If love has a rival for the most frequent theme in poetry, I suppose it’s likely death. Poets have been grappling with the mystery of death for as long as they’ve been grappling with the mystery of love, and there are times when they meditate on both subjects in the same poem.
Walt Whitman seems to think of death as the ultimate journey, and that only upon death can a soul enter its truest nature:
Darest thou now O soul
by Walt Whitman
Darest thou now O soul,
Walk out with me toward the unknown region,
Where neither ground is for the feet nor any path to follow?
No map there, nor guide,
Nor voice sounding, nor touch of human hand,
Nor face with blooming flesh, nor lips, nor eyes, are in that land.
I know it not O soul,
Nor dost thou, all is a blank before us,
All waits undream’d of in that region, that inaccessible land.
Till when the ties loosen,
All but the ties eternal, Time and Space,
Nor darkness, gravitation, sense, nor any bounds bounding us.
Then we burst forth, we float,
In Time and Space O soul, prepared for them,
Equal, equipt at last, (O joy! O fruit of all!) them to fulfil O soul.
Another view of death can be found in this amazing poem by Christina Rossetti. She describes death as a destination to which we all come, and she frames it as a comfort: an inn at the end of a long day’s journey, an inn that cannot be missed by the side of the road. She doesn’t describe the inn in specific terms — I suppose it could be something rather like the Bates Motel — but I always picture Rossetti’s inn as a brightly lit place where warm welcomes are given to those who arrive.
by Christina Rossetti
Does the road wind up-hill all the way?
Yes, to the very end.
Will the day’s journey take the whole long day?
From morn to night, my friend.
But is there for the night a resting-place?
A roof for when the slow dark hours begin.
May not the darkness hide it from my face?
You cannot miss that inn.
Shall I meet other wayfarers at night?
Those who have gone before.
Then must I knock, or call when just in sight?
They will not keep you standing at that door.
Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?
Of labour you shall find the sum.
Will there be beds for me and all who seek?
Yea, beds for all who come.
A far, far bleaker view of death can be found in this 11th century Chinese poem:
by Mei Yao-ch’en (1002-1060)
Heaven took my wife. Now it
Has also taken my son.
My eyes are not allowed a
Dry season. It is too much
For my heart. I long for death.
When the rain falls and enters
The earth, when a pearl drops into
The depth of the sea, you can
Dive in the sea and find the
Peal, you can dig in the earth
And find the water. But no one
Has ever come back from the
Underground Springs. Once gone, life
Is over for good. My chest
Tightens against me. I have
No one to turn to. Nothing.
Not even a shadow in a mirror.
(translated by Kenneth Rexroth, from the collection World Poetry
I am currently reading an amazing poetic exploration of death, Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology. The book is a collection of free-form verse epitaphs for the denizens of a small town called Spoon River. In each epitaph we learn why each person died, and many other things as well, as death — the ultimate leveler in status, since everyone from the Mayor to the town drunk will die — allows people to tell the truth, or at least their version of it. Some characters’ deaths are attributable to the callous actions of others, but then we read the others’ own epitaphs and get a different side of the story. Or, in the case of Minerva Jones, we get this:
from Spoon River Anthology
I AM Minerva, the village poetess,
Hooted at, jeered at by the Yahoos of the street
For my heavy body, cock-eye, and rolling walk,
And all the more when “Butch” Weldy
Captured me after a brutal hunt.
He left me to my fate with Doctor Meyers;
And I sank into death, growing numb from the feet up,
Like one stepping deeper and deeper into a stream of ice.
Will some one go to the village newspaper,
And gather into a book the verses I wrote?—
I thirsted so for love
I hungered so for life!
Now, this seems pretty clear that Minerva Jones died after being violently assaulted, perhaps raped, by Butch Weldy. But what does Butch Weldy have to say about his own demise?
from Spoon River Anthology
AFTER I got religion and steadied down
They gave me a job in the canning works,
And every morning I had to fill
The tank in the yard with gasoline,
That fed the blow-fires in the sheds
To heat the soldering irons.
And I mounted a rickety ladder to do it,
Carrying buckets full of the stuff.
One morning, as I stood there pouring,
The air grew still and seemed to heave,
And I shot up as the tank exploded,
And down I came with both legs broken,
And my eyes burned crisp as a couple of eggs.
For someone left a blow—fire going,
And something sucked the flame in the tank.
The Circuit Judge said whoever did it
Was a fellow-servant of mine, and so
Old Rhodes’ son didn’t have to pay me.
And I sat on the witness stand as blind
As lack the Fiddler, saying over and over,
“I didn’t know him at all.”
That’s not how Weldy goes, but anyway, it might be karma, or it might not. But it’s telling that Weldy has absolutely nothing to say about Minerva Jones. He starts right off with “after he got religion,” which might imply that he’s managed to forgive himself for whatever he did to Minerva. That’s pretty convenient, as she’s dead.
Finally, one of my favorite poems, no matter that it’s about death. A.E. Housman’s famous poem is a testament to the fleeting nature of achievement in the face of eternal death, and the fact that very few of us get to die when our lives are spent and when we are truly going to rest.
To an Athlete Dying Young
by A.E. Housman
The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.
Today, 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 honours 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 strengthless dead,
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland briefer than a girl’s.