To reflect upon one’s dying is to cast dice. These writings have gained for me such intensity in their collection as to relax from their own content, sinking with each into an obscurity. I scatter them about.
So abandon hope, all ye who enter here!
Since I freely interpret from early works the thoughts of authors, unable to interrupt me in protest and straighten me out, any other mediums out there should feel free to join in.
§ Antigone’s brother had died “betraying” the city-state. She could not bring him back to once more share his company; and by royal decree anyone burying his remains would receive the state’s capital punishment, so Antigone and her family could not even put him aside and get back to their lives. She chooses to defy the edict and is entombed alive as punishment. There she improvises a noose and hangs herself. By his edict the king had defied tradition, and retribution came two-fold: his son, betrothed to Antigone, joined her in death and his wife joined in death their son.
Sophocles warns against delaying this burial, but also against a delay in applying a normal, non-earthen cover to the remains. For Sophocles there is a time to put it aside and return to the business of living. In this survey, just beginning, I focus attention on those aspects of life often upstaged by death. Here I will bring all of us so close to the matter as to make you wonder whether you are being warned or, by me, entrapped. Clearly I am disregarding Sophocles.
§ Shakespeare gives us all ringside seats into Hamlet’s mulling over emergent impressions of death.
“To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;”
Hamlet is actively digesting the indigestible: not only talking to himself, but also listening to himself; not only conveying death as dream-like, but as not to be slept through.
“For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,”
Now comes the last line which rather than the first ought to give this soliloquy its reputation.
“And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action. . . .”
Hamlet realizes that not only is death an uncertain venture but glancing at it can fixate us short of attaining our higher goals. He really is “mad north-north-west” but “when the wind is southerly” he knows “a hawk from a hand saw:” that is from a heron. Unfortunately recognizing the jinx in others does not spare him or his aspirations from its effects. He fumbles through the rest of the play and succumbs along with his kingdom as a warning to take this distractive jinx seriously. Two millennia after Sophocles, it is a more personal rendition of the caveat against thrusting stark death upon oneself or others . . . but I naughtily persist.
§ In 1833 Arthur Henry Hallam, a close friend of Alfred Lord Tennyson, died. For years, when thinking of Hallam, Tennyson would write fragments of poetry, all in an unusual rhyme scheme. Finally he brought them together for publishing under the title of In Memoriam A.H.H. In the excerpts that I’ve chosen he addresses his Christ; then he questions his own motives in writing and in certain efforts to comfort himself.
In Memoriam A.H.H.
“Strong son of god, immortal love,
Whom we who have not seen thy face,
By faith, and faith alone embrace,
Believing where we cannot prove;
Thine are those orbs of light and shade;
Thou madest life in man and brute;
Thou madest death; and lo, thy foot
Is on the skull, which thou hadst made.
Thou wilt not leave us in the dust:
Thou madest man, he knows not why,
He thinks he was not made to die;
And thou hast made him: thou art just.
Forgive what seem’d my sin in me;
What seemed my worth since I began;
For merit lives from man to man,
And not from man, O Lord, to thee.
Forgive my grief for one removed,
Thy creature, whom I found so fair.
I trust he lives in thee, and there
I find him worthier to be loved.
Forgive these wild and wandering cries,
Confusions of a wasted youth;
Forgive them where they fail in truth,
And in thy wisdom make me wise.”
He seems embarrassed at having wanted his Christ to rescind Hallam’s death, but is really at peace with that prevailing embarrassment commensurate in wanting the impossible. These lines are part of the prologue, but they may well have been written far into his bout with grief.
Further on he acknowledges a facility with words that would allow him to misrepresent his feelings about Hallam. Has he been doing that?
“I sometimes hold it half a sin
To put in words the grief I feel;
For words, like nature, half reveal
And half conceal the soul within.
But, for the unquiet heart and brain,
A use in measured language lies;
The sad mechanic exercise,
Like dull narcotics, numbing pain.”
Through writing he relieves his painful imperative: doing something about which he can do very little.
It is amazing how people will zero in on simple facts about death and then draw from them the most bazaar conclusions. Such are too frequent and for me too depressing. Here Tennyson takes a shot at a conclusion based on death’s being so common.
“One writes, that ‘Other friends remain,’
That, ‘Loss is common to the race’—
And common is the commonplace,
And vacant chaff well meant for grain.
That loss is common would not make
My own less bitter, rather more:
Too common! Never morning wore
To evening, but some heart did break.”
Were I to assure someone who had broken their leg of how very many people break their legs, my remarks would be clearly unwelcome, but the subject of death is considered ripe for any nonsense which leaves one with a sense of being in control.
§ Next James Boswell relates a conversation in which he invites Samuel Johnson to join him and others in viewing death as more palatable. Neither Johnson nor St. Vincent Millet would ever discount the price exacted by death for the sake of entering into some deceptively comfortable relationship with it.
Boswell (narrating): When we were alone, I introduced the subject of death, and endeavored to maintain that the fear of it might be got over. I told him that David Hume said to me, he was no more uneasy that he should not be after this life, than that he had not been before he began to exist.
Johnson: If he really thinks so, his perceptions are disturbed; he is mad: if he does not think so, he lies. He may tell you, he holds his finger in the flame of a candle, without feeling pain; would you believe him? When he dies, he at least gives up all he has.
Boswell: Foote, Sir, told me that when he was very ill, he was not afraid to die.
Johnson: It is not true, Sir. Hold a pistol to Foote’s breast, or to Hume’s breast, and threaten to kill them, and you’ll see how they behave.
Boswell: But may we not fortify our minds for the approach of death?
Johnson: No, Sir let it alone. It matters not how a man dies, but how he lives. The act of dying is not of importance; it lasts so short a time . . .. A man knows it must be so, and submits . . .
I interpret Johnson’s submission as being to his own painful “knowing it must be so”—not to death itself. He would not buy peace of mind, with a lifetime of doubting his own mental faculties, to submit to a mere token. After all were your neighbors to paint their home chartreuse with pink shutters, you would accept the view as having been changed, but never the changed view.
§ Emily Bronte taught Heathclif of Wuthering Heights about the agony of a loved one’s loss from recollections. I read now in Emily’s poem Remembrance.
“Cold in the earth—and deep snow piled above thee,
Far, far removed, cold in the dreary grave!
Have I forgot, my only Love, to love thee,
Severed at last by Time’s all-severing wave?
Now, when alone, do my thoughts no longer hover
Over the mountains, on that northern shore,
Resting their wings where heath and fern-leaves cover
That noble heart for ever, ever more?
Cold in the earth—and fifteen wild Decembers
From those brown hills, have melted into spring—
Faithful indeed is the spirit that remembers
After such years of change and suffering!
No later light has lightened up my heaven;
No second morn has ever shown for me:
All my life’s bliss from my dear life was given—
All my life’s bliss is in the grave with thee.
But, when the days of golden dreams had perished,
And even Despair was powerless to destroy,
Then did I learn how existence could be cherished,
Strengthened and fed without the aid of joy;
Then did I check the tear of useless passion,
Weaned my young soul from yearning after thine;
Sternly denied its burning wish to hasten
Down to that tomb already more than mine!
And, even yet, I dare not let it languish,
Dare not indulge in memory’s rapturous pain;
Once drinking deep of that divinest anguish,
How could I seek the empty world again?”
Emily submitted herself again and again to reliving her beloved’s having been wrenched away from her merely so that she might also relive with joy her beloved’s presence. The price became too much for her and she finally reined her imagination in from its ongoing struggle just in time to write Wuthering Heights, one of the English language’s finest novels. Emily died one year after publication with no inkling, through its early detraction, of how well her novel would in time be received; unless you count that wonderful feeling that she must have had about this work.
§ Upon Emily’s own death, her sister Charlotte wrote the following letter to a friend.
My dear Ellen,
Emily suffers no more from pain and weakness now. She never will suffer more in this world. She is gone, after a hard, short conflict. She died on Tuesday, the very day I wrote to you. I thought it very possible she might be with us still for weeks; and a few hours afterward she was in eternity. Yes, there is no Emily in time or on earth now. Yesterday we put her poor wasted, mortal frame quietly under the church pavement. We are very calm at present. Why should we be otherwise? The anguish of seeing her suffer is over; the spectacle of the pains of death is gone; the funeral day is past. We feel she is at peace. No need to tremble for the hard frost and the keen wind. Emily does not feel them. She died in a time of promise. We saw her taken from life in its prime. But it is God’s will, and the place where she has gone is better than she has left.
In both Emily’s poem and Charlotte’s letter the esteem toward each subject is clear. It comes through Emily’s anguish and Charlotte’s release from anguish. In fact expressing that esteem to others may have even been for both sisters a release from separate sorrows.
§ Now Edna St. Vincent Millay takes aim at a conclusion based on different facts about death. There is afoot the notion that, since in time life ends undeniably and irrevocably, we ought not to expose ourselves to the pain of disappointment, but rather accept the end with resignation. There will be no such illusory compact in her Dirge Without Music.
“I am not resigned to the shutting away of love’s hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.
Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains—but the best is lost.
The answer quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love—
They are gone. They have gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.
Down, down, down into darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I did not approve. And I am not resigned.”
§ What more could be snatched from hopeless death? William Styron not only expresses his esteem for Lillian Hellman, he also renders a portrait and personal glimpse of her in this eulogy.
“I’m Bill Styron, an old friend of Lillian’s, like many of us here. She once told me that this would be the day that I yearn for more than anything in my life, speaking words over her remains; and she cackled in glee. ‘Ha, ha,’ she said and I cackled back. She said, ‘If you don’t say utterly admiring and beautiful things about me, I’m going to cut you out of my will.’ I said that there was no possible way that I could refrain from saying a few critical things, and she said, ‘Well you’re cut out already.’
That was the way things went with us. I think we had more fights per man and woman contact than probably anyone alive. We were fighting all the time, and we loved each other a great deal for sure, because the vibrations were there. But our fights were never really, oddly enough, over abstract things like politics or philosophy or social dilemmas; they were always over such things as whether a Smithfield ham should be served hot or cold, or whether I had put too much salt in the black-eyed peas.”
Clearly William Styron would not allow Lillian’s death to eclipse Lillian herself.
§ Less personal is this beautiful elegy by A. E. Housman. He breathes enough life into the spirit of a deceased athlete to give him a last word over death.
To an Athlete Dying Young
“The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the marketplace;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder high.
To-day, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.
Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.
Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears:
Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honors out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.
So set, before its echoes fade,
The fleet foot on the sill of shade,
And hold to the low lintel up
The still defended challenge-cup.
And round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strength-less dead,
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland briefer than a girl’s.”
Lacking any will of its own, Death cannot be victorious or in control in any sense. Housman reminds us of this by lightly alluding to this dying as though it were personally planned.
I now move from the paying of homage and the sharing of personal glimpses onto writing about oneself—that is about one’s own mortality. I found this part of the program the most difficult, because of how entwined in the courage to write about one’s own death is a curiosity about the very same. I passed over material that seemed to merely test the water, but in no way do I fault such verse conceived and completed in curiosity.
§ Christina Rossetti and Joyce Grenfell were each concerned about what would be the impact of their death on those who cared about them. Both minimized any requirements of friendship, but remember that sometimes less can be more.
When I Am Dead by Christiana Rosetti
When I am dead, my dearest,
Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head
Nor shady cypress tree:
Be the green grass above me
With showers and dew drops wet;
And, if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt, forget.
I shall not see the shadows,
I shall not feel the rain;
I shall not hear the nightingale
Sing on, as if in pain:
And dreaming through the twilight
That doth not rise nor set,
Haply I may remember,
And haply may forget.
§ Now consider.
If I Should Go Before the Rest of You
by Joyce Grenfell
If I should go before the rest of you,
Break not a flower or inscribe a stone,
Nor when I’m gone speak in a Sunday voice,
But be the usual selves that I have known,
Weep if you must.
Parting is hell.
But life goes on,
So sing as well.
Ms. Rossetti wove into her requests images, at once mystical and sobering, from the other side; whereas, for Ms. Grenfell, the comedienne, being separated from friends was all she needed to know about it.
A close friend of mine once picked up a batch of relatives at the airport two hours before his daughter’s bat-mitzvah. On the way to the synagogue a railroad tie fell off the truck ahead. The accident disabled their car and nearly did much worse. Miraculously everyone arrived a couple of minutes late and Alan ad-libbed an introductory speech on how important is the seeing of difficulties in perspective.
§ The next writer’s life was stripped of the irrelevant by its remaining brevity. She grabbed at that new perspective, and calmed her inner turmoil. For her, things mattered; things did not.
The Wind of Death by Ethelwyn Wetherald
The wind of death that softly blows
The last warm petal from the rose,
The last dry leaf from off the tree,
Tonight has come to breathe on me.
There was a time I learned to hate,
As weaker mortals learn to love;
The passion held me fixed as fate,
Burned in my veins early and late,
But now a wind falls from above—
The wind of death that silently
Enshroudeth friend and enemy.
There was a time my soul was thrilled
By keen ambition’s whip and spur;
My master forced me where he willed,
And with his power my life was filled,
But now the old-time pulses stir,
How faintly in the wind of death,
That bloweth lightly as a breath!
And once, but once at Love’s dear feet,
I yielded strength, and life, and heart;
His look turned bitter into sweet,
His smile made all the world complete;
The wind blows loves like leaves apart—
The wind of death that tenderly
Is blowing ‘twixt my love and me.
O wind of death that darkly blows
Each separate ship of human woes
Far out on a mysterious sea,
I turn, I turn my face to thee.
When I was organizing this program, I discovered a bitter sweetness in pain met and handled along this winding route that only seems endless.