number of lyric verse quotations about death or dying from books in my collection. Where the source is formal, rhyming verse, I tend to include the original; where it is prose or free verse, I tend to limit myself to a mere English translation. Except in a couple of cases, I provide the entire poem. I do not believe that these lyrics seriously facilitate our demise, but they may offer old-timers some sense of what is ahead. I will also try to assess the value of individual quotations.
In the foreword to a collection of Robert Graves’s poems, which I no longer own, Graves asserted that there were mainly (or only--I quote from imperfect memory) two subjects, love and death, fully appropriate for verse, though, needless to say, he touched on other subjects much of the time. I start with what I consider two of his best poems on the subject.
The Suicide in the Copse
The suicide, far from content,
Stared down at his own shattered skull.
Was this what he meant?
Had not his purpose been
To liberate himself from duns and dolts
By a change of scene?
From somewhere came a roll of laughter.
He had looked so on his wedding-day,
And the day after.
There was nowhere at all to go,
And no diversion now but to peruse
What literature the winds might blow
Into the copse where his body lay:
A year-old sheet of sporting news,
A crumpled schoolboy essay.
And now a poem for a more universal form of demise.
The Villagers and Death
The Rector’s pallid neighbour at The Firs,
Death, did not flurry the parishioners.
Yet from a weight of superstitious fears,
Each tried to lengthen his term of years;
He was congratulated who combined
Toughness of flesh with weakness of the mind
In consequential rosiness of face.
The dull and not ill-mannered populace
Pulled off their caps to Death, as they slouched by,
But rumoured him both atheist and spy.
All vowed to outlast him (though none ever did)
And hear the earth drum on his coffin-lid.
Their groans and whispers down the village street
Soon soured his nature, which was never sweet.
Clearly Graves did not have use for suicide and presumably scorned the general fear and reprehension of death, though this by no means meant atheism as the only solution.
Now let us start our survey of death poetry through the ages as I can find it on my bookshelves. We begin at the Renaissance in Italy with Gaspara Stampa
(1523-54), a wonderful scholar and poet who lived mostly in Venice. She was the member of at least one academy, a student of Greek and Latin, and corresponded with most of the eminent men of her time. Her sonnets are the record of an unhappy love affair; herewith one of them.
Cui mi dara socorso a l’ora estrema.
Che verra morte trarmi fuor di vita
Tosto dopo, l’acerba dispartita
Onde fin d’ora il cor paventa e trema?
Madre e sorella no; perche la tema
Questa e quella a dolersi meco invita;
E poi per prova omaicla loro aita
Non giova a questa doglia alta e suprema.
E le vostre fidate amiche scorte’
Che di giovarmi avriano sole il come,
Saran lontane in quell’ altera corte.
Dunque io porro queste terrene some
Senza conforto alcun, se non di morte
Sospirando e chiamando il vostro nome.
As Richard Aldington translates: “Who shall succour me in my extremest hour/ when death is tearing me from life, ah!/ bitter parting!! whereat the heart doth trmble and fear,/ Mother and sister, no; because fear urges both/ to grieve with me; and at that time to accept their help does not avail this last and lofty woe./ And then your faithful, kindly guidance that alone knew how to help me/ will be far away in that so lofty Court. / So I shall lay aside these earthly burdens/ with naught to comfort me except at death/ the sighing and the calling on your name!”
Next we skip to 1950, when the poet and fiction writer Cesare Pavese, unhappily in love with the American actress Constance Dowling (sister of the more famous Doris), committed suicide. A sequence of ten poems, eight in Italian and two in English, were found in a folder upon his death. Most famously the following, in short, unrhyming verses, beginning “Death will come and will have your eyes,” and ending with “For each man Death has a look he knows./ Death will come and will have your eyes./ It will be like giving up a vice,/ like seeing in a glass/ a dead face reappearing/ like listening to closed lips./ Dumb we shall descend into the abyss.”
We move now to French, speclfically to a poem by the Belgian quasi-surrealist Henri Michaux, who lived from 1899 to 1984, and often changed allegiances and styles. I don’t know from what date the poem translated by Anthony Hartley is, but here goes. “Nausea or Is It Death Coming On”.
Surrender, my heart. We have struggled enough. And let my life stop. We have not been cowards, we have done what we could.
Oh! my soul, you go or you stay; you must decide. Do not finger my organs in that way, sometimes attentively, sometimes distractedly. You go or stay, you must decide. I myself can bear it no longer.
Lords of death, I have never blasphemed against you nor applauded you. Have pity on me, already the traveler of so many journeys, without a suitcase, without a master either. Without wealth, and the fame went elsewhere; you are powerful assuredly and comical above all, have pity on the crazy man who already shouts his name to you before crossing the barrier; catch him on the wing, let him accustom himself, if it can be done, to your temperaments and your habits, and if it please you to help him, help him, help him, I beg you.
Or take this poem by the Uruguay-born French poet and prose writer Jules Supervielle (1884-1960), irregularly rhymed but printed as verse, and entitled “For a Dead Poet.” I translate:
Quickly give him an ant
And however little it may be,
But let it well be his!
One must not cheat on a dead man.
Give it to him, or the beak of a swallow,
A bit of grass, a bit of Paris,
He has no more than a great void to himself
And still understands only poorly his fate.
To choose from
All this, he gives you in exchange
Darker presents that the hand cannot grasp:
A reflection lying under the snow,
Or the reverse of the highest of clouds,
The silence in the middle of the din,
Or the star that nothing protects.
All this he names and bestows,
He who is without a dog or anyone.
I don’t know the exact date of the poem, but it must be from his rejected surrealist period.
Let us now move to Germany, where we
start with a poem by Detlev von Liliencron (1844-1909) whose name alone is almost a poem. The piece is “Tod auf Aehren” (Death in the Corn). Note that lacking diaresis,I use the alternate added E after a vowel.
Im Weizenfeld, in Korn und Mohn,
Liegt ein Soldat unaufgefunden.
Zwei Tage schon, zwei Naechte schon.
Mit schweren Wunden, unverbunden.
Durst ueberquaelt und fieberwild.
Im Todeskampf den Kopf erhoben.
Ein letzter Traum, ein letztes Bild,
Sein brechend Auge schlaegt nach oben.
Die Sense sirrt im Aehrenfeld,
Er sieht sein Dorf im Arbeitsfrieden.
Ade, ade du Heimatswelt—
Und beugt das Haupt und ist verschieden.
In the wheatfield, in corn and poppies,/ Lies a soldier undiscovered./ Two days already, two nights already./ With heavy wounds unbandaged.// Overtortured by thirst and wild with fever,/ With lifted head in death struggle./ A final dream, a final image/ His breaking eye projects upward. // The scythe hisses in the wheat field,/ He sees his village in the Sunday rest./ Farewell, farewell, my home world--/ And bows his head and has departed.
Now for a poem by the wonderful poet and prose writer Theodor Storm (1817-88), I believe about his deceased wife, “Einer Toten” (To a Dead Lady):
Das aber kann ich nicht ertragen,
Dass so wie sonst die Sonne lacht;
Dass wie in deinen Lebenstagen
Die Uhren gehn, die Glocken schlagen,
Einfoerming wechseln Tag und Nacht;
Dass wenn des Tages Lichter schwanden,
Wie sonst der Abend uns vereint;
Und dass, wo sonst dein Stuhl gestanden,
Schon andre ihre Plaetze fanden,
Und nichts dich zu vermissen scheint;
Indessen von den Gitterstaeben
Die Mondesstreifen schmal und karg
In deine Gruft hinunterweben,
Und mit gespenstig truebem Leben
Hinwandeln ueber deinen Sarg.
That, however, I cannot bear/ That the sun laughs as usual./ That as in your living days,/ The clocks go and the bells ring/ Unchangedly alternating day and night;// That when the lights of day vaned,/ Evening as usual united us;/ And that where as usual your chair stood,/ Others already found their places,/ And nothing seemed to be missing you;// Meanwhile between the fence staves, narrow and stingy,/ The moon stripes weave their way down/ With ghostly and murky life into your vault,/ To wander on across your coffin.
Here the translation cannot render German’s ability to turn words like moon and stripes into compounds, which somehow objectifies them. Still the deep melancholy prevails.
And now we come to the somewhat longer section of Anglophone poetry. I skip the most obvious, Dylan Thomas’s villanelle for his dying father, as too well known, but I include this almost as well-known poem by Walter Savage Landor, “Rose Aylmer.”
Ah what avails the sceptred race!
Ah what the form divine!
What every virtue, every grace!
Rose Aylmer, all were thine.
Rose Aylmer, whom these wakeful eyes
May weep, but never see,
A night of memories and sighs
I consecrate to thee.
And herewith a more modern kind of dirge by Edna St. Vincent Millay.
If I should learn in some quite casual way
That you were gone, not to return again—
Read from the back page of some paper, say,
Held by a neighbor in a subway train,
How at the corner of this avenue
And such a street (so are the papers filled)
A hurrying man who happened to be you,
At noon today had happened to be killed—
I should not cry aloud—I could not cry
Aloud, or wring my hands in such a place—
I should but watch the station lights rush by
With a more careful interest on my face;
Or raise my eyes and read with greater care
Where to store furs or how to treat the hair.
And now this, “Here Lies a Lady,” from John Crowe Ransom, more explicit and detailed than most.
Here lies a lady of beauty and high degree,
Of chills and fever she died, of fever and chills
The delight of her husband, her aunts, an infant of three,
And of medicos marvelling sweetly on her ills.
For either she burned, and her confident eyes would blaze,
And her fingers fly in a manner to puzzle their heads—
What was she making? Why, nothing, she sat in a maze
Of old scraps of laces, snipped into curious shreds—
Or this would pass, and the light of her fire decline
Till she lay discouraged and cold as a thin stalk white and blown,
And would not open her eyes to kisses, to wine;
The sixth of these states was her last; the cold settled down.
Sweet ladies, long may ye bloom, and toughly I hope ye may thole,
But was she not lucky? In flowers and lace and mourning,
In love and great honour we bade God rest her soul;
After six little spaces of chill. And six of burning.”
Why, you may wonder, the archaisms and Britishisms? This, I suppose, is Ransom’s way of making the poem more universal and timeless. Also a good way to end a mini survey.
What are we to conclude? That dying affects, in poetry, women more pathetically than men, who make mourning , however, as touching as women do? That there can be a kind of death in life, as in the Michaux poem? Or that death can be dealt best with fasntasies about it? Notice that none of the poets believes in an afterlife. That both some men and some women can endure a loved one’s demise with a certain amount of restraint, of stoicism? That many more poems are needed for more than very tentative conclusions? That unlike by the moribund, too absorbed with dying, the poems—obviously--are written by the surviving bereaved? That, although I offer no samples of it, true Christian believers, however misguidedly, find dying easiest?
I do not know the answers to these questions. Reader, do you?