Yet, come to think of it, the two are not mutually exclusive, are they? It is possible to be cheerful and, at the same time, to brood over (or at least be mindful of) mortality. In fact, that may be an ideal state of being. But I am not that wise. Hence, this post is simply a matter of one thing leading to another.
To the Passenger
If I lie unburied Sir,
These my Reliques, pray inter.
'Tis religion's part to see
Stones or turfs to cover me.
One word more I had to say;
But it skills not; go your way;
He that wants a burial room
For a Stone, has Heaven his Tomb.
Robert Herrick, Poem 821, Hesperides (1648).
"Passenger" means "passer-by" in this context. Tom Cain and Ruth Connolly (editors), The Complete Poetry of Robert Herrick, Volume II (Oxford University Press 2013), page 724. "It skills not" (line 6) means "it doesn't matter." Ibid. I presume that "wants" (line 7) means "lacks" in this context. Herrick italicizes the final line, which, in accordance with his usual practice, signifies a quotation or a paraphrase from a classical source. It has been suggested that the source is Lucan, Pharsalia, 7.819, as quoted (and translated) by Robert Burton in The Anatomy of Melancholy (Second Partition, Section 3, Member 5, Subsection 1): "the Canopy of heaven covers him that hath no tomb." Ibid.
Claude Hayes, "Evensong" (1903)
The thought of having Heaven (or the heavens) as one's tomb puts me in mind of the many touching epigrams about the deaths of unfortunate mariners that are contained in The Greek Anthology. Most often, the mariner's comrades, or a stranger who happens upon the washed-up corpse while walking along the shore, are able to bury the mariner and erect a monument to his memory. However, sometimes the seafarer remains for ever lost at sea.
No dust, no paltry marble for his grave
Has Erasippus, but the wide sea wave.
For with his ship he sank. His bones decay --
But where, the cormorant alone can say.
Glaucus (translated by Goldwin Smith), in Henry Wellesley, Anthologia Polyglotta: A Selection of Versions in Various Languages, Chiefly from the Greek Anthology (1849), page 70.
Here is a prose translation of the epigram:
"Not dust nor the light weight of a stone, but all this sea that thou beholdest is the tomb of Erasippus; for he perished with his ship, and in some unknown place his bones moulder, and the seagulls alone know them to tell."
Glaucus (translated by J. W. Mackail), in J. W. Mackail, Select Epigrams from the Greek Anthology (1906), page 156.
Henry Anthony (1817-1886), "Evensong" (1873)
Wars on distant frontiers are a constant presence in classical Chinese poetry, and the prospect of a lonely death far from home and family is the theme of many poems.
Man -- pitiful insect,
out the gate with fears of death in his breast,
a corpse fallen in narrow valleys,
white bones that no one gathers up.
Anonymous (circa 6th to 7th century) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Chinese Lyricism: Shih Poetry from the Second to the Twelfth Century (Columbia University Press 1971), page 63. The meaning of the phrase "Ch'i-yü-ko" is "uncertain." Ibid, page 62. The poem "was written to be sung." Ibid.
Classical Greek and Chinese poetry share a surface matter-of-factness and simplicity that is underlaid by, and intertwined with, great emotion. There is a dignity, seemliness, and reticence to this combination that makes the poetry extremely moving. This may explain why the long-dead Greek and Chinese poets seem to be speaking directly to us, and for us. We moderns are not so articulate, nor are we so wise. We have forgotten a great deal.
James Webb, "A Bit of Sussex" (1877)
As I have remarked in the past, one of the wonderful things about reading poetry is how one poem can become a stepping stone to another. The final line of the following poem has stayed with me for years. I thought of it after I read Herrick's lines "He that wants a burial room/For a stone, has Heaven his Tomb."
A Dead Mole
That so much lived below the ground,
Dug, fought and loved, hunted and fed,
For you to raise a mound
Was as for us to make a hole;
What wonder now that being dead
Your body lies here stout and square
Buried within the blue vault of the air?
Andrew Young, in Leonard Clark (editor), The Collected Poems of Andrew Young (Rupert Hart-Davis 1960).
"Buried within the blue vault of the air." Well, what can you say about that? Nothing need be said, but I will say something anyway: this is why we read poetry.
James Northbourne, "Evening" (1913)
In this context, I cannot help but think of one of my favorite poems. It has appeared here on more than one occasion, but its final two lines are particularly apt.
Happy were he could finish forth his fate
In some unhaunted desert, most obscure
From all societies, from love and hate
Of worldly folk; then might he sleep secure;
Then wake again, and give God ever praise,
Content with hips and haws and bramble-berry;
In contemplation spending all his days,
And change of holy thoughts to make him merry;
Where, when he dies, his tomb may be a bush,
Where harmless robin dwells with gentle thrush.
Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, in Norman Ault (editor), Elizabethan Lyrics (1949).
When all is said and done, being untombed is not necessarily a fate to be dreaded. The thought of being "buried within the blue vault of the air" does not trouble me. If only cormorants or seagulls know where my bones lie, I have no objection. A resting place "where harmless robin dwells with gentle thrush" sounds peaceful and lovely. Like most everything, it is all a matter of perspective. There are other considerations.
Some parts may perish; die thou canst not all:
The most of thee shall scape the funeral.
Robert Herrick, Poem 554, Hesperides (1648). "Scape" appears in the original. The final line may be an echo of Horace (Odes, Book III, Ode 30): "I shall not all die, and a large part of me will escape the Goddess of Death." Tom Cain and Ruth Connolly (editors), The Complete Poetry of Robert Herrick, Volume II, page 675.
Henry Anthony, "A Country Churchyard"