Earlier this week I spent half a day in a hospital for a routine diagnostic procedure. The pre-procedure process involved lying alone on a gurney in a patient room after having an IV tube inserted in my arm. I was told that I would have to wait twenty minutes for the procedure room to become available. The lights were off. I was quite relaxed. But, as I looked up at the ceiling tiles and listened to the conversations taking place at the nurse's station, a thought occurred to me (a paraphrase): "This is how my days may end. Dusty ceiling tiles and strangers in conversation, day and night, out in an unseen hallway."
Here is a happier thought.
'Elizabeth the Beloved' --
So much says the stone,
That is all with weather defaced,
With moss overgrown.
But if to husband or child,
Brother or sire, most dear
Is past deciphering;
This only is clear:
That once she was beloved,
And now is beloved no longer,
If it be not of Death.
Sylvia Townsend Warner, Time Importuned (1928).
"Once she was beloved,/Was Elizabeth" is a lovely turn of phrase. "And now is beloved no longer,/If it be not of Death" sounds like something that Edward Thomas might have written (and which, like Warner, he would have used to end a poem). In fact, Warner wrote a poem in memory of Thomas, so there may be a subconscious influence at work.
William Holman Hunt, "Our English Coasts ('Strayed Sheep')" (1852)
If one wishes to "come to terms with" one's mortality, graveyards are preferable to hospitals as places to collect one's thoughts on the matter.
The Old Graveyard at Hauppauge
In Adam's fall we sinned all,
and fell out of Paradise
into mankind -- this body of salt
and gathering of the waters,
birth, work, and wedding garment.
But now we are at rest . . .
Aletta and Phebe Almira,
and Augusta Brunce, and the MacCrones . . .
lying in the earth, looking up
at the clouds and drifting trees.
Louis Simpson, Caviare at the Funeral (1980).
Some may feel that the final two lines are an exercise in wishful thinking. But isn't our entire life an exercise in wishful thinking? I'd say that a possible definition of "human being" is: "the creature that engages in wishful thinking."
In the wake of the so-called Enlightenment, reason and rationalism are presumed to trump emotion and intuition. However, when it comes to how to live (and how to die), a belief in the primacy of reason and rationalism (and in their noisome spawn, "Progress") is just as much an exercise in wishful thinking as is the thought (a lovely one, by the way) that those who have departed are "lying in the earth, looking up/at the clouds and drifting trees." Reason and rationalism have nothing to do with what is humanly true.
David Roberts, "Wrth y Bedd" (c. 1950)
In attempting to "come to terms with" my mortality, I prefer to leave reason and rationalism out of account. The fact of our death, and the way in which we live our life in light of that unchangeable fact, is a matter of emotion, intuition, and imagination, not of ratiocination and logic.
For instance, the following poem is, on its face, irrational. How can someone speak from the grave? How can a wood-dove mourn? Yet the poem makes perfect sense to me.
Not long I lived, but long enough to know my mind
And gain my wish -- a grave buried among these trees,
Where if the wood-dove on my taciturn headstone
Perch for a brief mourning I shall think it enough.
Sylvia Townsend Warner, Boxwood (1960). The poem is untitled.
Fortunately for us, reason and rationalism have absolutely nothing to do with the essence of poetry. I agree with Edward Thomas: the criterion for judging whether certain words placed in a certain order qualify as poetry is whether what the poet says "is true and not feigning." Humanly true.
John Everett Millais, "The Vale of Rest" (1859)