Tuesday, March 13, 2012

"Are The Dead As Calm As Those They Leave Behind Them?"

At the beginning of the month, I posted a poem by Christina Rossetti ("Life and Death") that contains the lines:  "Life is not sweet.  One day it will be sweet/To shut our eyes and die."  Because of her religious faith, Rossetti was probably able to view this prospect with equanimity.  Others (Philip Larkin, for instance) look upon death with horror since, for them, it means extinction:
                                    . . . no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

Philip Larkin, from "Aubade," Collected Poems (Faber and Faber 1988).

        Jack Airy, "A House and Cottage near the Quay at Orford" (c. 1940)

In the following untitled poem, Mary Coleridge looks at things differently: she sees neither peaceful sleep nor horrific extinction ahead, but something else entirely.  The prospect she offers is intriguing: interstellar travel.  In any event, time will tell for each of us, won't it?  (Not that we will be able to report back, of course.)

Are the dead as calm as those
They leave behind them, friends or foes?

However a man may love or fight
Calm he falls asleep at night!

Fast the living sleeps and well;
But the spirits -- who can tell?

Are they as a rushing flame
For the Sun from whence it came,

Driven on from star to star,
Where the other dead men are?

Theresa Whistler, The Collected Poems of Mary Coleridge (Rupert Hart-Davis 1954).

                   Jack Airy, "St Bartholomew's Church, Orford" (c. 1940)


Shelley said...

You can always count on Larkin to place the Gorgon's head in front of you and make you look at it.

frances thomas said...

we were in this church in Orford last week - and it was shocking to see the memorial to civilians killed in the wartime bombing raid - not what you'd expect in a sleepy seaside village. There was a naval base there, but most probably the bomber had just emptied his bombs at random before going home. This picture must have been painted then.
Thanks as always for the lovely poems and images of this blog

Stephen Pentz said...

Shelley: thank you for stopping by again. Nice observation about Larkin -- for me, this is a quality that makes him oddly endearing. We can always depend upon him to look at things directly, no matter how painful.

Thanks again.

Stephen Pentz said...

frances thomas: that is a lovely coincidence! Yes, the picture must have been painted at just that time. I wasn't aware of the bombing raid in Orford -- I suppose that there must have been military installations (radar?) along the coast.

Airy was one of the artists hired by the government under the wartime "Recording Britain" project. His paintings and others, may be found at the Victoria & Albert Museum site.

Thank you very much for the nice connection, and for stopping by again.

Chris Matarazzo said...

Why do I find that fourth couplet so knotty? I keep getting hung up on the "for". Sorry -- that was such a prosaic poetry post of me to make -- for me to make. I need sleep.

Stephen Pentz said...

Chris: I know exactly what you mean -- that couplet has confounded me as well. Here's my best shot (and it may not be at all near the mark): I take it to mean that the flame is "headed for" or "bound for" the Sun. I agree completely: it is "knotty."

As always, thank you very much for visiting.