Tuesday, August 23, 2011


One of the poet's favorite or at least one of the most frequent themes is death. I think Emily Dickinson wrote several hundred poems on that theme. I suspect that probably every poet of some fame has written at least one or more on death. And, their treatment of death is as varied as they themselves are. Here is one I just discovered that dates back to about 1900 B. C., over four thousand years ago.

Death is Before Me Today

Death is before me today
like health to the sick
like leaving the bedroom after sickness.

Death is before me today
like the odor of myrrh
like sitting under a cloth on a day of wind.

Death is before me today
like the odor of lotus
like sitting down on the shore of drunkenness.

Death is before me today
like the end of the rain
like a man's home-coming after the wars abroad.

Death is before me today
like the sky when it clears
like a man's wish to see home after numberless years of captivity.

-- anon --
c. 1900 B. C.
W. S. Merwin, trans
World Poetry
Katharine Washburn & John B. Major, Editors

The anonymous poet's view is that death is just returning home after a long absence. Taoists say something very similar: we come out of the Void, are here for awhile, and then return to the Void.

But, there's Dylan Thomas, whom I think would not agree.

(from) Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

. . . . .

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Come. bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And Emily Dickinson?

Because I could not stop for Death —
He kindly stopped for me —
The Carriage held but just Ourselves —
And Immortality.

We slowly drove — He knew no haste —
And I had put away
My labor — and my leisure too,
For His Civility.

We passed the School where Children strove
At Recess — in the Ring —
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain —
We passed the Setting Sun —

Or rather — He passed Us-
The Dews drew quivering and chill —
For only Gossamer, my Gown —
My Tippet — only Tulle —

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground —
The roof was scarcely visible —
The Cornice — in the Ground

Since then — ‘tis Centuries — and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity.

I think she and the anonymous Egyptian poet would agree.

And the haiku poets of Japan

A saddening world:
Flowers whose sweet blooms must fall . . .
As we too, alas . . .
-- Issa --


Leaf alone, fluttering
Alas, leaf alone, fluttering . . .
Floating down the wind.
-- anon --


I have known lovers . . .
Cherry-bloom . . . the nightingale . . .
I will sleep content.
-- anon --


If they ask for me
Say: he had some business
In another world
-- Sukan --

Traditionally, haiku poets would, if they were able, write one last haiku, which then became their death song. Ideally it would express their feelings about their impending death.

As for me, well, death is in the future for all of us. It approaches at its own speed and will meet us at its own choosing. There's no need, though, to rush forward to greet it. It will come. Perhaps between now and that day, I may agree with the anonymous Egyptian poet or Emily Dickinson.

But not today.

The haiku are from
A Little Treasury of Haiku
Peter Beilenson, trans.

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