A Book of Elegies
Sandra M. Gilbert, Editor
(Norton)Inventions of Farewell consists of over 200 poems on death and dying, divided into fourteen sections, including "Mourning Deaths in the Family," "Self-Elegies," "The Pastoral Tradition," "Meditations on Mortality," and "Lamenting the Death of a Beloved."
There are famous poets of yore: Dickinson, Shelley, Wordsworth, Hardy, Shakespeare, Donne, Walt Whitman and Ben Jonson. There are the recently dead (Anne Sexton, Elizabeth Bishop, Denise Levertov, James Wright, Allen Ginsberg, Langston Hughes) and the still living: Gary Snyder, Thom Gunn, Richard Eberhart, Richard Wilbur, Donald Hall, Derek Walcott, Robert Pinsky.
There are the famous (all of the above) and the unknown: Linda Pastan, William Heyen, Yusef Komunyakaa, James Fenton, Jane Cooper, Dennis O'Driscoll, Grace Nicholls.
§ § §
Whether it be prose or poetry, whether it be sonnet, lyric, or free verse --- writing on death is a tough one. One doesn't want to be sloppy sentimental; one must avoid clichés. At the same time, one doesn't want to be too dry or intellectual. The tension between these (sentiment on the one side, discipline on the other) has to be powerful. Those who manage to sustain it come across as artists of the highest order.
The earliest poem here is that of William Dunbar, the "Lament for the Makaris" (Lament for Poets):
(The Latin quote is from "the Office of the Dead," and is repeated after each of the twenty-five verses, as a tolling bell. It might be translated wrongly, I suspect. "The fear of death dismays me" says the editor. Far better would be, I'm scared to death of dying.)
"I that in heill was and gladness,
Am troublit now with great seikness,
And feeblit with infirmity:
Timor Mortis conturbat me
Our plesance here is all vain-glory
This false warld is bot transitory,
The flesh is brukill, the Fiend is sle;
Timor Mortis conturbat me.
The state of man dois change and vary,
Now sound, now seik, now blyth, now sary,
Now dansand merry, now like to die;
Timor Mortis conturbat me.
From the Renaissance, there's Ben Jonson's woeful and wonderful "On My First Son,"
Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
My sin was too much hope of thee, loved boy;
Seven years thou wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
There's Shakespeare's Sonnet 71, replete with those usual twisty bardic words, the song of repeated "m's" and "s's" and "w's" and "v's" and "ll's:"
No longer mourn for me when I am dead
Than you shall hear the surly sullen bell
Give warning to the world that I am fled
From this vile world, with vilest worms to dwell.
There's Emily Dickinson, being cryptic, as usual, and (as usual) in her abbreviated 19th Century newspaper headline-writing style, missing much in the way of passion:
The instant holding in its claw
The privilege to live
Or warrant to report the Soul
The other side of the Grave.
§ § §
More than half of the poems are from American and English moderns --- those born after 1925. Thom Gunn on the death of a gay friend, Sharon Olds on her father, Donald Hall on the death of his wife Jane Kenyon,
is established: coffee;
the Globe; breakfast;
writing you this letter
at my desk.
All of them share the power of sentiment carefully contained, hedged by detail; a pitiless staring into the heart of the beast, speaking carefully, courageously, of and to those who were part of a deep joining of heart and soul.
Less successful is the section devoted to public grieving --- Tiananmen, the Holocaust, Vietnam, lynchings in the south, WWII. Randall Jarrell's When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose comes across now as just too stiff and cynical and dry. As well, poets meditating on the deaths of other poets --- Gary Snyder on Lew Welch, William Dickey on John Berryman, Anne Sexton on Sylvia Plath, Christopher Gilbert on Robert Hayden --- don't seem to contain the power nor the grief of the first chapters of Inventions of Farewell. There's Shelley's absurdly long elegy to John Keats, "Adonais," complete with fusty, romantic wailings:
And in mad trance, strike with our spirit's knife
Invulnerable nothings. --- We decay
Like corpses in a charnel; fear and grief
Convulse us and consume us day by day,
And cold hopes swarm like worms within our living clay.
This one might well have been excerpted; for sure, his "Death is dead, not he..." amounts to a wheeze (Shakespeare and Donne, among others, said it before).
The key difficulty, we suspect, is this: to create meaningful words about a deep and personal love is easier than some generic affection or feeling. One has to be able to render the unspeakable into words, leaving sentiment --- all that soppy stuff --- behind, and I suspect it is more genuine when we write about someone who was part of our lives. Tiananmen, as ghastly as it was, was no-one's day-
and- night passion.
Ms. Gilbert's choices, for the most part, are dramatic and potent. Even those who can't quite bring it off still deserve our consideration, because the editor has mostly shunned the specious and the garish --- although Dylan Thomas thundering Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage/rage against the dying of the light does turn up (turning up the heat, as Thomas is wont to do) on page 47. At least we aren't being subjected to --- can you hear him ranting, with his Welsh/BBC voice? --- And death shall have no dominion.
Some of the most plaintive are those who are totally unknown to us, those who manage to dredge from their souls words that touch us to the depth. There is, for example, this epitaph from 1641, on a monument erected at Colmworth Church, Bedfordshire, by one Lady Catherine Dyer, addressed to her now departed husband Sir William Dyer. It's an astonishing mix of nobility and restrained woe:
My dearest dust, could not thy hasty day
Afford the drowzy patience leave to stay
One bower longer: so that we might either
Sate up, or gone to bedd together?
But since thy finisht labor hath possest
Thy weary limbs with early rest,
Enjoy it sweetly: and thy widdowe bride
Shall soone repose her by thy slumbering side.
Whose business, now, is only to prepare
My nightly dress, and call to prayre:
Mine eyes wax heavy and ye day growes old.
The dew falls thick, my beloved growes cold.
Draw, draw ye closed curtaynes: and make room:
My dear, my dearest dust; I come, I come.