Sunday, 29 September 2013

What my favourite poets have to say about death

I am not a great reader of poetry, but there are poets I have studied and taught, and written about in this blog (here for instance) who seem able to use language to reveal profound truths about the world. So it is perhaps natural, as I have struggled to come to terms with the death of my wife, that I should consider what my three favourites, John Keats, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Wilfred Owen, have to say about death. They are my favourites on the basis of their unmatched skill in tapping the richness of the connotations of words, whether through imagery or through alliteration, assonance, rhyme and rhythm, but as I frequently used to explain to students it is impossible to separate style and content and in fact all three explore profound concepts about the nature of existence.

So what of death? Of the three, Owen was no doubt most closely acquainted with the realities of death, but it is remarkable in a sense how little he has to say on the topic. His subject, as he explains in the Preface to his poems is "War, and the Pity of War. The poetry is in the Pity." He is much concerned with the dead, writing with elegiac sadness in Anthem for Doomed Youth for instance of the countless thousands who "die as cattle" and with the process of dying, focusing with brutal clarity in poems such as the Sentry or Dulce et Decorum Est on its painful realities.

However it seems that death itself is too vast a concept for someone as thoughtful and perceptive as Owen to attempt to define or even evoke. When he does tackle the subject he seems always to tail off into questions and inconclusiveness and even unfinished sentences. In Asleep, after wondering what has happened to the soldier in death he concludes, "Who knows? Who hopes? Who troubles? Let it pass!" and the questioning at the end of Futility is profounder still: "O what made fatuous sunbeams toil/To break earth's sleep at all?"

In Strange Meeting Owen does tackle the subject head-on with a dreamlike evocation of a conversation in some strange pre-Christian vision of hell with a soldier whom he has killed. Yet here too he comes to no conclusions and ends on an unfinished line: "let us sleep now...". Perhaps Owen was more concerned with the horrors of life than the unknowable mysteries of death. In Spring Offensive, having described the many ways in which soldiers die, his thoughts in the end are with "The few who rushed in the body to enter hell,/ ... And crawling slowly back, have by degrees /Regained cool peaceful air in wonder"- namely the survivors- and again he ends with a question: "Why speak they not of comrades that went under?" Here, in asking the question he is perhaps answering it too: what in the end is there to say about death?

Owen ends Exposure with a description of the burial party retrieving the frozen corpses from no-mans-land. Here the half-rhyme of "eyes" and "ice", and the forcing together of the incongruous connotations of those two words combine with the rhythmic uncertainty of the short last line to leave a powerful statement of the inability of Owen to answer his own question:
The burying-party, picks and shovels in their shaking grasp,
Pause over half-known faces. All their eyes are ice,
But nothing happens."

As a devout Catholic, Gerard Manley Hopkins would be expected to have more answers on the subject of death than Wilfred Owen who, despite having initially wanted to become a priest does appear to have lost his faith over the course of the War. In most of Hopkins' poems though, death is not a subject he chooses to tackle. In his great poems like God's Grandeur and Hurrahing in Harvest he is so caught up in the magnificence and beauty of the world around him that death is far from his thoughts. However he had darker times too. In his Sonnets of Desolation Hopkins goes perhaps further than anything else I have read in exploring the darkness of despair and fear. His outcry in No worst, there is none is terrifying to anyone who recognises the experience he describes:
"O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne'er hung there."

On the face of it, though, his subject in these sonnets is the fear not of death but of loss of faith. Indeed he ends "No worst, there is none" with what he calls "a comfort serves in a whirlwind," namely that: "All life death does end and each day dies with sleep." Yet I cannot believe that those lines should be taken entirely at face value. Though he claims to see death as a "comfort" I challenge anyone to feel comforted by that last line. And to pursue his cliff image further, when clinging to the face of a precipitous cliff it is death one fears, not loss of faith. It is perhaps impertinent to psychoanalyse Hopkins but it seems to me that, despite what he might overtly say, his crisis of faith in the Sonnets of Desolation was brought about by his inability to find any comfort in the idea of death.

So what of Keats? Like Owen, Keats was acquainted with death He had nursed his mother and his brother Tom through the lingering "white death" of tuberculosis, only to succumb to the disease himself. However like Hopkins, much of his poetry appears inspired by excitement and joy. Some of this, as with Hopkins, is joy in the beauty of nature but Keats also experiences something like exhilaration in the experience of literature itself. He states that "Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know," and nowhere is this clearer than in On First Looking into Chapman's Homer, where he describes the experience of coming across a new translation:
"Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific—and all his men
Looked at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien."
and for much of his writing Keats loses himself in magnificent explorations of ancient myths and the creation of worlds of the imagination.

Of course the knowledge of death is always there, and there is a wistfulness in much of Keats' greatest poetry, whether in the mention of the "Gathering swallows [that] twitter in the skies" at the end of Ode to Autumn or the beautifully evocative description of Madeleine's candle in Eve of St Agnes: "Out went the taper as she hurried in;/Its little smoke, in pallid moonshine, died." Sometimes the idea of death is closer to the surface. Ode on a Grecian Urn, from which the "Beauty is truth" quotation comes, is ostensibly a poem celebrating the eternal constancy of great art, but there is an acute awareness of human mortality too, in lines such as "a heart high-sorrowful and cloy'd,/A burning forehead, and a parching tongue," and though the poem concludes (of the urn) that "When old age shall this generation waste,/Thou shalt remain," Keats seems at least as concerned with the death of those of us who see the object now as with the object's own eternal life. As a work of art it is described as "Cold Pastoral," and Keats says of the town pictured on on its reverse "thy streets for evermore/Will silent be; and not a soul, to tell/Why thou art desolate, can e'er return."

There are some poems though in which Keats explicitly addresses the idea of death and his feelings about it. The best known of these is perhaps Ode to a Nightingale, which is full of references to death. He remembers Tom's deaths in the line "Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies" and in describing the flowers amongst which he lies consciously evokes their funereal significance: "I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,/Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,/But, in embalmed darkness...". He even admits that he has "been half in love with easeful Death." Yet there is a real ambivalence here too. The eponymous nightingale "was not born for death," and in the end the echo of the funeral service returns but its "plaintive anthem fades/ Past the near meadows, over the still stream,/Up the hill-side," losing itself in the returning awareness of the reality and beauty of the poet's actual surroundings. Keats ends the poem with a sense of questioning that echoes Owen: "Was it a vision, or a waking dream?/Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?"

Another Keats poem, Ode on Melancholy is not so much about death itself as about his feelings on the subject, and for me it is one of his most remarkable. The first stanza, even more than the beginning of Nightingale, contemplates suicide and has many of the same references to the dark glamours of the idea. However the stanza begins "No, no," and Keats emphatically rejects suicide as an option, but for a fascinating reason. The problem, he feels, is that "shade to shade will come too drowsily,/And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul," and it is precisely that "wakeful anguish" that the poem goes on to celebrate. He describes melancholy in as graphic and moving a way as I have ever come across, rooting it in a series of profoundly physical experiences:
"But when the melancholy fit shall fall
  Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud,
That fosters the droop-headed flowers all,
  And hides the green hill in an April shroud;
Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose,  
  Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave,
    Or on the wealth of globed peonies;"
and concludes that Melancholy (whom he personifies as a mythical goddess) is in the end inseparably close to Beauty, Joy, Pleasure and even Delight. He counsels sufferers to embrace Melancholy in the fullness of its physical force with a truly sensual image, saying of Melancholy's shrine that it is "seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue/ Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine."

So Owen, it seems, holds off any conclusive statement about death because the topic is too overwhelmingly rooted in the horror of the life he saw around him. Hopkins was perhaps too frightened, not so much of death itself as of the fact that he feared death, despite his faith. Keats saw death in everything around him and sought to come to an accommodation with it, relishing even the overwhelming physicality of melancholy.

So what of Shakespeare (well, you didn't think I'd write a blog entry like this without mentioning Shakespeare, did you)? Shakespeare certainly does not shy away from the topic, with large numbers of onstage deaths in many of his plays (10 in King Lear alone, plus the blinding of Gloucester). There are also a number of great speeches about death, so surely it ought to be possible to sum up Shakespeare's feelings on the subject.

Well, no. For a start, many of those great speeches turn out not actually to be about death. Macbeth's great "Tomorrow and tomorrow" soliloquy is more about the futility of life than about death. It is prompted by Macbeth hearing about the death of his wife, but all he has to say on that subject is, "She should have died hereafter. There would have been a time for such a word." Antony's famous "Friends, Romans, countrymen," speech in Julius Caesar, for all its powerful evocation of Caesar's death, is in essence a piece of demagogic rabble-rousing and nothing to do with death at all.

So what of Mark Anthony's dying speech then? On the face of it this is a much more straightforward peroration on the nature of death:
"The miserable change now at my end
Lament nor sorrow at; but please your thoughts
In feeding them with those my former fortunes
Wherein I lived, the greatest prince o' the world,
The noblest; and do now not basely die,
Not cowardly put off my helmet to
My countryman,—a Roman by a Roman
Valiantly vanquish'd. Now my spirit is going;
I can no more."
but on closer examination the speech is much more about Anthony's anxieties about how he will be remembered. This is the character, after all, who a few scenes previously had confessed that "I am Anthony, yet cannot hold this visible shape," and at the moment of his death he makes a last desperate attempt to reassert his sense of who he is.

King Lear, despite the nihilistic greatness of the line "Never, never, never, never, never." faces death by attempting to deny its existence. He dies holding Cordelia in his arms, and though his daughter is clearly dead he asks for her collar to be loosened. His last words are " Do you see this? Look on her! look! her lips! /Look there, look there!" and as Macbeth faces his own certain death it is the question of bravery in battle that seems to concern him more than anything else: "Lay on, Macduff,/And damned be him that first cries, 'Hold, enough!'"

As in so many areas, it is Hamlet that has the most interesting things to say about death. In fact it would seem reasonable to suggest that his famous "To be or not to be" speech can be taken as Shakespeare's definitive pronouncement about death. The speech is full of grandly resonant statements about "The undiscover'd country from whose bourn/No traveller returns," contrasting "The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks/That flesh is heir to" with the "sleep" and the "quietus" that is death, though wondering also "what dreams may come" in that "sleep of death."

The speech is a great one, needless to say, and summarises a lot of how we cogitate over the nature of death. However it should not be forgotten that this speech comes near the start of the play, and part of the brilliance of Shakespeare is that his characters always grow and develop, so nothing from the start of any play should be seen as a character's (let alone the author's) definitive statement on the subject. At the start of the play, Hamlet is quite distanced from death. There is no suggestion that he has ever witnessed it himself, and though he is moved by his father's death it seems that it is the rather outré and Gothic descriptions from his father's ghost that get through to him. He is a student, and clearly given to grand philosophical statements. Almost his first speech is to emphasise just how much more authentic and important his grief is than anyone else's:
"Seems, madam! nay it is; I know not 'seems.'
'Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected 'havior of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
That can denote me truly: these indeed seem,
For they are actions that a man might play:
But I have that within which passeth show;
These but the trappings and the suits of woe."
To misquote Hamlet himself, "the gentleman doth protest too much methinks ."

Over the course of the play though, Hamlet is forced to confront death, whether of those he has killed, of his fiancee Ophelia, of his mother or of himself. So one can presume that by the end of the play so thoughtful and eloquent a character must surely have something significant to say about death: something more profound and meaningful even than his "To be, or not to be" speech. There is a strong sense also that Shakespeare used Hamlet to voice ideas and thoughts that were in essence his own, so by the end of the play maybe we can hear what Shakespeare actually had to say about death.

So what are Hamlet's last words? How does he (and through him Shakespeare) sum up humankind's attitude to death? Well, we have to wait until (in an echo of Antony) he has ensured that Horatio will protect his reputation once he has gone. We also have to wait until he has, rather bizarrely, pronounced Fortinbras as his successor, but finally comes Hamlet's great statement:

"The rest is silence."

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