Poems of grief

Nerja Players radio show, 25 June 2009

Seven weeks ago from tomorrow I lost my wife Pat. Or should I rather say: Pat died seven weeks ago, leaving me a widower. There is a big difference between these two ways of seeing the deaths of others. Is it all about me? Or is it also about the beloved who's gone? I've been looking at some poems on grief, and I find the difference there too.

First, a poem made famous by the film Four Weddings and a Funeral.

Funeral blues
W. H. Auden, 1938 (second version)

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

Wow. But the dead person is indistinct; and in fact the poem wasn't even written for a particular one. Even more detached and impersonal is this:

A Slumber did my Spirit Seal
William Wordsworth, 1799

A slumber did my spirit seal;
I had no human fears:
She seemed a thing that could not feel
The touch of earthly years.
No motion has she now, no force;   
She neither hears nor sees;
Rolled round in earth's diurnal course,
    With rocks, and stones, and trees.

My third poem of this general class is John Donne's
A nocturnal upon st. Lucy's day, being the shortest day.

This famous work was probably written in 1627 when both Donne's friend Lucy, Countess of Bedford, and his daughter Lucy Donne died. But you wouldn't know this from the magnificent subjective baroque excess of the poem.

TIS the year's midnight, and it is the day's,
Lucy's, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks ;
    The sun is spent, and now his flasks
    Send forth light squibs, no constant rays ;
            The world's whole sap is sunk ;
The general balm th' hydroptic earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the bed's-feet, life is shrunk,
Dead and interr'd ; yet all these seem to laugh,
Compared with me, who am their epitaph.

Study me then, you who shall lovers be
At the next world, that is, at the next spring ;
    For I am every dead thing,
    In whom Love wrought new alchemy.
            For his art did express
A quintessence even from nothingness,
From dull privations, and lean emptiness ;
He ruin'd me, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darkness, death—things which are not.

All others, from all things, draw all that's good,
Life, soul, form, spirit, whence they being have ;
    I, by Love's limbec, am the grave
    Of all, that's nothing. Oft a flood
            Have we two wept, and so
Drown'd the whole world, us two ; oft did we grow,
To be two chaoses, when we did show
Care to aught else ; and often absences
Withdrew our souls, and made us carcasses.

But I am by her death—which word wrongs her—
Of the first nothing the elixir grown ;
    Were I a man, that I were one
    I needs must know ; I should prefer,
            If I were any beast,
Some ends, some means ; yea plants, yea stones detest,
And love ; all, all some properties invest.
If I an ordinary nothing were,
As shadow, a light, and body must be here.

But I am none ; nor will my sun renew.
You lovers, for whose sake the lesser sun
    At this time to the Goat is run
    To fetch new lust, and give it you,
            Enjoy your summer all,
Since she enjoys her long night's festival.
Let me prepare towards her, and let me call
This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this
Both the year's and the day's deep midnight is.

In contrast, the epigraph poem to Rudyard Kipling's tale How the Alphabet was Made, from Just So Stories, first published 1902. Three years earlier, Kipling's eldest daughter Josephine had died in New York of pneumonia at the age of six. In context, it's clearly about the loss. The poem is technically a much inferior work to my first three; but unlike them it brings tears to my eyes: I think because the dead girl is present. And this holds even though what Kipling has to say about her is very conventional, unlike the beautifully characterised Taffumai Tegumai of the prose story.

OF all the Tribe of Tegumai
    Who cut that figure, none remain,--
On Merrow Down the cuckoos cry
    The silence and the sun remain.
But as the faithful years return
    And hearts unwounded sing again,
Comes Taffy dancing through the fern
    To lead the Surrey spring again.
Her brows are bound with bracken-fronds,
    And golden elf-locks fly above;
Her eyes are bright as diamonds
    And bluer than the skies above.
In mocassins and deer-skin cloak,
    Unfearing, free and fair she flits,
And lights her little damp-wood smoke
    To show her Daddy where she flits.
For far--oh, very far behind,
    So far she cannot call to him,
Comes Tegumai alone to find
    The daughter that was all to him.
To finish, a great poem: the anonymous Border ballad Helen of Kirkconnell. that combines deep feeling – in fact rage and despair - with a similar recognition of the dead person. It was based on a true incident during the reign of Mary Queen of Scots. Helen Irving, walking in Annandale with her betrothed lover Adam Fleming, was killed by a shot aimed at Adam by a disappointed rival. The poem is put into Adam's mouth.
I WISH I were where Helen lies,
Night and day on me she cries;
O that I were where Helen lies,
On fair Kirkconnell lea!
Curst be the heart that thought the thought,
And curst the hand that fired the shot,
When in my arms burd Helen dropt,
And died to succour me!

O think na ye my heart was sair,
When my Love dropp’d and spak nae mair!
There did she swoon wi’ meikle care,
On fair Kirkconnell lea.

As I went down the water side,
None but my foe to be my guide,
None but my foe to be my guide,
On fair Kirkconnell lea;

I lighted down my sword to draw,
I hackèd him in pieces sma’,
I hackèd him in pieces sma’,
For her sake that died for me.

O Helen fair, beyond compare!
I’ll mak a garland o’ thy hair,
Shall bind my heart for evermair,
Until the day I dee!

O that I were where Helen lies!
Night and day on me she cries;
Out of my bed she bids me rise,
Says, ‘Haste, and come to me!’

O Helen fair! O Helen chaste!
If I were with thee, I’d be blest,
Where thou lies low and taks thy rest,
On fair Kirkconnell lea.

I wish my grave were growing green,
A winding-sheet drawn owre my een,
And I in Helen’s arms lying,
On fair Kirkconnell lea.

I wish I were where Helen lies!
Night and day on me she cries;
And I am weary of the skies,
For her sake that died for me.